The Sarawak Cultural Village

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May 18th 2018
Published: May 19th 2018
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Friday 18th May 2018

Well, as far as throwing paint on the canvas, how about this? Yesterday in the Sarawak Cultural Village at the foot of Mount Santubong, John had a go at using a blowpipe and I got a tattoo! My tattoo is an authentic Orang-Ulu design which is supposed to bring good fortune. More about the tattoo later!

The Sarawak Cultural Village is a “living museum” designed to portray the state’s rich cultural heritage in a live form, with seven different ethnic houses around a small lake, where crafts are demonstrated, traditional activities are performed and also there are enchanting dance performances in the theatre. The living museum is geared to indigenous tourism, for Malay people to understand and experience their heritage, in the same way that living museums in the UK are visited by predominantly British tourists (Blists Hill at Ironbridge and the Weald and Downland Museum near Chichester for example) or on a much larger scale, Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, which is patronised mainly by the American market. So, it isn’t some tacky tourist trap for the foreigner; it is an authentic attempt to bring history alive and preserve diverse cultural traditions. Malaysians are very proud of this place and they should be. We spent several hours there.

There were not many tourists, it is still early in the season, although today they were expecting a lot more because it is a Bank Holiday. It is the start of Ramadan.

There were lots of Long-tailed Macaque monkeys however. The sign says “Beware. Naughty monkeys”. One lady who was showing us how to soak tapioca root to grind into cereal, always has a broomstick beside her. Every time a monkey comes near she screams at it, laughing at the same time but still trying to whack it with the stick. One monkey stole a tapioca root out of the bowl whilst we were there! She missed (both the tapioca and the monkey!)

Another wild creature spotted in the grass was a small Cobra. It was about 60 cm long, thin, only a baby….but a Cobra nevertheless; consequently our photo isn’t brilliant since we thought it was better not to get too close. It moved very fast!

The seven houses, some really huge, to house a whole village, represent the seven different ethnic cultures in Sarawak. First, the Bidayuh, Dayak people from the steep limestone mountains of Western Sarawak, live in large round houses going up the hillside. These houses have thatched rooves and central hearths rather like huge wooden tepees. Thatched side flaps open on bamboo poles to admit air. The floor is raised and also made of bamboo covered with rattan. It is a bit wobbly to walk on. Approximately 8.4% of Sarawakians are Bidayuh Dayaks.

Next, the Iban longhouse, full of colourful artwork, were built along the shorelines on very high wooden stilts, with tree-trunks with notches carved out like ladders, which were able to be quickly lifted up to protect against pirates. A whole village would live in a longhouse, which has a main communal area and individual rooms leading off for each family. Since the Iban were the most notorious head hunters in Borneo, it is rather surprising that the pirates attacked them! The Iban built their longhouses to last fifteen to twenty years, or until the surrounding farm land was exhausted (and all the animals had been killed or fled from the blowpipes). Then they simply picked up their goods and chattels and moved on. One third of all Sarawakians are Iban and although the majority now live in towns, many still prefer to live in longhouses.

The Penan homestead is the third house along in the village. Penan are jungle people (like those we met in Mulu) and although some live in Penan settlements, like the one we visited in Mulu, many are still nomadic and live in wood and thatch shelters which are only designed to last a matter of weeks. The Penan are the shy unsophisticated inland people of Sarawak, just around 4.2% of the population are pure Penan, however there are more in Sabah. They are masters of the blowpipe and also make beautifully carved musical instruments, like the Sape, a four-stringed type of guitar. John had a go at using the blowpipe and hit a tin can with one out of three shots: the Iban guy there, who was carving a Sape, thought that was not bad since many people fail to get the darts to even reach the target board!

The Orang-Ulu or “up-river dwellers” account for about 5% of the population. They live in stilted longhouses mainly along the Batang Rejang, from Sibu up to Belaga and beyond. They were famous in the past as sword-smiths, extracting iron from the ore found in the area and making fine blades tempered in the cold mountain streams. The Orang-Ulu are a mix of Penan and Kayan peoples. They are also fine tattoo artists!

The Melanau house was the largest and most impressive. Built on tall thick wooden stilts and comprising three storeys, with the Chief’s quarters at the very top. I could not go up those high steep notched tree trunk ladders and walk across slatted bamboo with big gaps showing two floors below and down a further 40 feet to the ground. John did and his photos show just how high these houses were built. Amazing structures! Melanau comprise about 5.8% of the population and live mainly in the central coastal region of Sarawak. They eat sago rather than rice as their staple diet (unlike all other Malaysians). Unfortunately, we didn’t see the sago hut where the preparation of the sago flour is demonstrated. It was closed yesterday.

The Malay house was by far the most sophisticated. Here two Malay women were lounging on cushions but they started singing and beating metal drums as soon as we entered. When we left they stopped and when we peaked back inside they had quickly laid back down to sleep! The Malay are the wealthiest peoples in Sarawak (comprising roughly 10% of the Sarawak population) and since the 1860s they have often used immigrant Chinese labour to construct their stately homes, so although distinctly Malay/Indian in design, the Malay traditional house often displays a Chinese influence. A great deal of artistic skill is lavished on the painted woodwork and the interior has fine ornate furniture. A well-known Malaysian artist, Safar Ghaffar, displays his beautiful Batik designs, painted on Chinese silk, below the veranda of the Malay house. He sells online and his work is stunning; he uses all-natural dyes which he prepares himself. I loved talking to him. It is over forty years since I did some Batik and I am now keen to start doing some again. I was tempted to buy one of his prints but I really don’t have any wall space left in my house, since the walls are pretty well covered now by my own art work.

Last but by no means least, the Chinese farmhouse. The Chinese make up one third of the population of Sarawak and the market gardens all around
The notched ladders are easy to ascend.....The notched ladders are easy to ascend.....The notched ladders are easy to ascend.....

entrance to the Iban longhouse
Kuching are cultivated by these hard-working people. This house is built at ground level, unlike the other six which are all raised up. The floor is made simply of trodden earth and the wooden house is thatched. Two large rooms, one for the family to live in and the other for work, mainly the grinding of rice and pepper. The Chinese farmhouse always has a little shrine to the family’s favoured god and so candles and joss sticks are always burning: very homely.

Apart from spending several hours enjoying visiting the houses and the people within them, we also thoroughly enjoyed the dance show in the theatre; All of the dances tell stories and each set of dances represented the seven different ethnic cultures. It was a beautiful and very moving show.

So, that was our day in the Cultural Village and also our last day in Santubong. We have now returned to Kuching.

Honesty note: to end this blog I have to confess to you all, that my tattoo isn’t real, it was painted on by the artist Safar Ghaffar. Those who know me well will have guessed this already! Hee! The tattoo may or may
....but difficult to descend!....but difficult to descend!....but difficult to descend!

Hard to know whether to go forwards or backwards. Check out this floor, three stories up in the huge Melanau house.
not last until I get back to Spain and may even have faded away by the time I get to the UK, but I have to say that right now I am rather enjoying sporting my Orang-Ulu design in the streets of Kuching!

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Penan Hunter's DancePenan Hunter's Dance
Penan Hunter's Dance

Fitting the poisoned dart in the blowpipe
Macaque monkey, missing his left pawMacaque monkey, missing his left paw
Macaque monkey, missing his left paw

(don't think the broomstick-wielding woman is to blame)!

19th May 2018

Tattoo and monkey business
Well what an interesting day. quite amazing that they build their houses so well. I couldn’t have gone up those ladders either. I guessed you had had a henna type tattoo. Dave says stop monkeying about! Seriously we are amazed by your journey. Take care love Barb and Dave xx Ps off to London today not because of the Royal wedding or the cup final but meeting Ann to see Swan Lake. Wish you were with us xx
19th May 2018

ladders and the wedding
I went up some of those ladders but not the very high ones. Just watched the wedding. Fabulous. Hope your cucumber sandwiches were good! Xx
20th May 2018

That canvas
You're right! What a lot of colour has hit that canvas in the past few weeks. Almost a jewelled shade a day. Interesting presentation at the Cultural Museum - 7 impressive soundbites which give the visitor an overview of the developing social history of the area. Nice to know you are back in Kuching. E N J O Y!! .

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