Peace reigns among the tribes but it wasn't always that way, writes Diana Balham.

Bob, our guide, proudly tells us that Malaysian Borneo is "the land of the retired headhunters". Well, that's a blessing, I think, although it's hard to equate this warrior image with the gentle, peaceable and usually quite tiny indigenous people I have met so far.

They officially stopped bopping each other on the head during the reign of "White Rajah" James Brooke in the 19th century but tribespeople maintain an affectionate relationship with the family heads to this day. People from the Bidayuh tribe have a special house for their skulls, called a head house.

They also have a nice sense of humour, as this is also the house where the village chief lives. And in the Bidayuh village of Annah Rais the head house is also where the village leader lives, next to a crate of skulls.

The Bidayuh people are one of about 28 ethnic groups in Sarawak, traditionally choosing to live on hillsides to more easily defend themselves against the aggressive Iban people. In simpler times, societies ran on rice: tribes conquered other tribes (and took the skulls of young warriors) to obtain more land for growing their staple food. But in Iban villages the skulls belong to individual families and are not on display.


Annah Rais, like most tribal kampungs (villages) in Sarawak, is built around a longhouse, a long, raised wooden structure with separate "apartments" for each family and a communal area. It's very peaceful: cats loll about in the steaming heat, chickens scratch in the undergrowth and women weave mats and prepare food. A man called Mike is making a very practical musical instrument from a piece of bamboo the diameter of a small plate. The body, "strings" and the thing you hit it with are all bamboo. He says his generation will be the last to live in longhouses. The children go to boarding school and then usually move to the cities.

But without doing much at all, we are helping to keep traditional tribes together.

Cultural tourism creates jobs for whole communities, who host visitors in their longhouses and work as guides.

At Batang Ai, near the southern border of the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, we board a motorised longboat and whiz up the river system to visit the Iban people. At the Nanga Sumpa longhouse we drink tuak (rice wine) and tea in a welcome ceremony and meet the headman: 74-year-old Tuai Rumah Ngumbang, who rules benignly over 36 families.

The following day we visit the Nanga Ukom longhouse, up another branch of the river system. This community of 32 families has a much younger chief, Guyu Ak Jarau, and we meet him and his advisers over tea and tuak. The display of traditional Iban dancing, mostly graceful depictions of hornbills and their behaviour, confirms what I've suspected all along, that like all the people I have met in Borneo - Malays, Malaysian Chinese and others, be they Muslim, Christian, animist or anything else - these people are gentle and charming and they live in a tolerant society.

On my last night in Borneo at an upmarket hotel I am helped by a young concierge called Vick, who is immaculately suited and made up with white foundation, eyeliner and a cupid's-bow mouth enhanced with bright lipstick. Vick is a boy.


GETTING THERE: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur six times a week. Early bird special: from $1350 + taxes until May 31 and September 1-October 31, 2014.

DETAILS: Borneo Adventure offers a range of over 100 small group or individual tours around Sarawak and Sabah, including longhouse and jungle camp stays, national park visits and orangutan treks.

Diana Balham travelled to Borneo as a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.