Interactive Half-Day Cultural Immersion At Sarawak Cultural Village

I am usually not an advocate for overly-touristy attractions whenever I visit somewhere foreign, preferring to head to places where more locals enjoy or frequent instead. Therefore, although Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV) often comes out in the top page for Google searches on things to do in Kuching, we had no strong urge to visit. In fact, we had wanted to visit a “more authentic” traditional longhouse, where the indigenous tribe still live in. However, the search for such a longhouse tour was kinda futile. The agent suggested we visit SCV instead, as all major indigenous groups of Sarawak can be found in this “living museum”. Since we only planned for 4D3N in Kuching, we decided to follow her advice.

SCV is located to the north of Kuching, tucked away in the foothills of Mount Santubong at Damai Beach, about 45 minutes’ drive from Kuching city. We went there right after we explored the caves in Bau in the south, following a simple local kolo mee lunch midway in the city. The popular cultural site is touted as the finest living museum in Southeast Asia, featuring 7 traditional houses of the natives over a sprawling 17.5-acre site, promising an insightful experience into the longhouse lifestyle in Sarawak.

Sarawak Cultural Village, set in a rustic site surrounded by greenery

We arrived at SCV slightly before 2 pm, & the attraction looked pretty quiet, maybe because it was low season & the weekday afternoon was too hot. I saw a notice at the ticket counter saying that there would be “no tours during strong wind”, so I asked Kent, our guide, if he knew why. He said he had no idea, but this had never happened to him for the numerous visits he had made. He mentioned that we had a lot of time to tour the site because the 45-min cultural performance would only start at 4 pm, so we could go slow.

Visitors can cross over to the Bidayuh Longhouse on this Bidayuh Bamboo Bridge a short walk to the right of the grand entrance

As mentioned earlier, there are 7 authentic traditional houses in the village. Near the grand entrance are the Chinese Pavilion, souvenir shop, restaurant, theatre & restrooms. We started the tour by heading right of the entrance & saw the above bamboo bridge that was used to allow villagers to cross the river in the good old days. It might look easy to walk on the sturdy bridge, but it wasn’t, at least not for us. So we gave up after a few steps, choosing to walk on the pavement instead to the Bidayuh house. 😛

Understand the Bidayuh through their important “barok” first

Known as the “Land Dayaks” by early European travellers, the Bidayuh is the second largest ethnic group within the Dayak community in Borneo. They account for 8.4% of Sarawak’s population, living in the steep limestone mountains near the watershed between West Sarawak. The first building at Rumah Bidayuh (which means Bidayuh House locally) was the barok, a round head-house where ceremonies are held. Young men will also stay in the barok until he gets married & moves in with the wife’s family, unless he needs to take care of his own family in special circumstances. In the middle of the room is a hearth where head trophies are placed (as seen in bottom photos in above collage). The males will gather in the head-house before going out to hunt or for war.

A tour in the Bidayuh longhouse

The Bidayuh houses are all raised on posts, with all houses connected by bamboo walkways. 1 reason for this was partly to protect against maraudin enemies, & another reason was for access to fresh pure water. As you can see from collage above, the room is large & open concept. There was also a Bidayuh lady in the house who was making some beaded accessories for sale.

Next up on the right was the house of the Iban (Rumah Iban), known as “Sea Dayaks” because they mainly live in the upper Rajang river region. In the past, the Ibans had a fearsome reputation of being the strong headhunters. PS: It’s not the “headhunting” we know in modern times in the talent acquisition business. Since colonisation, headhunting gradually faded out of practice. Ibans account for about a third of the Sarawak population, the biggest native group in the region. Although many still live in traditional longhouses, the community has become more urbanised with modern facilities such as electricity, internet & phone lines.

Unlike the Bidayuh, a traditional Iban longhouse is built of axe-hewn timber, tied with creeper fibre & roofed with leaf thatch. Most of the houses are built by the river bank. There is a long common walkway in front of the individual family rooms, for visitors to sit down on a mat for a chat here with the longhouse elder. The environment here feels relaxed, with the women weaving or cooking some fragrant rose cookies (as seen in photo at the bottom in the centre of the above collage).

The beautiful man-made lake in front of Iban longhouse on a sunny day

In front of the longhouse is a man-made lake, which seeked to replicate the typical location of the Iban longhouse. As it was a bright & sunny day, the view was simply beautiful, with clear reflections of the lush greenery & blue sky on the waters. 🙂

Continuing our tour in an anti-clockwise direction, we saw the small Penan Hut. It looked very simple with no doors or walkway, just a shelter with a roof over the head. The Penans are shy nomadic people who live in the dense jungle of Central Borneo, among some of the state’s most precious timber resources. Because of their roaming lifestyle, the shelters are quickly built to last for few weeks or months. There was no staff present in the hut when we passed by. Furthermore, we also couldn’t collect any passport chop here for the SCV Passport that were given to us upon arrival.

The 4th native house we visited belonged to the Orang Ulu, also known as the “up river dwellers” as they live in the middle & upper reaches of Sarawak’s longest rivers, & the highlands. Technically, they are not really an ethnic group, but is an ethnic designation that groups about 27 very small yet ethnically diverse tribal groups in northeastern Sarawak. The Orang Ulu comprises small groups such as the Penan, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit & Lun Bawang. Because many of the houses are situated up river, you can see from above collage that the houses are not on level ground but higher up.

The Orang Ulu longhouses are elaborated decorated with woodcarvings & murals. They are also famous for their complex beadwork detailed tattoos & rattan weaving. In addition, they are known for the distinctive music they produced from their sapes, a traditional Borneo Guitar made using soft wood (body, neck & sound board) as well as fine split rattan combined with tough creeper fibre for the strings. To welcome visitors like us, the natives also performed Kanjet, a traditional dance (as seen in bottom photo) to the accompaniment of the music played from the sape.

Accounting for 5.8% of Sarawak’s population, the Melanau people traditionally lived near the sea where pirates could be found. Therefore all their houses were massive & built 40 feet (1.22m) above the ground. Now they mostly live in the central coastal region. The staircase up to the tallhouse was long & a pain on our knees, that had just climbed far too many steps that morning at the caves in Bau. 😭  But no choice, they had to build the house high up so their houses wouldn’t be of easy reach to the pirates. I shouldn’t grumble too much because we had proper wooden stairway to walk up to the 40-feet house. The traditional steps up to the house were tiny steps that looked like the middle shot I took in the Bidayuh longhouse collage! 😯

Inside the tallhouse, we could also see distinct differences in the way the house is being laid out. There are individual rooms for different purposes, like the healing hall (top), bedroom (bottom right) & kitchen (bottom left). Seems like the Melanau value privacy more than the other people who live in communal space? Haha

Instead of eating rice like most of the Borneo people, the Melanau’s staple food is sago. Thus there is also a sago hut connected to the large tallhouse by a stairway. The Melanau cultivates wild sago palms that grow in the coastal swaps, using them to ground into flour to make various sago products you see above. While we were at the hut, we saw a monkey suddenly jumping up onto the roof after snatching some food to eat. Luckily it didn’t snatch anything from us. 😛

Now to the second-last traditional house in the village – the Melayu house (Rumah Melayu). Its interiors are similar to the typical Malay kampung in Singapore in the past, built of wood  on stilts & draped with classic yellow curtains.

House of the Chinese

Finally, our last stop was to the Chinese house (Rumah Cina). The first Chinese settlers to Sarawak were the Hakkas, & they remained as the predominant race of the Chinese in Sarawak, together with the Foochows. The Chinese formed about a third of the Sarawak population, 1 of the largest ethnic groups in the state. Stepping into a Chinese house sort of transported us back in time as the house looked exactly like what I had seen on TV of Chinese villages in Southeast Asia.

Unlike the other natives, the Chinese house is built on ground, with trodden earth floor, whitewashed sawn timber walls & attap roof. It is also characterised by a pepper garden in front of the house, because the Chinese mostly cultivate pepper for a living. Even in the house, one could see the various types of local pepper displayed in front of the chatty old lady.

It was time to head to the theatre in the village for a 45-min cultural performance by the various natives as we completed the tour of all 7 different ethnic houses. In a way, we were also glad to go into the theatre, because it was 1 of the rare few places in SCV that had air-con! Haha… Before the performance, I was kind of sceptical about it being boring with the usual traditional dances.

My statement may hold true for the 1st few performances, but the performance became more interactive somewhere in the middle, when the Ibans appeared. Actually, there was a narrative voice behind the scene to introduce the performances, but frankly, we couldn’t really make out what he said with his strong accent haha. We sat in the central 1st few rows & when the male Iban came down to the audience to pick someone to go up & perform with him, we were so scared that he could call 1 of us, as he approached our row. Fortunately it was a young lady he picked in the end. 😛 Anyhow, the performance turned out to be quite interesting, definitely better than I thought. 😉

Thoughts after the tour

As mentioned earlier, it wasn’t our original intention to visit SCV. But after spending the afternoon there, I must say, I didn’t regret. Despite sounding a tad touristy, it was a great one-stop destination to learn more about the major indigenous tribes of Sarawak through an interesting yet educational tour. For travellers like us who do not have a lot of time to spare in Sarawak, it is an ideal place for a quick cultural immersion, especially since the more authentic houses are located far away from the city. Maybe next time if I plan for a longer trip in Sarawak, then I can go to a living traditional house in the countryside for a unique experience. For this trip, I’m contented with what I had seen at SCV. 😉

Details about SCV such as cost, operating hours & transport options

If you prefer to “rough” it out on your own & save money, there is a Kuching-Damai shuttle bus service departing from outside Hotel Grand Margherita with drop offs at the resort hotels in Damai & Sarawak Cultural Village regularly. The bus ride takes about 40 min, leaving Kuching at 7.30 am & last bus at 10 pm. The last bus back to Kuching departs Damai at 9 pm. Costs 12 MYR (~S$3.85) per adult per way (half price for children).

Prefer a hassle-free trip like us? Our half day tour to SCV cost 100 MYR (~S$32.25) per pax, inclusive of the SCV admission fee. A 1-day ticket costs 50 MYR (~S$16.15) per adult & half price for child.

Lastly, SCV is opened daily from 9 am to 5 pm. There are 2 sessions for the 45-min cultural performance, once in the morning from 11.30 am to 12.15 pm, & the other from 4 pm to 4.45 pm. Kent mentioned visitors usually prefer to go in the morning so that they do not have to wait too long for the performance to start. But because we didn’t have much time in Kuching, we had to cramp it together with Bau in the south & this in the north, where travelling time between the 2 alone takes about 2 hours. So should you visit Kuching in future, you may want to note about this logistics issue.

Hope you will enjoy the Sarawak Cultural Village as much as we did! 🙂

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