Our People – Iban

Iban claims the largest population, thus making this language the most widely used in Sarawak.

The Iban, formerly known as Sea Dayaks, are famous for their head-hunting past, their massive ironwood longhouses, their ornate body tattooing, their wonderful weaving skills, and of course their potent rice wine, tuak, which is always offered to visitors.


It is almost a crime to come to Sarawak without visiting an Iban longhouse.

Iban hospitality is legendary, and visitors are guaranteed a good time. A longhouse is basically a terraced street of separate dwellings covered by one roof, under the authority of a headman, or tuai rumah.  Each family lives in its separate apartment, or bilik, and communal activities take place outside on the verandah, or ruai. This is also where single male visitors spend the night.  Female visitors and couples will be invited to stay inside the bilik with the family.
Most longhouses are busy, modern farming communities, and people wear practical clothes like jeans and T-shirts when they are at work. Traditional costumes and headdresses are usually only worn for special festivals like gawai dayak (the Iban harvest festival, 1st June), gawai antu (the ancestor festival, very rare) and weddings. If you want to see traditional rituals, customs and dances, then unless you are very lucky it is best to go with an organised tour group.  Tour groups are usually greeted with a glass of tuak (rice wine) and a welcome dance.  They are then shown around and treated to various cultural performances, including dancing and drumming. You will usually be invited to attempt the ngajat dance. Do not try to refuse as guests are expected to contribute to the entertainment just like the hosts. If you know any dances, folk songs or poems from your own country, you will make some lifelong friends, no matter how badly you perform. Normally you will be able to stay in the longhouse overnight, but if you prefer some privacy, many tour operators have their own guest houses near the longhouse.

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