Sarawak Cultural Village: What it means to be a Living Museum

Sarawak Cultural Village Iban Ladies

Beautiful Iban Ladies in Traditional Costume

Sarawak Cultural village was not called the “Living Museum” for nothing; and the Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching, Sarawak, was one award-winning living museum that could talk and dance for you. It was where you could literally walk into ethnic homes and experienced in person the rich and different cultures of Sarawak, Borneo. Located 35 kilometres from the city of Kuching, Sarawak, the Sarawak Cultural Village beckoned to visitors to feel, see and hear the “realness” and “aliveness” of the place.

The journey from Kuching city to Sarawak Cultural Village (Taman Budaya) took about 40 minutes by car. We enjoyed the relatively smooth drive in the morning, passing by country-side landscapes. The entrance fee to Sarawak Cultural Village was RM60.00 for an adult, RM30 for child 6-12 years old, and free for those below 6. Entering Sarawak Cultural Village was like entering a miniature world, where the heritage and essence of Sarawak were depicted and encapsulated within 14 acres of tropical foliage. There were seven ethnic dwellings in total: the Bidayuh longhouse, Iban longhouse, Penan hut, Orang Ulu longhouse, Melanau tall house, Malay house and Chinese farm house.

Sarawak Cultural Village

Children in various traditional costume

The first house we visited was the Bidayuh longhouse, also called a Barok, which meant round-head house. We were warmly invited inside by throbbing beats of gongs and war drums, which created an exciting start to our explorations of Sarawak Cultural Village. Adorned in their brightly coloured red ethnic outfit and headdress, the welcoming team of Bidayuhs or “Land Dayaks” began to explain the various items on display in the Barok, from bamboo carvings to basket weavings, musical instruments, and padi (rice) harvesting equipment.

The next house was the Iban Longhouse. Ibans were known as “Sea Dayaks” due primarily to their elongated dwellings being built by the banks of rivers. But essentially, they were hunters and farmers, moving upstream for newer pasture and farm land once the present one had been exhausted. The Iban longhouse could accommodate several families living under one roof. It had a common veranda area, and of course separate rooms for each family. The Ibans were known for their pua kumbu, an intricately weaved cloth using natural dyes made by their women over months. We also had fun watching how they made kueh jala, a light crispy brown biscuit, and sampled some tuak (rice wine).

The Penan Hut, our third house at the Sarawak Cultural Village, was more like a lean-to, consisting of a roof for cover, a platform area for resting, and some partitions for walls. The Penan Hut served as a temporary shelter for a few weeks or months because the Penans were nomadic forest hunters and gatherers. Their signature weaponry was the keleput (blowpipe), using darts dipped in poison made from the sap of the Upas tree or Antiaris toxicaria.

Cultural performances at Sarawak Cultural Village

Cultural performances at Sarawak Cultural Village

From blowpipes to swords, next was the Orang Ulu Longhouse, constructed to last for generations. The Orang Ulus, known for their sword-smith skills, comprised of a group of minority tribes: Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Lun Bawang. They were considered a group of graceful and gentle people whose music, songs and dances reflected their gentility. Their distinct musical instrument was the sape, a guitar-like instrument that could produce haunting melodious tunes.

You would have to crane your neck to view the fifth house at the Sarawak Cultural Village. This was the Melanau Tall House, erected 40 feet or more above the ground. The reason for the height was that the Melanaus used to live near the sea and as protection against pirate invasion they built huge houses on 40-foot stilts! The Melanau’s staple diet was sago rather than rice, and they would make tebaloi (sago biscuits) and baked sago pellets out of the sago flour.

A chorus of welcoming “Selamat Datang” greeted us as we reached the sixth house, the Malay House. With its colourful windows and sunlit floral curtains, the Malay House emitted a cheerful and hospitable atmosphere to visitors. The Malay people exuded a warm, friendly and charming personality. As we sat around the wooden floor inside the Malay house at the Sarawak Cultural Village, a group of women in brightly coloured Malay attires came and danced for us. We also played the congkak, a traditional board game that moved stones or marbles around holes scooped out on a wooden board, and watched a gasing (top-spinning) demonstration.

The last and seventh house was the Chinese Farm House at the Sarawak Cultural Village. The Farm House was constructed right on the ground with the trodden earth as the floor. It consisted of two sections: the family or common room and the bedroom. The family room was noteworthy because that was where the living “room”, kitchen, eating place, storage area, and a shrine for praying were placed.

After experiencing the 7 different cultures and homes, we headed over to the mini-theatre to watch the world-acclaimed 45-minute cultural performances, held twice a day at 11.30am and 4.00pm. The show started with an exciting array of multi-cultural dances, choreographed with bright lights, exciting ethnic music and colourfully costumed dancers and performers. There was the elegant and serene dance of the Orang Ulu maidens, following the flight patterns of the hornbills. Then there was the fierce yet mysterious ngajat, an Iban warrior dance performed to rhythmic gongs and rainforest music.

Sarawak Cultural Village showcases the various ethnic groups of Sarawak, Borneo

Sarawak Cultural Village showcases the various ethnic groups of Sarawak, Borneo

We left the Sarawak Cultural Village with a better knowledge of the various cultures and customs of the people in Sarawak. It had been an amazing day and we were happy to reminisce on our cultural experiences at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

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