KOTA KINABALU: The research trip to Niah Cave, Miri is definitely an unforgettable trip for a group of three researchers from the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS). Dr. Lim Thien Sang, Dr Phang Ing and Dr Juliana Langgat travelled to Miri, Sarawak as part of an UMS-funded research grant aimed at studying the post-COVID-19-era pandemic preparedness of small tour operators.
Patrick Libau Longhouse is one of the small tourism operators interviewed by the team. As most longhouses in Sarawak are named after the village chief (Tuai Rumah in Iban language), Patrick Libau Longhouse is named after Patrick Libau Anak Ignatius Sulla. Some longhouse residents are homestay operators operating under Persatuan Homestay Sarawak.
Proximity to the historic Niah Cave, Miri, makes the Patrick Libau Longhouse one of the most popular places to stay for travellers. Founded by Patrick himself, the longhouse has participated in the community-based tourism activity since 2000. To offer a unique and authentic experience of staying with an Iban family, in addition to the exciting path to Niah Cave (which is only a half-hour walk), guests have the opportunity to dance in traditional Iban clothing and traditional Iban musical instruments (e.g. engkerumung or tawak). You can also enjoy a glass or two of tuak (an Ibanese rice wine traditionally made from boiled sticky rice) with the friendly villagers in ruai (the public hall) after sampling Ibanese cuisine such as pansuh (a dish made with rice or rice) enjoyed other foods cooked in cylindrical sections made of bamboo) or terung Iban for dinner. You can politely decline the stronger flavour of Langkau (a stronger form of tuak) and tell the villagers to enjoy themselves. They are happy to guide you to the Niah cave and tell you the stories of the Iban warriors and their ancestors. The people of Iban are courteous, friendly, and understanding.
The Iban or Sea Dayak, who were popular head-hunters in ancient times, the native people of the island of Borneo who used to inhabit the northern part of the Rajang River. Today they are the largest indigenous tribes in Sarawak. Traditionally housed in longhouses (or rumah panjai), the Iban primarily engage in the indigenous farming system, which involves mutual, rotating labour exchanges and teamwork. Many of them plant paddy fields, other crops like cucumber, ensabi (a kind of local bitter-tasting vegetable), eggplant, etc. Now some of them are involved in rubber, cocoa, pepper, and oil palm plantations.
The Patrick Libau longhouse was built in 1966 with about 35 pintu (households). A small elementary school was located on the grounds of the parish halls. It’s fun watching little kids chat and play as they go to and from school. Villagers used to rely on the Sungai Tanggap for transportation, but now it is accessible by road. However, the condition of the road is abysmal due to its proximity to a palm oil plantation. The council built a wooden path to connect the village to Niah’s Cave, allowing for shorter access to the cave. Some villagers sell their handcrafted items or drinks to visitors at stalls near the cave entrance.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone, including the longhouse residents. They have experienced quarantines and lockdowns for the past two years. The research team is impressed by their understanding of the importance of and compliance with all standard operating procedures, including vaccinations, wearing masks, body temperature scanning and frequent hand washing or sanitizing.
According to the villagers, since the Internet connection at their area was not stable, the main source of information was local radio stations, which often broadcast announcements and news related to the pandemic. Furthermore, the local radio stations use mainly local languages that the villagers understand better.
As the nation entered endemic season, residents remained wearing masks in closed and crowded places. According to Patrick, the longhouse community is ready for more guests, and they hope to welcome more domestic and international guests. However, due to their lack of digital knowledge and skills, they rely on words of mouth and social media platforms like Facebook, which are mostly written in local languages.