Prologue: Kuching airport. Funny looking monkeys, dense jungles and traditionally disguised Orang Asli models (some armed with a blowpipe or hornbill feathers) – the advertisements of Sarwak’s tourism lobby glorifies picture perfect holidays on the way to the baggage claim. Dramaturgically, the visitors are being well prepared for some tropical magic. But what does the reality really look like? I’m about to spend a good month in the formerly independent kingdom of Sarawak. Hence, it would be naive to follow the plot. Besides, anyone who is complaining about the clearance sale of our rainforests and the disappearing culture of several ethnicities should not gallop through the area by having blinkers on. I’m being well aware of the dashing modernization in the area and the influence from the British colonies on the traditions of the Dayak – Borneo’s former head hunters. This story aims to point out the pros and cons of western impact by abolishing most cultures and traditions. The key to better understanding is the tribal tattoo.


Kuching was recently named the cleanest city in Malaysia. The glory is somehow missing, at least today, since I don’t even see the city. I reach downtown just right in time to get lost in the fogging. No state of emergency – pure routine for the Sarawakians. To prevent diseases like Dengue & Co, the anti-insect squad regularly roames Kuching’s lanes. Armed heavily with an alien weaponry. Neither a rifle suitable to put into an umbrella stand nor to hang over the chimney. A weapon to go outside and teach others fear. The designer wanted to make very clear from the beginning that this weapon has a right and a wrong end. Wanted to make clear that it ends very badly for any insect being at the wrong end. Crouched on the back of jeep or marching, the volunteers are obviously ready to smoke out all mosquitos of Kuching. Chronically coughing I try to make out my accommodation in the poisonous fog.

Escape to Sibu, at the mouth of the Rajang River – the vein which leads to the heart of Borneo. Sarawak is not even close to having connected the little villages by roads, thus, as a big fan of public boats, the more I’m looking forward to boating upstream for a few days. At departure, I immediately seized the roof above the captain. Is there anything better than gliding through foreign waters, observing the cumulus clouds passing by? We drop anchor in Song for the night. The desire of the world population to show up here seems very limited. Sharol, the village policeman asks me to join him for some beers. As he leaves, he says „in case you have a problem, you can call me anytime.“ I ask when he got the last call because of a “problem”? Sharol is counting, not days, probably years. „But, there is always something to do.“ he finally replies. I won’t ask any further since I don’t dare to jeopardize his authority. Chef Jenny is keen to help me with my research about the tattoos, but this evening she’d be busy barbecuing a stack of chicken asses (sic!). So, I follow my Chinese host Simon and the two cockroaches to my bed for tonight. The converted Christian proudly presents me his cheapest room: ragged wallpaper, flickering neon light, a sink decorates the wall, water does not run, perhaps because there are no pipes which would not lead it anywhere. I’m having a rest, starring at the roof where fist-sized bugs are throwing themselves into the flickering neon lights. Still, I could have been even more stingy – Only a few minutes earlier I refused to check in into the two cubic meters of pure emptiness for 2 USD a night, a room with four wafer-thin walls, floor plus ceiling, no furniture nor keys.

I go for a stroll to check the neighborhood and to take some photos. As I’m scouting for hints on how to meet the tribal elders, I must learn, that all my potential informants only waste my time. No action is following the promises. After all, I meet one guy who knows somebody who then calls another person and arranges a meeting for me. Fine, I continue to the village of Kapit, where Nyalu is already waiting for me. He belongs to the indigenous Dayak, more precisely; the Iban, Borneo’s largest ethnicity. Nyalu is a well-known tattoo artist in the region and therefore seems to be very enthusiastic about my research. As a reward for my curiosity, I’m allowed to stay in his house, not only that, I’m invited to share the fresh-caught python with his family. While having dinner Nyalu fumbles in his archive and hands me over some copies of the tattoo subjects from his tribe. With sarcastic overtones, he mentions that the bearers of these symbols, either hide somewhere in the bush or already passed away. It is no longer a secret, because of the Christianization and the so-called “civilization” along with rapid development, his ethnicity would have simply forgotten the symbolism behind the designs. The centuries-long cult became a trivial fashion trend for the youth. A body jewelry of which hardly any young Iban knows about the background. Even Nyalu has swapped the wooden tattooing kit against a machine and recently modified the traditional patterns to stay on the ball.

A man without tattoos is invisible to the gods

By the way: “Tattoo” is an English word remastered from the Tahitian word “tatu”. It basically translates “mark something”. Were the Polynesians the first? Who knows, tattoos have a 4.000-year-old history or probably even longer, the oldest proof can be found on the tattooed mummy in Egypt. Regardless of the origin, each ethnicity strongly believed the bearer gains either social, ritual or magical power from its tattoo.

Long gone, the time when Iban teens set off from their longhouses to the Bejalai (the journey) to gain experience, improve their hunting skills or even conquer some heads of the Orang Ulu (Kayan, Kenyah, Kajang etc.) or other tribes. For the acquired knowledge a trophy in form of a tattoo was knocked under the skin by the use of two small sticks and ink (rumor is, in rare cases the ink was enriched with meteorite dust). Over the decades, the boy becomes a man, and his body a visual diary, readable by friend and enemy alike. Other reasons for having a tattoo were the dreams (Mimpi), in which the ghosts (Antu) led the chosen one to a certain motive. For the older folks, it’s obvious that the tattoos contain magic and protect its wearer against all sorts of harm: “A man without tattoos is invisible to the gods,” Nyalu points out. Few are still wearing a traditional design today, like the eggplant flower (Bungai Terong), the first tattoo of the chronicle symbolizes the transition of the youth into a man’s life. The flower illustration is placed on the shoulders and the back where the straps of a backpack stretch, symbolically preparing the wearer to carry the weight of his own world. Depending on the status of the clan, the number of petals varies.

Normally, the symbol of crab legs would follow (Ketam Lengan), then the crab back (Ketupong), whose hard shell represents a shield for the tattooed. The lobster (Pantang) Rekong is the last tattoo of the Iban set. Particularly representing courage, because the pattern is punched onto the throat. It should protect the head from being cut off from other hunters. Only those who have taken a stranger’s head receive an Entegulun, the warrior emblem that decorates the hand. Occasionally, some Iban ladies earned a tattoo by impressing with diligent weaving or fieldwork skills. If I was lucky enough, I would find an old woman with the throat tattoo, says Nyalu. This means she was responsible for defending her house from invaders while her husband was out on a foray. Every longhouse has its own stories. There is no universal way to earn tattoos, all seniors have different stories, how they came to their trophies. Our conversation is suddenly interrupted because Jehovah’s Witnesses intervene, two Chinese armed with a bunch leaflets enter the room. Nyalu immediately shoos them away, as a content Protestant, he sees no reason to change within the sect, per se pure waste of time for the pair, and anyway, they’d rather chase the few animist who is left. The competition to get the remaining godless is huge, and the victims rare – „it is like truffle search,“ Nyalu adds sneeringly and goes on, „Yesterday, Islam-representatives sneaked around with Quran copies.“ Apparently, no day passes without conversion attempts. As late as 1960, around 95 percent of the Iban professed their ancient beliefs; worshiped the spirits and their ancestors, the most important gods in daily life were the war and headhunt god Singalang Burong along with the harvest goddess Pulang Gana. But also stones or trees had a soul. The cultural preservation is said to be enforced by White Raja, Charles Brooke, who was keen to prevent mass brainwashing by Christian missionaries until Sarawak was officially handed over to Great Britain.

„We stuff natives with a lot of subjects they do not require to know and try to teach them to become like ourselves, treating them as although they have not had any original thoughts in their possession.“ Charles Brooke

Despite the rainy morning, I’m in a good mood, because soon I’ll be visiting one of the last authentic longhouses of the Dayak – the Rumah Uluyong. To reach the sight at the end of the 17 kilometers short road I hop into a shared taxi. A connecting road to the nearby village Song is in planning, reports my driver, but soon there are elections, which provokes the politicians to proceed with a little more hesitation. „It’s like having an ace up one’s sleeve. They want to be elected, so they need to promise development, such as streets. On the other hand, the poll isn’t for free any longer,“ Sighs my driver. Finally, I’m where I wanted to be, standing on the same planks as the headhunters and four more generations have been walking up and down for the past 100 years. Oh, how pretty, there are even some trophy skulls hanging in the hallway! Why did the owners lost their heads? Getting something wrong? Accidentally stomped on someone’s betulia garden? Belonging to the wrong tribe? Revenge? There were many reasons for decapitation, the Dayak made head hunting a popular mass sport. By the way, according to anthropologists, taking a head of an enemy after winning the duel was not more honorable than beheading a pregnant woman or a corpse. Returning home with a fresh head contributed to the prestige regardless whose head it was.

Like a pack of lemurs, the locals are gazing at me – Of course, I didn’t make a reservation to stay the nigh, since there was no website to inquire, and indeed, I look a little lost, but that’s exactly why I prefer those places where none of the Booking.coms have reached out yet. Despite the lack of web-based reservation systems, one guy seems to be prepared for lost-looking travelers; Straight away he walks me to one of the families cabins. I introduce myself and also get their names in return, but that’s almost it with conversation since we apparently have no language in common. The 65-year-old head of Rumah Uluyong knows little English, enough to tell me about the longhouse community, which is divided into a total of 22 rooms. Each family lives in one room and eventually is close or extended relative to the neighbor. Sadly, also this longhouse will soon become a museum, reorganized into a „Cultural Village“ as tourism language likes to name it. A few more months, then the families will move into one of the stretched concrete humps donated by the government. What touches me most, is that the families moving into these concrete buildings still prefer the lack of privacy under the same roof over isolating themselves from the community. Forever directly connected row house! Nothing seems more obvious. Although, something has changed, reports the boss of Rumah Uluyong. Just a few decades ago, there was neither money as a currency, nor roads, nor development. The neighbors simply came together every evening to share the prey. Today, despite the common housing, everyone looks after themselves. Not even his siblings would share food anymore for free. It’s about cash, about moving forward. Earlier, progress was not a term within the Iban commune. His people lived from day to day.

Strolling on the small riverbank I observe an old man armed with a conical hat and a spear on the hunt. I sneak after him through the shallow river into the jungle. With some difficulties, I catch up and beg him to help to check his fish traps. I take his nod as a yes and try to follow his pace. That’s quite a challenge since the old man is sprinting through the riverbed as if it would not consist of uncomfortable stones. After two hours of checking traps, we analyze the catch; a mini-crab and something that looks like a snail. That’s probably the right time to check his tattoos. But even he, far too young to wear an Entegulun tattoo, since the ritual of headhunting was banned by the Brooke clan in the 1930s, long before World War II. Some Japanese soldiers, so the rumor, have lost their heads in Borneo’s jungles.

I continue my journey on the Rajang to Belaga. Every now and then a longhouse lines the shore, after or so – the longhouse-record, I count up to! 55! entrances within roughly 200 meters. I assume there’s quite a lot of gossip to endure. A hospital boat is passing by. The captain of our public boat confirms my suspicion that they are checking the health situation in the untapped villages. He adds a bit of sarcasm: “It’s best to make an appointment with the boat doctor early, they only check every three weeks.” We are floating through infinite green, into infinite blue, into the infinite brown. Into infinite brown? Looking at the currents and swirls, I remain uncertain whether the brownish river always had this color. However, the answer has to wait until Belaga. Near the jetty, I’m eager to mingle and choose the first pub with a river view. Arus, a wise old man (elderly men are usually wise, right?), explains the situation. The security inspector of the local power plant, remembers the crystal clear waters, even drinkable it was. As a little boy, Arus recalls, he and his father went fishing from 3 to 5 o’clock in the early morning to catch some proteins for breakfast. Yes, there was fish in abundance back then. No one had to venture to a city for whatever. But today they’d buy fish from the market and run around for cash. The Chinese-Thai dam project „Bakun“ on Long Murum Lake did not only change the dolce vita of the relocated villagers of Murum, it also did change the life of everyone who considered the longest river in Malaysia as a source of survival. Recently, oil palms have been grown en masse along the Rajang, which resulted in massive erosion. Additionally, the huge amount of pesticides used for growing the palms trickles through the soil and constantly pollutes the water. „As we all know, progress does not only have its advantages,” Arus lowers his voice. „But at least you have energy in the village now,“ I’m trying to ease the situation. „Well, Sarawak is allowed to keep 5 percent of the power gains, while Kuala Lumpur sells the other 95% to the highest bidder. Can you imagine how we feel?“ I’m being asked. This scenario also applies to Sarawak’s other treasures, such as oil and gas. This is apparently the reason for the bureaucratic rampage on the government which is currently taking place. The Orang Asli (natives) of Sarawak have their reasons to be outraged. The former head of the Sarawak (educated by village school teachers and convinced by the goodwill of the government from his Malai colleagues in KL) did not study the documents in detail when joining the Federation of Malaysia. After consideration, he signed. To the grief of his grandchildren and team Sarawak, which dampens the Sarawakian mood until today. If he had paid attention, Sarawak would perhaps be a sovereign state today like the super-rich Singapore or even Brunei and could regulate the sale of its resources itself.

And Arus provides, even more, info, he’d know someone who can help me to track down tattooed elders as well as the shamans of the area. Straight away, I call Arus’ friend John. We meet at the barbecued chicken ass place. And we drink and talk for hours. That’s usually the way I uncover the real knowledge of the guide I’m about to hire. The family man belongs to the Kayan ethnic group, speaks 14 dialects and has orchestrated the geologists and construction workers at the Bakun dam as an engineer and meantime worked as a translator for the Chinese. A good aura surrounds the 54-year-old. As the night goes on, I agree to team up. The next morning John picks me up with his scooter, has bought pork feet for lunch and drawn a map – I’m deep in love with guides who have to draw a map first, no “local experience” without “local chaos”! That’s how it should be.

Our first stop is the longhouse Rumah Nyaving, to meet a Kayan shaman. John warned me beforehand that the centenarian would not be in a good shape anymore. But he would certainly be happy to be visited. They’d always be happy if „a Tuan“ – a sir- comes along to say hello. At arrival, a holey smile covers the face of the old witch doctor, obviously, the plant poison of the Upas tree in which he soaked the blowpipe darts, has eaten away most of his teeth. Behind him, dangles a crucifix. I am bit disappointed, the missionaries even got the local animism leader. John fishes for his hand, points to the ring finger, as I was asking him about the tattoo on it. John nods, the dying man carries the warrior emblem. In contrast to the completely ornate hand of the Iban headhunters, a Kayan is only rewarded with a black line on the back of his hand.

What motivates a shaman and former headhunter to join the invasive world religion? He does not want to tell us. One thing is certain, he is hardly proud of his deeds; The missionaries have probably taught him that beheading strangers and sacrificing animals are no longer up to date and, or worse, they’d be punished with purgatory. I’m surprised, the traditional belief has healed him for a century, he has survived 100 godless years without pharmaceutical companies, without a pension fund, without feeling guilty, even without sitting for hours on confessionals. So far it was officially okay, the rebirth as an animal or a grass, or perhaps even as a human, nothing would block the way to a fulfilling afterlife. Nevertheless, he decided to follow the principals of the Christians. Unfortunately, he will take the reason why to the grave.

Before we leave, we meet Deng Utuk from the Kajang ethnicity, an old lady, tiny as a gnome, her hump diming her field of view. Deng has also seen five generations growing up. While the Iban predominantly tattoo the male bodies, its custom for the subgroups from the Orang Ulu tribe to tattoo the women. Deng’s arms and hands, as well as the back of her feet, are tattooed all over. At the age of 16, Deng reports, they’d ink her with ash by using a bone simulating the needle and a wooden branch to knock the color under her skin. It took them two weeks to accomplish the design. „She cried a lot those days,“ she remembers. Tears of joy! Because from this very moment onwards, she’d belong to the clique, the boys were starting to look for her. In her culture, it was routine to get over puberty with creative torture. The symbols hiding in the wrinkly skin of Deng Utuk represents a royal affiliation. The middle or lower class was only allowed to receive the fern pattern (the spiral of life), whereas the upper class got inked with the symbol of a dragon, a ghost face, a hornbill, or a dog – basically what the shaman decides to be appropriate. Most symbols were the result a child’s dream, delivered by the parents to the shaman and then interpreted. Unfortunately, the tattooing tradition stopped about 30-years ago. Time for us to return to the headquarters. Time for pork feet. I am not really satisfied with our today’s retirement home tour, so I ask John for another day of service. We start with the longhouse Rumah Kahai to visit the blind lady Livan Lisut. Like John, she belongs to Kayan’s ethnicity. Livan shows me similar tattoos as Deng Utuk. Her elongated earlobes look a bit lonely, they’d have discarded their traditional rings a long time ago, tells me, John. I’m asking Livan about her favorite moments in life. The answer is touching and can only be delivered from an old woman living in rural areas. Levit misses the ease of her teenage years, the joy of sowing, garden work, harvesting – The carefree way of life far away from the ongoing modernity. Life was not easy at all, but they were all rich enough to enjoy earthly pleasures.

The next day we hit the road again to meet Abit Agang, an ongoing shaman of the Kenyah. Abit is not yet ready to flirt with the spirit world – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an exciting person to talk to. „My religion is and remains Pagan,“ he hisses and goes on, „It saddens me, to witness all his friends marching into the church for the Sunday prayers. The earth mother and goddess Bugan (finally a wife!) lost her reputation a while back. But I’m not surprised because Jesus and his father would have a crucial advantage. They have published a book! A book with written verses and strong narratives covering some nice examples. Questionable evidence, of course, but for many of his people, it’s enough evidence to make them question their former belief. As for many Sarawakians, they now define Pagan as humbug. It’s just easier to follow an almanac instead of sitting with the grandparents to fully understand our ancestor’s belief.“ Seems like the missionaries achieved their goals. I gratefully say goodbye to Abit, who is going to spray his oil palm trees. John and I continue our journey to Asap, the resettlement village.

Twenty villages were moved here because of the Bakun dam project. As promised, the government donated the land (which actually belongs to the Orang Asli anyway) and some new homes. But neither jobs nor fish – Eventually, the new generation would establish suitable jobs from scratch, probably oil palms. John walks me to his family apartment which is neatly integrated into the longhouse Rumah Belor. The chamber is only accessible via the outside stairs of a neighbor, through the kitchen of his stepsister, past the communal kiosk and the room of his nephew. With every family breeding four children, I’d lack no privacy, that’s for sure. We still have some time left to make further visits. Grandma Ino Udau from the Kenyah ethnic group is welcoming us happily, she lives next door and proudly shows off her shriveled legs covered with tattoos. We do not get into a deep conversation because she’s about to have her afternoon nappy.

Fortunately, Egang Ego, the head shaman is willing to spend more time with us. Egang is Abit’s master and has been leading the ceremonies for the Kenyah since half a century. No wonder, his apartment resembles an ethnological museum: helmets, masks, hats with hornbill feathers, battle shields. I’m asking him what the rituals are about. „Nowadays, the duties as a ceremony leader are severely limited,“ he sighs. Only for the harvest ritual, he’d still be called. In doing so, he systematically worships 16 eggs, slaughters a pig and some chicken, and contacts goddess Bungan, who then would distribute the offerings among the other gods. The rest of the year he’s chilling. The over 90-year-old senses that he should deliver more insights to impress John and me. So he tells us the heroic story, how he and his fellow warriors were kidnapped by a Japanese commando during the Second World War to be used as pathfinders or human shields. For several months they had to remain humble until the news came from Hiroshima. Thus, the Japanese were on their way back to civilization, weaving with the white flag. Then it went fast, in the very night Egang and his people jump on them, machetes fly, heads roll. “Yes, the heads rolled,“ he illustrates dramatically. The shaman smiles as he’s cooking up the story. No way that a Christian missionary will ever get a hand on him.

John and I are going our ways. His friend Asag offers me the ride to a busy intersection where I could hitch another ride, but not without checking his palm oil plantation first. Asag complains about the weakening Ringgit and the low palm oil sales price on the international markets. He currently sells one kilo of his oil palm fruits for just 12 US cents, producing around 10 tons a month (the harvest of around 200 palm trees). But the Almighty will help him out. Since he’s a good Christian for over 20 years now. „What religion do you have?“ I’m being asked. „My love for gods is limited,“ I reply, hoping that he does not dig any deeper. “Heaven!!! You must have a religion, otherwise little stands in the way for your journey to hell.” I have already come to terms with these facts, I’m explaining him. Why did he convert? „Easy to answer, all the nonsense with this spiritual belief and the necessity of dream interpretations. You know, If I had a bad dream, Bugan would not allow me to go on a hunt in the jungle the following day. I would have to expect big misfortune. Or even worse! If the wrong bird chirped towards the wrong direction, I had to turn around and postpone my foray. Now, since I know the right God, I can deal with my time more carelessly.” Fair enough. At this point, I don’t dare to tell him how careless he could deal with time if he would not pray to any god.

Remaining godless I’m being dropped at the junction. With my next destination Miri close to the border of Malaysia and Brunei in mind, I raise my thumb skywards. Some 3 minutes later, Richard pulls over. Do I need to mention that he converted lately? Tumpang (hitchhiking) is nothing new to him. As we drive, I share my experiences of the recent days, especially my failed field research, the extinction of ethnic cultures, and converted shamans. Somehow I hit a sore spot, as he officially strives to preserve the traditions of his people and therefore will get inked with the Bungai Terong one day. I’m keen to team up for a while, so I ask him if he would like to track down some centenarians wearing whole Iban tattoo kit with me? He would know some promising villages in the region. How could I refuse? Shortly after we park in front of his longhouse, Richard proudly announces that the guy living next door would have much potential, and he’d still be alive but sleeping right now. We wait for about a good hour until the traditional man creeps out of his bed. I can hardly help laughing. He’s wearing a tattoo of a spider’s web on his upper arm, a military jet on his shoulder, a clenched fist on his chest, beneath the words “I love you, Bruce Lee”. Richard himself is a bit disappointed and promises me a more authentic fellow. We continue our senior safari. Finally, on the edge of the village, there lives one tattooed grandpa in a wooden shack, 78-year-old Jawan Ana Alin. A real hunter back in the days. Countless deers have financed the education of his five children, he explains. So yes, he deserves having the lobster-sign on his throat, even though he forgot the actual symbolism behind the tattoo. What he does know is that his clan mocked those without lobster-signs half tubs as girls – a burden no brave Iban can stand.

I am invited to temporarily stay with Richard and his family. His three uncles are immediately keen to meetup. I join them for a slow-cooked lizard, then a bucket of high-percentage Tuak (I would have preferred to drink the Tuak first). I’m obviously too stupid to learn the Iban language within ten minutes as currently expected. Thus, I try to distract from being taught and ask the giggling brothers, how long this is already is going on for, in saying it appears to me, that these drinking nights seem to be rather routine than an exception. The three nod unanimously, „for 30 years. Evening after evening.“ Wow, others complain about a lack of variety in life! But taking this drunk clique here, who spend the last 10’957 evenings doing nothing else than sitting together, chatting about the hunt, and getting pissed with Tuak. What an uncomfortable thought for some of us. Richard intervenes and invites me to tomorrow’s hunt. Perfect, when being drunk I can rarely refuse something anyway.

The next afternoon we venture out. I do not expect a spectacle of old-fashion hunting, as Richard clarified yesterday already, that blowpipes aren’t in use any longer. No blowpipe, no wooden trap, no slingshot, but instead Richard brings his rifle and a machete. For hours we tiptoe through the thicket, crawl over roots, or under roots. Every now and then we linger a while to scout for boars and muntjacs. Then tiptoeing again. Until the hunter stops abruptly, turns around and walks slowly out of the jungle. I do not particularly like how he looked at me. It was a new, unknown look that I’ve seen in his eyes. “Later, I’ll tell you,” with ease he convinces me to follow in silence, my guts are telling me not to add any sarcasm to the uncomfortable situation. The fact that Richard, in addition to his new God, also allows space for spirits, makes me think. What does he feel, what I do not feel? Millions of roots later, Richard slows down and starts talking. “Three mighty spirits inhabit the forest, all the hunters of Sarawak fear them, whether they are Christians or not. One is the child. You recognize its presence by its insane laughers. If you try to find it and to care, you’ll lose track and belong to the jungle. The second one is the Ngelansat. He uses his huge arms to pulls his legless body along the trees. His rotten odor tells you, he is close, probably too close. If he sees you, he will lift up your body and rip it in half. And the last one is the naked girl. The most dangerous spirit of all. She will attract you by her graceful smell to make you approaching. If she is standing with her back to you, you are lucky enough to leave unnoticed. But if you look into her eyes, you will lose your mind and stay in the jungle forever. Never run, if you fall, your spirit will fall with you and the evil will take it.” Richard pauses by checking his empty hunting bag: “Enough for today. The girl stood in the clearing but she didn’t see us.”


A brief report about the Miri National Park is following up. TBA