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LONGHOUSES OF BORNEO

Many of the inhabitants of the Southeast Asian island of Borneo (now Kalimantan, Indonesia and States of Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia), the Dayak, live traditionally in buildings known as a longhouse, Rumah panjang in Malay, rumah panjai in Iban. Common to most of these is that they are built raised off the ground on stilts and are divided into a more or less public area along one side and a row of private living quarters lined along the other side. This seems to have been the way of building best accustomed to life in the jungle in the past, as otherwise hardly related people have come to build their dwellings in similar ways. One may observe similarities to South American jungle villages also living in large single structures. The design is elegant: being raised, flooding presents little inconvenience. The entry could double as a canoe dock. Being raised, cooling air could circulate underneath the floor of the dwelling, and the elevated living areas were more likely to catch above ground breezes. Livestock could shelter underneath the long houses for greater protection from predators and the elements.

 

In modern times many of the older longhouses have been replaced with buildings using more modern materials but of similar design. In areas where flooding is not a problem, the space beneath the longhouse between the stilts, which was traditionally used for a work place for tasks such as threshing, has been converted into living accommodation or has been closed in to provide more security. Modern long houses in Asia were made of grass and tree bark.

The layout of a traditional longhouse could be described thus:

  • A wall runs along the length of the building approximately down the longitudinal axis of the building. The space along one side of the wall serves as a corridor running the length of the building while the other side is blocked from public view by the wall and serves as private areas.
  • Behind this wall lay the private units, bilik, each with a single door for each family. These are separated from each other by walls of their own and contain the living and sleeping spaces for each family. The kitchens, dapor, may be situated within this private space but are quite often situated in rooms of their own, added to the back of a bilik or even in a building standing a little away from the longhouse and accessed by a small bridge. This separation prevents cooking fires from spreading to the living spaces, should they spread out of control, as well as reducing smoke and insects attracted to cooking from gathering in living quarters.
  • The corridor itself is divided into three parts. The space in front of the door, the tempuan, belongs to each bilik unit and is used privately. This is where rice can be pounded or other domestic work can be done. A public corridor, a ruai, runs the length of the building in this open space. Along the outer wall is the space where guests can sleep, the pantai. On this side a large veranda, a tanju, is built in front of the building where the rice (padi) is dried and other outdoor activities can take place. The sadau, a sort of attic, runs along under the peak of the roof and serves as storage. Sometimes the sadau has a sort of gallery from which the life in the ruai can be observed. The pigs and chicken live underneath the house between the stilts
  • The houses built by the different tribes and ethnic groups can differ from each other. Houses described as above may be used by the Iban Sea Dayak and Melanau Sea Dayak. Similar houses are built by the Bidayuh, Land Dayak, however with wider verandas and extra buildings for the unmarried adults and visitors. The buildings of the Kayan, Kenyah, Murut, and Kelabit used to have fewer walls between individual bilik units. The Punan seem to be the last ethnic group that adopted this type of house building. The Rungus of Sabah in north Borneo build a type of longhouse with rather short stilts, the house raised three to five feet of the ground, and walls sloped outwards.

A lot of place names in Sarawak and Kalimantan still have the word "Long" in their name and most of these still are or once were longhouses. Some villages like Long Semado in Sarawak even have airfields of their own. Regions with long houses are for example Ulu Anyut and Ulu Paku in Sarawak. Another longhouse is the Punan sama.

Recommended travel packages:
BARIO AND KELABIT HIGHLANDS 
ORANGUTAN & DAYAK ADVENTURE
LONGHOUSE BATANG AI