Cycling to Borneo’s indigenous heart

Sweat runs down my neck as I stand by the side of the road, a mountain bike parked next to me. I don’t have to wait long before Lucas, my Chinese support vehicle driver from Sarawak, sees me and parks his pickup in front of me.

“What happened?” he looks at me

“I broke the chain on your bike,” I say before we stare at each other. And then we both burst out laughing.

“Prefer to be in the car?” Lucas asks me as he climbs out of the driver’s seat, wrench in hand. He looks at the break in my chain and shakes his head – it’s an essential part that he sadly left at home.

“Hell no,” I reply, pointing to another bike hanging in the back of the car. “Get me that please.”

We are approximately 10km from Lucas’ hometown of Marudi, a small settlement on the Baram River in northeast Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. The reason? A recreational bike tour with deep cultural immersion organized by 1StopBorneo Wildlife (, a NGO based in Kota Kinabalu. They use most of their tourism earnings to support reforestation projects in Tawau in southern Sabah, including elephant and hornbill welfare programs.

As Lucas and I swap bikes, the manager of the NGO, Bruneian-Pakistani conservationist Shavez Cheema, comes up to us and asks me what’s going on. “Nothing, let’s move on to the longhouse,” I tell him, my mind fixed on the Iban hospitality and feast that awaits me a few kilometers away at Rumah Jimbau in the Sungai Gudang settlement.

Cheema wants to put Marudi on the tourist map well before the new 112km road link to Ng Melinau near Gunung Mulu National Park (Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, established in 1974) is completed in 2024. This is an excuse to experience this country , especially since the terrain is mostly flat,” says Cheema. “But the most important thing about this tour is the hospitality of Orang Ulu and Dayak.”

100km from the mouth of the Baram River, the modern tranquility of Marudi betrays its historical importance. Once an important upstream settlement of the British colonial territory in northern Sarawak, Marudi’s fame faded when the coastal town of Miri, 43 km away, was established in 1912 following the discovery of major oil wells.

As Miri developed, Marudi was left as the authentic cultural heart of the Orang Ulu – the collective name for 27 highland tribes of northern Sarawak, which include the Kenyah, Kayan, Murut, Lun Bawang and the nomadic Penan – and as a settlement for the Iban, Borneo’s most famous former headhunters.

Even today, traditional longhouses (some still made of wood, but most made of concrete) line the river valleys around Marudi and Baram.

We cycle from Lucas’ home in central Marudi towards the river and Fort Hose, a protective garrison built in 1883 on a hill overlooking the river. Now a museum, the fort takes its name from British officer Charles Hose. It is a holdover from a period of tribal feuds and ensuing pacification promoted by the colonial Brooke administration – better known as the White Rajahs of Sarawak. In April 1889, Hose used the fort to organize a peace conference attended by 6000 people, leading to Marudi’s second fame: the annual Baram Regatta, where different ethnic groups come together and compete for fun and prizes.

In town, we feast on incredible Chinese food: kway teow topped with beef, so thick it looks more like strips of rice cake than flat noodles. While we strengthen ourselves with chopsticks, we look at the newly built waterfront of Marudi. It is adorned with a dragon-shaped boat, testifying to the importance of the regatta.

After circumnavigating the fort, leaving town, and changing bikes, it’s another half hour over gentle, rolling hills to reach Jimbau’s longhouse. It is named after the village’s Iban chief, who welcomes us into his living room where he has prepared simple beds for us for the night.

I’m glad I speak passable Bahasa Malaysia otherwise I would miss the opportunity to chat with women on the porch behind the longhouse. Meanwhile, Jimbau keeps our cups filled with the local Tuak rice wine. Just before sunset, Jimbau’s son-in-law prepares the signature and delicious ayam pansuh, which translates as “chicken bamboo.” He fills several long bamboo sticks with hearty chunks of fresh chicken, red and white onions, ginger, garlic and lots of lemongrass. He tops it off with a bunch of cassava leaves and cooks it on an open fire in front of the house for an hour and a half. We eat, say good night and fall asleep.

The next day we cycle to Lubok Nibong where Lucas is waiting for us to load the bikes onto his truck. The reason? Do we come to the Baram and experience none of it? Mortal sin. Cheema has organized a boat trip back to Marudi on an old, rusting steamer that huffs and puffs all the way back to port – giving us a glimpse of what it once meant for warring tribes to glide along these mighty waters and head inland reach the misty peaks of the Kelabit Highlands and then on to Mulu’s mighty cave system, which is among the largest in the world.

We end our tour with a second night at Juman’s home in the Sungai Pasir Longhouse – a modern, well-appointed, furnished unit located in another concrete longhouse. Here, after dinner, a group of local youth will bless us with a performance of traditional Iban dance. They study the traditional dances and arts of their tribe and perform at events, shows and sometimes at home for visitors like us.

I lean back on the couch. As one of the girls sings a traditional song in front of the television, the metallic medallions attached to her skirt and hair blend harmoniously with her voice and movements. Cheema’s Tour is a one-of-a-kind experience that puts you right in the middle of an unconventional yet incredible part of Southeast Asia.


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