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Batang Ai and the Iban longhouses

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The Iban longhouses of the Ai headwaters, both 150km due east of Kuching beyond the lake of the Batang Ai hydroelectric dam, and also to the north along the Lemanak river system, are the best excuse for anyone travelling between western and central Sarawak not to catch the fast Kuching–Sibu ferry. Despite being on the tourist trail, the longhouses continue to offer a glimpse of a semi-traditional lifestyle in a remote corner of the state, much of which is protected as a national park and wildlife sanctuary.

Batang Ai dam and lake

Around three and a half hours’ drive from Kuching, a couple of kilometres beyond the village of Jelukong, a signed 38km turning branches southeast off the main trunk road, passing a few modernish longhouses en route to the small border town of Lubok Antu. Some 12km short of that, another small road branches east towards the Batang Ai dam, a necessary though impressive way station en route to the upper Ai. Built in the 1980s as Sarawak’s first hydroelectric venture, the Ai dam created a lake covering 90 square kilometres. Though now dwarfed in scale, generating capacity and controversy by the much-delayed Bakun dam, it’s an impressive sight and the road up gives good views of the narrow valley downriver that must have made the site seem ideal to the dam’s planners. No parts of the dam are open to tourists, though, and once you get there you’ll head to one of the jetties to continue east by boat to an Ai longhouse or the Hilton Batang Ai.

The Ai river system

An hour east from the dam, longhouse-bound boats leave the lake and head up the Ai. As is clear from the tall trees that come right to the water’s edge, the initial stretch is still a drowned portion of the river. Further up you’ll observe a transition to the true riverbanks, the vegetation more open and compact. Also visible sporadically to either side are the odd school and clinic in simple metal-roofed timber buildings, and areas of hillslope cleared for traditional rice cultivation. The Iban leave paddies to the jungle once the soil is exhausted and move on to clear new areas. As the river narrows, you also begin to see the occasional longhouse lurking in the vegetation. Among those that take tourists are Nanga Delok (also called Rumah Ipang, on the Delok, a tributary of the Ai) and the more distant Nanga Sumpa (the Sumpa being a tributary of the Delok). Wherever you stay, will offer opportunities for additional longboat trips to areas where you can make short treks or local beauty spots such as waterfalls.