Remote Batang Ai is the ancestral heartland of Sarawak’s Iban people and the best place to spot orangutans in the wild. After exploring the jungle, experience life in a tribal longhouse, sharing song, dance and tuak rice wine long into the night.
Covering 240 square kilometers of rainforest surrounding an emerald-green lake, accessible only by boat, Batang Ai is a tiny sliver of a trans-national protected area about the size of Yorkshire. This is the kind of landscape you picture when you think of Borneo: towering tropical hardwood trees, their branches trailing vines and their heads lost in the mist; tumbling, crystal-clear rivers with banks so dense and verdant they feel like solid walls – and a man-made lake so picture-perfect it could challenge anything nature has devised.
This is also the ancestral homeland of the longhouse-dwelling Iban people, who first arrived here from southern Borneo in the 15th century. No longer the fearsome headhunters they once were, the Iban today keep to a traditional, communal way of life, with whole villages often living under one roof.
Batang Ai is our favorite place to experience this life, sleeping in a traditional longhouse, learning to shoot darts from a blowpipe, and sharing food cooked in pansoh bamboo cylinders. Later, you can join in some traditional dancing around the fire as you’re plied with tuak rice wine (to the amusement of your hosts). It’s a simple life, with few luxuries and almost no privacy, but it preserves a sense of community most of us can’t even imagine.
The Iban believe that the souls of their ancestors live on as orangutans, which may explain why Batang Ai is home to the highest density of these flame-haired primates in central Borneo. Sightings aren’t guaranteed but they are fairly common – so keep your eyes peeled as you follow old smugglers’ trails through these forests of tall, tropical timber trees and old tribal burial grounds.