The Long View

Green living in Borneo

longhouse Courtesy of Sarawak tourism board; bridge courtesy of Tourism Malaysia

Long before architectural experts began extolling the green aspects of condominiums, people in Borneo were practicing longhouse living. Their picturesque, 
eco-friendly multifamily dwellings can be visited today in the Sarawak region of the Malaysian island, and some travelers stay at a modern 
adaptation, the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort.

Built on stilts, longhouses stretch as long as 
300 meters and are built of timber fastened with creeper vines. They can be described as a row of elevated dwellings and a village street under one roof. The uncovered front porch can be used for drying rice and peppers. A covered inner hall forms a common walkway and recreation area. Stretched against the back wall is a row of neat 
“apartments,” one per tribal family. Pigs, chickens and other livestock 
are sheltered under the elevated floor, which also allows air to circulate 
for ventilation. While modern times are altering their design, integrating 
tin and electricity, several of the community dwellings still exist.

Arriving in Kuching, Sarawak’s riverside capital city with its own attractions—colorful colonial buildings, informative museums housed in heritage structures, a magnificent nine-story state legislative building topped with a giant fluted umbrella roof—a great starting point is the 
“living museum” Sarawak Cultural Village. The park setting is dotted 
with a half dozen different longhouse styles. Visitors wandering from the 
peak-roofed Bidayuh structure to the towering Melanau Tall House can try their hands at pounding sugar cane, sampling the processed fruit of the sago palm or shooting darts through blowpipes. Daylong excursions can be arranged to nearby active longhouses, with a stop to see resident orangutans swinging through trees at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

longhouses are still in use in parts
of malaysia’s Sarawak region


For a full-fledged longhouse visit, overnight 
“homestays” are possible. But a more comfortable option is to drive into the jungle past pepper farms 
and sugar cane fields and boat across a lake to stay at the Hilton Batang Ai, a tasteful jungle outpost adapted from the native style. Guests stay in comfortable longhouse structures perched over the lake and gather in the airy lodge for European and Oriental fare. There 
are sunset cocktails on the porch, nightly movie screenings, lemongrass steam baths in the Borneo Oasis Wellness Center, and a computer 
terminal for catching up on e-mail.

Lounging by the pool is an option, but the more adventurous climb into canoes and paddle across the lake to the nearby Mengkak longhouse. Greeted by residents covered in ornamental tattoos, visitors doff their shoes and spend leisurely hours mingling with families who perform a show of folk tunes and dances, and cook up a lunch of vegetables and chicken steamed in a hollow bamboo tube.     

To go to Sarawak, Borneo, fly to Kuala Lumpur and catch a plane 
to Kuching where the Hilton Kuching, and Grand Margherita are 
convenient hotel options.