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Situated on the verdant banks of the Jelia River, a 50-minute boat ride upriver from the nearest road, the longhouse at Nanga Delok belongs to members of the Iban, the largest of the 20 or so indigenous tribes that make up the population of Sarawak. The Iban are jungle-dwellers, living a subsistence lifestyle in harmony with the land, finding food, medicine and materials in the forest. ‘In the past, the jungle provided everything we needed,’ explains Tiyon Juna, an Iban guide who runs expeditions exploring his indigenous culture. ‘It provided us with food, building materials, and told us stories that helped us understand how we came to be.’ He points out the tattoos covering his arms and torso; each one is inspired by an Iban legend, but also marks an important moment in his own journey through life.

The most striking feature of the Iban lifestyle is their use of communal dwellings known as rumah panjai, or longhouses. Each includes private quarters for up to 50 families, as well as a shared veranda for storage and village meetings. Historically, longhouses were built from natural materials such as ironwood and pandanus, but most are now made of concrete and plaster. ‘All Iban people still belong to a longhouse, even when they no longer live there,’ says Tiyon. ‘For us, the longhouse is where life’s big events happen – funerals, marriages, festivals. It’s part of who we are.’

Nanga Delok is one of only a few in Sarawak built in the traditional way, using timber and thatch, supplemented by the odd patch of corrugated iron. The villagers here spend their time as their forefathers would have – fishing, making crafts, tending to the rice fields – although these days they have access to modern amenities such as running water, electricity and satellite TV. However, Nanga Delok feels a long way from the outside world, especially after dark when the generator shuts down and the air fills with the rasp of insects and chatter of birds.

‘Even though I spend most of my time in the town now, it’s in the forest where I feel at home,’ says Tiyon, as he prepares an Iban barbecue of fish, chicken and ferns, steamed in bamboo canes. ‘I feel in touch with my ancestors here. It’s where I’m most alive.’

He kneels and breathes life into the fire, sending spirals of smoke into the forest air. As he works, an old boatman glides past, stripped to the waist, his wiry torso covered in tribal tattoos. He watches Tiyon for a while, then raises his oar in greeting and slips silently downriver, dissolving like a ghost into the morning mist.

Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park: Best for islands
The last evening ferry putters away from the jetty of Pulau Manukan, and lifeguard Royzems Lundus can finally hang up his float for another day. Shadows are falling across the beach as the sun dips towards the horizon, but a few snorkellers are still splashing around in the lagoon beside his guard-tower. ‘This is always the best time of the day,’ he says. ‘We call it the magic time. And on an evening like this, you can see why, eh?’

A half-hour boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is one of Sabah’s best-known island getaways. Comprising five tropical atolls (locally known as pulau) scattered over 5,000 hectares of ocean, the park is famous for its glassy waters and abundant marine life. At weekends, city-dwellers clamber aboard one of the ferries buzzing around Jesselton Harbour and skim over the bay to bask on the islands’ manicured beaches, or dive amongst their coral reefs and sandbanks.

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