Journey into Ulu Sarikei: Talking skulls, the legend of Enemy Head waterfall, and a village’s warm welcome

Nine hanging skulls at the ‘ruai’ of Lubuk Lemba longhouse.

By Marlynda Meraw

AS I stood by the ‘ruai’ (communal space) of the longhouse in Lubuk Lemba of Ulu Sarikei, my eyes were drawn to the sight of the nine hanging skulls with their empty sockets. Each skull seemed to silently tell a story; its ancient gaze fixed upon me as if waiting to impart forgotten tales of bygone days.

At first, I couldn’t help but wonder if these skulls were the remnants of fallen warriors in a battle that once raged by Munsoh River. The thought sent a shiver down my spine, imagining the harsh realities faced by those who stood on the battlefield all those times ago. What stories did these skulls hold? Whose lives and struggles were etched into their hollow remains?

I later learned from 68-year-old Belula Igai, a resident of Lubuk Lemba, that these skulls had been in their possession since before the James Brooke era.

The exact origins and stories behind these relics are a mystery, yet their presence hinted at a deep-rooted history woven into the tales of Lubuk Lemba. Each skull, weathered by time, stood as a silent witness to the passage of time and the enduring spirit of this land.

According to Belula, these hanging skulls are used in festivities by a few families who still practise the old beliefs, including Gawai Burung celebrations and farewell ceremonies for their children when they leave home to join the army or police force.

“A ritual will take place during these farewell ceremonies to imbue the departing children with the spirit of past warriors. They (families) want these spirits to accompany their children when they are away from home,” she explained.

I was fascinated, of course. The idea of having the spirits of past warriors accompanying one during various endeavours has its merits.

Similar to a phone call that deducts your credit, summoning these warrior spirits also requires a form of ‘payment’. This is where the Miring ceremony comes into play, with families presenting food offerings on a ‘Piring’ (plate) for the spirits.

“We offer them (spirits) the same food as ours. Red glutinous rice, meat, and ketupat (packed rice) are among the few that we must offer.

“The food will first be placed on a plate then transferred onto the ‘Piring’ made out of buan leaves and wrapped to hang,” said Belula.

Hearing her say that these skulls used to make eerie noises in the night, as if echoing the murmurs of their former owners when alive, aroused a swell of fear and curiosity within my being. But now the skulls were silent, seemingly accustomed to dwelling in the longhouse. Perhaps they had found peace with the passage of time.

‘Ruai’ of Lubuk Lemba longhouse

Ancient battle, Enemy Head waterfall, and strange frog eggs

Nestled in the jungle of Ulu Sarikei lies Wong Pala Munsoh, a waterfall whose name intriguingly translates to ‘enemy head waterfall’, with its cascading waters flowing from the Munsoh River.

Legend has it that a long time ago, a fierce battle erupted along the banks of the Munsoh River, and while nobody knows the exact adversaries locked in battle, local lore whispers of a fierce encounter between Ibans and Kayans; the two prominent indigenous groups at the time.

Though the battle’s exact details remain shrouded in the mists of time, the significance of Wong Pala Munsoh transcends its scenic splendour as it is also a silent witness to the land’s rich history and culture.

Astride his trusty motorcycle, 62-year-old Berain Igai who is Belula’s younger brother, led our 4WD vehicle along a small village road until we reached an offroad path belonging to an oil palm plantation. After parking our vehicle in the lovely shade provided by a nearby palm tree, we began our trek.

Berain riding his trusty motorcycle along the oil palm plantation road.

Berain told us of the legend of the battle that took place by the river, but could not tell us more of its details as he too, had naught to share. Instead, Berain shared about his experience as a trail guide which spans a little over a decade and the various visitors who had come to witness Wong Pala Munsoh’s magnificence.

“I have been a guide for over 10 years, showing people the way to the waterfall. We have foreign visitors but they usually go on day trips instead of staying at the homestay,” said Berain as he led as along the trail.

We pressed on, grateful for the sheltering canopy of the towering trees that provided us some relief from the sun’s rays. The cicadas sang loudly in the heat, and we stumbled upon what Berain identified as frog eggs, though the first thing that came to my mind were the eggs from the ‘Aliens’ movie!

Frog eggs attached to the tree stump found along our trek to the waterfall.

The round-trip journey took us one-and-a-half hours, with half of that time spent manoeuvring along the river’s rocky bed. While I consider the trek to be beginner-friendly, it’s still important to exercise caution while river trekking considering an earlier mishap where I slipped and fell, though thankfully landing unscathed in ankle-deep water.

We waded through the river, its refreshing coolness adding pep to our steps while the soft, soothing murmur of its flowing water accompanied us during our journey.

Ahead, Wong Pala Munsoh beckoned with its three tiers—each requiring its own path to reach. As we made our way towards the third tier, Berain told us about a much shorter but more adventurous alternative route.

Intrigued by the challenge and with our adventurous spirits aflame, we tackled the road less taken—a journey that included a short climb with only protruding tree roots to grip that added an exhilarating touch to our hike.

The third tier of the Wong Pala Munsoh waterfall boasted a single fall into the waters below. As we sat by a fallen tree trunk to catch our breaths, I couldn’t help but admire how lovely the area was—a perfect spot to play in the water and enjoy a picnic nearby.

As much as we wanted to linger in this enchanting spot, we had to take our leave with a tinge of regret, wary of the looming threat of a rainy day.

Berain at the first tier of the Wong Pala Munsoh waterfall.
Second tier of the Wong Pala Munsoh waterfall
Third tier of the Wong Pala Munsoh waterfall

Which name?

“Is it Rumah Nyuka? Or Rumah Sibar?” echoed the resounding question that accompanied us throughout our entire journey in search of the longhouse. Thankfully, we managed to find it and arrive our destination without much hassle.

We mentioned our earlier confusion to which 60-year-old Lingau Janting, wife of Berain and owner of the Rumah Sibar homestay, explained that the change was due to the passing and subsequent change of longhouse chief.

“Nyuka was the previous chief. He passed away in June last year, and the name of the longhouse changed to follow the new chief. Now, the house is called Rumah Sibar,” Lingau said.

“To avoid confusion, just look for ‘Lubuk Lemba longhouse’.”

The arch entrance leading to the Lubuk Lemba longhouse with hanging ‘piring’.

We were graciously welcomed by Lingau and the Igai family. Despite our brief visit, we got to experience their warm hospitality. Seated in their cosy dining area, they shared stories about their village and the homestay they managed together, making our time with them truly memorable.

When asked about what inspired her to start a homestay, Lingau said that it was her neighbour’s son who encouraged her to embark on this venture, foreseeing the area’s potential with the Wong Pala Munsoh waterfall as a burgeoning tourist attraction.

“He (neighbour’s son) works in Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) and helped to assess the rooms to decide how much should we charge for one night,” she said.

Rumah Sibar Homestay opened on March 23, 2011, attracting mostly young visitors. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent movement control order (MCO), there was minimal reception, with villagers reluctant to accept visitors, leading to a closure until 2023 when operations officially resumed.

“We (homestay) are usually open except during Gawai Dayak. We don’t receive guests from May 30 to June 2, although guests are more than welcome to come during the day and celebrate the festivities with us,” said Lingau.

For those who are interested to experience Rumah Sibar homestay hospitality, contact Lingau at +6 017-856 8509.

Heirloom ‘tajau’ (urns) lining the main hallway of Rumah Sibar homestay.
Medals decorating the railing of the stairs.

During the sharing session, we also learned that the longhouse has its own fire and rescue (Bomba) unit manned by the villagers themselves, complete with the necessary equipment. Everyone takes turns keeping an eye out for accidents or emergencies in the surrounding area.

“Someone’s house by Rian River caught fire one night, and we were the first to respond. That was roughly three years ago,” 73-year-old Runai Igai, the oldest of the Igai siblings told us. We were thoroughly impressed by their initiative and teamwork as the fire could have easily spread if it weren’t for their response. Rumah Sibar of Lubuk Lemba Village is truly a fine example of united community efforts in safeguarding their cherished homes, demonstrating the true spirit of resilience and solidarity.

Regrettably, the time came for us to say our reluctant goodbyes to the peaceful village and the welcoming hosts of Lubuk Lemba, marking the conclusion of our memorable chapter in Ulu Sarikei. As we prepared to depart, we reflected on the warm hospitality we had received despite our very brief stay, which left a lasting impression. Our hosts welcomed us as if we are long lost family, and it made us yearn for a future opportunity to return and relive these lovely moments. We bid farewell, knowing that the memories of Lubuk Lemba would stay with us until we had the pleasure of visiting again. — DayakDaily

From left: Belula, Runai, Lingau, and Berain posing for a photo outside the ‘ruai’ of the longhouse.