Batang Ai Resort a boon to Iban culture, herbal lore

After a 15-minute walk along the nearby jungle at Hilton’s first nature-based resort in Asia, a group of nature enthusiasts get a first-hand lesson about the bounty of nature.

"Look at this wild fern," said resident naturalist Winston Marshall, pointing to a clump between wild fruit trees and creepers at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, about 275 km from here.

He said it is known to the Ibans, Sarawak’s largest native group who account for about 30 percent of its two million population, as "Paku Uban".

"Some Iban women cook it with ginger into a soup to stimulate lactation during breast-feeding," he told the visitors.

He said out of 700 fern species recorded in the country, only seven are edible including the midin fern, a popular delicacy which is pesticide-free.

Also plentiful are wild banana or "pisang kera" whose flower spuds can be eaten simply with salt or belacan (shrimp paste), while the inner stem is cooked as a vegetable, he said.

"Its leaves, if unfurled, can be cut up as a cigarette paper and as a platter," said Marshall, 64, who has spent half of his life in the jungle while serving in the field force.

"During the Confrontation, I learnt from the Iban warriors about jungle trekking and survival was my speciality to combat the enemy," he revealed as he pointed out holes burrowed by jungle rats around tree roots, marks of honey bears’ claw on tree trunks and footprints of barking deer along the trail.

He said the jungle is like a pharmacy to the Ibans, who regard it as a rich store for medicinal plants and herbs.

"The jungle to the Ibans is also like a supermarket as there are food to eat and things that can be used for making mats, hats, materials for building houses and even clothes," he said.

During the one-and-a-half-hour trail, Marshall not only brought to live the legends and lores of the Ibans but also their long-kept "secrets" of the jungle.

One example is fungal infection like ringworm or even warts, where the Ibans would crush the leaves of "Daun Sorok" (or Golden Candle Sticks plant) and rub on the affected areas.

"It will disappear within three days," he said, adding that a German guest, based in Kuala Lumpur, was happy with the outcome after he had recommended the remedy.

Two protected species of the Bintangor tree – calophyllum lanigurum and calophllum tasmanii – are also found in the vicinity, adjacent to the Batang Ai National Park.

Scientists are said to have unlocked the secrets of its resin to produce a vaccine that has shown a positive result as a cure for AIDS.

All these "lessons" have been made possible by the Batang Ai Resort which also serves as the "gateway" to the wild side of Borneo or specifically, Sarawak.

Accompanied by the incessant sound of the cicadas and squirrels darting between
branches, one could actually
walk among the treetops and discover the canopy of the rainforest from a 60-metre-long suspended walkway about 24 metre above the jungle floor.

An avid believer in the after-life, Marshall also performed a small ritual offering when the group stopped at the century-old gravesite of an Iban warrior.

New Zealander Rex Clark, 60, a retired engineer from Auckland, said the surrounding greenery and tranquility, amidst the lake and mountain range bordering West Kalimantan in Indonesia at the resort, was soothing.

"I hope that these plus factors will be preserved in future," he said.

Dubbed as "A Gateway to a Land of Legends" the resort is a four-to- five-hour drive from here along the Pan-Borneo Highway, followed by a 15-minute boat ride on the Batang Ai Lake in Lubok Antu, Sri Aman division.

Along the journey, one could see pepper gardens, rice fields, cocoa trees, oil palm estates and vegetable plots.

To the Ibans, Batang Ai means "The Main River" and it is hardly surprising that a host of water-related activities and excursions which are environment-friendly can be arranged at the resort lying on a peninsular jutting into the 90 lake.

Resident manager Jonathan Mawar said these included longboat river cruises, fishing trips, visit to authentic Iban longhouses and waterfalls and guided jungle trekking and nature walks.

Events like "Headhunters’ Night" on its BBQ Island certainly serves as an unconventional introduction to the local customs and tradition.

Since its opening in August 1995 by Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, the resort that focusses on eco-tourism, has bagged a list of awards such as the Prime Minister’s Hibiscus Award for Notable Achievement in Environmental Performance, Best Natural Tourist Attraction (by Tourism Malaysia), "The Green Success of the Year" (Sarawak Chamber & Commerce & Industries) and the Best New Tourist Attraction in Asean.

Malaysians made up only 15 percent of its guests, while the majority were usually Europeans like Germans and Dutch as well as Australians and Taiwanese, he said.

State Assistant Tourism Minister and Batang Ai state assemblyman, Dublin Unting, noted that tourism was picking up from year to year, especially after resort was built, providing economic spin-offs to the people in his constituency.

The locals had taken advantage of the opportunities by setting up joint ventures with tour operators and travel agents to transport visitors to the resort and longhouses, besides providing accomodation, he said.

So, when you savour the famous "manok pansuh" (or chicken steamed in bamboo) when you visit the resort, know for a fact that you are eating an Iban delicacy which the resort is trying to introduce to you, along with the community’s culture and tradition.