We flew into Lawas, a small town at the northern tip of Sarawak, in a tiny 20-seater plane. Mountains surround the town, forming a bluish-green backdrop. The normally quiet little town was bustling with scores of people coming back from the surrounding regions for the rice harvest festival, also known as the Gawai Festival. Some came as far as Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, others from cities in Sarawak and Sabah, and still others from the interior villages (‘kampungs’).
Lawas is the home of the ‘Lun Bawang’, an ethnic tribe in Sarawak that has a long history with the rice paddy. From way back before the reign of the White Rajahs, their main activity has been rice planting. Having beliefs in animism back then, they had a legend: There was once a shortage of rice in the land, and two siblings were starving with hunger. Then one night, a genie told the elder brother that he must kill his younger sister and then there would no longer be a famine. When the brother told his sister about it, she agreed with him. Finally, he killed her and put her body out on the rice fields, and wherever her blood flowed to, rice grew.
From this story, the Lun Bawang never waste their rice, saying that it would be disrespectful to the young child’s sacrifice for them. They have since left their beliefs in animism, and embraced Christianity as a community. Every year they celebrate the Rice Harvest Festival in June as a thanksgiving to God for each year’s provision.
Years of rice harvesting has grown a communal spirit among this tribe, as they would work together to keep the paddy fields. Every family is ever ready to help each other. One popular saying among them that describes this is: “No family would separate themselves from the tribe by refusing to help, because they all know that everyone would have their own time of need.”
Till now, the communal spirit stays alive in this small town. During our visit, in conjunction with Gawai Festival, the people were celebrating the ‘Irau Aco Lun Bawang’, translated as ‘Celebration of the Lun Bawang Day’, for the 26th year running. Groups of Lun Bawang from various ‘kampungs’ came dressed in their full traditional costumes. Old friends were able to meet again. The air was alive with a spirit of festivity.
The festival featured a bamboo band competition. Participation was by village, and they had to play a song using their bamboo instruments. It was like a small orchestra, only the instruments were the ‘angklung’ (a type of percussive instrument that resonates at different pitches when struck), ‘suling’ (flute) and ‘tubong’ (drum), all made out of bamboo. Against the setting of Malaysia being largely Muslim in the western parts, the Lun Bawang gave a fresh outlook to the multicultural side of the east side; Sabah and Sarawak. Being a predominantly Christian community, they played Christian hymns with their simple bamboo instruments.
Another highlight at the festival was the Beauty Pageant. Female contestants vied for the ‘Ruran Ulung’ (the most beautiful maiden) crown. They carried themselves with confidence, radiating beauty and gentleness perfectly through their movements and facial expressions. Meanwhile, their male counterparts fought for the ‘Padan Liu Burung’ (most handsome warrior), displaying their prowess with the shield and blowpipe, fighting imaginary enemies. It was an excellent show, and the crowd loved it.
One thing that stood out was the togetherness of the people. Though the crowd grew to over 2000 people, it felt like one big family celebrating their culture and reliving olden memories together.
Visit to the Tagang Fishery System and Merarap Hot Spring
During our stay, our team hit the road inland to two tourist spots: The Tagang Fishery System and Merarap Hot Springs. The former is an old preserved method by the fishermen that prevents catching of fish in certain streams in order to protect the fish. Years of this method has made the wild fish tame. When we arrived at the stream, our host used a bottle to hit on a rock to call the fish. They soon swam in droves expectantly for food. These fishes were so used to humans they allowed us to touch them, and even fed from our hands!
The next stop was the Merarap Hot Spring. The ride took two hours from Lawas town on bumpy timber road, layered with soil and stones. It is situated in a valley surrounded by mountainous forests. The owners pipe hot spring water from the mountains into small dipping pools for visitors. Rooms are available for overnight stay. It is perfect for small groups to experience.