Bourdain’s Field Notes
I was brokenhearted and at a crossroads in my life when I first went up the Skrang River in Sarawak, Borneo.
The people I met there, 10 years ago, hosted me and my crew in their longhouse, fed us, looked after us and treated me with great kindness. When the chiefs invited me back for their yearly harvest festival, Gawai Dayak, I said I would come.
It took me a while, but in the end I did return.
I have to admit, I was wondering if all the bad shit running through my head the first time I went up that river was still lurking there—if I’d managed to entirely put it away. I was fulfilling a promise. And I was curious to see how things had changed.
The Iban people are wonderful hosts. It is true that once, not too long ago, they were headhunters—a proud tradition reflected in the faded tattoos on the fingers of the elders and the dusty bouquet of skulls that hung over my head in the longhouse the first time I was there.
The skulls are gone now. And there are more TVs and cell phones. And when I arrived this time, friends and relatives from all over the world had returned for the festival. The forest has been somewhat denuded by timbering, but much is the same.
We went to great lengths to retrace our steps, so some of you might feel you’ve seen this show before.
Which you have.
But things are different now.
The drinking was nonstop. The Iban karaoke, insane. And my idea to get a traditional, hand-tapped jungle tattoo on my sternum was probably ill-advised.
But it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, as remote and as different from where I grew up as any place could be. The people are lovely—and the food, as everywhere in Malaysia, incredible.
It was, in the end, the best kind of adventure.