Penan Naikas Bushmen

A 4x4 trip from Limbang, Sarawak to look for nomadic Penan in the remote jungle...


“First of all go to Long Balau. Need to ask someone from Long Balau be with you to find the nomadic. Seem to be very dangerous if just you go alone without them.

Nomadic got many problem, can't compare between enemy and friends or relative because many Chinese or other races who work with the company bad to the nomadic Penan – because they always protect the forest or jungle where they live.

Nomad got more enemies always disturb them, they always standby every time – they afraid, they feel scared every time

Need to bring someone from Long Balau who they know their identity. Even we [the settled Penan] also be in danger during we are in the Penan nomad area, many many such bad guy appear from past, beside the road or jungle, the guy that we don't know their identity at all.”

This ominous sounding message was read out to me at the Penan rest house in the coastal city of Limbang by my guide Jugah as we made our preparations to drive into the jungle to find the nomadic Penan.


I had arrived in Limbang the day before, my only contact in the city was a Chinese tour operator called Mr. Lim whose number I got from Jungle Dave in Brunei. Mr. Lim organised trips to the Penan longhouse of Long Napir, but I told him that I wanted to go further than that, deep into the jungle to try to find any Penan who might still be living nomadically.

He was very helpful and put me in contact with a friend of his who made regular trips into the jungle, but when he heard where I wanted to go he lost interest, he said it was too difficult, that I needed permits. Also he was evasive when I asked him why he travelled into the jungle and Mr. Lim later admitted that his friend was a poacher of the valuable eaglewood, the same tree that I'd seen poached everywhere in Brunei for it's tiny amount of valuable heartwood.

I suggested to Mr. Lim that surely all I needed to do was hire a car and find a local guide to take me, but I was told that without a permit I would not be allowed to drive into that area and would be turned back by the logging company, not wanting to give up though I asked Mr. Lim where I could find a Penan guide and that's when he suggested the Penan rest house near the hospital.

He very kindly drove me there and we parked nearby. At the rest house young men were hanging around both outside and in, some women were washing or cooking while children played. It was quite squalid with clothing hanging up everywhere, bony dogs lounging around and an open gutter running along the front, it almost had the feel of a refugee camp.

The rest house was originally built by the government to house any Penan who were visiting the city hospital but it now seemed to be used as a semi-permanent doss-house for homeless Penan. It consisted of two crowded rooms, each with a couple of large wooden platforms where the Penan ate, cooked, slept, worked and played, about 30 people to a room.

It didn't feel threatening but it felt kind-of awkward to be invading these people's private lives. Mr. Lim introduced me to a Penan guy named Rikot who was dressed in fairly smart casual modern clothes and flip-flops.

'So these are the Penan,' I thought, 'fresh from the jungle. Not really what I was expecting!'

Rikot and the other guys all had crude tattoos on their arms with Western designs that looked like they'd been done while half-drunk. I'd heard about the incredibly intricate tribal tattoos of Borneo but these were certainly not examples of that.

One guy had 'BORN FOR DEATH' tattooed in large letters while Rikot had a swastika on his arm.

'What's that?' I asked him.

He just grinned and said: 'Germany!'

It seemed to be one of the few English words he knew!

He then told me that his brother Jugah was the man I needed to meet, he spoke good English and might be willing to be my guide. If I came back later I could meet him.


I returned later by taxi and asked for Jugah, so Rikot took me inside to meet his brother.

'Jugah?' I asked.

'Jugah Lesu,' he answered. He was insistent that I use his full name, Lesu being his father's name.

Jugah was middle-aged with a craggy smile caused by many a missing tooth. He spoke and understood English well, and wore spectacles which gave him a rather studious look.

I told him my plans and asked if it would be possible to get a ride into the jungle and visit some nomadic Penan. He said that getting a ride should not be a problem, the Penan regularly travelled back and forth from the jungle, so he would make some enquiries and see what he could arrange.

Again I returned to my hotel and waited until the appointed time. Without Mr. Lim to help me I had to return in yet another taxi, but not wanting to appear too affluent to the impoverished Penan I asked the taxi driver to drop me off outside the compound this time!

I walked in and Jugah was nowhere to be found.

'Jugah di sini?' I asked (Is Jugah here?), but I didn't get much response, so I just had to hang around outside feeling awkward. Eventually one of the older Penan took pity on me and gave me a chair to sit on while the children stared at the strange white-man who was hanging around outside.

After a while Jugah turned up and led me a few houses down the street to meet our driver. We knocked on the door and it was answered by a fat guy wearing a bath towel. He was friendly enough and told us he'd drive us into the jungle tomorrow, but right now he was going to have a bath! So that was sorted then, we'd be off the next day!


I arrived early the next morning, keen to be on my way, but the news was not good. There was a problem with the car. Jugah was on the phone and seemed to be calling almost everyone he knew. He assured me that it would be sorted out, but he wouldn't give any details so I just had to wait.

Jugah took me inside the Penan rest house where we sat down and drank tea.

He told me that we would drive to Long Napir and then deeper into the jungle on a logging road to the Gunung Buyo (Mt. Buyo) area between the Madahit and Magoh rivers. There we should find some nomadic Penan.

I had no idea what to expect, or how difficult the journey would be, I just had to trust that Jugah knew what he was doing.

He told me that he was born in the jungle in 1966, but at age 20 he left the jungle and went to live in a village. To someone raised in the jungle, the village, he said, with it's direct sunlight, seemed unbearably hot.

We discussed other aspects of Penan life, such as the way they always share food, even when hungry, how the Penan make fire with a white stone, and how the Penan have no word for 'Thank You'.

As he talked, and the kids played and watched TV, I looked around and amongst the familiar modern items and noticed a blowpipe in one corner and a green pigeon in a cage.

'They belong to me,' said Jugah.

Despite the city life he still liked to go out hunting in the jungle with his blowpipe and he seemed to like his pets from the jungle too!

He told me that the government tries to get all the Penan to settle down so that the forest can be logged. The government offers them housing and food, but in the jungle they already have plenty of food and there is no need for Western consumer goods there.

'Very stubborn people the Penan,' said Jugah, 'don't want to leave the jungle.'

But once the forest has been logged there is no game any more for them to hunt, so they can no longer feed themselves and are forced to settle down like the government wanted.


The morning was passing by now and still nothing was happening so feeling restless I wandered outside. Rikot and some other guys were still hanging around, seemingly with nothing else to do. As I looked around I noticed a couple monkeys tied up in a tree nearby.

I wandered over and wasn't too happy with what I saw. They were both on very short chains which restricted their movement considerably. One monkey was old and blind and just sat there with a blank stare, scratching himself occasionally, while the other was much younger and looked distressed and nervous. The chain was just long enough for him to sit on a branch, but in that position he was unable to move his head at all, it must have been very uncomfortable, close to torture. They both looked quite mad to be honest and I figured that tying such intelligent creatures so tightly to a tree for year after year must just make them crazy.

'My monkeys!' said Jugah.

More of Jugah's pets! I didn't want to say anything at first but later I had to ask him:

'Why are they on such short chains?'

'Oh, you can't trust them on long chains!' he said, implying that the monkeys were a pair of villains.

'But they need to exercise,' I said, 'it's not good for them if they can't exercise.'

Jugah laughed out loud, he thought it was hilarious! He laughed some more and told his brother who joined in the laughter. They must have thought I was crazy!

'No I'm serious, you should put them on longer chains so they can exercise.'

They just continued to laugh, it must have seemed like the strangest thing they'd ever heard to have compassion for a monkey! At that I decided to drop the subject, it was not my place to tell these people how to behave, and I doubt they would take me seriously anyway.


Finally at around 11 o'clock the car arrived, it was a different driver and a different car but I didn't care, we would be on our way! I was starting to get worried because we had a long drive ahead and I didn't want to be arriving in the jungle at night time, but Jugah suggested that we should not drive all the way that day but should stay in the Penan longhouse at Long Balau, which was not far from the nomadic area.

As well as Jugah, the driver and me, in the car were also the driver's assistant and a young, fit-looking Penan called Sakaria who would act as our porter. Sakaria looked more like a male-model than a porter but Jugah had chosen him so I just had to trust that it was a good choice.

Not far out of town we stopped to buy our supplies, lots of rice, drinks, snacks and a sheet of tarpaulin to keep us dry. We had to buy everything we could possibly need for the next few days because after this shop there was nothing, just plantations and then jungle.

As soon as we left the store we entered the palm-oil plantations. I had seen palm-oil plantations before but nothing on this scale, the plantations just went on and on and on, in every direction for as far as the eye could see were identical oil palms, row after row of them. Not long ago this was all virgin rainforest and now now look at it, a monoculture that is almost devoid of all wildlife. For me it was a very high price to pay for development, to rape and ransack your own country, and turn it into one vast cash-generating machine.

After a while the oil palms got smaller, as we entered areas where they had been more recently planted, and then the most traumatic sight of all, a complete wasteland where the rainforest had been clear-felled but the oil palms had not yet been planted. Dead skeletons of trees dotted a landscape of churned-up, orange-brown soil, not a shred of greenery was to be seen anywhere, it was like a nuclear bomb had been dropped. What must the Penan from the jungle think when they first come upon a sight like this?

We drove down into a valley where a bridge made from huge logs spanned a river, then up the other side and suddenly we were in the jungle. The silent desolation was replaced by the familiar chirruping sound of cicadas and an eagle soared overhead as if in welcome.

The endless oil-palms had given way to endless jungle, a chaotic tangle that spread to the horizon in every direction in ridge after ridge of thickly forested slopes.

But this was not virgin rainforest. The logging road that we were driving along was testament to that, as were the logging vehicles we passed by and the logging roads branching out from our path in every direction.

This was secondary forest, which meant that every single large and valuable tree had already been taken by the loggers, who would be returning one day to claim the rest of the trees and possibly clear-fell the whole area for palm-oil.

Nevertheless the jungle was dense, and as I stared out towards the distant ridges I could get a sense of the endless Borneo rainforest of old.


Our driver drove like a man possessed, ploughing through the mud and slowing down for nothing, avoiding logging trucks, potholes and fallen rocks until, in a surprisingly short amount of time, he pulled over by the side of the road.

'We walk from here,' said Jugah.

'Are you sure?' I said, 'Where are we?'

We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by jungle.

'Just down the hill,' said Jugah, 'not far!'

We hauled our bags off the car and told the driver to meet us back here in three days time. As he drove away our situation dawned on me. We were stuck in the jungle, miles from anywhere, and we had to trust that our driver would remember to come back for us in three days time, weather and mechanical breakdowns permitting!

I was nervous, but I had the Penan with me, masters of the jungle, so what did I have to fear?

Jugah led the way, followed by Sakaria and me, and we set off down a slope to the right. Jugah insisted that the car was not able to drive down here but it didn't look that steep to me and I cursed our driver for making us walk.

At the bottom of the hill we came to a house on the right, it was made of wood but quite modern-looking. Jugah greeted the people there and then we continued down the road which ended abruptly when it came to a river.

'There used to be a bridge here,' Jugah said, but the bridge was long-gone so we had to wade across.

Luckily the river was not too broad or deep so we were soon climbing the bank on the far side, walking up the hill and approaching a huge longhouse.

It was probably the biggest longhouse I had ever seen, it was several hundred metres long and occupied solely by Penan people who had been relocated from the jungle, but despite it's impressive size it was not shown on any maps.

The logging company had built the longhouse as compensation for taking the forest from the Penan, and ironically many Penan now worked for the logging companies.

'Was it a good thing that they built this longhouse for you?' I asked Jugah.

'It was a bad thing,' he replied sullenly.

As we made our way around the longhouse some of the Penan peered over the verandah at us. I felt rather self-conscious as I heard one of them mutter the words 'Orang Putih!' ('White man'), I guessed that they didn't get many foreigners around here!

We climbed the long steps up the front of the longhouse and were greeted by the headman, Tebaran Siden, a normal, fairly affluent-looking middle-aged guy dressed in shorts. He led us inside and we sat down on the floor mats to drink coffee and eat fruit.

As luck would have it there was another headman visiting the longhouse at the time who sat down and joined us. His name was Asik Nyelit and he was also middle-aged but very fit-looking with a characterful face that was always smiling. He wore Ali-Baba style silk pants and lots of bracelets made from rattan.

After a while we were joined by more people as everyone seemed to want to know what was going on, and then a very shaky old man entered. He looked very fragile and I couldn't help thinking that had this been England he would have been shut away in an old people's home, tucked up in a blanket and slippers being served cocoa by a disinterested nurse. But we weren't in England, we were in Borneo and this guy was an old Penan chieftain.

His name was Siden Jemelek and he was the father of the current chief Tebaran. As he crouched down next to me I took in his outfit. He was dressed in traditional chawat (loin-cloth) and was wearing large amounts of bracelets and leg bands as well as a collection of gaudy beaded necklaces, but apart from that he naked and covered in tattoos. He wore the traditional Penan 'mullet' hairstyle and had long, distended earlobes.

At first I thought he was senile as he gazed around dementedly and no-one paid him any attention, but soon he started joining in the conversation and smiling and I realised that I had misjudged him.

The Penan didn't seem to mind having their photos taken and seemed to quite enjoy it, but it was dark inside the longhouse so I asked if we could go outside. With great difficulty Siden got up and was led outside. We crossed the verandah but Siden seemed very apprehensive about climbing down the steps at the front of the longhouse and had to be helped down very slowly.

'How old is he?!' I wondered.

I was beginning to regret putting the old man through so much trouble and told them that it wasn't important, but they seemed determined now to have their photos taken so I couldn't stop them!

So there they were perched on the steps to the longhouse, two chiefs, one ex-chief and a very traditional looking old guy called Braok, proud representatives of the Penan people.

We all headed back inside after that and sat there eating kembayau fruit, and there seemed to be an endless supply of it! Each time we finished one batch Tebaran's wife would dish out some more. The fruit was black and about the size of a small plum or very large grape. It had been left in hot water to soften the thin, hard skin which simply split open when you pressed it. You then had to remove the large stone and suck the soft, yellow, fibrous flesh away from the skin which took some practice as I made a complete mess of it at first getting it all over my fingers, but after a while I got into the swing of it, squeezing out the flesh, sucking and talking as the skins and stones were discarded in large piles.

After filling up with fruit I wandered down to the Seridan river with Jugah and a couple of the children, crossing over a water-logged football field on the way. The river flowed through an idyllic spot surrounded by lush jungle and dotted with little islands of smooth boulders. It was an extremely peaceful and relaxing place to hang out without a care in the world.

I went to bed early that evening, it had been a tiring day, but sleeping in the longhouse was not so easy. The floor was very hard and there was a constant coming and going of people as the room that I was sleeping in seemed to act as a corridor to the kitchen, every time someone walked past the floorboards would creak and the room would shake.

The cicadas were very loud too but eventually I got off to sleep, only to be awoken the middle of the night by a very noisy and pathetic sounding kitten wailing a few feet away from my head. I tried everything to shut it up but every time I tried to chase it away it just hid and started wailing again. Eventually I managed to chase it out the door and lock it out.

'Stupid cat!' said Jugah.

I managed a couple more hours of fitful sleep before the cockerels started! It was long before dawn and still pitch black outside.

'Stupid cockerels!' I thought.


In the morning it was raining. Heavy, heavy rain that just went on and on and on. How could the ground absorb so much rain? Where did it all go?

Jugah told me that the roads would be bad, so we would have to wait until the afternoon before we could continue our journey.

'Are you sure that the roads will be dry by this afternoon?' I asked, unable to believe it, but Jugah seemed confident.

'No problem,' he said.

Again, where did it all go?

We went to the kitchen to have breakfast, the kitchen was housed in a small outbuilding attached to the back of the longhouse, they didn't cook in the main longhouse itself due to the risk of fire.The headman's wife, Singin Awit, was preparing the food for us in a very primitive-looking kitchen with an open fire.

We were treated to noodles, tapioca leaves and sticky rice steamed inside palm leaves as well as more coffee and kembayau fruit.

As I gazed around the room I noticed some interesting items tucked away beside all the modern paraphernalia: some Borneo peacock feathers, a couple of pairs of antlers from samber deer from which were suspended a collection of plastic carrier bags, and some intricately woven rattan baskets.

After breakfast I sat chatting on the verandah with Jugah and some of the Penan, we had to talk loudly due to the constant thrumming of the rain on the tin roof. I took the opportunity to ask Jugah a few questions about the Penan language.

I had heard that in hunter-gatherer languages they don't tend to have words for groups of animals, such as 'monkeys' and 'deer' like we have, but that instead every single species of animal has a unique name. I knew that in Borneo there were several species of monkeys, including long-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, red leaf monkey and grey leaf monkey so I asked him about those and he confirmed that every species has a different name (kuyak, medok, kelasih and nyakit respectively). They don't tend to see the similarities between creatures as we do and put them into groups.

'So you don't have a word for monkey?' I asked.

'Yes, it's kaan kebau' Jugah replied.

I was suspicious about this.

'What does “kaan” mean?' I asked.

'Animal,' replied Jugah.

'And “kebau”?'

'It means “top of trees not come down”,' he replied.

'You mean canopy – canopy animal?'


I thought about this: 'But can that also apply to squirrels?' I asked.

At first Jugah said 'no' but after consulting with another Penan he agreed that it could refer to a squirrel, or any 'canopy animal' for that matter.

'So you don't have a word for “monkey” after all!'

It was a problem I was to encounter several times on this trip, to get to the truth about their language, and consequently the way they viewed the world, I would have to dig deep and be persistent, and not just take everything they said at face value.

As we sat on the verandah and talked the rain slowly died down and eventually stopped. As it did so I noticed Asik wandering by with a huge, intricately-woven, rattan backpack on. Following him were a woman and some children similarly attired. As they wandered off away from the longhouse I asked Jugah where they were going.

'Oh, they're nomads,' he said, 'just wandering around.'

Nomads! This is what I had come here to see! There were nomads here all along and Jugah didn't even tell me!

I rushed to grab my camera and chase after them, but by the time I had reached the river on the far side of the longhouse they had already forded it and I just managed to glimpse them melting away into the jungle, never to be seen again.

'Damn!' I thought.

'Don't worry,' said Jugah when I got back, 'later we see real nomads. Asik is not real nomad, only travelling.'

I later found out that Asik was the headman of the Penan who lived by the river Ubong in Mulu national park. He was a minor celebrity among the Penan having appeared in several documentaries and books in his younger days when he lived in a very traditional way.

The rain had stopped but the roads were still water-logged so there was more waiting-around to be done before we could be on our way. Birdwing butterflies were settling on the ground outside, lapping up the moisture from the rains, while fine-looking cockerels were proudly declaring their manhood “Cock-a-doo-o-ooo!”, “Look-at-me-e-ee!”, “I-am-here-e-ere!”, “I-am-big-and-strong!”

'Yeah but could you just shut up about it for a minute?'

Having nothing else to do Jugah took me for a tour of the longhouse.

[To be continued...]

Copyright © 2009 Robert H Taylor