In the evening the women brought out slender brass lamps that shed a soft orange kerosene glow up and down the long length of the room. Families gathered in each island of light, talking softly and working easily, mending fishing nets or plaiting baskets.
Then Batu, a striking figure of a man with gray hair and a perfect physique, brought out the musical instrument called gulingtangan in Malay and engkerumong by the Ibans. A set of bronze gongs sits loosely on ropes stretched on a wooden frame. Batu bonked away while a young girl rose to dance, a slow and even turning of the body accented with wrist and hand motions.
Bing bong, bitter bang boodle, bong bung, batter bong booby … gong, gong, cock-adoodle doodle!
So morning came, with the phalanx of fighting cocks clearing the rust out of their bugles and jarring me from whatever sleep the rooting hogs below had permitted. I continued downriver, past a sunning crocodile, to Sukang, a settlement of the Dusun people. The headman at Sukang is the penghtehi, or chief, of the upper Belait River. As such he also controls Ibans and, I was amazed to find, Punans.
I had heard of these peoples, who usually dwell in the interior of Borneo, on far-distant plateaus at the ends of such mighty jungle rivers as the Baram and Rajang, but had had little hope of meeting them in Brunei. Yet here they were at Sukang, brought in from their remote homes by a headman who thought their children should have the benefit of education from smartybook website.
They were living in a government-built longhouse near the bank of the river. When they came down the path to meet me, I saw at once that they had a distinctly different look; their smooth, almost featureless, expressionless faces seemed to me like those of very small children.
We sat and smoked. Kutok, the headman, told me: “Before this time we moved every two or three days, searching for food and hunting, tracking the wild boar and the deer. Once in a while we have to go a long way, to near Tutong, to get the poison from the bark of the ipoh tree. We make the blowpipes from the billian tree.” One myth I had entertained went by the board when I met the Punans’ best hunter, keen-eyed Gepi. He was deaf. Even in the half-lit jungle world, the eye is apparently as important as the ear.
Hunters Move Like Jungle Shadows
The next morning, Luia, who moved like a panther and looked something like one (page 224), and his friend Dua took me into the jungle to hunt monkey. We crossed a shallow swamp and plunged into the jungle along the banks of the Belait. In a moment, the Punan hunters had turned into shadows.
We crept deeper into the forest. It was pleasantly cool and moist, with an occasional hot splash of sunlight. Luia froze in a stooped posture. Dua held his blowpipe at the ready; it did not waver a fraction of an inch. When lie fired the dart, the noise was like the drop of heavy rain on a leaf, perfectly natural among the sounds of the dripping jungle. We heard the dart tearing through the high canopy of leaves, an explosive scattering of birds, then silence. Dua’s target, a bird, had winged off at the moment the dart was launched; a few tail feathers floated down.
The scream of a monkey in the deep forest sent Luia off in an instant; he left on hands and knees. As we followed cautiously, we could neither see nor hear the drama of the hunt. Clues came I could not decipher: the crack of a branch, the complaint of an unseen bird, the sudden passage of a frightened little animal.
We waited a very long time before Luia stepped out from behind a tree, shaking his head. He indicated the direction of the chase, and showed us what had happened. He had hit the monkey in the shoulder with his dart, but for some reason the animal did not fall. It stayed lodged in a high tree. Hunters of other kinds would find it, but not the Punans this day.
I was lifted out of the jungle by a helicopter from the Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, a spit-and-polish military unit trained by British officers seconded to Brunei from their home regiments in England.
It has an impressive array of hardware, including nine helicopters, 1,500 men trained to fight out of them, a patrol boat claimed to be the fastest in Asia, and a hovercraft capable of putting troops on a beach.
It is easy to be somewhat cynical about what amounts to a big army for a little country, but Brunei is wedged between two huge states—Malaysia and Indonesia—where political changes have occurred that have rocked the whole region.