`This is our guest house. We use it for storing our enemies' heads,' he said, smiling. We smiled back

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The Independent Travel
Michael was being very polite. "Hi," he said, opening his arms to encompass the wide wooden hut. "This is our guest house. We use it for storing our enemies' heads, which you can see drying above the fire there ..." He paused, giving us time to take in the four shrivelled skulls hanging from the ceiling.

"When we went on expedition, everyone would be killed," he continued. "And our enemies' house would be burnt to the ground."

"Oh." He smiled. And we smiled back.

Michael is from the Bidayuh tribe, which accounts for 10 per cent of Sarawak's population and which, until a hundred years ago, was renowned for piracy and headhunting. He was showing us around the Bidayuh area of the Cultural Village at Damai, west Sarawak, which is an 18-acre "living museum", Sarawak's answer to the Sealed Knot, or the Civil War museums in America where the public can ask questions about mid-19th century life from costumed actors. Only the Cultural Village is better in that the tribespeople who show you around have, by and large, been brought up in the types of houses you are in, and are living there now.

So we learnt that a whole Bidayuh village would traditionally live in a longhouse, a long, raised wooden bungalow which would be shared with up to 250 other families, each with a room of their own and with access to the shared porch. Michael and his family live in the room next door to the one his wife showed us round, demonstrating how a large rock and a vine are ingeniously used as a safety door.

"Look," she said. "When I lift this out of here ..." The door was pulled closed, with the rock acting as counterweight. "It shuts, see? It's very good for stopping the children running around and getting bitten by snakes." She led us through to the porch - where grandma was demonstrating the grinding of rice flour from two large hardwood logs - telling us what the day-to-day life of the headhunter is all about.

For the men, it's a great deal about tattoos. And it's about having a six-foot blowpipe with which to go shooting orang-utans. For the women, it's children, cooking, washing, weaving - and egging the men on to further heroics. "A young man was not considered worth marrying if he hadn't taken a head," Michael had said. And the boys were kicked out of the main building at puberty to sleep in the guest house until they had so proven themselves.

A further benefit of the Cultural Village is that you don't have to travel hundreds of miles by Land Rover and dug-out canoe to go tribe-bothering: you can do it here just 30 minutes in an air-conditioned coach from Sarawak's capital, Kuching. And the people you are intruding on are earning money by telling you about themselves, and can make extra cash from selling handicrafts.

The day we visited, though, it was quiet. The nearby Holiday Inn was raffling a Volvo in the hotel lobby and Edmund, an Iban tribesman, hadn't sold anything. "Used to be," he said ominously, "if three of you come in here, three die. If four come in, four die." He thought for a short while. "Now we don't hunt heads, we hunt money. And it's much less fun." Then he laughed.