Book – Espresso with the Headhunters

Some years ago I had the chance to visit the world-famous Mulu Caves of Sarawak. The caves are located deep inside the jungles of the Gunung Mulu National Park: virgin rainforests covering more than 52,000 hectares, which, if you ask any proud Sarawakian, will tell you that are they are older than the Amazon’s, and are the largest in area in Malaysia. The national park’s claim to fame, among others, is that it has a number of record breaking caves: the world’s largest cave passage (Deer Cave); the world’s largest natural chamber (Sarawak Chamber); and the longest cave in Southeast Asia (Clearwater Cave). A lesser known fact about Mulu though, is that the heartlands are the home for several indigenous people of Sarawak: Penan, Berawan, Kelabit, and Murut. The Muruts, together with several other Sarawak tribes such as the Kayan, Kenyah and Iban, until recently, were fierce headhunters.

I enjoyed my somewhat-abbreviated adventures in exploring the several caves then, and did meet with a few Ibans — the modern kind, I must inform with great regret. I also did which for me was a new experience: going to a karaoke bar by riding a longboat, including negotiating one rapids on the way. Par for the course, I guess, for a place fast losing its old character to burgeoning modernisation.

John Wassner’s book — Espresso with the Headhunters: A Journey Through the Jungles of Borneo is a engaging story of his travels and adventures deep in Sarawak’s rainforests where he made friends with many of the indigenous tribes. Great read, especially if you like Wassner — a burnout modern city slicker that just wanted to get away from it all.


Pride of place is naturally taken up by the parangs which, aside from their fundamental head-lopping function, are works of art in their own right. Their sheaths and handles are elaborately carved from bone in rich Kayan patterns. The metal blades are engraved with a variety of designs that are said to provide strong spiritual powers. And sprouting out from the top of the handles, bunches of human hair (or, more recently, monkey hair) make an unmistakable statement about their original intended use.

‘Have you used any of these, Uncle?’

Embarrassed silence, followed by a diplomatic answer.

‘These are mine,’ he points at several swords, ‘this one from my father. And this, my grandfather.’

I persist and re-phrase my question.

‘How many have taken heads?’

He looks at me quizzically. ‘Maybe all.’ Subject dropped.


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