TUTONG – Deep in the jungles of Kg Bukit Udal lies a traditional Dusun house, built as a reminder of a bygone era when the rural indigenous community still lived off the land.
Situated on an islet inside a small lagoon, the house was built in 2010 as an architectural replica of traditional Dusun homes called Alai Gayoh, which literally translates to large or great house.
The house holds the memories of 78-year-old Benson Tunggong, an elder of the Dusun community.
The secluded site was once frequented by researchers studying the surrounding mature forests, but Benson now hopes to turn it into a homestay he can share with outsiders.
Known as Homestay Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau, the house belies a deep history of the Dusun community in Kg Bukit Udal.
History behind the house
Benson, referred to by many as Cikgu Benson after working as a teacher for decades, says the lagoon where the house was built has a history that stretches back two centuries.
“This place has a history that’s significant to our people, it’s something that we will always remember,” he says.
“It happened about 200 years ago. A disease broke out in the area. Although the stories from the elders vary, one thing that remained the same was Yajung.”
According to village elders, in the late 1800s a Dusun man named Yajung led two families, including his own, to the small body of water where the homestay is located today.
The village locals now refer to the site as Luagan Yajung, after the man who protected his family from disease by bringing them to the tiny islet.
The two families stayed for more than two months. “They lived off of what the lagoon and the surrounding forests provided, never straying too far away from the site, which is a testament of their resolve, and the resolve of our people.”
Benson says Yajung was one of the first people to discover the secluded islet, which proved to be a bountiful location for the Dusun people.
“We named the homestay Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau after the small island Yajung lived on to keep his family safe. We chose this site for tourism because we wanted to share this piece of our history with others.”
A relic of the Dusun way of life
Built on stilts using several types of timber from the surrounding forest, the Alai Gayoh homestay is only accessible via a wooden footbridge that extends to the centre of the lagoon, just wide enough for a single-file line.
Entering the house, Benson explains how spaces in the single-room structure are segregated by different elevations in the flooring.
The serambi, the area nearest to the entrance, has the lowest elevation. In contrast, the sirang is located in the centre of the room with the highest elevation.
The different levels represent the various statuses within a traditional Dusun group, often divided based on age and experience.
Whereas the serambi was used as a space for Dusun youth to congregate, the sirang was regarded as a place of honour.
“[The sirang] was where the guest of honour would sit during important events such as weddings. The elders would also be seated around the sirang to engage one another in conversation while being served sireh (betel) leaf and pinang (areca nut) in a celapa (brass betel box).”
Each component of the house holds its own significance – from the timber pillars called madang sisik, believed to ward off lightning strikes; to the angkap, a mezzanine floor used to shelter young Dusun women from any unwanted male attention.
For Benson, the homestay is more than just a relic of the old Dusun way of life, but a symbol that represents the continuation of indigenous culture.
“There is no single design for the Alai Gayoh because it depends on the needs of the specific Dusun household.
“The homestay’s design is based on our community that lived near rivers and lakes so our houses evolved around these landscapes. For Dusun communities who lived in hilly terrains, theirs were designed differently,” he says.
Building a homestay worth remembering
As the eleventh out of 14 children, Benson grew up helping his parents out around the house – whether it was foraging for food in the jungle, or helping his father collect materials to build their own home, one that needed to be rebuilt or renovated every 10 years due to wood rot.
“We spent most of our time in the jungle. I remember as a child and up until I was a teen, my father and I would spend almost every afternoon looking for different types of timber that would be suitable for our Alai Gayoh.
“He taught me everything I know, from the materials used to the construction methods. Everything was done by hand.”
Benson chuckles as he recalls the hurdles they encountered building their own Alai Gayoh – the fatigue that comes with felling trees with handheld axes, and the challenge of transporting logs through the jungle using buffaloes.
“It wasn’t the easiest way to live, but it taught me a lot.”
This personal history played an important role when it came to building the Alai Gayoh homestay.
Benson laments that the old way of life has either been lost or ignored by the younger Dusun generation. None of his own children have shown interest in learning traditional crafts and skills, he adds.
“This is what we are worried about. I am old. I’m losing energy and I’m not sure who will continue this homestay when we, the older generation, are no longer here.
“Which is why the homestay is important for us, it’s built out of our own memories to remind this generation that we were here, and this is how we lived.”
HOW TO GET THERE: Despite its remote location, the homestay is easily accessible and just over an hour’s drive from the capital. Take the Muara-Tutong Highway to the Tutong district and along the way you will see an exit for Bukit Udal. Turn off into Jalan Bukit Udal and drive until you reach a sign that says ‘Nak Pulau Bukit Kukub’. Visitors can make bookings by calling Cikgu Benson at 4242414.