Southeast Asia: Encounter with a headhunter, a bogus bump at the Equator

Views of Mt. Kinabalu, highest mountain in Southeast Asia, are about a two-hour bus ride into the national park from the cruise ship port at Kota Kinabalu in the state of Saba, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.
Views of Mt. Kinabalu, highest mountain in Southeast Asia, are about a two-hour bus ride into the national park from the cruise ship port at Kota Kinabalu in the state of Saba, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.

One of the advantages of cruising to ports of distinctly foreign cultures is the opportunity to stretch your comfort zone, the level at which you function with ease and familiarity.

The result is that you can experience both worlds — soft adventures of exploration off the ship during the day, then basic vacation necessities, such as a fine meal and a comfy bed, back onboard for the evening.

All of the above came into play during a recent cruise in Southeast Asia, where I walked in the woods of Borneo with a headhunter, unintentionally insulted the Sultan of Brunei, and ceremoniously crossed the Equator at sea.

The head-hunting mystique of Borneo certainly aroused the curiosity of about 30 passengers from the Crystal Symphony, when we met a man whose family once carried a reputation for severing heads from the bodies of vanquished foes.

We were on a 12-night voyage from Singapore to Bali, by way of a double overnight in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and ports on the islands of Borneo and Java. We had booked a full day tour from the port of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, expecting a knowledgeable guide for our trek in the forest of Kinabalu National Park.

Kinabalu is Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site, known for 1,200 species of orchids and numerous carnivorous plants. This island is one of the last places of the world to be fully explored, and many tribal residents cling to their old ways. Some are fishermen, some rice growers. In more remote areas, some still are hunter/gatherers, men who once were fierce warriors, displaying their prowess by toting around skulls of victory.

To our delight, the tour guide, James, was a member of the headhunter tribe.

“You have nothing to worry about,” he said. “My tribe has not severed a head in about 50 years [actually, since 1963]. We still know how to do it,” he said, if they were so inclined, which they are not. Besides, headhunters never picked on common folk such as travelers from a cruise ship.

“We didn’t sneak up on people and slice their head off,” he said. Anyone who lost his head would have known about the consequences of losing a battle to a headhunter. The skulls, he said, were a badge of honor.

The forest still is James’ primal world. He was a fount of information about how to survive, using plants for food and medicine. He showed us examples of nutrition and poison as we walked several trails. To supplement his hunting income, James, 52, works as a tour guide, as well as a mentor, he said, to coddled children.

As an expert hunter to feed his family, James uses a blowgun. Sometimes, he said, his most difficult hunting task is carrying home his fresh kill from the deep woods, without vehicles or pack animals or roads. Occasionally, he said, he carries his kill home in the old way, cutting an animal into chunks that are fed to his dogs, which swallow but do not chew the meat. They hurry home, where he pushes the meat back out, carves away the portion ruined by the dogs’ digestive juices, and stows it in his freezer for future meals.

That image was out of our comfort zone, as was an excursion the next day in the fascinating sultanate of Brunei, where extracting oil from the earth has made the Sultan and many of his subjects rich. The Sultan’s primary palace reportedly has 1,788 rooms, none of which was included on a tour.

The Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, age 68 this year, holds every major political position in Brunei, and he selects the rest of the heads of state and village mayors. This minister of everything and man of many titles also determines how people may act, what they may say and what they may listen to, or watch. Kissing or hugging or violent communication are prohibited on local television (which may explain the satellite dishes on many roofs).

No one in Brunei may say anything that is rude. What is rude? It is whatever the Sultan says it is. I did not meet the Sultan but I ran smack into his law that forbids negative comments about him, which is why whispering is not allowed. Who knows what you might be saying if you whisper? My wife and I made a foreigner’s faux pas by talking quietly while we were touring a museum. “Is there something wrong,” asked a guide as he hurriedly approached us to stop the whispering.

That evening, safely back on the Crystal Symphony, cruising toward the Indonesian island of Java, the ship slipped over the Equator as we slept.

“Didn’t you feel the bump,” asked the cruise director the next morning at a meeting called to honor passengers who were crossing the Equator for the first time by sea. (These days, flying from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere is no big deal.)

Some cruisers, he said, expect a fence or a speed bump at the Equator, and most ships conduct a hokey ceremony during which first-time crossers, or “pollywogs,” are tossed into the swimming pool to celebrate the event. Pleased to escape any juvenile antics, I gladly accepted my certificate.

Such cruising possibilities — a headhunter proficient with a blowgun, a supreme sultan who outlaws whispering, and pollywogs crossing the Equator — make great grist for story-telling at home.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of