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5 ways Sarawakians used to measure distance in the olden days

“One of the most difficult things in this world is to find out from a Dyak the distance between one place and another.”

This was what Charles Grant wrote in A Tour amongst the Dyaks of Sarawak Borneo in 1858 (1864).

According to Grant, most Dayaks would answer “Takut kabula” which means “I’m afraid of speaking untruly.”

He described their answers sometimes either “jau (far), ja-u(very far) or jau-u-u (awfully far) from the place”.

Without any knowledge of feet, meters or kilometers, how did they tell how far is a place?

Here are five ways Sarawakians used to measure distance in the olden days:
1.How many tobacco cigarettes away?

For some communities in Sarawak, one of the most common answers when asking the distance between two places was based on how many tobacco cigarettes one would smoke along the way.

Traditional tobacco cigarettes (made dried tobacco wrapped with dried banana leaves) were commonly smoked when travelling to the farm or another longhouse.

Besides to kill time, smoking these tobacco cigarettes also worked as natural insect repellent.

The only problem with this measurement was everybody smoked cigarettes at different rates. Furthermore, their cigarettes were never in the same size.

2.How many cooking pots of rice away?

According to Grant, another traditional way to tell a distance by the amount of pots to cook rice.

He wrote, “If the road is far, you will be told it is very far; if short, very short and so on. Their wars of reckoning, too are original. You are told you have gone one, or so many divisions, and have so many more to go; or that you will have to eat rice so many times between such and such a place.

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“You are occasionally told you are so many cooking (or boiling) of rice from your destination (a cooking of rice maybe reckoned thirty or forty minutes).”

3.The sun position in the sky

Anglican bishop William Chalmers in 1859 pointed out as the Dayaks had no notion of dividing time into hours, their methods of reckoning distances were rather original.

One of the ways was, “To point to certain place in the heavens and say they can reach their destination when the sun is there.”

What do you think how far is that island according to the olden day’s measurement?
4.Is your hair dry yet?

Henry Ling Roth recorded in The Native of Sarawak and British North Borneo (1896) that the Sea Dayaks had a unique way to tell the distance.

“Short distances are described by arriving at such a place before the hair has had time to dry,” he stated.

5.Half a day or a day?

Here was and still is a common way to measure distance. It was either you would arrive at that place in a half a day or a day’s journey.

Besides these, do you know other ways Sarawakians used to measure distance back in the days? Leave them in the comment box.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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