Tag Archives: Kalimantan Tengah

Reog, kuda lumping and Dayak dances

Early on the morning of the 9th of March, a total eclipse of the sun was experienced across parts of Kalimantan, including right where we were living near Tangkiling. To mark the occasion, a series of dance performances were staged at Rungan Sari.


There were traditional and contemporary performances, from Kalimantan and Java – reflecting the makeup of the community – and it was spectacular.


But the eclipse itself was less-than-spectacular, though still interesting. We got up early, just as a big thunderstorm arrived, and it proceeded to rain heavily for the next couple of hours. But we went anyway to Bukit Tangkiling (Tangkiling Hill). As the rain eased off then finally stopped, we scrambled up the steep but mercifully brief path to the summit, where around 200 other hopeful eclipse-viewers were assembled.


We responsibly put on our very cool cardboard-and-plastic eclipse glasses, but the sun stubbornly remained behind clouds as the shadow of the moon caused it to disappear and the early morning became eerily dark for several minutes. But behind our high-tech fashion accessory glasses, we couldn’t see a thing, so we reluctantly discarded them. At least the rain stayed away, and the shared sense of occasion was kind of fun. We’ve kept the glasses for next time…


A couple of hours after the gerhana matahari, we were at the Muhammad Subuh Centre at Rungan Sari as the dance performances commenced. Far from being eclipsed, the sunlight had become very intense and the day was scorching hot. While a small audience sheltered in the shade of the MSC building, the poor dancers sweltered out in the intense equatorial sunshine.


The first piece we saw was commissioned for and about the eclipse. It was choreographed in a contemporary way, but with strong traditional references throughout. It also made creative use of the landscape features of the venue – in particular the large fountain in front of the MSC. Sometimes the dancers paused motionless like garden statues (or perhaps like cormorants drying their wings!)


The next performance was a kuda lumping dance. In this Javanese dance, finely dressed warriors astride 2-dimensional hobby horses engage in mock battles and whip-cracking. The tradition of kuda lumping performance is very old, and its origins and specific meanings are now disputed and somewhat obscure, but there is always an aura of magic around it, especially when performers go into a state of trance.

The tradition is still very much alive in Java, and is carried on in the villages of Central Kalimantan by the many thousands of Javanese transmigrants who now live in KalTeng.


The acrobatics of the performers was sometimes quite breathtaking.


Unlike the kuda lumping shows that we had previously attended (e.g. here and here, none of the performers went into a state of trance. Rather, it was a very professional show put on by a well-rehearsed troupe of dancers.


This was followed by a large-scale Dayak dance drama, with a very big troupe of finely attired performers.

There were ‘pastoral’ scenes of bucolic village life.


There were dramatic battle scenes with sinister topeng-masked demons (Spoiler alert: Eventually, Good triumphs over Evil).


And there was a spectacular set-piece grand finale.


All the performers, along with many of the people most responsible for putting the show together, gathered for group photographs, and to receive the acclamation of the audience.


And then, when we thought it was all over, the Reog Ponorogo performance began…

This dance originates, as the name would suggest, from the town (now a city) of Ponorogo, in East Java, which sits in between the volcanoes of Gunung Lawu and Gunung Ngliman. Like the kuda lumping, its origins are ancient and somewhat uncertain, though it appears to have arisen in the 15th Century, towards the end of the era of the Majapahit kings.


In fact, one part of the Reog performance, know as the jathilan, looks very much like kuda lumping, with dancers mounted on woven bamboo hobby horses. The jathilan dancers are now almost always young women, though in the past these roles were always performed by boys aged around 12 – 15 years.

The parang rusak motif on the girls’ batik cloth is actually not from Ponorogo, but is unique to Jogjakarta in Central Java.


There are many different variations of the Reog Ponorogo performance, and several contending explanations of its origin and meaning. However, the broad synopsis of the Reog Ponorogo story is that in an ancient time, the king of Ponorogo (named Klono Sewandono) was travelling east to the town of Kediri to seek a bride (the Princess Songgo Langit). But on the way he encounters trouble in the form of the Singa Barong, a magical beast with the head of a lion, and a large fans of peacock feathers (or possibly an entire peacock) on top. Fighting ensues.

Bujang Ganong (the hairy red-faced fellow with oversized teeth on the left of the photo above) is the King’s messenger and ambassador. He is nimble, witty, and fiercely loyal to the King. His comic performances and interactions with the members of the audience has ensured that he is a crowd favourite, especially with children. Apparently he used to be only a minor character in the Reog, but since the 1980s he has become more central, and now usually has a long and quite acrobatic role.


The massive and ornate mask of the Singa Barong can weigh 20 or 30 kilograms, and the performer (known as a Warok) holds it in place with his teeth! To perform this role, the Warok must possess reserves of both physical strength and spiritual power. This latter power is obtained (in part) by reining in the passions – for food, drink and lust for women – and a married Warok is expected to refrain from sexual relations with his wife.

The Warok have a special, independent and highly respected place in Ponorogo society, and are regarded as possessing magical powers. They had some (perceived or real) connection to the Partai Komunis Indonesia, and large number of warok were killed during the ‘anti-communist’ massacres of 1965-6.

Traditionally, a Warok would retain one or more of the boys who perform the jathilan dance as members of his household (known as gemblakan). This Warok-gemblakan relationship is a ‘special’ one, based on mutual love and mentoring of the gemblakan – and it is also openly sexual in nature. (Interestingly however, the relationship is not regarded as homosexual, and Ponorogo parents will be proud if their son becomes a gemblakan). Gender roles and relationships in Indonesia are often more complex than they at first seem!

But in recent years, social mores have changed to become generally more more uniform and more conservative across the country. The jathilan is now most commonly performed by young women – who do not have such a ’special’ relationship with the warok, and do not reside in his household. The Reog Ponorogo itself has also shed many of its magical overtones. It has become much more purely a performance for entertainment – at festivals, and as an adjunct to weddings and circumcision ceremonies.


In the course of battle with the Singa Barong, the Bujang Ganong character made some great acrobatic moves.


In the end, the Singa Barongs (there were two of them in this performance) were defeated – though whether by battle or by sheer exhaustion was not clear. One of the warok performers seemed physically distressed at times, and had to pause in his performance to drink water, and had to be tended by the director or helpers of the dance troupe (though apparently such interruptions are a common occurrence in Reog shows).

The performance was great entertainment, and impressive simply as spectacle. But, like so many cultural displays and cultural objects in Indonesia, a closer examination reveals it to operate in a number of dimensions in addition to the ‘merely visible’ – historical, political, magical/religious, and social/sexual. And we thought it was just a dance event!

It was certainly fascinating, and we plan to see further performances, as reog troupes are now found throughout Indonesia, and in a number of other countries also. We hope one day to make a visit to Ponorogo to view one of the performances held in the main square every full moon, or (even better!) for the annual Festival Reog Ponorogo.


Festival Kampung Buntoi 2016

Last month we had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Festival Kampung Buntoi (Buntoi Village Festival). We travelled there in company with Pak Wondo, his wife Ibu Tata and son Andi. Buntoi is Ibu Tata’s home village, and we stayed at the home of her aunt and uncle.


We were only there for two days of the 3-day festival, but we had a great time. We had many interesting encounters and experiences (as we always seem to do), and saw some impressive and unique dance, music and theatre performances. Some of the outrageous costumes (such as these ones worn by dancers from the Sanggar Marajaki group ) alone were worth the journey.


Buntoi is a village of 2,500 people,attractively located on the banks of the Kahayan River, about two and a half hours downstream from where we were living at Sei Gohong (on the Rungan River). The Kahayan is a big wide river down there, and although Buntoi is just across the river from the district capital of Pulang Pisau, it takes nearly an hour to get there by road.

It was apparently founded around 1670, Buntoi used to be known as Petak Bahandang (meaning ‘Red Earth’). This former name came from the story about a raiding party of headhunters who were all killed by makhluk gaib (supernatural creatures protecting the village). According to the story, the villagers awoke to find the ground stained red with the blood of the would-be attackers.

The economy is based around fishing and rubber plantations, which seem to be thriving in this area in spite of the current low price of latex rubber. There are also a number of tall buildings like the one above, constructed to house the swiflets known as burung walet (Aerodramus fuciphagus). These are the birds responsible for producing the highly valuable edible birds nests. Recordings of the birds’ call are played continuously to attract them to the building.


Like all good festivals, Festival Kampung Buntoi began with a spectacular street parade, along the length of the road beside the river (which is pretty much the only road in town) and on to the festival venue. There were marching bands, people in splendid and ornate traditional Dayak costumes, event organisers and local dignitaries, and many children of the village.

The road was lined with… well Karen and I were just about the only cheering well-wishers. It WAS a treat.


There was an interesting and eclectic mixture of the traditional and the contemporary in the style in the parade participants – a blending which was to continue throughout the Festival performances.

This is great to see; Kalimantan cannot be a ‘cultural theme park’, frozen in some imagined long-gone age. The wonderful traditional warrior costumes on display at the Festival performances, are now only worn for performances, and young Dayak men can commonly be seen wearing Manchester United jerseys – but never bark vests… In fact many of these performance costumes are very contemporary reinterpretations of ‘traditional’ attire, unlike anything you can find in old photographs. They look great in photographs, but they owe more to the here-and-now than to history, and perhaps owe more to Carnivale than to Kalimantan.


The venue for the many performances of the Festival was the Rumah bambu (‘Bamboo House’), built in 2012 as a meeting hall and events venue with funding from the UNDP as part of the REDD+ (‘ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’) project. It was opened by the then Governor of Kalimantan Tengah in September 2013 as the Pusat Sarana Komunikasi Iklim (the ‘Climate Communications Facilitation Centre’).


As the only foreigners in attendance, we were (as always!) subject to a lot of (friendly) attention, and innumerable photo requests. Here’s Karen posing with event officials (that’s Pak Turai S. Deken – ‘Ko-ordinator Panitia‘ on the right) and local police officers.


Several temporary warung (foodstalls) were set up under a marquee in the field adjacent to the Festival building. We enjoyed several delicious meals there – including chicken curry, sweet and sour catfish, and chicken soup. (Note the traditional costumes worn by the local Dayak people).


The two MC’s (Chandra Intan Hakim and Ananta Nurudi Sawung) were really good – funny, relaxed, and able to ad lib freely to seamlessly fill in the gaps between the performers. At one point they called up a couple of bules (i.e. Karen and I) from the audience to talk about their impressions of the festival. We had not long arrived, so we didn’t have much to say! It was little awkward.

Intan is from Jakarta, and she has a wonderfully colourful and zany dress sense – which matches her ebullient personality. When he’s not compering festivals, Ananta is a freelance photographer who lives in Palangka Raya.


On the morning we arrived in Buntoi, we got to the performance area just as this young dance troupe (the Sanggar Palampang Tarung) were finishing, so unfortunately we didn’t get to see them perform. But they kindly agreed to pose for some photos for us.


Along with the music, dance and theatre there were also some interesting talks and Q&A sessions, on (extremely!) diverse topics. It was frustrating for us that we understood just enough to be very interested, but too little to fully comprehend what was being said by the accomplished and articulate speakers.

Dr Andang Bachtiar (l) is a geologist, former President of the Indonesian Geologists Association, and currently a member of the National Energy Council of Indonesia. He spoke about the historical and cultural implications of the geomorphology of Kalimantan and the Indonesian archipelago.

Rayhan Sudrajat (c) was largely responsible for initiating the whole Buntoi Festival, harnessing community spirit and working cooperatively with local people to make it happen. He is a both a musician and an ethnomusicologist, with wide-ranging interests (including linguistics, psychology, culture and philosophy). His eclectic musical interests range from traditional Sundanese music to the Beatles. Based in the Bandung (Java), he also operates a recording studio.

Didik Nini Thowok (r) is a dancer, mime artist, choreographer and teacher whose international career has developed the Indonesian tradition of cross-gender dance performances. His every move confirms him as a dancer – fluid, elegantly controlled gestures, no unnecessary moves. He spoke about his personal history, traditions of cross-gender dance in various other cultures – and the art of stage make-up!


Zulfikar Muhammad Nugroho has lived in various parts of East Java and Kalimantan, and now lives in Palangka Raya, where he has been a student at the Universitas Muhammadiyah.

He’s an expert player of the sape (usually called kecapi in Central Kalimantan). The sape (pronounced ’saa-pay’) can have anywhere from 2 – 5 strings, with all but the upper string usually just strummed as a harmonic drone. It may have no frets, three or many frets, and may be quite compact or up to a metre or more long. In summary, it’s form varies! But it should always be carved from a single piece of wood, with the back usually hollowed-out.


Performance sponsored by the Yayasan Permakultur Kalimantan, with Ahmad Fullah at centre stage. Their performance was about the Dayak fire management practice known as Milang Seha. Noor Julaiha was the Creative Director.


Sanggar Tingang Panunjung Tarung.


BellacoustiC Indonesia are a Palangka Raya musical group, whose goal is “creativity in music which aims to promote the customs and culture”. They certainly achieved that in their all-too-short set at Buntoi. Each one of them is a virtuoso.


Theo Nugraha performed two sets at the Festival, one solo and one with Rayhan Sudrajat (he does a lot of collaborations in his work).

He describes himself as a ‘Noise / Experimental Soundartist from Borneo’ (he’s based in Palangka Raya and Samarinda). The Village Voice reviewed one of his recordings, and described him as a ‘noise evangelist’. It’s certainly experimental sound, some of it ethereal and ambient Eno-esque, some of it collections of environmental sounds recorded in the field, and some of it a relentless grinding wall-of-noise-and-static.


A performer from Sanggar Betang Batarung, Palangka Raya.


Dancers from the wonderful Sanggar Riak Renteng Tingang, Palangka Raya


Bukung character from the Komunitas Teater Palangka Raya


Performers of the Sanggar Marajaki


Redy Eko Prastyo is a prominent musician and composer, based in Malang (Java), but he performs extensively across Indonesia (and in Europe). HIs musical style spans traditional Indonesian and jazz styles, and a fusion of the two. At Buntoi he was playing a unique, handmade electric ‘sape’. The sound, and the quality of musicianship, was lovely.


Trie Utami Sari is a very well known singer and songwriter from Bandung. Her fame with Indonesian audiences is the result of several hit recordings (as well as five albums), and for appearing as a judge on the popular TV talent show Indosiar Fantasy Academy. Her voice (seen here improvising over music of BellacoustiC) is gorgeous.


The final set on Saturday night was a something of a collaborative jam session, with a number of musicians and dancers on stage together. The music reached a crescendo full of soulful energy and warmth. It was a fitting end to wonderful series of performances.


Apart from the Rumah Bambu, Buntoi village also has another (and much older) significant building – the Rumah Adat (Traditional house).


The house was built between 1867-70 by Singa Jala, with materials (mostly kayu ulin timber) brought from Manen Paduran, which is (a long way) further upstream on the Kahayan River. Being made from ironwood, it is a very sturdy structure, but it has also benefited from some restoration work in recent years – such as new shingles for the roof. Some parts, including the rooms for the four slave families who used to live there, are no longer standing.

The current head of the family, who is a direct descendant of Singa Jala, talked to us about the history of the house, including its role as a centre of the nationalist forces during the struggle for independence from the Dutch after 1945.


Inside the betang is a fine set of gongs, and a tiny (and damaged) bronze cannon (just visible on the right of the photo above).


There are also some very nice balanga, Chinese-made ceramic jars, which are valued and treated as family heirlooms by Dayak families in Kalimantan. There were also brass spittoons (known as peludahan), brass bowls (bokor, or sangku in Bahasa Dayak Ngaju), and some old baskets made of rotan (rattan).


We also were entertained by one quite unexpected performance. During a lull in the Festival programme, we went for a drive with Wondo, Tata and Andi further south to the village of Kanamit Barat. To our surprise, there was a wedding ceremony under way at which a Kuda Lumping troupe were performing (as we have previously seen in Java at Prambanan, and in Kalimantan at Suka Mulya village in 2014 and 2015).

And just when we were marvelling at having chanced upon this ancient, mysterious and powerful Javanese trance performance in a remote(-ish) village of Central Kalimantan, a woman (Mbak Muvida) comes up to us to say that she used to work at YUM (where I was volunteering), and that she recognised us from photos on a friend’s Facebook page. Welcome back to 2016…

Poster Festival Kampung Buntoi

There’s a great short (9 minute) video on YouTube which gives a really good feel for the Festival Kampung Buntoi – and it contains samples of the wonderful dance and music performances. (It even includes a couple of quick glimpses of the bules-in-residence – see if you can spot us!)

Our thanks go out to the friendly and hospitable people of Buntoi village; to the visionary and meticulous organisers of the Festival; and of course to the creative and hugely talented performers who attended. May your talents be rewarded with career success.  Special thanks to Rayhan Sudrajat for helping me identify performers in some of the photos – but any residual errors are my responsibility!)

We left with two sincere hopes: that the inaugural Festival Kampung Buntoi may be just the first in a long and successful series of Buntoi Festivals – and that we may have the good fortune to attend again….


Danau Sembuluh

We first heard about Danau (Lake) Sembuluh and the village of Bangkal while reading the journals of the Norwegian explorer, ethnographer and naturalist Carl Lumholtz (“Through Central Borneo; an Account of Two Years’ Travel in the Land of Head-Hunters Between the Years 1913 and 1917.”). He travelled to Sembuluh almost precisely one hundred years before us. He wrote about the “attractive” lake, and wrote a little about the Dayak Tamuan people from Bangkal village.


Actually Lumholtz never quite made it up as far as Bangkal, because the water level was too low for the Dutch steamer that he was travelling in to negotiate the lake. We thought that, travelling by road, we might complete the journey for him.

We travelled in company with our dear friend Gaye and our friend and guide Berdodi Martin Samuel (a.k.a. ‘Dodi’ or ‘Bucu’). Our main reason for the six-day trip was to attend a Tiwah ceremony (Dayak Kaharingan religion funeral), which I have written about previously  (I’ve also written about some of the wonderful sapundu (funerary poles) of Bangkal village.) The Tiwah ceremonies beside Lake Sembuluh were beautiful, strange and fascinating.

But Lake Sembuluh itself, and the journey to get there, is worth a few words and pictures.

Peta Sembuluh

The Dayak village of Bangkal sits by the shore of Lake Sembuluh, the largest lake in Central Kalimantan. It’s about 300 km to the southwest of Rungan Sari in Sei Gohong village – which was our home at the time of our journey (back in mid-March).  We’d been keen to visit the area since we first came to Kalimantan, and finally got the opportunity when we heard about the upcoming Tiwah.

Above is the GPS record of our road trip.


The five-hour drive to Bangkal stretched out somewhat with several unplanned stops along the way. Here we paused at a roadside collection of Dayak sapundu (funerary poles) and sandung (mausoleums). Karen is always keen to document such fine examples of the ‘material culture’ of the Dayak Kaharingan religion.


A little further down the road we came across a rotan (rattan) processing plant. The rotan is traditionally harvested from the forests, but with the forests rapidly disappearing, it is now more likely to be produced through small-scale plantation farming. The spiny outer layer of the rotan (which is actually a variety of palm, though it resembles a vine) is stripped off at the plantation, and then the bundles are then transported here for processing. Another outer layer is removed, and the canes are treated (twice) with sulphur, which bleaches out any colour. In this photo above the sulphur is being washed off prior to drying. It smelt like brimstone.

We were assured that the shirtless boy in the photo above had already put in a full day at school before starting work in the sulphur tank…


All the rotan from this plant is sent away for making cane furniture. Most of it goes to Java, but bundles of the best quality canes (such as those above) are exported to China.


Just a few kilometres to the southwest of the main road near Kasongan is an extensive area (maybe 50 sq km?) that has been thoroughly worked over by small-scale gold miners. You can see the result on Google Earth – it’s the big white area in the satellite image. I don’t know if any remediation was attempted afterwards, but it is now a wasteland of gravelly white sand – pits and mounds –  and highly toxic (mercury-contaminated) ponds. Karen and our guide Berdodi decided against fishing or swimming there.


We stopped for a very nice lunch at Sampit – the biggest town along the road – and later walked around the newly beautified port precinct. Sampit is apparently the busiest timber port in Indonesia, and it’s also a major centre for processing of kelapa sawit (oil palm) fruit to produce Crude Palm Oil (CPO). Large numbers of yellow trucks can be seen heading to Sampit, loaded up high with the harvested oil palm fruit. We had hoped to visit one of the factories, but were unable to obtain permission (it’s difficult for foreigners…) prior to our arrival.

Outside of Kalimantan, Sampit is however best known for the kerusuhan Sampit (the ‘Sampit disturbances) of February 2001. Around 500 transmigrants from the island of Madura (and 13 Dayaks) were killed during several weeks of brutal violence, and tens of thousands of Madurese had to be evacuated from Kalimantan by Indonesian armed forces to prevent further massacres. The violence spread to other villages and cities, including Pangkalan Bun, Palangka Raya and Kuala Kapuas. It was a truly ugly episode, and one which is still fresh in the minds of the community here, since everyone over the age of 20 has memories of that time…


But fifteen years later, our biggest problem in the ‘ethnically cleansed’ town of Sampit was deciding which pineapples to buy.


We arrived in Bangkal a little before the sun set across the lake.


At the entrance to the village is a bilingual gate which spells out the values that the village aspires to – or perhaps it is a character test for visitors?


The children seemed quite pleased to meet us.


At the lakefront, a long jetty has been constructed for fishing, docking canoes, and recreational activity. We were there at the height of the wet season, and so the floor of the jetty was a little submerged.


Inundation of the jetty didn’t stop it being used. The children above are hauling a large fish trap out of the lake, from which they removed a number of (very small) fish.


Bangkal is one of the friendliest villages we have been to, and the kids – as always – were more than willing to pose for photos.


We had to wait a few days, until the Tiwah ceremonies were completed, to go out on the lake. A large number of behavioural and dietary prohibitions are enforced during the main days of the Tiwah. One of these – significant in a fishing village like Bangkal – is that you may not travel by boat.

When we did get out onto the water, we toured the northern part of the lake in a the usual klotok (canoe/longboat), with five of us sitting in a line. I got to sit up front.


A century ago, Carl Lumholtz remarked that the lake “looks attractive, though at first the forests surrounding the ladangs of the Malays are partly defaced by dead trees, purposely killed by fire in order to gain more fields.” The use of fire to clear land continues today, only on a far greater scale as the forests of Kalimantan are progressively converted to oil palm plantations.

Along most of the eastern edge of the lake, there is a thin strip of secondary forest, with the beginning of the oil palm plantations just behind. The sandy soil of the western side of the lake is not suited for cultivation of kelapa sawit, but instead is pockmarked and scarred from past gold mining, and burning to ‘clean’ the land.


So we were therefore (pleasantly) surprised to find that a moderate population of animals and birds still survive in this compromised landscape – including some large Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) like this one above.


At another part of the lake we were entertained by a pair of fighting (or courting?) Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis bubutus). These impressive large (48cm) cuckoos are found across Asia from Pakistan to southern China. In Kalimantan, they are regarded by some as a pest because they like to eat the fleshy parts of ripe oil palm fruit. I would have thought that there are more than enough oil palms to share some fruit with these beautiful birds.

They are known to the Dayak people as burring bubut (because their call sounds a bit like: “but.. but… but…”), and an oil which is extracted from the wing-bones of these birds is used as a treatment for broken bones – along with massage. This treatment was even recommended to me after my motorbike accident – but I opted for surgery.


Parts of the lake were quite beautiful, even these burnt pandanus had a starkly elegant beauty when reflected in a still patch of water.


Most houses in the district are firmly constructed on dry land, but some fishermen’s homes are built on floating platforms so they can move to different parts of the lake as conditions change between wet and dry seasons.


And then we were back to the jetty at Bangkal village, leaving the tranquillity of Danau Sembuluh for the challenges of the ‘Trans-Kalimantan Highway’ and the long journey back home.

YUM photos (Part 2)

Here’s a second set of photos from my time at the Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM – the ‘Foundation for Noble Work’). The previous set of photos were mostly about the home garden (Kebun Rumah) and associated projects of YUM Agro. This second set looks at some of the education and health activities of YUM Kalimantan, including the response to the 2015 smoke haze emergency.


One of the primary aims of the home gardens project of YUM Agro is to improve the nutritional quality of family diets through a regular supply of fresh organic vegetables. As an adjunct to this, a series of training modules have been prepared to encourage good cooking habits (e.g. reduced use of salt, MSG and oil), and the provision of balanced diets, especially for expectant mothers, babies and young children.

Classes have been held in all of the many posyandus (local health posts) in the district, with an entertaining and instructive presentation followed by hands-on cooking classes and distribution of booklets with information and recipes. There’s been dozens of these presentations so far, and all have been well attended (by women and children) and also successful.

In the photo above, Ibu Andarini is leading the discussion at the posyandu in Tumbang Tahai village.


Everyone pitches in for the group cooking session – and gets to share in the meal at the end.


The YUM sessions also provide an opportunity for district health staff to check on the health of babies, monitoring their weight and growth, and to administer vaccination shots.


YUM operates at three locations in Bukit Batu district of Central Kalimantan. Two of these are used for the Agro project. But at the third (and main) centre, in Suka Mulya village, there are vocational training facilities and a spacious and well-stocked library and after-school activity centre. There are storytime book readings, and sessions for crafts, drawing and painting, traditional dance training and games.


Towards the end of each afternoon session, the kids line up to each receive a glass of milk. This is an unusual treat for them, and they love it – and they get the benefit of a valuable protein and calcium supplement at the same time.


The after-school sessions are also an opportunity to instil some good lessons about health and hygiene – such as the best technique for cleaning your teeth!


Older kids and adults attend the many classes conducted in the various classrooms of the Vocational Training Centre. Students in the computer classes learn how to perform basic Windows tasks, as well as use of Word, Excel and even Photoshop. Students who successfully complete their courses are awarded a (much-prized!) certificate.


The sewing classes, using classic Singer machines, are also popular. Attendees learn to produce a range of items (including dresses, table, napkins, bags and purses) which are suitable for personal use or sale.


As always, children are also welcome to attend – but perhaps they do so with a little less enthusiasm than their mothers…


Other classes are held in English language tuition, hairdressing and beauty salon techniques, and job-seeking skills. Ibu Litha (above, standing) is leading a class in business and employment skills.


In September and October of last year, the Kalimantan smoke haze emergency caused a halt in all of the ongoing YUM activities. The provincial capital of Palangkaraya had (by far) the worst air quality in the world throughout this period, and there was a massive increase in respiratory diseases, including acute and chronic coughing, throat and chest infections and asthma.

The response of YUM to this crisis was swift, multifaceted and substantial. One strategy entailed the preparation and distribution of ‘care packages’ to many hundreds of the most needy families in the district. Included in each package were N95 face masks, mini oxygen tanks for emergency use, cough medicines, vitamins, milk powder, eye drops and medicines to combat respiratory infection (known in Indonesia as ISPA). Also included were some specially prepared pamphlets about home remedies for ISPA, use of oxygen inhalers, and general advice about the health consequences of long-term exposure to smoke haze (and the importance of wearing face masks). In the photo above, YUM staff stand proudly behind another batch of freshly assembled packages, ready for distribution.


A series of free clinics were conducted in the villages of the district, where doctors from Kalimantan and Java, supported by YUM staff, worked to rapidly diagnose and prescribe treatment for an almost endless line of people suffering from the effects of the smoke haze. The distressed toddler in the photo above is asthmatic, and is being given a Ventolin inhalation to provide some temporary relief. YUM staff member Nana (on the right of the photo) holds her hand and helps to console her.


Clinics were held in all villages, in conjunction with the NGO Dompet Dhuafa, the University of Palangkaraya and the Politeknik Kementerian Kesehatan (POLTEKKES) Palangka Raya. They even made it to Kanarakan village which is only accessible by klotok canoes. In the above photo, the doctor examines a patient in a clinic held in the home of Pak Anden, Kepala Desa (Village Head) of Kanarakan.


Much effort, which continues to this day, was put into education – about the dangers of exposure to the toxic smoke haze from burning peat, about how to minimise the health impact of exposure, and (most importantly) about how the community may work to reduce burning of Kalimantan lands and prevent a recurrence of the horrific smoke haze of the 2015 dry season.

The children in the above photo are posing in their newly received face masks at the end of a puppet show in the YUM Library, during which they were entertained and taught about the importance of wearing face masks in the smoke haze.


There was lots more photography: macro photography, events, studio portraits, product photography, landscapes, botanical documentation etc. During my time at YUM I was given a huge number of photographic assignments and challenges, and I will be always grateful for the opportunities I received.


But, after almost two years, that’s that. Time to get on my bike and ride off into the sunset…

Rungan Hulu

I last wrote about the very interesting betang (longhouse) at Tumbang Malahoi. But actually the whole area of the Upper Rungan River (Rungan Hulu) was interesting, so I thought I’d share some pictures from our travels up there with Dodi and Yon.


By Day 10 of our trip, the sometimes-abysmal roads of Gunung Mas were taking a toll, even on the rugged red Land Cruiser. We were pleased that it had been equipped with new tyres before we started out. But since then, apart from collecting a fair amount of mud inside and out, we’d lost a wheel bay cover and two solid rubber blocks from the suspension. However Dodi was able to engineer some temporary fixes and we carried on.

So here’s our Toyota, parked on the boulevard in Rabamrang village, where we had gone in the hope of meeting up with a local rotan (rattan) craftsman.


Unfortunately he was ill, but we did get to see some of his handmade backpack baskets (and we ended up purchasing the one that Karen is holding in the photo above right.)


Just outside the village of Jangkit, we met a group of teenagers who were trawling for fish and edible crustaceans in a small muddy stream. They immersed their basket fish-traps (saok) repeatedly and were actually catching reasonable quantities of small fish and little molluscs, which they would then transfer to a bucket to carry back home. It was all done with much hilarity and joking, especially when the bules  (white people) showed up.


Pak Yuner (though everyone calls him ‘Bapa Honda’) is 76 years old, and was born in Tumbang Malahoi. He makes long cylindrical fish-traps like the one under construction in the photo above (known as a buwu) out of rotan (rattan). He also makes mandau (the ubiquitous Dayak sword/machete), a couple of handles of which are also visible.

Dodi bought one of his buwu, which was then strapped on top of the roofrack of our old red Land Cruiser. The long cylinder made the 4WD look a a bit like a mobile rocket launcher!


The roads in Kalimantan are tough on bikes, but some bikes are kept in service for longer than you’d believe possible, often through improvised repairs and ‘bush mechanic’ skills. This ageing Yamaha could have been older than the house it was parked next to.


This is a not a photo of our Land Cruiser at the end of our 10 days’ travelling in Gunung Mas, but a ‘retired’ model that we came upon along the way (near Tumbang Jutuh). Dodi and Yon examined it with interest, concluding that it could be made serviceable again.


Here’s Yon, warmed by the late afternoon light on the bridge at Tumbang Malahoi.


Karen on the bridge at Tumbang Malahoi, with electrical poles, pantar panjang and coconut palm trunks behind her.


Pak Nirwan took us on a walk into the forest near Malahoi which he knows well, and where there are very many useful plants – for those who know what to look for!

We also visited Pak Nirwan’s pondok (hut) at the edge of the forest, so he could feed the large pig that he keeps there. He’s very proud of that pig.


To many Dayak people, the forest is the ultimate sustainable resource, providing them with food and drink, medicine, tools, building materials and more. (When we were trekking in the forest in Kelabit, our guide Petrus referred to it as the “jungle supermarket”!)

In the forest with Pak Nirwan and Dodi (above), Karen was most interested in seeing nyamu trees (pohon nyamu). The bark of this tree species (Artocarpus elasticus) was removed, soaked, pounded and cut, and used to make range of traditional Dayak clothing.

Baju kulit kayu (bark clothing) is now only worn during certain Kaharingan ceremonies, and as clothing for performances in traditional costume.


A small digression, by way of example. The photo above is not from Tumbang Malahoi, but from the Isen Mulang Festival in Palangkaraya last year. The dancing Dayak warrior (who incidentally was standing on the roof of a fast-moving boat) is wearing a vest made from kulit pohon nyamu (bark of the nyamu tree).

He is also sporting the beak, casque and feathers of a Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) atop his head, and tail-feathers of the Great Argus (Argusianus argus) protruding from his neck and shoulders.


Tumbang Kuayan village is a little further up the Rungan River from Malahoi. Currently the road from from Malahoi ends on the opposite side of the river, because the bridge is too damaged for cars to cross over, so the village is quiet.

Villagers in Tumbang Kuayan still grow their own rice using slash-and-burn techniques on the ladang (swidden) areas in the forest. The harvested rice is carried back to village in sturdy basket backpacks (as above right), and threshed by hand to separate the grain ready for cooking.


There are LOTS of children in Tumbang Kuayan, and 20 or more of them followed us as we walked around the village. At first they looked variously stunned or terrified by our presence, but they relaxed once they realised that we were just weird, not scary, and some resumed their games.


These boys were playing a game of battling wooden spinning tops that we have now seen being played in a number of places, including inside a longhouse over in West Kalimantan. Along the Kahayan River they call it bayang. There’s a sort-of similar game called balugu, which, instead of spinning wooden tops, is played with tempurung kelapa (coconut shells).


There were some really nice sapundu in Tumbang Kuayan, including this spectacular group. As is common, they were all facing towards the river, perhaps awaiting the arrival of a canoe?

Each sapundu is made from a single trunk of kayu ulin. If there is a fork or large branch in the tree, the craftsman will often take advantage of it to incorporate an extension of some sort. The outstretched arm and the tiger in the photo above are examples of this.


There’s not a lot of forest left in the 4,172 sq km of Gunung Mas (except in the mountainous parts in the far north – and even up there there is a network of logging roads. An ever-growing expanse of the district has been clear-felled and given over to plantations of kelapa sawit – oil palms (Elaeis guineensis).

Commercially grown oil palms grow up to 20 metres in height, and can be productive for 20 to 30 years. So it’s therefore surprising to see that such a large proportion of the plantations consist of young palms like the ones in the photo above. This is an industry that’s rapidly expanding…

…and eating up just about everything as it grows.


YUM photos (Part I)

As I approach the end of my time working at the Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM – ‘Foundation for Noble Work’) I’d like to share a selection of the photos produced in the course of my work there since September 2014. Over that time I’ve made many thousands of photos over 72 separate ‘shoots’ for YUM Kalimantan – but ‘only’ 2729 (at last count) of these have made it into the archive.

Here are some personal favourites, selected because… well I just like them, for a variety of different reasons. Hope you like some of them too. (Note that I haven’t included photos of my wonderful workmates – I’ll save them for another time)

My warm, sincere and profound thanks go to YUM for giving me the opportunity to have these experiences, and to capture these images.


Commuting, Kalimantan-style. This was one of my first days of work at ‘the office’. We went to check on the conditions of home gardens established in the village of Kanarakan, an hour upriver, and only accessible by boat. As we navigated up the Rungan River in our two little klotok canoes through the thick smoke haze, past watchful orangutans in the trees on the river bank, I knew that this job was going to be… different.


So here’s the ‘office’, RC30 (Rural Centre 30), so-called because it is 30km from the centre of the provincial capital of Palangka Raya It is the centre of operations for the YUM AGRO Project. All the field staff and trainers are based there, but they are out-and-about much of the time, so on any given day I will have between zero and ten workmates there.

The site includes ‘model’ organic gardens, chicken hatcheries and coops, a training hall, a modest laboratory, areas for trial of new organic gardening techniques and plant varieties, a seed garden, and ponds for fish farming and production of azolla.

Infrastructure and utilities can be a challenge in Kalimantan. The office is equipped with a generator because of the daily mains power outages, so it usually has electricity. It often has some mobile phone signal, but (sadly) it rarely has internet connectivity. RC30 is a seven kilometre excitement-prone motorbike ride from where we have been living at Rungan Sari (part of Sei Gohong village).


This is the seed garden at RC30, where seed-saving techniques are practised and developed. YUM supplies seeds (all non-hybrid, non-GM) to the almost 500 families in the district who now maintain home gardens under the YUM organic model.


Seeds are beautiful. Wonderful shapes, textures and colours, and all almost bursting with life potential. Here are some from the YUM ‘Seed Bank’, including corn, melons, chili, and varieties of bayam and beans.


The YUM laboratory at RC30 is used to identify, develop and trial treatments for a variety of plant diseases.


And to develop repellents and non-chemical insecticides.


The success and productivity of the YUM-assisted organic home gardens is pretty impressive.

A great deal of effort goes into soil improvement, because the soil in this part of Kalimantan is very poor – mostly consisting of peat or sand. No rich Java-like volcanic soils here! So, under the YUM model, a number of techniques may be used in combination to prepare the soil for vegetable cultivation: compost, bokashi, beneficial fungi (trichoderma and mycorrhiza ), EM4 (effective micoorganisms), worms, biochar, and others.


In all seven of the villages in which YUM works, and across all of the communities, (mostly Dayak, Banjar and Javanese), it is always the women who are the most enthusiastic and diligent gardeners. This is probably because they best appreciate the value of having fresh healthy vegetables for the family to consume.


Some of the more successful home gardeners are able to produce more than they need for home consumption, and want to expand into small-scale commercial agriculture. They are establishing larger gardens, and YUM is assisting by providing advice, accountancy training, distribution and marketing services to assist them.

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This new project is just taking off now, and a pilot is under way with around 20 households signed up to receive weekly supplies of fresh organic vegetables delivered direct to their homes. Speaking as one of those customer households, we can say that the early results are very promising!


As well as the home delivery service, several warung sales points are in the process of being established for direct sales to the local community. Mama Aziz at Tumbang Tahai village operates the first of these. (The banner above her is a JBM design).


A lot of time and effort goes into the development and delivery of comprehensive training for project participants. The training is usually delivered through a series of half-day sessions for newly signed up participants, as well as ‘refresher’ training and advice about new techniques for the ‘experienced gardeners’. They are relaxed and informal affairs, which everyone (trainers and participants) seems to enjoy immensely.


Sometimes there are nearly as many children as adults in attendance at the training sessions!


And while the training goes on, the kids (being kids) enjoy playing in the grounds of RC30.


While his mother was learning how to construct new garden beds, this young fellow seemed a little pensive.


As well as home gardens for the production of vegetables, a new project has started, at the request of project participants, to develop gardens of medicinal plants, known locally as an Apotik Hidup (literally, a ‘Living Pharmacy’). Each garden in the pilot project has been supported by YUM Agro, and supplied with 12 species of medicinal plants.


There is a well-developed project for ‘small animal husbandry’. It’s currently about fish farming and chicken production; an attempt was made with goat farming, but the goats (being goats) didn’t behave themselves, and the project didn’t continue after the pilot.

Fish farming is quite common in this region, with fish raised in purpose-built ponds. In part, it’s a sad response to the declining fish population in the massive river systems of Kalimantan, and the mercury contamination (the result of illegal gold mining activities) of those fish that remain alive. The main fish species produced are Ikan Nila (Nile tilapia – Oreochromis niloticus), Ikan Lele (Catfish – Clarias batrachus) and Ikan Patin (Shark Catfish – Pangasius pangasius).


Most of the chickens sold in the markets here are ayam potong – chickens raised en masse in big ‘factory farm’ sheds. Much more highly regarded are free range village chickens – ayam kampung. They are easy (and kind of fun) to hold in your hands when they are little.


They are more of a handful when they grow to full size, but it is still possible!


Everyone in the family can help with raising chickens!


Azolla is a an aquatic fern with some remarkable properties. In particular, under favourable conditions it can double its biomass within a week, and it is an excellent source of protein. In areas where wet rice cultivation is possible (i.e. not here!) it is often grown as a companion plant to the rice in the flooded paddy because of its nitrogen-fixing properties, YUM has been trialling production of azolla for use as a rich fertiliser, and also as feed for stock. Chickens love it.


Kids outside the posyandu at Tangkiling village. More about posyandus (and other health-related YUM work) and photos of YUM’s educational activities to come in Part II of the YUMmy Photos

Isen Mulang – Jukung Hias

Last year I wrote (here and here)  about the wonderful Dayak cultural festival that’s held every year (mid-May) in Palangka Raya – the capital of this Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan. The festival is known as Isen Mulang – which translates from the Dayak Ngaju language as ‘Never retreat’, or ‘Never surrender’. (Isen Mulang is also the motto of the province).


There are dozens of events held over the days of Isen Mulang – from dance and music competitions to traditional cooking, woodchopping, fishing (by hand!), blowpipe target shooting, and a massive Mardi Gras-style parade through central Palangka.

This year we were again amazed at the near-total absence of foreign tourists. Apart from around 10 expats (including us), there were literally 10 other foreigners that we could see – almost all part of a tour group led by David Metcalf. Meanwhile almost 4 million tourists visit Bali each year Yes, Bali is lovely! But the difference in visitation numbers is unfathomable.

One of the highlights again this year was the procession of brightly decorated ‘dragon boats’ (actually known as Jukung Hias, meaning ‘decorated boats’) along the Kahayan River, through the centre of the city.


As with almost all of the events held during the week-long festivities of Isen Mulang, it’s actually a competition between the 14 districts (13 kabupaten and one kota) which make up the Province, with one vessel representing each district.


Points are awarded to each competing jukung according to the quality of its decoration, the performance of the traditionally attired warriors, dancers and musicians aboard each one.


The sight of all the brightly bedecked boats lined up down the river really was spectacular.


Points are also won for any special effects they might employ – such as fireworks or water spouts from the dragons’ mouths.


Competition is fierce, and the results are spectacular.


The performers seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the spectators. And they looked wonderful, all decked out in traditional Dayak costumes, with clothing made from bark (kulit pohon nyamu) and batik, headdresses made out of the beaks, casques and feathers of a hornbills and tail-feathers of the Great Argus (Argusianus argus).


Some of the performers appeared to be heavily tattooed wth traditional Dayak motifs, but the tattoos are (in almost every case) temporarily applied for the event, because few of the local Dayak people have extensive tattoo decorations as in the past. (In some other regions e.g. amongst the Dayak Iban of West Kalimantan, tattooing is more common).


We were fortunate to be out on the water as the flotilla arrived – on board one of the very comfortable vessels of Wow Borneo (as well as buzzing around amongst the jukung on a little kelotok longboat).

But along the banks of the river, a large  (by Palangka Raya standards) crowd was assembled to watch proceedings.


There were a number of other spectator vessels out on the river. The passengers on this one were all civil servants, wearing the special blue KORPRI (Korps Pegawai Republik Indonesia) batik uniform that may only be worn on the 17th of each month, and on special occasions such as this.


All of the best vantage points were chock-a-block full of spectators. As is often the case in Kalimantan, the spectators were as interesting as the spectacle.


Some opted for an aerial view of the show from the Kahayan River bridge.


Children found some creative ways to get a good view.


Others took a more relaxed approach to viewing proceedings.


Some were quite excited – particularly when they caught the attention of bule (white skinned foreigners).


While still others were out in the ‘back yard’ of their floating homes, practising their heavy metal hand gestures.


And others just got on with the serious business of skylarking.


The Isen Mulang Festival was once again a great experience, and if we get the opportunity we will certainly be back again next year!


Tumbang Malahoi

After Tumbang Anoi and Tumbang Korik, the final destination on our ‘Tur Tiga Betang’ (our ‘Three Longhouse Tour’) was the Betang Toyoi in the village of Tumbang Malahoi.


Malahoi is located in the upper reaches of the Rungan River, which we consider to be ‘our’ river, as it runs by here where we are living, downstream at Sei Gohong. It’s about 122km to the north of the provincial capital of Palangkaraya.

It’s a very interesting Dayak Ngaju village, home to large numbers of Kaharingan sandung (ossuaries), sapundu (carved ceremonial poles) and tall pantar panjang (like the hornbill-topped pantar above left).

It’s also home to many traditional craftspeople, such as the 90-year-old man (above right), who has only recently retired from making rattan baskets and other crafts. (“My fingers have become sick” he said – it looked like arthritis.)


Despite its name, the village of Tumbang Malahoi is not on the Malahoi River (as you were no doubt thinking…), but in fact is at the junction of the Baringei and Rungan Rivers. The reason for this discrepancy is apparently that the founders of the village (the Toyoi family, who also built the longhouse) originally came from West Kalimantan near the headwaters of the Melawi / Malahoi river. They wanted to retain their connection to the ancestral homelands, and even brought some soil and water from there to help maintain the link.

Whatever the name, it’s an attractive river, and full of water when we were there in the middle of the wet season.


Tumbang Malahoi is best known for its lovely and well-preserved old longhouse (called a betang in the Dayak Ngaju language). Construction of the Betang Toyoi was completed in 1869, after a year of work by the community (gotong royong). Since then it has housed many generations of the Toyoi family.

Its floor stands around two metres above the ground, supported by 26 heavy wooden posts. It’s 37 metres long. The walls, like those of the longhouse at Tumbang Korik, are made from kulit kayu pendu (bark of the pendu tree – Polyalthia glauca?)

The betang was built by Bungai Toyoi. He was a friend and supporter of the Banjar Sultan Muhammad Seman (1862 -1905), who fought (and lost) against the Dutch colonial forces in the Barito War. (Such an alliance between a Dayak Kaharingan chief and a Banjar Muslim Sultan was not uncommon at the time. Perhaps nothing unites people better than having a common enemy!)


And later, during the struggle for independence from Dutch rule in the 1940s, the betang at Tumbang Malahoi was for a time the regional headquarters of the Gerakan Revolusi Rakyat Indonesia (the ‘Indonesian People’s Revolutionary Movement’)

It’s hard to imagine now… but this place has HISTORY. Nowadays it’s a peaceful place, maintained by a warm and gentle family – themselves descendants of Bungai Toyoi. Head of the household is 59-year-old Ibu Aniema Nanyan Toyoi (but known as Mina Indu Boni). She lives there with her elder sister (Mina Indu Gandi) and mother-in-law Tambi Indu Erie, along with her 34-year-old son Boni and Tri Septiani, his wife of three years.

They were friendly, generous and entertaining hosts over the three nights we stayed there.


Just inside the entrance of the betang are six illustrated panels, carved and painted into the ceiling. Just outside the door are another four panels, on the underside of the eave.

These ten panels (yes, I know there’s only nine in the photo above) relate to stories of the family’s past intertwined with symbols from Ngaju mythology and encounters with the spirit world. The tree in the panel at top left in the above photo, for example, is the Sawang Ngandang – the ‘Tree of Promises’. It is so called because of its use in wedding ceremonies, where the bride and groom exchange their promises before God, family and nature.

The panels are considered to be significant enough that reproduction drawings have been made and are on display at the Museum Balanga in Palangkaraya.

Mina Indu Boni has carefully written, in 62 pages of neat longhand, a valuable and detailed account of the history of the longhouse, the Toyoi family tree, and descriptions and explanations of the panels and various sculptures at the betang. It’s mostly in Bahasa Indonesia, but with chunks of Dayak Ngaju language also. She kindly allowed Karen to make a copy, and we are now keen to get assistance in translating the large sections that we don’t fully understand!


There is usually only a single entrance to a betang, via a log with steps cut into it (known as a hejan). The hejan at Tumbang Malahoi features two stunning patung (statues), one on either side, about 2 metres high. Each one depicts a tiger (harimau) with a Dayak warrior sitting astride it, and a crocodile (buaya) crawling up.

The patung harimau at Tumbang Malahoi are old, but in fact they are only reproductions of the original statues, which have been removed and are safely stored within the longhouse. Which is just as well. Just six days before we arrived at Malahoi, and during a loud thunderstorm, thieves came in the night and took the companion statue to the one above, by sawing it off at the base.

Sadly, such thefts of Dayak sapundu and patung are not uncommon (we were shown another sapundu that had been sawn off when we in Bangkal village). They are likely to be ‘commissioned’ thefts, with the objects stolen to order for some wealthy collector. The rewards for the thief must be great, because in Indonesia, getting caught while committing a property crime often results in swift, summary and brutal punishment.


A dozen sapundu pillars, each one carved from a log of kayu ulin (Bornean ironwood), stand in a row in front of the betang.


I took a series of ‘portraits’ of them – partly as a record in case any of them get stolen like the harimau statue.


As the evening descended, the row of pantar across the road from the betang were nicely silhouetted against the darkening sky. The pantar (made from kayu ulin, of course) have been described to us as ‘highways to heaven’, symbolised by the flying hornbill bird which sits on top of most of them. We understand them to be erected to honour the life (and death) of some particularly notable member of the community.

As I was taking this photo, a motorbike came down the road from the left side, then turned to cross the bridge. With a 20 second tripod exposure, it laid down a light trail of its headlight transforming into a red taillight as it passed.


It was getting dark, and stars started to appear – and the mosquitoes too!. So we went back inside for dinner, leaving all of the sandung, sapundu, patung harimau and the pantar panjang to watch over the Betang Toyoi longhouse at Tumbang Malahoi.