Tag Archives: longhouse

Tumbang Anoi

After we left the Tiwah at Kuala Kurun, we continued northwest, up to the last villages near the headwaters of the Kahayan River.


The population is largely Dayak – Ngaju and Ot Danum – and mostly quite religious, with Christian churches and Kaharingan animist structures (sapundu, pantar, and sandung) side-by-side, and seemingly around every corner.

As is usually the case in Kalimantan, the journey was as much of an adventure as the destination. This part of Gunung Mas regency is really interesting, rich in culture, history – and full of challenges for the traveller. We had the good fortune to be accompanied by our guides and friends Dodi and Jonathan, both Dayak, who have deep knowledge of the area.


The road up to the Upper Kahayan (Kahayan Hulu) sub-district is asphalt in parts, but is mostly dirt, sand or more often (at this time of year) mud. We encountered the road closure above while running repairs were being made to a small bridge. Chainsaw, hammer, and some six-inch nails soon made it usable again, though other drivers got us to cross first in our sporty red Land Cruiser, before chancing it themselves.


Further down the ‘highway’ were a number of steep and/or muddy patches. The motorbike rider above had chains around his rear wheel to try and get some traction through the mud. That’s Dodi walking behind him in the white t-shirt. He’d gone back down the road to retrieve a mud flap that got torn off our Land Cruiser when we came through. By the end of the day we had hauled out a couple of vehicles which had become bogged in deep mud.


We arrived and Tumbang Anoi after dark, and settled in for our stay at the famous longhouse. The next morning, our 4WD got a much-needed wash and some running repairs.


The longhouse (betang) at Tumbang Anoi was built in the late 1800’s by Damang Batu. But unfortunately it is no longer habitable, and we stayed in the ‘new’ betang built adjacent to the site of the original one. It’s still an impressive structure, built entirely from kayu ulin (Borneo ironwood). It sports modern conveniences such as running water, but currently the pump is not working, so buckets of water were carried up those steep steps each day so I could wash at the mandi (and we could flush the toilet). Karen, more considerately, chose to bathe in the Anoi river behind the betang.


The sandung and sapundu in front of the betang are beautifully carved, and in a style unlike what we’ve seen elsewhere.


All that remains of the of Betang Damang Batu is some of the wooden framework. The site is overgrown with weeds now, and it looks a little forlorn, but for three months in 1894 it was the centre of the Dayak world, and events there helped shape the subsequent course of Borneo history.

Before that time, fighting between the many and various Dayak tribes of Borneo was chronic, and (perhaps due to the disrupting impact of the Dutch and British colonial powers) was getting worse. Headhunting raids led to revenge raids led to more raids, and the cycle was accelerating. One ongoing war between Dayak Ngaju of Central Kalimantan with Kenyah from the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan had led to many deaths on both sides – and no victor.

At a meeting convened by the Dutch Resident from East Kalimantan in Kuala Kapuas in June 1893 it was decided to hold a grand council of all the leaders of all the Dayak tribes of Borneo. 152 were invited. Damang Batu, the 73-year-old Ot Danum chief from Tumbang Anoi, was widely respected by all, and he offered to host the meeting in the following year.


The meeting, a photo of which is above, was a great success. It lasted three months, and the catering reportedly included 100 buffalo, 100 cattle, and countless pigs and chickens. By the end, there was agreement to immediately:

  • cease hostilities between the tribes, specifically the ‘3H’ practices of Hakayou (raiding parties), Hapanu (killing each other) and Hatekek (the taking of heads);
  • cease the practice of human slavery; and
  • enforce the rule of customary law, including payments in the event of someone killing a member of another tribe.

The council of Dayak chiefs also found time to consider and rule on some 300 previously unresolved disputes and criminal cases.


In front of the betang – and in front of just about every Dayak Kaharingan home is a plant known in this part of Kalimantan as Daun Sawang (or Dawen Sawang) [Cordyline fruticosa]. The leaves of this locally sacred plant are used in a number Kaharingan rituals, where they may be used to splash water (or blood of sacrificed animals). Hung from a line suspended between poles the leaves can indicate the perimeter of a ceremonial area.


Tumbang Anoi has an official population of 418 (in 116 families). But this is possibly exceeded by the population of carved sapundu figures that stand mutely throughout the village. Some looked as though they could start speaking at any moment.


Buei Tiung (the ‘Keymaster’ of the betang, standing in front of the group above) walked us around the village and tried to explain some of the history and culture. He introduced us to many of the locals along the way, including Buei Raden Sawang, the village elder at the left of the photo above.


The kids were unusually shy, perhaps because it is rare for them to see people like us in Tumbang Anoi. The cry goes out: “Ada bule di kampung! Bule di sini!” (“There are white-skinned people in our village!”) These kids just ran away at first, then got curious and approached us slowly from behind, running away again every time we turned to face them. Eventually they tentatively agreed to pose for a photograph, but even then they clung to each other for courage.


We went upriver by klotok longboat to the hospitable villages of Karetau Sarian and Tumbang Mahuroi, which are the last (or first, depending on how you look at it) villages on the Kahayan River. With peaks of the Schwaner Mountains in the background, this is real ‘Heart of Borneo’ country.


The traditional crafts are still practiced in places like this. The lady above is making a small basket, while a half-complete woven mat can be seen at the back of the room.


Some children’s games seem to be just about universal. These boys were expert marbles players.


A juvenile Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) was being kept as a pet in Karetau Sarian village. These birds are the smallest and most widespread of the hornbills, and unlike some of their larger cousins, are not considered to be under threat. But this beautiful little bird looked like he would rather be free in the forest than a captive in the village.


The main industry of the upper Kahayan appears to be (illegal) gold mining. Floating dredges are used to sift alluvial gold from river sand (as is common practice in our own area along the Rungan River), but there are also mining sites dotted along the river banks. These operations pump high pressure water into the sand/soil mix of the river banks, forming a suspension of muddy gold-flecked water which is then filtered in the same way as used on the alluvial dredges.

With the steady disappearance of the forests, changing social values, and the collapse in rubber prices, the money that comes in from gold mining is keeping whole villages afloat economically. But… this activity also causes massive damage to the river banks, and causes the rivers to be even muddier and siltier than they would otherwise be. A particular problem results from the miners’ use of mercury to extract the gold flecks from the dirt and sand etc. A proportion of the mercury ends up in the rivers, whose fish all now have high levels of mercury contamination.


Captive hornbills, and toxic gold. As so often in Kalimantan, the sublime and the tragic sit side-by-side. Some further reading about Tumbang Anoi;

  • http://humabetang.web.id/artikel-dayak/2013/perjanjian-dayak-tumbang-anoi-1894/1
  • http://kulturdayak.blogspot.co.id/2015/07/dokumentasi-perdamaian-tumbang-anoi-1894.html
  • http://gerdayakjakarta.blogspot.co.id/search?q=anoi

Danau Sentarum National Park


Danau (Lake) Sentarum drains into the Kapuas River, not far to the southwest of the Betung-Kerihun National Park. In the dry season there’s just a network of snaky rivers there, but now (at the end of the wet season) there’s a huge and complex system of lakes, rivers and peat swamp wetlands across the 132,000 hectares of the national park.

Despite being beautiful, with rampant biodiversity and some fascinating and friendly villages, it doesn’t get a lot of visitors. In fact we didn’t meet another tourist or see another ‘westerner’ in the more than two weeks we were in West Kalimantan.


Transport around the park, including to the several villages located within the park, is by boat – wooden barges for freight, klotok canoes with or without outboard motors for local transport and fishing, plus a few small speedboats. No cars, trucks or motorbikes. Everything happens on the water – even the cattle are kept on floating platforms in bamboo stalls, where they are hand-fed. It makes for a slow and seemingly relaxed pace of life.


A woman brings firewood to her home in the Melayu village of Semangit. We passed by very slowly, so that our wake wouldn’t swamp her canoe. But she still seemed concerned about the possibility.


The ominous-looking sky above was pictured during an abortive fishing trip, about 30 seconds before a torrential downpour arrived. We seem to have developed a talent for producing major electrical storm events when we are travelling in uncovered canoes – that’s three times so far. Within a minute it was dark and pelting down, with a weird swarm of excited little bats swooping about our heads. While our crew of three started bailing out the boat, we huddled with our cameras under our brollies, and the fishing was postponed.


There are about seven varieties of hornbill in Borneo. Big unlikely birds with enormous beak adornments (which we now know are called ‘casques’). The Rhinoceros Hornbill  is aptly named, and is particularly spectacular. (Hornbill dinner party trivia: they are the only species of birds in which the top two vertebrae are fused together, so their necks can better support their big beaks.)

Hornbills are really important in traditional Dayak culture and religion, and their appearance is often seen as an omen for good or evil – depending on whether they cross your path from the left or the right side (but I can’t remember which side is the auspicious one!) We hear them frequently in the forest, but sightings are less common, and they are usually flying past at speed. So (like many birds), they are buggers to photograph.


Trees are generally more compliant. There are some large areas of mostly primary forest around the park, on islands and peninsulas. The soils are poor, but that doesn’t seem to prevent large trees, ferns, vines and fungi from growing.


675 plant species have been found so far, again including a number of unique plants. There are a number of ‘carnivorous’ pitcher plants, many of which are large and lovely and elegant. Their main prey are ants. One local delicacy is to cook and serve rice inside a large ‘pitcher’ (after removing any partially digested ants).


There’s a largish population of orang-utans in the park. In some places, such as in the forest above, you can see their nests high in just about every second tree. They make a fairly rough sleeping platform during the day out of branches and leaves. We were told that they only use each nest once, building a new one each day. Why is that? They’re not saying.


In spite of their number in the park, the wild orang-utans are very wary of humans (who can blame them?) and are notoriously difficult to observe. We spoke to one park ranger who had been working there for four years without a sighting, and to a local (middle-aged) village guy who had only come across them four times in his life.

We are frequently reminded of just how lucky we are, and so we were blessed with a sighting of a mother and baby in the forest as we were returning by canoe from an outing. Our two crew were so excited that they almost dragged us out of the boat into the swamp beside the river. A hundred metres of clambering and splashing through very difficult terrain (calf-deep mud, waist-deep pools of black water, rotting fallen logs, spiky rattan vines etc) was rewarded with a few minutes of wondrous sighting.


The mother was very protective of her baby, and soon ushered it away and started hooting and yelling at us to try and scare us off. At the time, I was more concerned about the log that had just fallen onto my head and knocked me over, and about how I was going to find my thong that had come adrift in the thick mud at the bottom of the pool I was standing in. But she certainly was a formidable sight up there!


Elsewhere in the park we encountered the large (and also endangered) Proboscis monkey. The name comes from the protuberant noses (you probably guessed) that are sported by the adult males, and which the females apparently find irresistible. And who can blame them? In Indonesia they are known as Orang belanda (“Dutch man”) which we think is rather unkind.


Almost 300 species of freshwater fish have been found in the lakes, including a couple of dozen found nowhere else (for comparison, the rivers and lakes of Europe have less than 200 fish species).


There are a number of villages either in or bordering on the park. Some are Melayu, and others (like this one above) are home to Dayak Iban people, most of whom still choose to live in longhouses. We stayed in a couple of these (such as the Meliau longhouse pictured above), and were made very welcome.


Longhouse design varies a bit between Dayak communiities, but they always have one long enclosed living room/hall/verandah/corridor running the full length, and this is where everyone gets together to meet, work, play and (sometimes) eat. Here’s Karen at Baligundi longhouse.


The man above, in the Pelaik longhouse, is repairing his fishing net. Nets and line fishing are the fish-catching methods preferred by the Iban. The Melayu people have set up hundreds (maybe thousands) of fish traps around the waterways. Between them, the poor fish don’t stand a chance.


This old tattooed lady (above left), the mother of the current headman in the village of Pelaik, showed us some of the textiles that she had woven over the years. Not for sale, she was just happy to show them to us. Meanwhile the young and un-tattooed lady (above right) was in her element, asking all about weaving techniques, dye materials and the meaning of the various motifs.


In another longhouse (Baligundi), another lady was making mats from reeds, while children played around her. Karen was encouraged to have a go at the mat-weaving, after which she reported that: “it’s not as easy as it looks”.
And that probably holds true for the rest of their lives, too…