Extreme Yet Exotic River Explorations | WWF
Extreme Yet Exotic River Explorations

Posted on 27 May 2019

The native Borneans, or known as Dayak Tribes, have a diversity of customs, cultures, and local wisdom. They are strongly embedded in the tribes’ life. During a trip to Mahakam Ulu and Kutai Barat Districts, we had the chance to witness some of the rituals and ceremonies as well as try delicacies from the river running across both districts.
By: Regina Nikijuluw
Heart of Borneo Communication Manager

The native Borneans, or known as Dayak Tribes, have a diversity of customs, cultures, and local wisdom. They are strongly embedded in the tribes’ life. During a trip to Mahakam Ulu and Kutai Barat Districts, we had the chance to witness some of the rituals and ceremonies as well as try delicacies from the river running across both districts.  

Dayak Tribe Customs at a Glance
An air of quietness welcomed our arrival in Long Tuyoq Village, Mahakam Ulu District. “One of the residents in Lamin House (ed: traditional long house of Dayak Tribes) has recently passed away,” Arbiyansah Jueng (Arbi), our guide explained. 

He added, “It’s a tradition here to have days of silence when someone from Lamin House dies. It’d be out of respect for the mourning family.”

A funeral ceremony or Ngem’aang is held 3 days after the burial. Family members and villagers prepared for the ceremony together. It began with collective cooking of traditional foods, and later in the afternoon, the whole family and guests gathered in Lamin House to have a feast after sending up prayer led by the local Pastor as most of the villagers are Catholics. 

After the meal, foods were prepared to be taken to the burial site for offerings. But, before being taken to the site, a woman with Telingaan Aruu (ed: elongated earlobes) led everyone in attendance to touch the offerings using left hand with their back against the foods. The ceremony closed with a purgation to ward off any evil spirit that followed from the grave.

“Everyone who return from the graveyard should be cleansed, making sure no spirit is trailing them,” said Katarina, a homestay owner, about the purgation.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring Kutai Barat District, the ritual is completely different. A funeral ceremony for the deceased or Kenyau in Barong Tongkok Village is performed 21 days after the burial. The peak of the 4-day ceremony was a cow offering. Some other offerings were also prepared and the bones of a dead family member placed close by. Somewhere near the site, a statue symbolizing death ceremony called Bluntang was erected.

We encountered another type of ceremony in Linggang Melapeh, Kutai Barat District. Belian is a ceremony to cure disease. “This person is already at stage 3, the worst stage, the hospital has given up,” a village man who watched along gave us details.

The leader of Belian ceremony is called Pemeliat Suhu. Like in other traditional rites, offerings were made for this 4-day ceremony. Pemeliat Suhu was assisted by several of his disciples in performing the ritual. 

Still in Linggang Melapeh… 
The women of Dayak Tribes have a tradition of doing sauna and taking a bath in nature or Betimung (local language). Women and girls looked for herbs, roots, stems, and spices as preparation for the sauna. The ingredients were then boiled until fragrant aroma came out of the concoction and placed inside a closed enclosure with the women and girls inside. The ritual ended with bathing and shampooing in the river with the ingredients they had found in the forest. 

“Betimung is good for making hair silkier and removing impurities from the skin,” Yovita, the Head of Family Welfare Association of Linggang Melapeh Village, told us about the purpose of the ritual. No wonder the women of Dayak Tribes have clean and fair complexion. 

Extreme yet Exotic River Sport
At 920 KM, Mahakam River is recorded as the 2nd longest river in Indonesia and flows through the two districts we visited. Besides connecting villages as the main route of transportation, the river also provides a spot for locals to do activities, from water sports to local traditions such as spearfishing. 

Rafting is one of them. “Today, the river is very safe,” Adrianus Liah Blawing, the Leader of Giham Community and a Rafting Guide from Long Tuyoq Village, reassured us. The trip began with a briefing on how to use paddles, warming-up, and practice using paddles on the riverbank. 

“We’ll pass around 14 rapids along the way,” Liah briefed us during the paddling practice. The most memorable part was when we could watch the magnificent Kenhek Waterfall while transferring to a long boat at the end of the trip. The view was so breathtaking, all of our tiredness paid off. 

On another occasion, we spent a day of leisure at the creek, KM21 as it is called, with people from the Mahakam Ulu District Government in Ujo Bilang. “In the city, people go to malls. Here, we visit the creek on weekends or holidays,” Sri Jimmy Kustini, the Landscape Manager of Mahakam Ulu, told us about this tourist destination. 

Everybody had a role and worked together in this leisure trip. After cooking rice on top of firewood, the women sat on a mat preparing vegetables, marinades, and sambals. Meanwhile, the men went to the stream to catch fish and washed and grilled chicken. All was done with laughter and a light heart. To add more to the fun, after finishing lunch, we all jumped into the clear and cool water to refresh our body on a hot, sunny day. 

It was unfortunate we did not get the chance to visit the last point of attraction. Mahakam River has been identified as home to freshwater dolphins or Mahakam river dolphins. Sadly, this species is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List

So, Why Conservation? 
Referring back to cultural rituals, most of the time the Borneans need items they collect from the forest to make offerings. East Kalimantan is a host to a total of 4.1 million hectares of forest areas (BPS, Kaltim dalam Angka, 2018) with pristine and high level of biodiversity. Hundreds of plant species in the area are needed by locals to perform rituals and ceremonies. 

Several villages have publicly rejected the presence of palm oil plantations in their area because they know oil palms would drain off the groundwater. They are aware of the destructive long-term impacts on the forest, their source of ritual offerings. 

Meanwhile, Mahakam River, which branches out into tens of smaller streams, is also a source of food for the surrounding populations. In some regions where vegetables are in short supply or unaffordable, fish is a staple food. In Long Tuyoq Village, restrictions and regulations are applied to fishing. It is forbidden to take more than you need for food. 

Moreover, hundreds of animal species can be found in the forest and along the river. Historical relics, such as caves and tombs, are scattered throughout the forest and on the riverside. People use this natural heritage to earn livelihood and promote ecotourism. 

Ecotourism packages, including big annual rituals such as Hudoq, are offered to attract tourists. Hudoq is a thanksgiving festival in celebration of the year’s harvest, or in other regions a prayer for abundant harvest in the next season. 

“Punishment based on customary law is severe for those caught harming the nature. Here, human and nature are in unity,” ended Arbi.  



Note: This trip is supported by Indonesian Biodiversity Conservation Trust Fund, TFCA Kalimantan, and made together with Jejak Petualang Trans7 team and 2 journalists from Kompas and Media Indonesia.
Regina Nikijuluw, Linggang Melapeh, Heart of Borneo, Mahakam Ulu, East Kalimantan
Linggang Melapeh Village in the Heart of Borneo, Mahakam Ulu, East Kalimantan
© WWF-Indonesia/Regina Nikijuluw
Arbiyansyach Jueng, Kenhe' Waterfall, Mahakam Ulu, East Kalimantan, Heart of Borneo
Kenhe' Waterfall in Mahakam Ulu District, East Kalimantan
© WWF-Indonesia/Arbiyansyach Jueng
Ibnu Khoirul Fajar, Trans7, Jejak Petualang, Mahakam Ulu, East Kalimantan, Heart of Borneo, WWF-Indonesia
Mahakam River, which branches out into tens of smaller streams, is also a source of food for the surrounding populations.
© WWF-Indonesia/Ibnu Khoirul Fajar/Jejak Petualang Trans7
Ibnu Khoirul Fajar, Jejak Petualang Trans7, East Kalimantan, Heart of Borneo, Mahakam Ulu, WWF-Indonesia, Visit the Heart of Borneo
Mahakam Ulu, East Kalimantan in the Heart of Borneo
© WWF-Indonesia/Ibnu Khoirul Fajar/Jejak Petualang Trans7