When I entered Sungai Utik Village, in the heart of West Kalimantan, I felt very excited when I caught my first glance at the longhouse.
This long wooden communal dwelling with one roof stretched for 214 metres and houses 293 people. A delegation of young Dayak Iban dancers was anxiously waiting at the front entrance to the village, their glittery headpieces catching the afternoon light. A few nervous giggles followed, and the girls motioned for me to follow them to their very longhouse.
With a tinkling of anklets and sweet voices serenading me, I was led to the front entrance, where I ascended a long, ancient, ironwood single-log staircase with carved steps. As I entered the longhouse, I was instructed to take some of the creamy, white drink (Ijuk) handed to me and promptly had to spill some on the floor. I was told this was for the ancestors, and the rest was for me to drink during the welcome guest ritual.
The residents of the longhouse sat on the wooden floorboards with beaming, welcoming smiles, and I immediately felt comfortable and warmly welcomed.
Next, the welcoming guest ritual began and was conducted by Bandi, the Dayak Iban village elder. The ceremony cleans the energy that people bring in from the outside, and then I was blessed. The ritual provides safety and protection from the ancestor’s spirit. It allows for good energy while a guest stays in the longhouse.
I was mesmerised by Bandi’s tattoo motifs. I could not take my eyes off them, especially the flowers adorning the top of his shoulders and the intricate symbols tattooed on his hands. His back, chest, and neck were also tattooed. Tattooing forms an essential part of the tradition for males, with the motifs on their shoulders symbolising strength and protection.
The ritual continued with a live chicken being raised in the air and Bandi reciting mesmerising chants. Then the dancing started. I watched the girls move with a gentle, calm flow, moving in time to the beat of the music. Next, afternoon tea was served – a delicious array of miniature rice flour pancakes, strong coffee, and that milky drink again. Bandi explained to us that the liquid was tapped every day from the Ijuk tree, after which a piece of bark was added to assist the fermentation process, making it alcoholic. It tasted wonderful and seemed to be only mildly intoxicating. However, I erred on the side of caution and took only small sips.
“You can call me Apay Janggut,” Bandi said. “That means the bearded one,” he said with a chuckle, pulling on his long white beard. “After you rest, you may go to the river and swim, but be careful because once you swim in our river, you will be captivated and always wish to return to our home, Sungai Utik,” he said with a confident wide smile.
It was very reassuring to learn that my invitation to visit this lovely community had already become an invitation to return, and I had only just arrived! That is the way of the Dayak Iban – hospitality plus.
Next, I was shown to my homestay room. It was surprisingly very modern inside and was more than just a room. The living quarters consisted of a large formal lounge, two guest rooms, a second lounge, a bathroom, an upper level for storage and a western toilet. It also had a TV and a washing machine. Very well-appointed digs. The 28 doors that stretched the length of the longhouse provided a private dwelling for each family with the same room configuration. Adjoining the kitchen was an outdoor deck – a gathering place for friendly, social “5 pm office meetings”, always accompanied by Ijuk.
The river became my favourite place over the next three days. In the late afternoon, it became a playground for the village kids who leapt from rocks and clung to vines and played tag, jumping and swinging games. It was the most entertaining and lively scene, mostly without adult supervision.
The beautiful forests surrounding the river and Sungai Utik’s land are now protected. Bandi told me this had involved a legal battle, won with the help of AMAN (Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago), who represented and supported Sungai Utik’s case for legal recognition of their forest boundaries.
“I cannot read,” Bandi said, “but I got help from AMAN, and we now have the legal title and protection of our forests. This is very important to us. It means the title to our destiny. The sign at the front of our village displays the details of our legal title for all to see. No one can take it from us now.”
He explained that the battle to protect these lands went back a long way. In 1979, a corporation was licensed to develop the land in Sungai Utiks customary forest. The company tried to harvest wood but was met with resistance from the locals. In 1998, with the help of NGOs, including AMAN, the forests were mapped, and ownership of their land was secured.
Sleeping in the longhouse and living with the Dayak Iban was a cultural awakening for me on many levels. I took an overnight trip into the forest with Bandi, took walks to the rice field daily with the kids, met the farmers, and was invited to sit in their rice house out in the fields and talk about village life.
It was a delight to feel accepted and welcomed into village life and to discover more about the Dayak Iban world and its relationship with the forests. On my forest walks, my village guide pointed out various medicinal plants like the Kedadai leaf, which can be ground into medicine for breastfeeding mothers to improve their milk supply and the Raru bark, which cures stomach aches. In a true community way, care of the forest and the river is taken on by a different family every month. This way, everyone in the village actively bears this responsibility.
The Sungai Utik’s customary forest covers 10,087.4 hectares, and the protected forest is 9,480 hectares. The rest is used to cultivate orchards, crops, rubber plantations, and swidden fields.
Clearly, a natural balance enables the local people to sustain their entire village through subsistence hunting, growing crops, and gathering food and medicine from the forest. The Iban are foresters and protect their trees, taking only what they need to build or repair a house. No trees can be cut for commercial gain.
My experience of life in a longhouse allowed me to become part of the traditional way of living which is increasingly rare in today’s world. Give it a shot by flying to Putussibau, a town in Kapuas Hulu Regency of West Kalimantan. It’ll take around 1.5 hours on the road to reach Sungai Utik.
Community-Based Tourism: Pesona Borneo
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Community-Based Tourism: Pesona Borneo
Ibu Tina: +62813 4651 0198
Photo credit: Kynan Tegar
Photographer and Filmmaker
Kynan is 17 years old: His contact is via his mum, Tina.
Ibu Tina: +62813 4651 0198