• Abi Gwynn

Isen Mulang Dayak Festival

Over the last few weeks I've had the chance to experience a lot of the local culture here in Palangka Raya. Palangka Raya is the capital of Central Kalimantan and where I am based when I'm not hanging with the orangs in camp.


The Kahayan bridge, an iconic landmark of Palangka Raya

For a whole week at the end of June, the city hosted events to celebrate Dayak culture. Dayak is the general term for the indigenous people of Borneo, however, there are over 50 different Dayak groups speaking over 170 languages. Such incredible diversity for one island! The Dayaks acquired a fierce reputation from their history as head-hunters, however the practiced was outlawed during colonisation by the Dutch. They still hold on to strong animistic beliefs that govern their culture. When I arrived, something that particularly resonated with me was the number of languages the local people can speak. For a Brit, we'd be chuffed if we could become just a little competent in French, Spanish or German. However, these guys often already speak up to three languages from birth! The country-wide language of Bahasa Indonesia, their local Dayak language, and often another Indonesian language, such as Banjar or Javanese, depending if their parents are from another part of Indonesia. And what's more, now most of the locals I work with can speak some English too. Us Brits are lucky we already speak such a universal language!


The first Dayak celebration was a carnival showcasing the traditional dress, dance and values of different ethnic groups. What was evident was how much the hornbill means to all of these tribes. Skulls, beaks and feathers displayed proudly on nearly all of their dress. Though, you'll be happy to hear that these have been passed down from many generations ago as it is now illegal to kill or capture hornbills due to their rapidly declining numbers.

You can see the traditional hornbill headress on my new friend here

We saw a range of different costumes, from the most traditional animal hide to more modern, colourful fabrics. Each tribe, brought their own aspect, celebrating things most important in their history, often from the forest. These included a forest product known as rattan, a range of fruits such as banana, pineapple and papaya, orangutans, and all accompanied by beautiful Dayak music. Though as usual, it was still us white foreigners who seemed to be the biggest spectacle, with everyone wanting a photo from us. We were even pulled into the parade! I couldn't understand why since they were dressed so beautifully!



The next celebration we saw was one of the most crazy things I've seen in my life. Known as sepak bola api or 'fire football', players risk the hairs on their legs to kick around a flaming coconut dowsed in kerosene. It was incredibly exciting to watch (much better than normal football ;) ), and there was a lot of unexpected (and unwanted by some!) audience participation! The flaming ball was regularly kicked into the crowd, smacking people in the leg, arm and head! Health and safety has definitely not reached this place yet... great fun though!


The flaming ball whilst players took a time out. You could actually see the burns on their legs!

We also went to see a large boat competition on the Kahayan river. This was a kind of fusion between Dayak and Chinese culture, with the boats adorning Chinese dragons mixed with Dayak designs. Instead of standing on the shore, we chartered a boat to get the best views, following the competitors up and down the river. The boats was very impressive, albeit some a little unsteady at times, violently swaying back and forth due to the weight of their decorations! (Though amazing, no competitors took a dip in the murky Kahayan during the event!).



It was great to come out of the forest bubble for a bit and experience the local Dayak culture. My only regret is not getting the chance to have a go at sepak bola api!

43 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All