The Dayaks of Borneo are the original, non-Muslim, indigenous people of this huge island – the third largest in the world.
Traditionally they lived in the dense rainforest areas along the upper reaches of the big rivers of Borneo, in small communities of 200 to 300 people based around their iconic longhouses, known as betang or lamin.
Built along the river banks, on 5-8m high stilts to provide some natural circulation, the longhouses were typically about 150m long and divided longitudinally with a long communal veranda area called the ruai on one side, and a row of individual family units known as biliks on the other.
It was common for up to 50 families, meaning about 250 people, to live in one longhouse – truly communal living!
Most Dayak villages lived a subsistence lifestyle based on the shifting cultivation of hill rice as a staple food, supplemented by fishing and hunting for the rest of their food needs.
But it was their reputation as headhunters, together with their use of poison darts and blowpipes to kill their enemies and prey, that has created a degree of mystique about the Dayaks.
Although I have yet to do it personally, it is still possible to see real Dayak settlements in Borneo – be it in the remote areas of Sarawak in what is now East Malaysia, or upstream of the big rivers in the various parts of Indonesian Kalimantan.
However a couple of years ago, while I was in East Kalimantan on business, I took the opportunity to visit the Pampang Cultural Tourism Village near the large town of Samarinda.
Pampang is, in my opinion, an unfortunate example of how good intentions can go sadly wrong… At the time, all I knew about it was that if you got there on a Sunday by a certain time there would be a display of Dayak culture and an opportunity to photograph “real Dayaks” with their elongated long ears, stretched as they have been by the wearing of heavy copper rings.
As Pampang was on my route north from Samarinda, and I would be there on a Sunday, I figured I might as well seize the opportunity. But from the moment we were shepherded in to the replica longhouse, to the “master of ceremonies” beginning his monolog about what we could and could not do, it just did not feel right.
The centerpiece of the Dayak culture display was the females of the village, dressed in traditional clothes, and dancing to the music produced by a group of similarly attired local men – all of which created the impression of something carefully crafted for the vistors…
For me, the face of one of those musicians kind of says it all and clearly this was a chore he was not enjoying.
The young girls from the village were trying their best to look enthusiastic about their performance, but they obviously just did not have their hearts in it and gave the overall impression that they were only dancing because they had been told to do so.
The older women did not even make the pretense of enjoying the experience and gave the distinct impression that if it came down to dancing for tourists, or a root canal treatment, they would probably opt for the latter…
That said, now that I have finally got round to writing something about my experience at Pampang, I felt I should do some research about the place.
It turns out that there is an interesting story behind the facade of the Cultural Tourism Village which helps to explain why it struck me like it did.
The Dayaks of Pampang belong to the Kenyah tribe and their forebears lived a nomadic existence along the banks of Kayan River, up in the remote highland region of Apo Kayan near the border with Malaysian Sarawak, in what is now East Kalimantan.
In the 1960’s, when the Indonesian President Sukarno initiated “konfrontasi“ with the newly-formed country of Malaysia, he launched what was basically a de-facto guerrilla into Sarawak from Apo Kayan. British troops, deployed in Sarawak to protect the area responded with their own forays into the Indonesian side of the border, which resulted in many of the Kenyah tribe moving out of the Apo Kayan highlands in search of safer areas.
Pampang’s first settlers arrived in the early 1970s, after a very difficult journey through the jungle and the dangerous rapids of the mighty rivers of Kalimantan. The area was uninhabited at that time and they went there because one of the Kenyah Dayaks had spotted the land while working for a timber company.
Things were very tough for the new settlers as they established their village and crops. So much so that in the early 1990s, the village leaders decided to try and promote Pampang as a “culture village”.
Today, some 700 people live in Pampang and it would appear that tourism provides a significant part of the village’s collective income – which I think is a good thing if they can generate money from their cultural heritage.
But what is not so good is the apparent attitude of “entitlement” the villagers have, whereby the tourists who visit Pampang seem to be taken completely for granted.
Even worse is the attitude of the younger villagers when they see somebody with a camera…
The charge to attend the cultural show was 15,000 IDR on the day I visited, which was roughly US$1.5 at that time and obviously not a large amount.
If you want to take photographs there is an additional charge of 25,000 IDR.
Again this is OK if it were not for the fact that if you want to take photos of the couple of original Dayak men who are there with their traditional earrings, or the kids who are dressed traditionally, it is 25,000 IDR for three photos and believe me they are counting!
I initially thought it was a joke, or at best a degree of ambit… But no, they are very serious and it quickly gets heated if you question it!
Call me skeptical if you will, but I got the distinct impression that the kids were encouraged to take this very mercenary approach and I was extremely disenchanted with the whole thing.
I really do dislike stuff like this – it’s not the money, it’s the attitude that grates and the more the villagers of Pampang can screw out if the Sunday visitors the worse that entitlement mentality will get.
Should you visit Pampang Dayak village – in my opinion, no…
Indonesia has 300 million people, at least 1/2 are impoverished, even in big cities like Jakarta. Being thousands of miles away from the capitol, they have to make do. You should compare them with the Filipinos and Indians and Brazilians….. Countries with many people and big gap in incomes.