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An encounter with a fellow Kayan at Putussibau, Indonesia

A view of Putussibau from the plane.

Putussibau, the capital of the Indonesian regency Kapuas Hulu, is the last market town on the Kapuas river.

Located in the northeastern part of West Kalimantan, it is close to the Indonesia-Malaysian Sarawak border. It is the tourists’ gateway to Danau Sentarum and Betung Kerihun national parks.

From the perspective of a Malaysian Kayan, Putussibau is the gateway to Mendalam, Mahakam and other rivers where the Indonesian Kayan people mostly reside.

After I posted a photo of Putussibau Pangsuma Airport on Instagram (as most Gen Y and millennials do) during my short pit stop at Putussibau, I was bombarded with comments and personal messages from my relatives.

Beside asking me to look for Kayan inu (beads) as souvenirs, my relatives also urged me to meet and talk to as many Kayans as I could.

And I did! I had a brief meeting with Fransiska Mening, a Kayan from Mendalam who owned a handicraft shop at Putussibau called Kerawing Gallery and Art.

One of the streets in Putussibau.

From one Kayan to another

Some of the beaded handicrafts in Fransiska’s shop.

According to Fransiska, the Kayan of Kalimantan still hold tight to their customs and cultural practices to this day.

She herself was proud of the hand-tapped tattoos on her forearms. Fransiska shared, “There is an ongoing effort by the government to record the different kind of tattoo patterns among the Kayan women here. We are still working on it.”

Fransiska’s tattoo patterns are like nothing I have seen before on any Kayan woman in Sarawak. While most tattoo patterns fully cover their forearms, Fransiska’s tattoos were in spiral patterns like ferns.

In Sarawak, it is a pattern more often found in wood carvings and traditional dress but not as a tattoo.

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The tattoos on Fransiska’s forearm.

Kayan and blowpipe shooting

Fransiska inherited these old beads from her late grandmother.

The Kayan, like most tribes on the island of Borneo, chose the blowpipe as their preferred weapon when it came to hunting or wartime.

According to author Peter Metcalf, 19th century ethnologists were curious as to why the Bornean people (who advanced to using iron tools) did not develop the bow and arrow like most other cultures around the world.

The reason lies in Borneo’s topography and landscape. Metcalf wrote “For hunting, they (bows) are ineffective because the dense vegetation seldom allows a clear shot.”

“For pigs or deer, a combination of dogs and spears brings the best results. In regard to small game in the lower branches of trees, such as birds and monkeys, they are easily shot with darts.”

Furthermore, he argued that it was difficult to shoot an arrow at such steep angles, and once you lose your arrows, it was impossible to recover them in the thick Bornean jungle.

It takes strong forearms and a steady base to shoot the blowpipe with accuracy.

Blowpipe shooting as a hobby

A traditional blowpipe like this can also work as a spear.

While the blowpipe is no longer used to hunt or shoot one’s enemies, Fransiska and her family picked It up as a hobby.

“Everyone in my family has his or her own blowpipe. It is more hygienic that way,” she said. And they take their blowpipe shooting seriously, participating in local competitions including the annual Danau Sentarum Festival.

Fransiska was quick to show some of the blowpipes in her shop as well as those from her personal collection.

There were made of different types of wood with intricate carvings. The one made from belian wood was heavier and of course, more expensive.

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She also owned a more traditional blowpipe which comes with a spearhead at the end, doing double duty as a spear and a blowpipe.

It’s similar to what my family have at home. Unlike Fransiska, however, our blowpipe once used by our ancestors to hunt is now displayed as a decorative item in the living room. (Perhaps now is the right time to dust the blowpipe and shoot some darts.)

An example of non-poisonous darts. These types of darts used to be soaked with poison for hunting in the olden days.

The differences in Kayan dialects

After coming back from Putussibau, my family bombarded us with many questions. One question that stood out was, “Do the Kayan speak closer to Belaga accent or Baram accent?”

In Sarawak, the Kayan language can be primarily divided into three dialects of these three rivers where they mostly settled; Tubau, Belaga and Baram.

From there, the dialects can be vastly different from each other, even though they’re from the same area, depending on which longhouses they are from.

The differences are in the accents, tones and certain words,  much as you would imagine English being spoken in a Scottish, Irish and British accent. Most of the time, however, all Kayans can understand each other.

So when it came to the Indonesian Kayan dialect, I found that they had accent on their own; not as fast-spoken as the Tubau accent and not as melodic as the Baram accent.

Apart from the accents, I also noticed some of their vocabulary were distinctively their own, different from any Sarawakian Kayan dialects.

A decoration with Kayan motif and Catholic influence.

Sharing the same roots from Apo Kayan

It is hard to choose from all these different variety of woven bracelets.

Whether you are a Kayan from West Kalimantan or Sarawak, we all have the same understanding that our ancestors come from Apo Kayan.

It is located at the Kayan river, Bulungan Regency at East Kalimantan. Their migration from the ancestral land in Apo Kayan began in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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From there, they settled in Sarawak of Baram and Rajang rivers as well as upper Kapuas and Mahakam rivers.

Even though the Kayans now have been divided by political boundaries of Malaysia-Indonesia, it does not stop them from visiting each other.

Many trips have been organised by different Kayan longhouses communities, mostly from Sarawak to Kalimantan.

According to Fransiska, the Kayan from Kalimantan are planning to return the favour next year.

“There will be a group from Putussibau driving through the Badau-Lubok Antu border maybe sometime in April and May next year. We are planning to visit Belaga and see how is it like there.”

Fransiska Mening.

Saying goodbye to Putussibau

The Kayan people, particularly the women, have a unique way of air-kissing each other when they greet or say goodbye.

They touch each other cheek-to-cheek twice but instead of being accompanied by the ‘mwah’ sound with their lips, they give a small sniff.

It is commonly practiced among family members and usually those whom you are affectionate with.

Growing up, I distinctly remember hearing those sniffing sounds every time I kissed my grandparents goodbye. To this day, it is still the way my family shows their affection.

When I bid my farewells to Fransiska, the soft sniffing sound from her air-kiss reminds me it is undeniable that the Kayans still share the same strong roots despite our differences in nationality.

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Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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