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Heart of Borneo

The Lun Bawang legend of a giant man named Temueng

Long time ago, there was a giant man named Temueng and his friend named Pengiran who first lived at Kemaloh in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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According to legends, these people were believed to be the ancestors of Lun Bawang people.

Benedict Sandin in his paper The Bisayah and Indigenous Peoples of Limbang, Sandin recorded the life journey of this Lun Bawang legendary hero.

“Temueng and Pengiran were much ashamed that they could not defeat in battle chief enemy named Yada. Therefore Temueng moved from Kemaloh to Punang Trusan, and Pengiran also moved and settled at Illot, now in Indonesian Borneo,” Sandin wrote.

The life of Temueng

Legend has it that owing to the extraordinary size of the body, Temueng could easily eat one whole pig per meal. He was also rumoured to be a very strong man.

Meanwhile, Abdul Karim Abdul Rahman in his paper History of the founding of Brunei Kingdom Based on Oral Tradition (2016) pointed out that Temueng was Upai Semaring’s son.

He is another giant who is a Lundayeh legend from the Krayan Highlands, Kalimantan.

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Upai Semaring hill, where he allegedly lived in Krayan Highlands.

When he lived in the Ulu Trusan, he carved a number of rocks and the posts of his house were all made of rocks which are still intact at that location to this day.

According to Sandin, while at Punang Trusan, Temueng lived at the present day Semado Nesab village.

His house there was surrounded by wide and deep drains for protection against invasion by his enemies.

While Temueng was living at Long Lopeng, hundreds of Kayan came to attack him. Also known as Luping, Long Lopeng is a settlement in the Lawas division.

When the enemy came, he was reportedly at ease smoking his pipe.

But when they came, he knocked each one of them on the head with his pipe and killed them all.

A giant bigger than Temueng?

Another story circles around Temueng; one day Temueng went out hunting animals in the forest.

He found a huge coil of rattan which could be used in a fish trap.

Thinking that the coiled rattan cane was a leg ornament, he put his leg into it.

But the coil was bigger than Temueng’s leg, and this frightened him. Temueng immediately thought there was a giant bigger than him living in the area.

While Temueng was not afraid of those who were smaller than him, he was afraid of people bigger than him.

Terrified, he fled from Long Lopeng and down the Trusan river to live at the foot of a mountain near Long Merarap. It is believed that is where he stayed until he died.

The Lun Bawang people after the death of Temueng

It is unsure how Temueng died but the Lun Bawang people still remember him even many years on after his death.

In memory of his settlements on the upper Trusan river, the Lun Bawang people from Kemaloh moved to the lands between the headwaters of Trusan and Limbang rivers.

They moved there in small groups, each group gradually followed by others.

Expanding their territory, they moved down the Trusan till they were attacked by the Kayans.

According to Sandin, the Lun Bawang successfully repulsed the Kayans, driving them away.

To this day, the Lun Bawang still settle in various areas of Lawas and Limbang regions.

10 reasons you should visit Krayan Highlands in the Heart of Borneo

The Krayan Highlands in the Heart of Borneo is an enchanting place located at an altitude between 760 and 1200 meters.

Unlike the lowlands of Borneo which is known for its hot and humid climate, this place offers cool weather and chilly winds, especially at night.

Located in North Kalimantan, Indonesia, the highlands lie right along the border with Sarawak and Sabah of Malaysia.

Administrative-wise, the highlands are divided into five-sub-districts in the Nunukan District.

Long Bawan works as its centre with connecting flights from Indonesian towns of Nunukan, Tarakan and Malinau.

Visitors can also visit the highlands by road from Ba Kelalan, Sarawak.

The Heart of Borneo is an initiative of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia to preserve and maintain the sustainability of Borneo’s last remaining rainforest.

Part of the conservation done for the initiative is to improve the conservation management in the area and documenting traditional ecological knowledge.

Here are 10 reasons why you should visit the Krayan Highlands in the Heart of Borneo:
1.For the biodiversity at the Heart of Borneo Highlands
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A pitcher plant.

Most parts of the Krayan Highlands are covered by heath forest. The locals call it tana’ payeh.

There you can find unique flora and fauna including pitcher plants and various kinds of wild orchids.

2.Learn about the culture of Lundayeh people
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The Krayan Highlands are home to mostly Lundayeh people.

The highlands are the homeland of several thousand Dayak community especially the Lundayeh. Besides them, there are also the Kelabit, Sa’ban and Penan people living there.

The best place to learn about Lundayeh culture is at Cultural Field School near Trang Baru village.

It is a space for cultural celebrations as well as where you can learn about traditional music and dances.

The school is initiated by Formadat (Forum of the Indigenous People of the Highlands of Borneo) in collaboration with WWF-Indonesia.

There you can also learn traditional wood carving and rattan weaving.

3.Visit ancient burial sites called “perupun”
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The ruins of a perupun.

Forget about the pyramids, “perupun” are ancient Lundayeh burial sites that can be found in the Krayan Highlands.

Villages including Pa Rupai, Terang Baru, Long Umung, Pa Raye, Long Layu, Long Api and Pa Kebuan all have perupun of their own.

These ancient graves were built by piling up dozens of huge stones on the burial ground.

However, nobody really knows how the olden communities of Krayan Highlands were able to do that.

4.Visit the mysterious crocodile mounds

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A crocodile mound which is now covered in vegetation.

Here is another mysterious archaeological site of the Krayan Highlands; the crocodile mounds.

The ancestors of Lundayeh people built them as a sign of bravery especially after returning from a successful headhunting trip.

These crocodile mounds can be found in places like Long Midang, Tang Payeh, Terang Baru and Long Layu.

Most of the heads of these crocodiles were built facing the river. This was to protect the community who built them from enemies coming from the river.

The unexplainable part of these mounds is that, there are no crocodiles in Krayan Highlands.

5.Watch how mountain salt is processed

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Natural salt brine being boiled in a salt production house in Long Midang.

Mountain salt is one of the most important sources of livelihood of the Krayan Highlands.

Salt production occurs all-year round but is more intensive when the locals are not working on their rice fields.

Most of production houses where this salt is processed are a humble building made from wooden planks with zinc roof.

There, the brine from salt springs are boiled for at least 24 hours before the crystallised salt is dried and packaged for marketing.

Make sure you buy some as souvenirs before you go home.

6.Enjoy the scenic view of paddy farms
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The view of Krayan Highlands paddy fields from a plane.

The main source of income for the locals Krayan Highlands is paddy farming.

These paddy farms offer scenic view of the highlands regardless of the season. The local farmers start to prepare the rice seedlings in July and then they begin to plant. The harvesting period is usually starts late December until February.

While buffaloes are commonly found in the highlands, they are only used to trample the paddy field and eating the weeds.

The rice from Krayan Highlands has the certificate of Geographic Indication (GI), thanks to the unique characteristics of this rice.

Known as adan rice, it comes in red, white and black colours.

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A black adan rice.
7.Take a look at rock art
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A Batu Narit in Pa Rupai village of Krayan Highlands.

Batu Narit is a form of rock art found in several places in the Krayan Highlands including Pa Rupai village.

The one in Pa Rupai have several motives including a snake and some geometrical shapes.

Nobody knows who exactly carved these rocks and the meanings behind these motives.

8.Take a sip of Krayan’s ‘Fountain of Youth’
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Wash your face at the Fountain of Youth of Borneo.

Locally known as Air Bunga, the small stream named Ba’ Sarang is the Krayan version of Fountain of Youth.

Locals believe the water flows from the stream has anti-aging properties as well as healing powers.

The stream is located five-minute walk from the town hall of Tang Payeh village.

Even if you do not believed in the water’s miraculous power, a walk to the stream passing through paddy field is therapeutic enough.

9.Have a gastronomic adventure of Lundayeh food
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Some of Lundayeh delicacies.

The Lundayeh people have their own unique culinary food which are made from their own farms and jungle produce.

Their desserts and pastries are mostly made from rice flour, which is widely available.

One of their must-try dishes is biter, a type of rice porridge cooked with different vegetables such as cassava leaves and ginger flower.

Additionally, there are so many fruits to choose from and all of them are locally sourced.

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Terap or tarap fruit.
10.Hike up the hill of legendary hero Yuvai Semaring
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How the top of Yuvai Semaring hill looks like from afar.

If trekking is your thing then you cannot miss a visit up the hill of Yuvai Semaring.

The hill stands about 1,100 meters offering hikers the beautiful view of Krayan Highlands settlements.

On the top of the hill, hikers can also explore the mountain ranges which border the highlands to Sarawak and Sabah.

It takes only less than an hour to climb. A trip to the Krayan Highlands is definitely incomplete without looking at the highlands from the top of Yuvai Semaring.

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The legend of how salt springs were discovered in Krayan Highlands

The legend of how salt springs were discovered in the Krayan Highlands according to the locals

Long time ago, the whole area of Krayan Highlands was a thick forest. Then came a man who saw that there were many pigeons (burung punai) in the area.

So the man took out his blowpipe and shot one of the birds. He quickly dressed the bird, plucking out its feathers. As he was looking for a water source to clean the bird, the man saw there was a spring nearby.

After washing the bird, he returned home, where he quickly roasted it.

Once the man tasted the bird, he was overwhelmed by its taste. He wondered what could have made the bird tast so delicious.

So the man returned to where he caught the bird, retracing his steps until he figured out that it must have been the water which made the bird tasty.

He dipped his finger into the spring and discovered that the water was actually salty. The man then told his fellow villagers about his find, and they started to cook their dishes using the saltwater from the spring.

At first, they just poured the saltwater into their dishes when they cooked.

Eventually, the villagers figured out how to process the saltwater into brine, and it has been practiced by the residents of Krayan Highlands for generations.

Salt production in Long Midang
A salt spring in Long Midang, Kalimantan.
The current salt springs of Krayan Highlands

Located in North Kalimantan, Indonesia, the Krayan Highlands at the Heart of Borneo have 33 known salt springs.

However, not all are fully operational these days. But how can these salt springs be found in the highlands of an altitude between 760 and 1,200 meters?

It is believed that the salt springs were formed by high salinity water flowing from deep in the soil strata where it was trapped million of years ago when the area was covered by seawater.

The local Lundayeh people call the mountain salt tucu’ and have traded it throughout the interior of Borneo.

Apart from salt springs, mineral licks or salts licks can also be found in the highlands. The locals them rupan where animals can go to lick essential mineral nutrients from it.

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Saltwater is boiled to turn into brine.

Read about how mountain salt is processed at Long Midang, Kalimantan here.

The aftermath of the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation at Long Bawan

Located at North Kalimantan, Indonesia, Long Bawan is a small town with a small airport which has become the only gateway via air to Krayan Highlands.

Looking back on its history, it was one of the combat operations sites between British Commonwealth forces and Indonesian armies during the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation.

The confrontation which started in early 1963 was caused by Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia.

By December 1964, there was a build-up of Indonesian forces on the Kalimantan border. This caused the British government to commit significant forces from the UK-based Army Strategic Command and Australia and New Zealand to Borneo in 1965-66.

On the Indonesian side, the fight was led by Indonesian Army special forces (Resimen Para Komando Angkatan Darat or RPKAD).

Additionally, they recruited the North Kalimantan National Army or Tentera Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU).

During the confrontation, hundreds of Indonesian civilians had been loosely trained as part of TNKU.

Most of them were unemployed urban youth scrounged from cities in Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

Since the battles mostly happened at the Indonesian-Malaysian border in Kalimantan, some of them were posted in Long Bawan (Indonesia).

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A view of Long Bawan paddy field. Perhaps this was where parachuters landed in 1968.
TNKU members who were left at Long Bawan

Although the confrontation had been officially declared over in August 1966, the mission was technically not over for Indonesian forces.

There were TNKU members abandoned and left behind at their border camps including in Long Bawan.

To make matter worse, the Indonesian government reportedly did not bother to disarm the army-volunteers, leaving them with weapons such as heavy machine guns and mortars.

Kenneth J. Conboy wrote in Kopasses: Inside Indonesia’s Special Forces that the ready supply of weapons and unemployed volunteers became a volatile combination.

Conboy wrote, “By late 1967, Jakarta had received reports that the former TNKU partisans were stealing food and raping women in the Long Bawan vicinity. Colonel Mung, the former RPKAD commander now serving as head of the military region, reported that the outgunned local government was screaming for help.”

Jakarta was reportedly in a fix when the government heard this news. In response, they sent out two groups from RPKAD which was led by Captain Alex Setiabudi and Captain Kentot Harseno.

Both captains had previously served at Long Bawan.

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The small township of Long Bawan.

The two groups assembled at Cijantung during the first week of January 1968. Since there were no suitable runways, the units would be making a combat jump into paddies a half-hour trek east of Long Bawan.

“Although they would be parachuting with their weapons- including two rocket launchers – they were correctly concerned about opposition they might face. The ex-volunteers, after all, were better armed and knew the lay of the land after living there for almost four years,” Conboy wrote.

RPKAD came bearing gifts

Then Captain Kentot had an idea. Instead of going in with full force, they decided to go with gifts like food, writing pads and clothes.

His idea was adopted in and operation code-named Operation Linud X (“Airborne X”). On Jan 10, 1968, the groups made their jumps after light into Long Bawan.

The military units had expected to face difficulties from the former TNKU volunteers. However, it was the terrains of Krayan Highlands that gave them a hard time. Several of the commandos landed, drifting far from their marks, mostly in paddy fields and swamp.

Meanwhile, Captain Kentot landed in mud up to his armpits and nearly drowned. One of the pallets carrying a rocket launcher was even lost during the jump.

Nonetheless, the commandos managed to regroup at Long Bawan village where its chief greeted them like old friends.

After finding out their mission, the chief tasked some of his villagers to collect all weapons from nearby cache sites.

Surprisingly, the abandoned TNKU members were extremely tame. They took the gifts kindly and offered up their weapons without any resistance.

Four months later, all of the commandos were packing to leave. Due to some difficulties with their transport, they were forced to hike to the nearest river landing. According to Conboy, they were back on Java by June after a speedboat shuttle toward the coast.

“For once, what had the potential for being another festering security challenge had been resolved without firing a shot,” Conboy recorded.

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The new building at Yuvai Semaring airport in construction.
The physical remnants of the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation at Long Bawan

While confrontation now only remained in memories for the Krayan Highlands elders (which they refer to as ‘konfrontasi’), there are some physical remnants left behind at Long Bawan.

This small town was also the crash site of an Indonesian plane during Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation.

On Sept 26, 1965 during the confrontation, a C-130 plane was shot down near Long Bawan.

Ironically, the plane was shot down by Indonesian anti-craft fire, as it was mistaken for a Commonwealth aircraft.

It was carrying an RPKAD platoon from Java on orders to “neutralise” a gun position on the border ridge.

After the aircraft was hit, the RPKAD members parachuted out before it caught fire and crashed.

The wreckage of the plane is still at Long Bawan to this day.

Meanwhile, the locals also found the rocket launcher that was lost when Captain Kentot and his units parachuted in 1968.

It is now on display at Krayan’s Kepolisian Sektor or Polsek (Police District office).

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Photocopying services at Long Bawan.

How salt was obtained in the olden days of Borneo

Salt plays an important role in not just Sarawakian cuisine, but in Borneo overall.

Besides seasoning, every community, whether they were Iban, Bidayuh or Kadazandusun, used salt as a means to preserve their food.

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Here are just five ways how salt was obtained in Borneo back when there were no supermarkets:

Salt is such an available commodity for us today; we can simply buy it from any grocery store or supermarket. Have you ever wondered how the olden communities of Borneo used to get it back in those days?

1.Nipah palm

Nipah salt or garam attap is salt processed from the mature leaves of the nipah palm, Nypa fruticans.

Here in Borneo, nipah palm grows wild and abundantly along coastal areas, especially in Borneo.

The palms are constantly washed by saltwater daily and this salt can be processed from the leaves.

Unlike conventional salt, it has a smoky flavour as well as the aroma of dried nipah leaves.  

Here is how Reverend Andrew Horsburgh in Sketches in Borneo described nipah salt processing:

”The chief condiment of the Dyaks is salt, which they procure from the nipah palm, and which they much prefer to that obtained by evaporation from seawater. The boughs of the nipa are cut, dried, and burnt, and their ashes washed in water, so as to dissolve the salt contained in them. This water being then allowed to run off clear is evaporated in pans, the salt remaining at the bottom of the vessel. It is a dirty grey and often black-looking substance, processing a slightly bitter taste, which is grateful to the palate of the Dyaks; and it is generally produced in a masses of considerable size and as hard as a stone, it has much the appearance of a mineral that has been dug out of the earth.”


According to Captain Thomas Forrest in A Voyage to New Guinea and the Moluccas from Balambangan (1780), the Bajau would gather seaweed, burn them, make a lye of the ashes, filter it and finally form a bitter kind of salt.

Salted fish, a common delicacy found in Sabah and Sarawak.
3.Mangrove roots and nipah palm

Meanwhile, Spenser St John recorded how salt was processed at the foot of Mount Kinabalu.

“They burnt the roots of the mangrove with those of the nipah palms as well as wood collected on the sea-beach and therefore impregnated with salt.

In one place, I noticed a heal, perhaps fifteen feet in height, sheltered by a rough covering of palm leaves, and several men were about checking all attempts of the flames to burst though by throwing saltwater over the pile. This doubtless, renders the process much more productive. In one very large shed, they had a kind of rough furnace, where they burnt the wood; and suspended around were many baskets in which the rough remains of the fire are placed, and the whole then soaked in water and stirred about till the salt is supposed to have been extracted from the charcoal and ashes. The liquid is the boiled, in large iron pans purchased from the Chinese.”

4.Seawater and ashes of driftwood

In The Gardens of the Sun, British explorer and tropical plant collector Frederick William Burbidge detailed how the Kedayans used a combination of seawater and ash to obtain their salts.

“The ashes of driftwood are placed in a tub and seawater poured over them. To evaporate the water, receptacles are neatly made from the sheaths of the Nibong palm, fastened into shape by slender wooden skewers. Two logs are then laid parallel to each other, and a foot or fifteen inches apart, and over these the pans are placed close together, so as to form a rude kind of flue, in the which a fire of light brushwood is lighted, and very soon afterwards the salt maybe observed falling to the bottom of the evaporators.”

5.Salt springs
Salt production in Long Midang
Salt spring in the Krayan Highlands.

Even to this day, the people of Bario and Ba Kelalan Highlands (Malaysia) as well as Krayan Highlands in (Indonesia) still use salt springs to make salt.

The water from these natural springs is boiled and evaporated for an extended period of time before it is dried to form salt.

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An example of how saltwater is processed traditionally these days.

Read how salt springs are processed in Long Midang, Krayan in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Air Bunga, the Fountain of Youth in the Krayan Highlands

Air Bunga the miraculous healing stream of Krayan Highlands
The Fountain of Youth for Krayan Highlands is rather accessible.

Tales of the fountain of youth have been recounted across the world for centuries. Supposedly, it is a spring that restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its water.

Up on the valley of Krayan Highlands in North Kalimantan, Indonesia, there is a small stream which might be the local equivalent of the fountain of youth.

Located at an altitude between 760m and 1200m, the Krayan Highlands in the Heart of Borneo is an important site to maintain the sustainability of Borneo’s last remaining of rainforests.

The Dayak Lundayeh people there call it Air Bunga (or flower water in Indonesian language).

It is water that flows from a small stream named Ba’ Sarang near the village of Tang Paye.

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Wash your face with Air Bunga and you might wash away some wrinkles.
Air Bunga, the healing water used for generations
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Besides washing your face, you can also drink the water straight from the bamboo pipes.

Located about 5-minutes walk from the village hall, the water has been used for generations by Lundayeh people living in the Krayan Highlands.

Just like the Fountain of Youth, the locals believe the water has anti-aging properties as well as healing powers.

According to local guide Alex Ballang, the locals would collect the water and keep some for storage at home.

Those who live in the surrounding villages besides Tang Payeh, would also come and take some Air Bunga for various reasons.

“If you have itchiness on your body or even your eyes, you can take a bath using this water or go to the stream to take a dip,” Alex said.

The locals also use it to clean their wounds, believing it would prevent infections.

Besides using Air Bunga externally, the locals also consume it believing it would cure minor sicknesses such as stomachache.

Some even use the water for daily activities such as cooking.

Another reason why the locals believe that Air Bunga is a miraculous source of water, is that it never run dries even during drought season.

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The water never run dries even during dry season.
Conserving Air Bunga
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The walk to Ba’ Sarang requires visitors to stroll through paddy fields.

Nobody really knows how Air Bunga was discovered. Regardless, this traditional knowledge has been passed down for so long that the current generation decided to conserve the miraculous stream.

They built a small concrete dam to collect the water and use two simple bamboo pipes for the water to flow.

To maintain the place, the villagers do not allow any clearing of the forest near the stream.

Additionally, they are looking forward to the area to becoming a tourist attraction site. The villagers strongly suggest those who visit the place for the first time to bathe or wash their faces there. With that, the visitors can experience first-hand the healing properties of Air Bunga.

It does not matter if the water of Ba’ Sarang is truly miraculous or not, Air Bunga is another reason why the Heart of Borneo initiative is an area like no places in the world.

This initiative of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia aims to improve management and governance of protected areas while documenting important biodiversity areas that are conserved by local communities.

While it is important to protect an forest area for its environmental value, it is equally important to conserve it for its cultural value just like this Krayan Highlands’ Fountain of Youth.

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Whether it is truly the Fountain of Youth, it is still nice and chilling to wash your face with Air Bunga.

5 things to know about Kayan river, North Kalimantan

While in Sarawak we have Batang Kayan river in Lundu, in North Kalimantan they have their own Kayan river too.

North Kalimantan borders the Malaysian states of Sabah to the north and Sarawak to the west, and by the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan to the south.

Although they both flow on the same island of Borneo, both rivers are located at the opposite sides of each other.

Malaysia’s Batang Kayan is at the western tip of Sarawak while Indonesia’s Kayan river flows in the north eastern side of Kalimantan.

Here are 5 things to know about North Kalimantan’s Kayan river:
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The view of Kayan river during sunrise.
1.Kayan river stretches for 576km.

Sarawak’s Batang Kayan is 125km long while the one in North Kalimantan province is way longer at 576km. It flows from Mount Ukeng, passing Tanjung Selor city and discharges into Sulawesi Sea.

Tanjung Selor city is the capital of North Kalimantan province and also the capital of Bulungan regency.

2.It is the main transportation route for the peoples in inland regions of North Kalimantan.
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River transportations such as this speed boat plays an important role for the people who lived along Kayan river.

Most of the settlements in North Kalimantan are not well connected with road networks. So the communities living particularly in Malinau and Bulungan regencies use river transportation such as traditional boats and speedboats to commute.

The ports in Tarakan offer ferry transportation services to Tanjung Selor around the clock from morning to evening via Kayan river.

Plus, it is the main route for goods and other supplies to enter this inland regions of North Kalimantan.

Otherwise, most of North Kalimantan residents, especially those who live at the Sabah-Sarawak border may rely on trading with Malaysia for supplies.

3.It was named after the Kayan people who live along the river.
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The river was named after the Kayan people who lived along the river.

In Kalimantan, the Kayan people live along the upper Kayan and the middle Kapuas and Mahakam rivers.

Meanwhile in Sarawak, they settled along the Baram, Balui, Belaga, Tubau rivers.

4.Along the Kayan river was where the Sultanate of Bulungan reigned.

Speaking of the Kayan people, here comes an interesting story of how the ethnogenesis of Bulungan people was formed.

Long time ago, there was a group of Kayan people from Uma Apan in the interior region of Apo Kayan highlands.

They expanded their territory and then settled down near the east coast of Kalimantan.

Around 1650, a princess of the group married a man from Brunei. The marriage founded a Hindu lineage which settled in Tanjung Selor.
About a century later, the dynasty converted to Islam and the rulers took the title of Sultan.

The last Sultan Jalaluddin passed away in 1958 and the Sultanate was subsequently abolished in 1959. Now the territory is a kabupaten or regency.

5. It is one of the main rivers flowing through Kayan Mentarang National Park
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Kayan Mentarang National Park is accessible by longboats via Kayan river.

Located at the border between Indonesia and Malaysia, Kayan Mentarang National Park is one of the few places in Borneo which is densely forested.

It is also a fundamental site to the WWF Heart of Borneo. It is an initiative which aims to protect the transboundary biodiversity of Borneo.

Animals found in the park include Malayan pangolin, long-tailed macaque, Bornean gibbon, clouded leopard, different kinds of hornbills and many more.

So if you are heading to the park via Kayan river, you might be lucky to appreciate some of these endangered species along the way.

Hiking up the hill of legendary Lundayeh hero Upai Semaring

The mystical story of Upai Semaring (spelled as Yuvai Semaring in Indonesia) is unlike other local legends. It transcends international boundaries, from the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, to Long Pa’ Sia in Sabah and even to Brunei.

However, his legend started from theKrayan Highlands in North Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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Signage leading up to Yuvai Semaring hill which measures 1,103 dari permukaan laut (above sea level).

The legend of Upai Semaring in Krayan

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Visitors need to cross a traditional makeshift bridge consisting of logs before making their ascent up the hill.

Since stories of his legendary exploits can be found among the Lun Bawang people in Sarawak and the Lundayeh people in Sabah, here is the Krayan Highlands’ version of Upai Semaring.

According to local guide Alex Ballang, Upai Semaring once lived in a cave on a hill in Long Bawan.

Upai Semaring was considered a local hero because of his fierce defense of the people, taking his stand on the top of this hill looking out for the enemy. (The hill became synonymous with him that it was named Yuvai Semaring hill or ‘bukit Yuvai Semaring’.)

Back in those days, headhunting was rampant. The hill worked as a watch tower for Upai Semaring looking out for headhunters from what we know as Sarawak and Sabah today.

Even before the enemy could even reach the Krayan Highlands, he would warn his people to be prepared. So the people of Krayan were always able to defeat their enemies.

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A flag pole on the top of Yuvai Semaring hill.

Upai Semaring: An ancestor of current day Brunei Sultanate?

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After some time, Upai Semaring left Krayan to explore, ending up in several places including Ba Kelalan, Long Pa’ Sia and Brunei.

In Brunei, there are many stories of how Upai Semaring became the ancestor of the Brunei Sultanate.

One legend has it there was a huge dragon living on the coast of Brunei, guarding a pearl. A king in Brunei offered up his daughter’s hand in marriage to anybody who could retrieve the pearl .

Since Upai Semaring was a giant, he was able to defeat the dragon and get the pearl. He married the princess, and it is believed that Upai Semaring’s descendants are today’s Brunei royal family.

Another version of the story has it that he was known as Awang Semaun in Brunei.

The sultan of Brunei back then was very fascinated by Awang Semaun’s strength that he offered one of his daughters to him in marriage.

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The view of the summit from where Upai Semaring watched for his enemies.

Upai Semaring, the mystical blacksmith

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The morning mist covering the top of the Krayan Highlands

Upai Semaring is renowned for his mystical powers; one of them being able to make a good parang.

“There is one spot near this hill where you can leave your parang and ask Upai Semaring to make it into a good blade. Come back the next day and your parang will be sharpest parang you could ever asked for,” Alex shared.

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Alex Ballang

Although Upai Semaring travelled to so many places and died hundreds of years ago, his spirit is believed to have returned to the Krayan Highlands where it still lingers to this day.

No one to this day has ever claimed to have actually seen him, but his legend is still so strong that sometimes people say they can see campfire light coming from his cave, saying that it is him.

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A view of the cave where Upai Semaring used to live.

Hiking up Yuvai Semaring hill

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A group of media practitioners and travel writers led by WWF-Indonesia on a climb up Yuvai Semaring hill on Apr 4, 2019.

When the moon is full, some believe you can sometimes hear his flute playing from the cave in Long Bawan.

Alex said, “The cave still exists to this day but the entrance to it has been closed. There used to be a trail leading into the cave but only a few daring locals are willing to take that route.”

Although the cave is inaccessible, visitors to the Krayan Highlands are more than welcome to visit Yuvai Semaring hill.

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Visitors can always take a break and relax after the steep climb uphill.

Yuvei Semaring hill stands about 1,100 meters above sea level. It takes less than an hour up a steep climb to reach to the top.

The top of the hill gives the perfect view of most parts of the Krayan Highlands settlements.

It might be the best place to catch a view of the sunrise if you are visiting it early in the morning.

Even if you miss it, the view is still magical as you watch the morning mist slowly being lifted, revealing the beautiful scenery of the villages and paddy fields down below.

Visitors can also see the mountain ranges which border the Krayan Highlands to Sarawak and Sabah from the top of the hill.

As you gaze down, you can imagine how Upai Semaring with his ever watchful eyes could see his enemies coming from miles away.

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A view of Long Bawan.
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The climb is short but steep.
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The hill offers the perfect view to film time-lapse videos of the mist moving over the Krayan Highlands.
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A view of Terang Baru and its surrounding villages.
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Even at 7am heavy fog still clouds the top of the hill.
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One needs to wait till 8am to 9am to finally see highlands without the mist.

Relying on the Ba Kelalan-Long Midang border route for a livelihood

Living near the border between Indonesia and Malaysia, the Krayan Highland communities have one famous saying among themselves: “Harimau di perut, Garuda di dada.” It means ‘tiger in my stomach, Garuda in my heart’, with the tiger referring to Malaysia, and the Garuda to Indonesia.

Although they are Indonesians by citizenship, they rely heavily on Malaysian supplies for their daily lives.

Since the Krayan Highlands are surrounded by mountain ranges and connected by rivers with high rapids, there is no river or land transportation to the rest of North Kalimantan.

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Aircraft flying into Krayan Highlands are usually small models such as Cessna Grand Caravans, Twin Otter, or Pilatus aircraft.

The biggest township in Krayan, Long Bawan has an airport offering daily flights to coastal towns such as Nunukan and Tarakan.

But the air fare is expensive and not everyone can afford it. Furthermore, each passenger can only bring up to 10kg of goods.

The solution? They head over to Malaysia’s Ba Kelalan to buy their supply.

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The flight from Nunukan to Long Bawan flies over a mountain valley.
Passing through the Ba Kelalan-Long Midang border for basic necessities

There is another famous saying in Krayan, “Everything here from Malaysia is enough, except for cigarettes.”

True enough, everything they use such as sugar, coffee, Milo, flour, cement, batteries, toothpaste, detergent, cooking gas, mineral water, biscuits are all sourced from Malaysia. Even the vehicles such as motorcycles and 4WD trucks there have Malaysian registration plates.

Most Krayan residents come to Malaysia to shop via the Ba Kelalan-Long Midang route. Recent statistics from the Malaysian Immigration Office showed that more than 2,000 visitors come in via the Ba Kelalan-Long Midang route every month.

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A sign indicating the international border between Malaysia and Indonesia.

They used to shop at Ba Kelalan without going any further than that. For the past 15 years or so, the Krayan residents also drove directly to Lawas, bypassing Ba Kelalan.

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See the difference in road condition between the two countries? The left side is Malaysia while the right side is Indonesia.
Crossing Ba Kelalan-Long Midang border for source of income

According to local guide Alex Ballang, the residents from Krayan also used the Ba Kelalan-Long Midang route to sell their products.

“Here in Krayan, we have three main products; mountain salt, adan rice and buffalo. We do not sell them solely to Malaysia but also to Brunei. Buffalo can be sold up to RM5,000 per head.

“Some might complain why we don’t sell our products such as salt and rice in Indonesia. But due to accessibility, it is easier and more convenient to trade across the border.”

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The signage at Ba Kelalan-Long Midang border.

A visit to any sundry shop in Long Bawan and you will find the local traders selling more Malaysian products.

Living near the Indonesia-Malaysia border has been relatively peaceful for the people in Krayan. “We have families across the border and cross-border marriages are common here.”

Plus, the Lundayeh people in Krayan are considered ethnically the same group as the Lun Bawang people in Malaysia. Alex added, “We are from the same root. Even language-wise, we speak in a similar language.”

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The road heading to Ba Kelalan.
Improving the livelihood of the Krayan people
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The Krayan people sell one buffalo at about RM5,000 per head.

Perhaps because Indonesia is a large country, it has been difficult to provide basic infrastructure and supplies to the Krayan Highlands.

Besides public schools, other basic infrastructure provided for by the Indonesian government so far have been solar power and telecommunication towers in selected places.

However, not all villages in Krayan are able to enjoy the privileges. Some residents like Alex are still optimistic about the government’s latest effort.

“For starters, we had asphalt road for the first time here in Krayan. Plus, construction is still ongoing to improve the road condition here. Recently, we had diesel and petrol subsidies flying in three times a week from Tarakan so we no longer need to buy them in Malaysia.

“But we still need to rely on Malaysia to buy our basic food supply like sugar and other necessities. Will Jakarta remember us if we can no longer buy these items from Sarawak?”

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A sundry shop like this in Long Bawan sells mostly Malaysian products.

Perupun, the mysterious Lundayeh ancient burial tombs of Krayan Highlands

Long time ago, the Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs for the country’s Pharaohs and their consorts.

Here in the central region of Borneo in the Krayan Highlands, the ancient Lundayeh community built perupun to bury their dead.

Both ancient burial tombs have one thing in common, nobody really knows how exactly they were built.

The journey to the ancient Lundayeh tomb in Pa Rupai requires a little bit of hiking.
Perupun in Pa Rupai village
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The hole left by tomb raiders.

According to an elder from Pa Rupai village near Long Midang Murad Baru, 73, perupun means ‘batu yang dikumpul’ or piled up stones.

It takes about 20 minutes’ hike from the main road to reach the only perupun in his village.

Nobody knows whom the tomb belongs to, but as Murad said, “This man must be a man of wealth and most probably some sort of a leader or a nobleman.”

He further explained, “Since he was without an heir, nobody was allowed to take his wealth, and he was buried together with all his belongings.

“In order to protect his wealth from tomb raiders, or his enemies from taking his head off his body, they piled up all of these stones on top of his grave.”

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Murad standing on top of the remnants of an ancient tomb.

Murad said his grandparents used to tell him that many noblemen back then did not have any heirs. It was believed they were cursed to die without children to carry on their line by others jealous of their courage and wealth.

Over the years, the stone mound at Pa Rupai has been heavily damaged by thieves. Today, there is still evidence of a gaping hole where thieves tried to dig up the tomb.

Accroding to Murad, the perupun was damaged even before his time but he believed that whoever the thieves might be, they must be living a cursed life.

“Anybody who tries to steal from the perupun will experience misfortune until his death. Back then when I was a child, it was even forbidden for us to visit this tomb. But we became lenient over the years, and now everybody can visit these ancient tombs.”

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Tomb raiders left a big hole in this ancient tomb at Pa Rupai.
Building a perupun
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One of the stone mounds in Terang Baru was located right next to paddy fields.

“Can you imagine how people in the olden days managed to collect all these more than 100 big stones to build this stone mound?” Murad asked.

They most probably carried these stones from the river about 10 meters away to build the tomb.

Judging by the hole left by the thieves, the perupun could be two meters deep and the stones piled up two meters up from the ground.

“Most probably they took up to two weeks to build it. According to my grandparents, the olden community would come together at this site, cooking here, eating here, while building it.”

Since nobody could inherit the nobleman’s wealth – including his livestock – the villagers would have slaughtered all his livestock and eaten them while building his tomb.

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Ellias Yesaya
The perupun in Terang Baru village
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What’s left of this ancient burial tomb are scattered rocks.

In Terang Baru village, there are two perupun. Just like the perupun in Pa Rupai, nobody knows whom these tombs belong to. All they know is that they belonged to noble people because perupun are not built for commoners.

It helps that they found beads in one of the two perupun. According to Krayan native Ellias Yesaya, this particular perupun most probably belonged to a noblewoman.

Unfortunately, time and the natural elements have left both perupun in bad condition. The stones have either rolled away or collapsed and are covered in weeds.

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The locals found beads buried in this ancient tomb.

A fence surrounds one of the perupun to prevent wandering buffalo from damaging it any further while the other perupun (the one believed to belong to a noblewoman) is located on private property.

Besides Pa Rupai and Terang Baru, perupun can also be found in Long Umung, Pa Raye, Long Layu, Long Api and Pa Kebuan. There are also jar burial sites in the Krayan Highlands which most likely belong to the commoners.

Ellias had two theories on how people in the olden days managed to build these ancient tombs.

“I think our ancestors were way taller and stronger than us. I remember in the 60s when I was still in school, they found bones in old burial grounds. Their bones were very long,” Ellias said.

Another way was that they used their strength in numbers and simply did ‘gotong-royong’ (communal work).

“The community could have come together and built this perupun,” he added.

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Nobody knows how the olden Lundayeh people managed to carry this stone.