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Discovering Sarawak’s Kayan tribe through a ‘secret’ harvest festival

Day 1: Under the Bakun Dam

“My longhouse used to be here underwater,” Kenneth pointed in the azure water as we sailed across the Bakun Dam in Bintulu, Sarawak.

With a smile filled with longing, he said we just sailed over his school. The dispensary he used to visit was here. The Rejang River where he took the express boat was right over there. All these are now deep, deep underwater.

A boat and a woman swimming in the Bakun Dam

These islands were mountains before it was flooded to create the Bakun Dam

21 years ago, the government flooded the valley to create the Bakun Dam. About 15,000 indigenous people, mostly from the Kayan and Kenyah tribe, were forced to relocate to the Bakun Resettlement Scheme in Sungai Asap, Belaga.

For Kenneth and his cousins who are Kayans, life exists in two periods – life before the dam, and life after the dam. They now live in the Uma Belor longhouse and can’t help but to compare life then and now.

“When we returned to see our longhouse, we cried. All the old people cried,” Kenneth said. He was in his late 20s when it happened and still mourns the loss of his longhouse today. I could only imagine how much more devastating the loss was for his parents and grandparents. Would the pain of losing their ancestral home become motivation to preserve whatever they have left of their old lives?

Man smiling and looking at the lake

My friendly guide and homestay host Mr. Kenneth

Day 2: A ‘secret’ harvest festival in Sarawak

I arrived at the Uma Belor longhouse homestay expecting a weekend of partying and get drunk on tuak at Do Ledoh. I did not expect it to become a sobering insight to how religion can transform cultures and communities.

Girl smiling looking out of the verandah of a wooden longhouse

Uma Belor in Sungai Asap Belaga, a Kayan longhouse, is possibly the longest longhouse in Sarawak and the world

It started with a surprise. Do Ledoh was as foreign to me as it was for my Kenyah and Bidayuh friends who are Sarawak natives. We knew of the major Sarawak harvest festival Gawai Dayak (celebrated by Ibans and Bidayuhs), and Sabah’s Kaamantan (celebrated by Kadazan Dusuns), but none of us had heard of Do Ledoh.

Held annually in May, Do Ledoh is a 2-day harvest festival to give thanks to the Kayan God Bungan for the season’s bountiful harvest. It’s obscure because it was a dying tradition. Once upon a time, Do Ledoh was an important ceremony, but the celebration slowly stopped after the Kayans embraced Christianity. As they started building churches, they stopped worshipping Bungan and the strict taboos and rituals that came with the Pagan religion. In fact, the Kayan tribe some 570km away in Baram no longer celebrate it.

As the hunters-gatherers assimilated into mainstream society and became teachers, engineers and businessmen, other traditional practices also started to fade. You can see it in their hands. The old grandmothers’ arms and feet are adorned with intricate, elaborate, blocks of traditional tattoo; the generations after them are tattoo-free.

smiling little girl and grandmother in Kayan traditional costumes

The beautiful Kayan traditional wear. I was surprised to see that the Kayans wear kebayas too.

“It so painful, I’d never want my children to get tattoos,” the grandson of the last tattoo artist told me. He grew up watching his grandmother tattoo young girls. When she passed way, the traditional artform died with her too. Most of the Kayans no longer think tattoos are a sign of beauty, nor do they believe that arm tattoos are torches that will lead them to their dead ancestors in the afterlife. It’s a thing of the past, just like how they’ve lost the art of reading their written language. The curved drawings, once full of significance, are now design motives.

A traditional Kayan hat hanging on the wall next to a door with a Christian cross

These curved drawings used to be a form of written language for the Kayan tribe

Day 3: Let the GAMES begin!

Kayan men in traditoianl headgear leading a crowd while playing the gong

Do Ledoh celebration started with a welcome walk with VIPs into the longhouse

I was really confused when I first received the Do Ledoh Festival itinerary. I expected it to be something like Chinese New Year or Christmas. Instead, the itinerary started with the arrival of a Member of Parliament, followed by ngabang (open house visits), contests and a prize-giving ceremony till late night.

It seemed more like an event rather than a cultural celebration.

Nonetheless, the longhouse was buzzing with excitement. Sons and daughters far and wide had returned for the weekend, turning the usually quiet longhouse into a hive of activity. In the kitchen, the women cooked traditional Kayan foods (wild boar with glutinous rice!) while the men drank and children played.

A plate of traditional Kayan homemade food including rice, vegetable and fish

Every block in the longhouse had an open house, or ngabang, where everyone was invited to eat and drink!

As we waited for the VIPs to arrive, guests from the 8 neighbouring Kayan longhouses poured into the decorated longhouse. Uma Belor quickly came alive with colourful Kayan traditional costumes, singing and dancing. But it wasn’t just any singing and dancing, there was no Ed Shereen to be heard. The longhouse was filled with the melodic strumming of Sape, parap (traditional chanting) by the elders, and ngajat (warrior dance). Surrounded by the fresh rainforest air, I breathed in the orchestra of sounds that is distinctively Borneo, something that I’d never experience in the Peninsular.

While the celebration got started, my heart melted at the sight of a group of Indonesian Kayans who came from Kalimantan to join in the festival. The Indonesians spoke the same Kayan dialect as the Sarawakians, but their turban-like headgear was different from the Sarawakians’ headbands. Seated in a corner, the women from both countries started comparing their tattoos, ear lobes and their different yet similar cultures.

Behind the festivities, these Kayan grandmothers were the most captivating. They look graceful in their Kebayas, yet it is a grace that comes with immense strength and pain. They’re strong from a life of farming and mentally tough from losing their ancestral homes to the Bakun Dam. They’re brave too, for going though the excruciatingly painful tattoos when they were only 10 years old.

“It was very painful, especially on the fingers and toes… the arms took a week to finish” one grandma recollected. It’s been over 60 years and she still remembers the pain.

Kayan ladies from Kalimantan and Sarawak seated in a circle comparing their tattoos.

I’m in love with the scene – Kayan ladies from Kalimantan and Sarawak comparing their tattoos.

Kayan ladies from Kalimantan and Sarawak seated in a circle comparing their stretched earlobes.

They also shared about their stretched earlobes and thigh tattoos.

Old woman's hand and feet covered in tattoos.

These traditional tattoos are called ‘tedek’ and was made using needles and bamboo sticks. The women get it when they are around 10 years old

Day 4: The headhunters’ parade

Woman taking selfie with aboriginal Kayan men and women around her

In the middle of the amazing Do Ledoh headhunter’s parade.

On the second day of Do Ledoh, I found myself in the middle of the headhunters’ parade, mesmerised by the amazing costumes. The day is called Ngayo, which means head-hunting. Traditionally on this day, the men would fulfill a long list of rites to bless and prepare themselves for war.

Today, the men were dressed in warrior costumes, complete with faux tiger skin. They had just ‘returned’ to the longhouse from a symbolic march and were greeted and blessed by the women. It was a treat to watch hundreds of them chanted and marched across the longhouse in rhythmic, synchronized steps. Their chanting, almost meditative, stirred something in my soul.

Reviving a forgotten Kayan culture

Kayan women and men in full traditional wear

The beaded dress that these women are wearing can weigh up to 6kg!

Even as an outsider, it’s clear that the Do Ledoh festival held now is not the same Do Ledoh held before Christianity arrived. This parade, like most of the activities held over the 2 days were re-enactments of their old rituals.

Instead of the men slaughtering a chicken and cooking it in the ruai (verandah) for good luck, they decorated the ruai with fake makeshift kitchens as a symbol of the ritual. Traditionally, the men were not allowed to step foot into the house for 24 hours, or else there will be no animal when they hunt, no harvest when they farm, and they will be “finished” when they go to war. Today, instead of practising the taboo, they pay tribute to it.

“We are all Christians now, most of the rituals done today are symbolic so the younger generation who have not seen the rituals know how it’s done,” Penghulu (community leader) Saging Bit, 61, said.

Kayan man in full costume looking back into camera during a march for the Sarawak harvest festival celebration

The headhunters’ parade

Today’s Do Ledoh had competitions like gasing (top), sumpit (blowpipe) played like darts, mat weaving, and even a burak bisak (rice wine) brewing competition. There was also a traditional beading workshop while dance performances took place on stage. Many of these fun activities were aimed at the younger people, though it seemed to be more popular amongst parents excited to relive their youth.

“Our children don’t play these games anymore, so we have these contests to show them what we used to play,” a gasing contestant said.

Kayan woman looking into the camera while her friends watches a performance on stage

So much grace and strength

I finally understood Do Ledoh. It’s no longer a harvest festival. Do Ledoh has transformed from a religious ceremony to a celebration of their culture and heritage. It’s a community effort to revive their fading arts, games, music and history. It’s a love letter and a history lesson to the iPhone-loving, city-dwelling young generation of Kayans.

In their 80s and 90s, the tattooed grandparents are the last generation who lived the stories from the fascinating traditions, rituals, folklore and taboo that once dictated their lives. Now, they seek to pass on these stories through the once forgotten harvest festival called Do Ledoh.

The Kayan people in Belaga may have lost their ancestral land to the Bakun Dam, but they’re determined not to lose their ancestral heritage. They’ll keep it alive and thriving, one Do Ledoh at a time.

Young women learning how to dance from an elderly Kayan woman

The grandmother was soooo happy to be celebrating Do Ledoh!

SARAWAK travel tiP: Uma Belor longhouse homestay

You can help keep the Kayan traditions alive by learning and experiencing it yourself! The Uma Belor longhouse homestay is a fascinating place to live the traditional Kayan longhouse life. Located in 2 to 3 hours from Miri and Bintulu, Uma Belor is one of the best longhouses in Sarawak. It has 101 doors and stretches to 1km-long, making it the longest longhouse in Sarawak too.

Uma Belor houses 120 permanent residents but during holidays like Do Ledoh and Christmas, the numbers can swell to over 1,100 people. The longhouse is usually quiet and peaceful, so try to come during the festivities for a full cultural experience! More info here.

Thanks to Sarawak Tourism Board for making this story happen! And most importantly, thank you Uma Belor for letting me experience your beautiful culture.

Old woman with traditional tattoo shaking hands with young woman who has a modern tattoo

Art and tradition. Uma Belor, thank you for your incredible friendliness and hospitality!

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