Sampling Dayak arts and cultures in Kalimantan Barat

TWO Dayak community leaders led 55 Dayak participants from Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah on a challenging three-day, three-night 1,143km Bandong boat cruise from Danau Santaruk down the Batang Kapuas to Pontianak recently.

This could be the world’s first customised Dayak-Bandong cruise down the Kapuas River. Both the cruise leaders — First Malaysian Infantry Division Commander Major General Datuk Stephen Mundaw, and a leading Sarawak pemancha, Datuk Pemancha Janggu Banyang — are Dayak Ibans as well.

The wooden Bandong is a traditional cargo boat that used to ply the Kapuas before the 70s when there were no roads linking the interior to the Kalimantan Barat (Kalbar) capital of Pontianak.

Today, many politicians of Kalbar remember going to school in Pontianak by slow Bandongs, taking more than a week to reach the capital from Hulu Kapuas.

In fact, when this cruise was proposed, many Indonesians were intrigued but this did not stop three participants from Jakarta from signing up.

The specially chartered, refurbished 200-tonne Kapal Bandong, Mitra Baru, ferried the 60-odd passengers through six regencies and four towns before finally stopping at Pontianak.

A happy passenger Louis Kanyan enthused: “It is like a floating house actually. I feel very safe in the boat which is big enough for 100 passengers.

“The captain has more than 30 years experience. In the belly of the Bandong, we passengers relax like on the ruai of a long house. Any one can sleep, any time. The vinyl covered floor is clean, a buffet table placed in the middle for meals. There is a second floor for more sleeping space. A ladies’ changing room has also been specially built.”

A fellow passenger from Miri, Johnathan Pengiran told thesundaypost during the cruise: “For three days and three nights, all of us are living like one family. That is the thrill I get. I think my retired friend, Subah, also from Miri, really enjoys himself. It is, indeed, a cultural trip in which we learn so much about our shared cultures.”

Dayak souvenirs

A delighted Terence Temenggong Jayang chimed in: “It is a real cultural experience and most of the participants bought fantastic Dayak batik, baskets and bead crafts. They will be definitely spending millions of rupiah.”

The cruise threw up a lot of opportunities to view the arts, crafts, architecture and textiles of the Dayaks in the Kapuas Valley — from Badau to Pontianak. The Dayaks form 70 per cent of the population in Kalbar.

Tours of museums

Stephen Beda, who is from Kanowit and made the trip with his good friend Edward Nyallau, commented that the tours of four museums in Pontianak were really educational for the Dayaks from Sarawak.

“These museums are very impressive, comprehensive and well managed with good solid structures and equipped with IT and air-conditioning. Truly first-class.”

Dayak motifs are everywhere — along the Kapuas River and on buildings, especially the museums.

One of the most impressive Dayak arts are the engravings found on the pillars, walls and roofs of the museums and buildings the tour group visited.

Bernard Sellato in his book ‘Hornbill and Dragon’, wrote: “The Dayaks possess high valued wealth of engravings. A design can be engraved on paractically any object in an appropriately esthetic and philosophical manner.”

Traditionally, the Dayaks would spend time, especially after the padi harvest, doing some engravings. The women too would start their weaving and the skillful ones were (still are) revered.

The famous Pua Kumbu is used for religious rites or presented as a gift to newlyweds. Fern leaves, eyes of birds, bamboo shoots and waves are common motifs woven into the pua kumbu.

Extraordinary motifs can be seen in the engravings on the buildings, especially government buildings and offices such as those in Sintang and Sanggau.

The residence of Kalbar Governor has some of the most awesome Dayak motifs in the engravings on its walls and beams.

Even a church has Dayak motifs engraved on the walls — both inside and outside.

Fellow tour member Richard Holt, who is very interested in music, loves to own a sape with authentic engravings from Kalbar, saying that the engravings would enhance the beauty of the sape.

Many of the sapes found locally but made in Sarawak, only have painted Dayak motifs.

Holt said he was really inspired by the Dayak motifs of Kalbar and would like to go back again.

Hornbill — Significant Dayak motif

Hornbill motifs are seen on rooftops of many buildings, including the Chinese temple at Suka Lanting. Artistic designs of these birds of omen are also seen on walls, gates and giant entrances to malls and walkways.

They are symbols of power over nature. The Dayaks believe that hornbills were champions of their community during the warring days of yore and had always helped good to triumph over evil.

The cruise participants bought hornbill carvings and wall pictures to bring home. Some of the most beautiful lamp stands in Pontianak are carvings of hornbill.

Most popular items

Baskets and bags with Dayak motifs are the most popular items, snapped up by Sarawakian tourists, according to Aga Mideh who was one of the cruise organisers.

The weaving is fine, tight and even. Some of the woven bags feature mythical figures and even hidden meanings.

The rattan of Kalbar is also finer and softer. According to local shopkeepers, the people of Kalbar are very aware of the need to maintain their natural resources. Rattan needs a healthy forest to thrive.

Batik of West Kalimantan

One of the most popular souvenirs is the exotic batik with Dayak motifs. Shirts, sarongs and lovely dresses with Dayak motifs are snapped up in a trice.

These batik pieces are all very special and cannot be easily found outside Kalimantan Barat. Choices of colours, designs and quality are plentiful.

The batik of Sanggau is particularly fine and attractive, especially those worn by the leaders and other politicians who came to welcome the group.

The brilliant red Sanggau batik is especially significant. It can be worn every day, yet is glamourous enough for festive and special occasions.

The batik of Sanggau has a characteristic design of ‘Daun Sabang’ — a plant with red leaves. Each piece of Batik Sanggau always has the characteristic leaf design. Daun Sabang is also known as ‘sanggau’.

Special Dayak costumes

The costumes for Dayak women are called ‘Ta’a’ and for the men, ‘Sapei Sapaq’. Both are very creative costumes, beautifully reflecting the cultural and social advancement of the Dayaks.

These costumes are unique and hard to come by. Many in the group also purchased beaded headgears, bags and scarves to match the Dayak costumes. Some even bought extras for their families.


Some of the beads sold in the shops are rare and extremely valuable. These old-styled beads cannot be found outside Kalimantan. The prices are considered very reasonable. They were the most popular items bought by the cruise participants. Beads can be part of a girl’s dowry.

Patricia Yong, from Sabah, told thesundaypost: “I bought a purple purse with Dayak motifs for my mum — a sarong with purple Dayak motifs for her too. The colours and designs are just so nice.”

The cruise participants not only enjoyed a unique journey across the Danau Sentarum and along the Batang Kapuas, but also acquired a lot of knowledge about Dayak cultures and arts.

They brought back with them lots of good memories and Dayak souvenirs for themselves and their families.