The men of Uma Belor line up in front of their longhouse before the ngayo parade.
THE Kayans of Asap Koyan, Belaga, were among 10,000 people who had to leave their ancestral land along Sungai Balui behind in 1998 to make way for the largest hydropower project in Asia – the Bakun Dam.
When they were moved to the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme, most of them brought nothing with them except treasured memories kept in their hearts.
Penghulu Saging Bit
Personally, I know very little about the Kayans, especially from Asap in Belaga.
I grew up in Baram and had quite a number of Kayan friends. Although I speak their language, little did I know there are a few differences between the Kayans in Baram and Asap.
Like the Kenyahs, who have about 30 sub-ethnic groups, each with its own dialect, so do the Kayans in Baram and Asap.
In May this year, I had the opportunity to visit Bakun Dam and experience the Kayan way of life in Uma Belor Leo Dian, Asap, through a harvest celebration called Do Ledoh – thanks to the Sarawak Tourism Board, which organised a four-day and three-night trip there for the media.
Mebong Cove Villa Bakun
Upon arriving at Bintulu Airport via MASwings from Miri, we were greeted by our driver and guide Kenneth, and his sister-in-law, in two 4WDs.
We then started our drive to the Bakun Dam site, taking about four hours to reach the Bakun Reservoir Jetty.
It was raining when we arrived. A few locals were selling jungle produce at the jetty and Kenneth bought some vegetables and drinks for us for the drive to Mebong Cove Villa, where we would spend one night.
Uma Belor residents clad in traditional costumes and headgear.
We left the jetty in a boat and were given to understand that the boatman had been waiting for us since noon. It took about 40 minutes, cruising along a picturesque lake, to reach the villa. The surrounding view was spectacular – and the water was turquoise green. It was so peaceful except for the sound of the boat engine.
The scenic lake, somehow, reminded me of Danau Toba in Medan, Indonesia, which I visited a few years back.
Shortly after, we reached Mebong Cove Villa, situated on a mini island in the lake, and were greeted by Uncle Seng at the doorstep.
I learned that our boatman operates the villa with Uncle Seng and they have been getting many visitors.
It’s a simple vacation lodge with four rooms that can accommodate 15 to 20 people at one time. We unpacked our things while Uncle Seng prepared dinner in the kitchen.
We had authentic Kayan food – wild boar, tapioca leaves cooked with deep fried lard, freshwater fish, and many others. It was one scrumptious dinner! Later, we were served tuak and had a mini barbeque.
Two men play sape to entertain the crowd at the celebration.
Curious for answers
I was curious to know how the new generation of Kayans are coping with life at the resettlement scheme. And gratifyingly, Kenneth was on hand to share the answers.
He spoke of how he grew up as a young boy in a village along the Balui River.
“My longhouse used to be down here,” he said, pointing to an area underneath the villa.
The compound, he added, used to be their playground when they were in their early 20s.
“For us, it was the happiest place on Earth. Life was good but after we moved to the new resettlement, everything changed.”
According to Kenneth, it was much easier for the new generation, especially those his age (early 20s at the time of resettlement) to adapt to the new environment, far from their comfort zone, but not so for the elders.
He noted that the elders were affected the most emotionally, being very attached to the lifestyle at their old longhouses.
“I remember when we were told to move to the Resettlement Scheme, the elders were crying. They could not contain their emotions. It was hard to see.”
Kenneth recalled most of them brought only clothes with them although the elders went back to collect the stilts of their houses and the planks not only because of the good wood they were made of, but also because of their sentimental value.
“Even today, we still look back and remember the good lives we had on the banks of Balui River,” Kenneth sighed.
Kayan ladies, among the oldest in Uma Belor, are clad in kebaya for the Do Ledoh celebration.
The next day, we woke up early to the sounds of chirping birds. Uncle Seng was up earlier than us and had prepared a nutritious breakfast.
After that, we headed for the reservoir jetty as Kenneth told us a farmers’ market was being held there.
The market opens every Wednesday and Saturday, with many villagers from as far as Long Busang coming down to sell their produce.
We arrived at the jetty at 9am and already hundreds of vendors were selling various types of vegetable and fish, wild boar, and other stuff. Some were plying their handicrafts such as rattan bags and Orang Ulu parang.
While we were busy looking around and taking photographs, a longboat arrived, sparking a rush towards it. I was stunned to see the boat loaded with wild boar – young and adult.
According to Kenneth, the market is famous not just among locals in Bakun and Bintulu but also others who will drive all the way from Miri to buy fresh meat and jungle produce which are sold very cheaply in bulk.
The market is packed every Wednesday and Saturday with people arriving very early to wait for the longboats loaded with various types of fresh jungle produce, freshwater fish such as Ikan Semah, and wild boar.
I saw a Kenyah woman unloading terung asam from her boat and was surprised when she told me it was sold for only RM2 per kg. In Miri, for example, terung asam is sold between RM8 and RM10 per kg.
“They’re sold much cheaper at this market. Normally, people will buy in bulk and resell in places like Bintulu and Miri,” Kenneth said.
Most of the sellers that day were Kenyahs from Long Busang, and Penans. After taking enough photographs, we left for Mengelau Waterfall, a 40-minute boat ride away.
There were not many outdoor activities except fishing during our two-day and one-night stay there. I thought more could have been organised since the locale has much to offer visitors.
Regardless, we enjoyed the waterfall and did impromptu fishing, using a sarong to catch many of the freshwater fish. I believe we caught about 20kg that day. After spending a few hours at the waterfall, we left for the villa. We checked out around 2pm and took a boat to the jetty, then headed overland to Uma Belor Leo Dian for the Do Ledoh celebration.
We arrived there around 5pm after a two-and-a-half-hour road trip, and were welcomed by Kenneth’s family.
This year, Uma Belor was given the honour to host the sixth Do Ledoh celebration.
Each year, the eight Kayan longhouses in the Sungai Asap Resettlement area take turns to host the festival.
According to community leader Penghulu Saging Bit, Do Ledoh is a dying tradition, especially among the younger generation.
In the old days, it was celebrated to offer thanks to Doh Tenangan, a Kayan goddess, for a bountiful harvest. It is usually celebrated in April and sometimes in May, depending when all of the longhouse folk finish harvesting their padi.
According to Saging, Do Ledoh used to be a grand celebration in the longhouse but it’s slowly fading out and now only celebrated by some on a very small scale. Modernisation is among the reasons why Do Ledoh is becoming a forgotten tradition apart from the fact that most of the Kayans have embraced Christianity.
Saging said when they moved from their ancestral land in Sungai Balui, the most valuable things they brought with them were their culture and traditions.
He stressed as Do Ledoh was slowly being forgotten, especially by the younger generation, it was the responsibility of the elders to revive and perpetuate it as an integral part of their culture.
“We want the younger generation to know and appreciate their unique tradition, and continue to celebrate and pass it down to future generations.”
Among the highlights of the celebration were performances depicting the unique and rich culture of the Kayans.
In keeping with Kayan tradition, before the celebration commenced, the men – young and old – took part in ngayo, a warrior dance performed after a headhunting trip in the old days.
In a performance steeped in symbolism, the women lined up at the longhouse’s main doorstep to welcome their husbands and relatives home from a headhunting trip.
The ngayo is still a part of their tradition that serves to remind the community of the lives of their parents and great-grandparents.
The older generation would also perform parap (traditional chanting) while a ngajat (traditional dance) competition would be held during the night to celebrate Do Ledoh.
“Through these performances, the elders will teach the younger generation to appreciate their unique culture in hope that they will pass it down to the next generation and for posterity,” Saging said.