Kingdoms have been built and destroyed along the length of Kalimantan’s Mahakam River. Fatris MF from Colours explores the cultural history surrounding the riverside city of Samarinda.

Words by Fatris MF

Through the blur of the aeroplane window, I see green forests and extensive plantations. Amongst the green and yellow, a wide river flows like a giant snake lashing its tail, stretching for miles and dividing the city full of densely packed buildings. I imagine what life is like along the river.

Before long, my plane has landed in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan and the largest city on the island. The city is divided by the Mahakam River – a watercourse encased in myth which flows from Mount Cemaru, in the middle of the island, some 900km to the Makassar Strait.

One morning, my guide, 33-year-old Muhammad Nur, accompanies me from Samarinda to a village situated on the outskirts of the city. It is a Sunday and the village is quiet, with no more than a couple of people around. I walk up the steps of a large house on stilts and go inside, where I meet 94-year-old Pajang Apui, who is dozing on a wooden bench in the middle room, or lamin, of this traditional house belonging to the Dayak Kenyah community. The morning breeze blows from the north into the house. In the yard, I see Pui Pesim, another elderly figure, walking unsteadily towards us and up the steps. He smiles and sits down beside Pajang Apui and me.

“In a moment, we’re going to dance, so don’t go anywhere,” says Pui Pesim with a smile. He starts to adjust the traditional costume he is wearing, adding various knick-knacks and a headpiece. A mandau knife, the traditional weapon of this community, which is shrouded in legends, is tucked into his waistband. He sits back down; despite his words, there is still no sign that the old man is going to dance.

From the steps at the side of the house, a few elderly women enter, carrying rattan baskets on their backs. Their heads are tied with tapong, woven pandan leaves with thorns, used as customary headbands. Some of the women have traditional tattoos on their hands and legs.

“This is from our ancestors in Apo Kayan,” says Plampang, showing me her arm. The charcoal engraved in her skin is in the shape of ancient motifs and indentations. Tattoos are an ancient ritual in Dayak culture. Restituta Driyanti, in her article ‘The Symbolic Meaning of Tattoos for the Dayak Community’, describes how these permanent marks can indicate a person’s social status.

“Almost everyone in this village originally comes from Apo Kayan. This place is their last hope,” says Pui Pesim. The old man then proceedsto tell me how he and his family travelled by boat, looking for a new place to live, far from the land of their birth, Apo Kayan, an area to the north bordering on Serawak, Malaysia. Eventually, they settled in the place now known as the Cultural Village of Pampang, on the outskirts of Samarinda, some 25km from the busy city centre.

The sound of the sampe, a traditional Dayak stringed instrument, echoes around the room. The previously quiet house is now filled with almost 300 guests from various provinces, as well as several foreign tourists. Pui Pesim begins to dance, accompanied by the sound of the sampe. The dance is called Lancit Lasan. It is an opening dance, used to ward away all the bad things that may come to disturb people. Next, Emi Liana Ladeq performs a dance. The feathers of a hornbill waft around on her hands, while her feet stamp slowly on the wooden floor and the beads on her costume sparkle as they catch the light. Her gaze is calm, like the eyes of her ancestors in old black and white colonial video recordings. Liana finishes her dance and I am left in a daze on the wooden bench. After Liana’s performance, more dances by teenagers, children, and elderly women follow. A war dance, a peace dance, a dance about their journey from the land of their birth, Apo Kayan, when they followed the path of the Kayan River until it joined the Mahakam and continued until they reached and settled in this village. They perform all kinds of dances inside the house, which was built in accordance with ancient traditions. “Life here is just like the story in a dance,” says Liana.

“Come here every Sunday and you will see me dance. And I will carry on dancing,” whispers Liana. Darkness creeps across the horizon. Muhammad Nur escorts me back from Pampang to the bright lights of Samarinda, leaving behind Pajang Apui, Pui Pesim, and Liana. The following day, I relax at the Tanah Merah Waterfall, then move on to another waterfall, Berambai. Samarinda’s attractions are diverse.

Another day, I sit beside the Mahakam River, watching the boats laden with coal and other smaller rivercraft passing by. I move to a dock where the small boats are tethered. Pesut Etam is about to depart; this two-tiered boat will carry me and a hundred other passengers along the Mahakam River for a sightseeing cruise.

Pesut Etam sets sail. The boat travels along the river as dusk falls and the city begins to light up. From our vantage point in the middle of the river, Samarinda is aglow with lights reflecting on the ripples of water. Pesut Etam continues to travel along the river, passing under the colourful Mahakam Bridge. The two-hour journey passes quickly and we are soon back at the dock. I can imagine how exciting it would be to attend the annual Mahakam Festival on the first weekend in November (in 2019, it is taking place November 1–3). It is hard to envision how busy the Mahakam River will be with all the small boats floating along and the numerous dance performances taking place in the city.

At night, as the rain falls lightly on Samarinda, I sit in a café up a hill, marvelling at the brightly illuminated panorama and the dimly lit river winding along to its invisible end. This area, once part of the Kingdom of Kutai Kartanegara, established at the beginning of the 14th century in Kutai Lama, has grown into a large, bustling city. I go back to sit at the side of the Mahakam, looking from afar at the twinkling lights, sparkling like the beads on Liana’s dress. The water ripples gently and I imagine Liana dancing, and I think of Pui Pesim and what he told me about Samarinda being the Land of Hope.

Jakarta to Samarinda

Flight Time2 hours, 30 Minutes

Frequency 14 flights per week

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From Colours November 2019


5 Senses – Taste

Crab cooked in
banana leaves, smoked
crab, and barbecued
basa fish will all delight
your taste buds.
A type of soft-shell
crab is used, prepared
and cooked with fresh
basil, lemongrass, and
chillies, combined with
various other traditional
Samarinda herbs
and spices to create
a fresh, crisp taste.