Kalimantan’s Less-Traveled Destination: The Enchanted Danau Sentarum

  • Kalimantan’s Less-Traveled Destination: The Enchanted Danau Sentarum

Kalimantan’s Less-Traveled Destination: The Enchanted Danau Sentarum

Grace Susetyo

Grace Susetyo
Burufly team

Danau Sentarum in the inner pockets of West Kalimantan near the Malaysian border is a dream destination for nature and culture enthusiasts. This remote travel destination in Kapuas Hulu is the homeland of the Dayak-Iban people, who still practice a way of life in harmony with their natural environment.

To reach Danau Sentarum, you start from Pontianak and travel 8 hours by road to Sintang, and continue with a 6-hour speedboat ride to Lanjak via Semitau. Alternatively, you can also fly 2 hours from Pontianak to Putussibau and continue on a 7-hour longboat ride to Nanga Suhaid. The journey itself is an important part of the adventure and would enthrall your explorer’s senses with the enchantment of West Kalimantan’s remote rainforests.

Danau Sentarum is not quite like the typical lakes you might encounter on your other travels. Sentarum’s water discharge is very season-dependent, with the basin filled with waters up to a depth of 8-14 meters only 10 months out of the year, forming a lake area of up to 80,000 hectares. But in the two driest months–usually July and August–the tides ebb and expose the dry bottom of the Sentarum basin, splitting the massive lake into little rivers and hundreds of fish ponds.

The indigenous Iban were known to British imperialists as the Dayak-Laut tribe because of their livelihoods which are heavily centered on Danau Sentarum. In addition to West Kalimantan, the Iban are also native in Sarawak and Sabah, East Malaysia. They live in rumah panjai “longhouses”, which are elevated about 8-9 meters above the ground because in the olden days this protected women and children while the men went to war. The headhunting ceremony mengayau is still an important rite of passage for adolescent Iban boys, but now the ceremony uses boar heads instead of human heads.

Since war is a central theme of Iban culture, it is no surprise that they venerate a war god. Singalang Burong is believed to be the original patriarch of the Iban and the patron saints of brave men. Mengayau ceremonies are dedicated to him. The rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) now frequently sighted in Kalimantan are believed to be the sons in law messenger  of Singalang Burong. Due to the taboo of carving images of the hornbill god, Singalang Burong is usually discreetly stylized into a symbol in textiles (the presence of semepat firefly zigzag design) and tattoos (as represented by the frog motif on the throat) produced by communities living around Danau Sentarum

The hornbill is also important in spreading the seeds of the flora that make up Kalimantan’s rich vegetation in Taman Nasional Danau Sentarum, such as ulin (Eusideroxylon zwageri), shoreas (Shorea stenoptera), and dillenia (Dillenia indica). This vegetation becomes a lush habitat for a diverse range of fauna such as orangutans (Pogo pygmaeus), long-nose monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), false gharials (Tomistoma schlegelii), and lesser adjudant storks (Leptoptilos javanicus). Nature lovers will have their eyes feasting on the landscapes of wide rivers sandwiched between lush mangroves, and the sights of mountain ranges behind the Danau Sentarum’s horizons.

Do not miss the cultural experiences local villages have to offer you. If you’re lucky, you might just be traveling while a wedding is taking place in the village. The melah pinang ceremony takes place when the groom picks up his beloved bride in her father’s house and takes her home. As the newlyweds cruise down the rivers in a boat, traditional musicians accompany them with gong and various percussions. The Iban heritage centred around agriculture and fishery is apparent in the wedding traditions.

In addition to their main professions as farmers and fisherman, many residents of the villages surrounding Danau Sentarum still practice traditional crafts such as ikat textile weaving and tattoos known as ukir (to carve”). The Iban’s ikat and ukir typically flaunts the basic motifs of flowers, dragons, and stylized human figures. Ikat and songket weaving are usually made by the women from natural fibers and colors. Ukir is usually tattooed on a young adult Iban’s body while traveling to faraway places as a memento he or she can look back to later in life.

Traveling in Danau Sentarum would give you the chance to connect with local peoples and their stories, and create meaningful memories from the remote heart of West Kalimantan. Don’t forget to bring your camera and an open heart to absorb every experience in this destination.


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