- Discover Indonesia Online

You are currently in > Indonesia > Kalimantan island > Apokayan > Introduction

Introduction to Apokayan

Apokayan (Apoh Kayan, or 'high plains of the Kayan') is the name for the area around the upper stream of the Kayan. The region is cut off from the downstream part of the river because of the many unpassible rapids. Because of it's isolated position, just like the upper Mahakam, it took a long time before the first western influences arrived.

The fundamentalist mission, which has been active for over 70 years now, has pushed away most part of the traditional Dayak culture. Because of the inevitable transport problems, there is no commercial woodchop in the Apokayan region, so the ecology is still in tact. Who wants to watch birds can best visit one of the many side rivers of the Kayan. But there are also plenty of wild pigs and deer, among them the muntjak (the barking deer).

Mass Exodus

The population of Apokayan has decreased dramatically in the late 20th century. A shortage of (reachable) agricultural soil and high cost of imported products, stimulated about 25,000 Dayak to leave the area between 1954 and 1982. Apokayan now has only a few thousand inhabitants left. The number of inhabitants in a village varies between several dozen and several hundred.

One of the first migrant groups consisted of 1800 Dayak from the area around Long Betaoh. After a journey of three days, they settled in Long Musang in Sarawak (Malaysia). Others stayed in Kalimantan and founded villaged along the middel-Mahakam and her side-rivers.

The main places of settlement were: the villages Ritan Baru, Bila Tabang and Tanjung Manis around Tabang; Miau Baru near Muara Wahau; Long Segar, Long Noran and Gemar Baru near Muara Ancalong; and Rukun Damai, Batu Majang and Data Bilan near Long Bagun.

Migrations were lead by the noble families. Most of the times the inhabitants from one or more longhouses, about 800 Kenyah Dayak, left en masse. Routes and possible settlement locations, uninhabited of lowly populated area's, were checked thoroughly. The Dayak planted rice and decided to stay or leave when they had harvested. Normally it took one to three years before a Dayak community settled down.

The people left behind in Apokayan became hopefull for improvement of their situation when airstrips were built in the 1970's. Pilots of the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) flew the routes regularly. But both tickets and goods stayed unaffordable. Only in 186, when a longer airstrip was completed on Long Ampung and Merpati started servicing the route due to subsidies from the government. Prices by Merpati were about 70 per cent lower for both freight as well as passengers, compared to MAF.

Since there is enough agricultural soil, there are regular connections and schools built by the government, the exodus seemed to have stopped. Nevertheless the most remote part of the region still have big social and economical problems. Like everywhere in the inlands there is a big shortage of teachers, doctors and medicine.

Because of financial support by the Indonesian government, there is a start of economical development. Governmental offices are staffed with local personnel and the 'road system', normally just wide footpaths, is extended and improved. Probably the most important issue to stop the exodus are the subsidized Merpati flights to the most remote places of the island.

Apokayan Today

Apokayan consists of two subdistricts or kecamatan: Kayan Hulu ('Upstream') and Kayan Hilir ('downstream'). The 5,000 inhabitants of Kayan Hulu are Kayan Dayak. Hilir only has a few hundred inhabitants, among them even less Kayan Dayak.
The agricultural soil belongs to the best of Eastern Kalimantan. Dry rice-cultures often bring up large amounts of rice. But rice is a delicate product and drought or early or late rains can devastate the entire harvest. Starvation is unknown here, because strong crops like yam and maniok, as well as the sago from the wild sagopalm, will replae rice in times of need.

Income comes from exports of forest products: damar-raisin (a maximum of ten tonnes a year), the aromatic aloe-wood (gaharu; about six tonnes a year) and gold (three kilo's a year). There is more than enough ratten, but that's hardly exported, because of transportproblems.

Big parts of Apokayan have to do it without any exports. The population of these areas have a hard time buying daily needs like soap, gasoline, baking oil, because they are a lot more expensife than in the coastal areas. Workers from outside the region create the biggest flow of money to Apokayan. Several decades ago, over 300 men from Kayan Hulu in Sarawak worked here.

The Kayan River can be used in the mountains, but it turns into one big row of rapids more downstream. In the lowlands it flows to Selat Makassar via Tanjung Selor. The Brem-Brem or Giram Ambun ('Rapids of the fog') are 33 kilometers long. This foaming and strong barricade was never broken, not alife. River trade between Apokayan and Tanjung Selor and Long Bia, the last village where the Kayan could buy cheap goods, is impossible.

During the colonial time, a two meter wide path was created in the jungle around Giram Ambon to supply the region. In the 1920's and 1930's, boats from the Dutch government created good transport at both sides of the rapids. Twelve boats at one time, each with a ton of goods, moored for Giram Ambon, and the carriers transported the goods to Long Nawang. Men and carriers were paid well and subsidised tradegoods found their way through the region. The path was abandoned after the Second World War and is almost entire overgrown nowadays.


The older Kenyah Dayak believe that their ancestors originally inhabited the area around the Belaga River in Sarawak. Theyr left their environment three generations before the Dutch arrived in Apokayan in 1901, because they feared the fierce headhunting Iban. Scattered living Kayan communities had already settled earlier in the area and small wars between the new people and the original population were inevitable. Finally, the Kayan had to subject themselves to the Kenyah, which overruled them by number and organisation.

The ethnograpical theory gives another image on certain parts. That tells that the Kenyah Dayak settled among the Kayan along the Bahau River, north of Apokayan, before the 18th century. The more developed and peacefull Kayan civilized them a little. After the Kayan started to spread out in the second half of the 18th century, the Kenyah slowly entered Apokayan.

Traces of traditional socal hierachy is still found in Apokayan, however it is far less clear than before the independence. The former noble families often brings up the village head and still forces respect. Sometimes, the aristocrats demand unpaid labor on it's fields. Marriages between people from different classes are common nowadays, especially since the bridal gift has been abolished.

Dutch in Apokayan

In 1901, the first Dutchman, a civil servant from the colonial govenment, arrived on foot and by canoo in Apokayan from the Mahakam area. The Dutch government feared the territorial actions of raja Charles Brooke and extension of the British influencial area over Sarawak. The headhunting trips of the Iban from Sarawak took place, as assumed, with permission from Brooke.

In 1907 the Dutch founded a temporary outpost in Long Nawang, the strategical center of Apokayan. In an answer to the accusation of Sarawak that 'Dutch' Kenyah violated British soil, the Dutch founded a permanent garrison in Long Nawang in 1911. To minimize the bureaucratic problems, the head of Long Nawang was named leader over entire Apokayan, and he also had to stop the headhunting trips.

In 1924, an international peace conference was held in Sarawak. Representatives from the Dutch government, authorities fom Sarawak and representatives from Kenyah, Iban and other Dayak populations. The Dayak voted for ending their brawls and headhunting trips. However 'free-lance' headhunters still beheaded some people, the trips were stopped officially in 1930.


A mission started working in Apokayan in 1929, and five Dutch officers and seventy soldiers from Ambon, Menado and Java were permanently stationed in Long Nawang. Missionary George Fiske was supported by the United States Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1929. The protestant Fiske was very fanatic and his conversion work soon had success.
The fundamentalist mission had little to do with the traditional religions, in which animism and ancestral honour played an important part. The missionaries saw the woodcarvings and the rytes from the Dayak as work from the devil. The confrontation ended up in problems. Villages fell apart and residents moved out.

The start of the catholic mission in 1967 came at just the same time that the government officially abolished animism. The Dayak were in fact forces to adapt a religion which was acknowledged by the government (catholicism, protestantism, islam, hinduism or buddhism), branded by a holy book and believe in one leader.

With the eye on unity of entire Indonesia the government was not paying any attention to local religions. Because of this, the Dayak had the chance to be compared with the atheist people, synonimous for the number one enemy of the state: the communist. The result is that the Dayak from Apokayan are 25 per cent catholic and 75 per cent protestant. Besides a widespread believe in spirits and several old uses, there is nothing left from the original culture, a small revival to be forgotten.

In 1947, one christianized Lepo Jalan Kenyah had a drea, in which the goddess Bungan Malan appeared. She desired a simplified version of the traditional religion, without many obligations; the only sacrifices would be eggs. She herself would become the upper god of the new religion.

The dream lead to the Bungan cult, which proposed a simplification of the hierarchical social structure. The cult had little success in Apokayan, but several aristocratic Kenyah and Kayan from Sarawak got intrigued by the new religion and spread it among their own people. The Bungan cult became popular among them upto today.

The Japanese invasion

When Japan entered Borneo in 1942, Dutch soldiers and civilians fled to Long Nawang. About 150 Europeans thought to be safe there, but the Japanese sent troops and the Europeans were executed without any excuse. During a short military confrontation with Malaysia in the 1960's, Long Nawang was the location for several hundred Indonesian troops. After the incident the outpost was kept staffed with a small group of soldiers.

Last revised on April 05, 2012
Your website for tickets in Indonesia!
Looking for e-tickets for flights in Indonesia? Here's your solution! Order your e-tickets at
Add this page to your email, your own blog, MySpace, Facebook, or whatsoever via AddThis:
Bookmark and Share

Additional information, updates or feedback? Send them in!

Feedback Form


4 pictures in this gallery 
MySQL connection failed.