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Dayak Wehea: The Story of the Harmony of Nature and Humans

The sun was already shining through the window. I’m still trying to open my eyes and glance at the time on the cell phone. Oh, it’s already 7 in the morning. Today, in mid-April 2011, in the midst of a lively rice harvest celebration for the Dayak Wehea tribe, in the village of Nehas Liah Bing, Muara Wahau, East Kalimantan. Even though I still feel tired all over my body after traveling 18 hours by road from Balikpapan, my curiosity and curiosity overcame my reluctance this morning. I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a slice of bread from the kitchen table at the secretariat of The Nature Conservancy where I was staying, which is located in the middle of this village. Without waiting any longer, I immediately grabbed the camera and went out of the house to find out what would happen today.

April is the month of celebration for the Dayak Wehea people. They call it the Lomplai ceremony. This ceremony is an expression of gratitude for this year’s abundant rice harvest. As a thank you to Princess Long Diang Yung, who sacrificed herself, when the Wehea Dayak village was hit by a drought thousands of years ago. This ceremony, never done on the same date. According to Ledjie Taq, the customary head of the Dayak Wehea, the calendar system used is the traditional Dayak calendar system based on calculating the shift of the moon.

That is roughly the story circulating among the Dayak Wehea people. The story of this tribute, has now even become something very interesting for non-Wehea people to enjoy. Princess Long Diang Yung probably never thought that her sacrifice would not only provide abundant rice for the Dayak Wehea people, but also a tourist attraction which is now increasingly developing the potential of the village which is located approximately 140 kilometers from the capital of East Kutai Regency, Sangatta.

I myself really enjoyed the series of parties that were held this month. Starting from the opening ceremony, dances, war rituals, to the climax of the event, they are chasing each other, smearing their faces with charcoal and pouring water on each other. There is excitement and joy that is always captured in their daily lives this April. Since the gong is struck in the Ngesea Egung ceremony, to the Embob Jengea ceremony (cooking lemang and Beangbit or Wehea’s special cakes), as well as the Sexyang ceremony(an imitation of wars in the past), all residents really enjoyed it, from toddlers to very old people. Everyone is dancing, everyone is having fun. There is no shame or embarrassment, wearing traditional clothes everywhere every day. One thing that we see less and less now, in the midst of the swift currents of consumerism and modernism that hit the deepest point of local culture.

I really admire the ability of the Dayak Wehea traditional elders to pass down their customs and culture on a regular basis to the generations below them. On various occasions at this traditional Lomplai party, we will often meet old people who take their grandchildren to take part in the ceremony. Including participating in the dance at the village hall performing the Tumbambabataq , Jiak Keleng, Ngewai and sound arts called Nluei .

As once said by the traditional head, Ledjie Taq, “Culture and nature are the main assets owned by the Dayak Wehea people. If we don’t take care of it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren from an early age, then we won’t be able to pass on anything.”

Aware of this cultural and natural potential, Dayak Wehea people are now starting to regularly preserve the Lomplai traditional ceremony as part of a local tourist attraction in Muara Wahau, East Kalimantan. Since five years ago, dozens of foreign and national television stations have alternated presenting Lomplai as one of their documentary broadcast programs. The same thing applies to print media, and the internet.

They support this effort, as one of the ongoing promotions to introduce Wehea Dayak culture to the world. Introducing the uniqueness of local culture, which has been hidden amid the clamor of the mainstay of tourism promotion in the country.

The Origin of the Dayak Wehea

The Nehas Liah Bing people who call themselves the Dayak Wehea tribe, according to the Head of Nehes Liah Bing Village, Mr. Ledjie Taq, come from Mainland China. On their way to Malaysia, some of the group stopped and settled in Apau Kayan. Then they have children and grandchildren and form a separate community. In the development of the community, there was a civil war to fight for power so that it broke into 2 groups. One of the group ran away and tried to find a place to live on their own. And the members of the group came to the Mount Kombeng area and began to settle there. Then gradually they moved upriver to “ Long Mesaq Teng”(Wahau River), but some members returned downstream to settle there, then the place grew and was named the village of Nehas Liah Bing. Nehas means sand, while Liah Bing is taken from the last name of the person who first opened the village, namely Boq Liah Bing.

Protection Forest: The Awakening of the Wehea Dayak

The excitement of the Lomplai ceremony is always interesting. But for me, that is just one element of the uniqueness of the Dayak Wehea culture. The main thing that I always remember and admire during my introduction to the Wehea culture is their wisdom towards their environment and their forest. Long before the government in this region touted about environmental programs.

Back to the last third of 2008, when he first set foot in the village of Nehas Liah Bing. At first glance, it is no different from other Dayak villages for me. However, I found out through several colleagues who worked longer in this village. I also started to get acquainted with several village leaders, one of whom was the traditional head, Ledjie Taq. Again, at a glance I don’t see anything special in the figure of this man who is considered small for Indonesians. However, through some of the opening chats, my initial impression says: this man is very friendly.

It was true, the first time I stopped by his house, the chats and coffee flowed non-stop. Needless to say, 3 hours passed. But of course, it’s not because I feel at home in his house because of his beautiful daughter. However, it was his tales that made me reluctant to get up from my seat and end the story.  

According to Pak Ledjie, the story of the Wehea protected forest is a part that is closely related to their way of life. They have even been aware of managing the environment long before the local government issued regulations regarding the environment in their protected forests.

Basically, the Dayak people have never dared to intentionally destroy land and forests and their contents. Forests, earth, the entire environment, and all living things on it are an inseparable part of life itself. Before taking something from nature, Dayak people always give it to forest guards first. For example, if you want to open up new land for farming, especially working on virgin forests, certain conditions must be met. Namely: (1) Telling the intention to the tribal chief or customary head, (2) One/several people are assigned to find a suitable forest by reading natural signs. (3) If a suitable forest area has been found, a traditional opening ceremony will be held as a sign of acknowledgment that it is the forest or the earth that gives them life, and hope that the forest cleared will yield and protect them. (4) In order to prove that they returned what was taken, there is a stipulation or custom that the forest that is processed is only used for 2-3 harvest periods, then the forest must be allowed to grow again after 10-15 years.

Indeed, the livelihood of the Dayak people is always related to the forest. They collect resin from meranti wood, take red sap from red gum trees, and take honey from bees nesting in trees. When hunting they go to the forest; when farming, they first cut down the big and small trees in the forest; if they cultivate plantation crops, they tend to choose plants that resemble forest plants, such as rubber, rattan, tengkawang.

The forest-oriented livelihoods of the Dayak people also influence the material culture of the Dayaks. Longhouses or people’s houses that are still original (now many of the roofs are made of corrugated iron) are made entirely of wood. Poles, floors, walls, roofs, pegs, ties (before there were nails, houses were tied with rattan or roots and pinned with wood), all of which were taken from the forest. The means of conveyance in the form of a canoe is made by dredging tree trunks. Work equipment and weapons, such as axes, pickaxes, machetes, baskets, mats, sabers, shields, blowpipes, ramming weapons and others. everything is made of wood (at least in part) from materials collected in the forest.

Dayak non-material culture also has a lot to do with forests. Folklore that lives among the Dayak ethnicity tells about life in the forest or around the forest, even big trees, or certain species are seen as symbols of mystical powers. Many types of trees are not allowed to be cut down because they are believed to be the dwelling place of their God. Art of dance, singing, carving, sculpture, and others. everything relates to the birds and the gross and subtle beings that dwell in the forest.
According to modern ecological theory, the relationship between the Dayak people and the forest and everything in it is a reciprocal relationship. On the one hand, nature provides possibilities for the cultural development of the Dayak people, on the other hand, people constantly change the face of the forest according to the cultural patterns they adhere to.

The process of managing the Wehea protected forest itself was seriously started 6 years ago. In 2004, in the village of Nehas Liah Bing, it was decided that this village and the Wehea protected forest were designated as a conservation village by the East Kutai District Government.

Now the Wehea protected forest is officially protected by Wehea customary law. Every violation, be it killing animals or taking wood without permission, will be subject to strict sanctions. In fact, now the Dayak people of Wehea have their own troops to guard this protected forest. They are called Petkuey Mehuey (PM) or forest rangers.

This troop consists of Wehea youths, who take turns in each shift guarding and patrolling the Wehea protected forest to monitor and build and repair tourist routes in this forest. Another task that is no less important, of course, is to guide every researcher or tourist who comes to the Wehea protected forest and explain every biodiversity in it.

Each shift is valid for two months. After the allotted time ends, they will be replaced by another team that has been prepared. This process has occurred since the first time the Wehea protected forest was designated as an area that must be protected by them. Officially, this PM has been in charge since 2004, and continues to this day.

The commitment and hard work of the Dayak Wehea people, has received an award from the Government of the Republic of Indonesia in 2010. Ledjie Taq, as the Traditional Head of the Dayak Wehea, received the Kalpataru award as one of the movers and protectors of the environment in Muara Wahau. The Wehea Protected Forest has even won international awards, namely the Schooner Prize Award from Canada, as one of the third best conservation areas in the world.

So, if you want to fully enjoy the Wehea protected forest, don’t worry. This forest area of ​​38,000 hectares will not be an obstacle for you, because experienced troops are ready to accompany you to explore this place. And get ready for the various surprises that you will encounter during your trip.

Enjoying the Biodiversity of the Wehea Protected Forest

The Wehea protected forest is located about 90 kilometers from Nehas Liah Bing village in Muara Wahau District. This distance can be covered by a four-wheel drive vehicle for two and a half hours or a maximum of three hours. This was due to the condition of the asphalt road which was damaged from Muara Wahau to the entrance to the Wehea forest.

Apart from the main road, we will follow the road used by the HPH company which is along the entrance to this area. The distance between the main gate on the edge of the Trans Kalimantan axis road leading to the gate of the Wehea protected forest is approximately 70 kilometers. Lush giant trees and ravines alternate with the journey to this area. Several animals, such as wild boar, civet, various species of birds, and sometimes orangutans cross the dirt road to the Wehea forest area. The wind blows, and the smell of the forest spreads a distinctive aroma along the way. Trees that are now increasingly difficult to find in the Kalimantan region, still thrive here. Among them are Meranti, Bangkirai, and so on.

If you really want to capture the presence of various types of animals in this area, during the fruit season, is the best time to walk through the Wehea forest. From May to August, usually various types of fruit will ripen. Providing a food source for the entire forest, and at the same time maintaining the continuity of the cycle in the ecosystem through the dispersal of seeds carried out by these various species.

Entering this protected forest, we must report to the guard post, and fill out the guest list, regarding the intent and purpose of our arrival in this area. This is to ensure that the presence of tourists and researchers is properly recorded. Of course also to minimize the risk for any newcomers, especially if walking through this forest area on the tourist and research route.

The Wehea protected forest still has excellent biological wealth to this day. Thousands of types of plants and animals, ranging from birds, reptiles to insects, still shelter behind the dense Wehea protected forest. The results of monitoring forest areas in 2007-2008 identified no less than 132 species of birds, 49 species of mammals, 47 species of reptiles, 20 species of fish and 168 species of insects.

For researchers, this place is a paradise for biodiversity. For animal photographers, this place is very promising to visit and get a collection of photos of animals typical of Kalimantan and western Indonesia.

To make it easier for researchers and tourists, in the Wehea protected forest there is now a path through the forest. This path is divided into several sections, namely short and long cross ecotourism routes, as well as research routes. Everything is complete with road instructions and signs with the names of the tree species along the track.

Do’s and Donts in Wehea Dayak Village

The Wehea Dayak people really appreciate the village and its environment, including living things. Actually there is nothing specifically prohibited in this village, like most other villages in Indonesia, they really value manners. And of course, this is generally accepted right?

The special things that must be considered are, men can only borrow traditional clothes, especially hats for men. They strictly forbade hats from being worn by women, and vice versa. This happened to me when I borrowed a hat used by a Wehea girl. Out of curiosity, I tried to observe this hat up close. And the girl didn’t mind lending it, but she watched very closely, so that the hat didn’t come to my head. He said, it can bring bad luck and far away a mate for those who are still single. But when I explained that I was married, he still wouldn’t let me wear it, still, it’s forbidden.

Another prohibition is not to cross in front of the ceremonial group that is carrying out a ritual across the village during the Lomplai ceremony. In addition to disturbing concentration, this can disrupt the rhythm of the ceremony that is being held.

Another thing to remember is, don’t run away when someone comes up to you to smear your face with charcoal and splash you with water, at the end of the Lomplai event, because everyone has to get streaks of charcoal, whether a lot or a little. In addition to being impolite, this ceremony is considered a ceremony to cleanse each other among the people in the village.

If you bring a camera, you don’t have to worry about getting splashed with water at the closing ceremony of Lomplai. All villagers have understood this rule, and they are very careful in treating newcomers with cameras. Usually they will ask your permission, to flush, only then do they do it. So, everything has been arranged in such a way that everyone in this village can enjoy every ceremony at Lomplai to the fullest.

The most important thing is, the Dayak Wehea people will really appreciate you if you don’t give tips after taking their picture. Traditional elders have taught them not to accept tips if they are photographed by tourists. This will damage the mentality, and make the orientation of the residents only chase money, and think of themselves as unique objects from a mere photographic perspective, without understanding the meaning of Wehea culture itself.

Wehea residents usually sell souvenirs in the form of t-shirts or food and drinks, when holidays are celebrated in their village. They also get their income from tourists staying in their house. So if you are a photographer, and give money to them after taking pictures, it means that you have contributed to destroying the mentality of the Wehea people. So don’t do that…

How to get to Wehea?

Nehas Liah Bing Village, located in Muara Wahau District. Located on the north side of the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. From Balikpapan, we have to pass through Samarinda, the city of Bontang, Sangatta, and continue towards Muara Wahau.

Several modes of transportation can be an option to get to the village of Nehas Liah Bing.

1. Balikpapan – Nehas Liah Bing with a rental car

From Balikpapan, many rent vehicles to go directly to the village of Nehas Liah Bing in Muara Wahau. The current travel time to get to this village is around 17-18 hours from Balikpapan passing through the mining area in Rantau Pulung, East Kutai.

This is the main choice at the moment, because the main road to Muara Wahau is still badly damaged. Large or small vehicles cannot pass through this area, except patiently waiting to take turns queuing. Vehicles often even have to stay in the forest if forced to use this main route.

Meanwhile, bypassing the mining and HPH routes, is now the best choice. You don’t need to worry, all rental car drivers between Balikpapan to Muara Wahau to Berau Regency have now equipped their wheels with pitch wheels to penetrate dirt roads.

It is recommended to bring more supplies when crossing this route. If it rains really hard in the middle of this dirt track, there’s always the possibility of staying in the car waiting for the rain to stop. The price for renting a vehicle from Balikpapan to Muara Wahau is Rp. 1,500,000 using a Kijang Innova car, including petrol/diesel and the driver.

2. Balikpapan – Sangatta by plane, continue the rental car to Muara Wahau

Another alternative is that you can go to Muara Wahau via Sangatta in East Kutai by plane. There are flights from Balikpapan to Sangatta every day. However, because this is a line owned by the mining company KPC, you have to buy tickets through this company, which is not open to the public.

From Sangatta, you can continue to Muara Wahau for 7 hours, arriving at Nehas Liah Bing village. The price for a plane ticket from Balikpapan-Jadita is IDR 800,000, while the price for a rental car from Sangatta to Muara Wahau is IDR 1,000,000

3. Balikpapan – Berau by plane, then rent a car to Muara Wahau

The third alternative to Muara Wahau is via the northern side of Kalimantan, namely Berau District. Flights from Balikpapan to Berau are now increasing. A number of airlines, such as Batavia Air, Sriwijaya Air, Kalstar and Trigana serve flights to this area every day. Finding tickets is easier, because this is a commercial flight. Balikpapan – Berau ticket prices start at IDR 450,000 one way, up to IDR 850,000.

From Kalimarau Airport in Berau, the trip to Muara Wahau can be continued to Nehas Liah Bing village for around 8 hours. The price for renting a vehicle from Berau to Muara Wahau is IDR 1,500,000. 

Towards the Wehea Protected Forest

Wehea Protection Forest is located 3 hours from Nehas Liah Bing village. This customary forest area belonging to the Dayak Wehea people can only be reached by a four-wheel drive vehicle. To reach it, it is very easy if we have arrived at the village of Nehas Liah Bing.

There are lots of four-wheel drive cars for rent in the village of Nehas Liah Bing. To go to the Wehea protected forest, the price offered is Rp. 1,500,000 for a single drive to the Wehea protected forest. One car can be filled with 4 guests.

Where to stay?

1. Nehas Liah Bing Village

In this village, you don’t need to worry. Everyone in this village opens their doors to you, the tourists. Of course, there is a small fee incurred, but that is to buy your daily food needs. On average, the cost of one night’s stay for one person is IDR 100,000 with three meals a day, plus the occasional coffee provided by the hosts when you talk to them.

The Wehea Dayak people are very friendly people. If by chance it’s during Lomplai, and you happen to pass in front of their house, you will definitely be called and invited to eat together. Free of course, on the house lah…

2. Wehea Protection Forest

In the Wehea protected forest, you can stay overnight at a research station located between two rivers. Nice view, that’s for sure. Another plus point, you can bathe in a very fresh waterfall, not far from this research station. Guaranteed, you don’t want to take a shower in the bathroom once in this place.

For foreign tourists, of course, they have to apply for a Road Certificate at the East Kalimantan Police Office in Balikpapan. Usually it can be waited, and the day is done. For local tourists, you should apply for a permit from the East Kutai Environment Agency and the Wehea Protection Forest Management Agency in Sangatta, East Kutai.

The cost required is a donation for the Wehea Protected Forest of IDR 250,000 for each arrival. This fee is only paid once for each arrival. Another important expense is lodging at the research station. Per night stay at a very complete research station only IDR 75,000.

If you want to walk safely, a local guide, consisting of Petkuey Mehuey (PM) alias rangers consisting of Wehea Dayak children, is ready to accompany you. The cost for each guide is between IDR 75,000 and IDR 100,000 per day. Then the cost of eating, is IDR 25,000 for each meal.

Internet access

For tourists who like surfing in cyberspace, you will have no difficulty accessing the internet in the village of Nehas Liah Bing. Several cell phone providers even have transmitter towers not far from the village. About the signal, you don’t need to worry. Just updating the status, or opening email, you can still do it on the sidelines of tourist activities and taking pictures.

A new problem arises for you when you enter the Wehea Protected forest. There is no internet access and cell phone signal. Forget about status updates, just asking how the people at home are doing, it feels like you have to wait patiently. But of course, it’s not a forest if cellular signals can still be accessed. Your holiday program will be very disturbed by the sounds that disturb your trekking activities. So, just enjoy the silence and singing of nature around you freely.


For travelers, the source of electricity is one of the important things. Mainly for recharging communication devices and camera batteries. On the way to Nehas Liah Bing village, you have to fully charge your camera battery at night. Because in this village, electricity is only on from 6 pm to 6 am the next day. So as much as possible, while resting at night, don’t forget to charge your camera battery.

While in the Wehea protected forest, electricity is only turned on using a generator. Usually the generator will be turned on starting at 6 pm, until late at night. That’s when you have the time to recharge your batteries. The more, the more troublesome. Try to bring energy-efficient photographic equipment, or prepare spare batteries for field shooting.

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