Sat, 06 Aug 1994

A visit to the longest longhouse in W. Kalimantan

Text by Lewa Pardomuan Photos by Don Hasman

SUNGAI ULUK, KAPUAS HULU, W. Kalimantan (JP): The rain turned the clay road leading to the longhouse into a treacherous mud track.

Crawling along the unfinished road through thick jungle, some of the vans became bogged down, were dragged out by the surviving jeeps and slowly climbed the rough and hilly trail.

After a long struggle, pushing and towing, plus a very short lunch break, we arrived at Sungai Uluk, a tiny village that boasts the longest longhouse in West Kalimantan.

It took us two hours to reach the house located 30 kilometers from Putussibau, the capital of the Kapuas Hulu regency, including the trip along a very new two kilometer dirt road leading to the longhouse.

Named Daidanom Sorongan, the house is 268 meters long, 18 meters wide and accommodates 66 families in 54 apartments. A nearby river is their only source of water.

The house is made of ebony and sits on stilts, some are 300 years old, seven meters above the ground. It also contains a few old gongs, beads, cannons and a peculiar deer horn which is believed to produce a new branch each year.

As we walked towards the longhouse the thundering of old canons greeted us as honored guests.

At the front gate of the compound, traditional Dayak men and women dressed in colorful outfits welcomed us with broad smiles. The distant sound of a soothing brass musical instrument comforted the guests including members of the Kapuas to Mahakam expedition team, the wife of the regent and the secretary of the regency.

Banners of red and yellow and ornaments made of coconut leaves adorned the gate and enriched the beautiful, stunning dress of the villagers.


When we were seated, cross-legged and facing the residents, Bakupa Leteang, the house leader, greeted us. "Sorry if our service is minimal or odd," he said.

Daidanom Sorongan is one of dozens of longhouses scattered throughout the province. Although it is the longest and one of the oldest, it is in desperate need of maintenance. The house's supporting stilts are being eaten away by termites.

Life for the house residents is not always festivities and palm wine.

Bakupa told us that most of the 1,729 people living in the area, including the people in his longhouse, live below the poverty line. They are farmers and rotate their crops between various locations.

"But in this kind of poverty, we accept this visit," he said sitting across from us.

"Our village is not blessed with natural beauty, instead, we have traditions like this house, even though it is shabby," he stated optimistically.

It is believed that originally the longhouses, locally know as betang, were a form of defense against the headhunting raids that were rife in Kalimantan in past centuries.

It was easier to defend the community if the people gathered together in one house.

The building also provides shade and allows cool breezes to circulate driving away the humidity. The stilted house keeps everyone safe from floods, while sheltering pigs and poultry that consume the human refuse dropped from the floor above.


Bakupa acknowledged that the area's long isolation has left it behind in terms of development. "We are far from the government's patronage," he said.

Compared to other longhouses, like the one in Melapi, 20 minutes by car from Putussibau, this house is a far from modern

The better off residents in Melapi live in well painted apartments furnished with TV sets and radios. In Sungai Uluk, the apartments are bare and gloomy because of a lack of light and little paint.

The inhabitants need electricity.

Bakupa said that their long isolation has made it difficult for them to make contact with outsiders.

Residents claim that the first sound of a vehicle in the area was ours.

The new road was apparently built to make it easy for us to reach the house. "We question why the road was built just recently," queried Bakupa.

Before the road was opened, the residents had to walk for three hours to catch public transportation to Putussibau.

"We do not understand why we are left behind. We know that we are poor when we see other people," said Bakupa.

Bakupa said that what concerns him most is what he terms the "downfall of culture" among his people.

"I am not sure that tradition of building longhouses will continue if the government does not make an effort to protect it," he said, adding that it would be best if his longhouse was declared a historical monument.

He said that he did not think the dwellers, with their limited finances, could maintain their houses. "We need the government," he stressed.

Bakupa said that urban migration could also threaten the existence of the structures.

"The culture will decay if the people are not helped to preserve it," he said.

It is easy to see that the longhouse is at a crossroads.

Tadjudin, said that living in a longhouse required endurance because there are so many people jammed into one small area.

"I think I will move into an ordinary house," he concluded.