The Invisible People of Punan
When I first heard the rumour that there was a Dayak Punan tribe living in caves deep in the forests of Borneo, I was naturally very curious to confirm if this news was true and if so to find a way to meet these people and learn more about them.
I had spent the past few weeks trying to find out more information about the Punan tribe, but there is very little known, especially in Indonesia. The Penan who live in Malaysia have been well documented, unfortunately for the wrong reasons as they have been fighting to prevent the desecration of their homelands for the past thirty years.
The Penan from Malaysia are nomadic and similar to the Punan of Kalimantan, however they do not share the same language and live quite a distance from each other. The Indonesian Punan live almost entirely in the province of North Kalimantan, mostly in settled modern villages around the district town of Malinau.
The Punan have a reputation for being gentle, kind, selfless, peaceful people, deeply connected to the natural environment in which they prefer to live. Others view them as primitive and backwards.
Part of my curiosity was to meet them in their environment and form my own views, but how?
Around two years ago I attended a prominent Dayak cultural festival in North Kalimantan and came face to face with the Punan for the first time. I was fortunate at this event to meet Thomas Miter who was chief of all the Punan tribes in Kalimantan.
“One day I will take you to meet my tribe,” he said to me at that time. “I am happy that you are interested to learn about my people and our culture. It is very rare that anyone from the outside takes an interest in my people, especially a bule (foreigner)”.
“I need time to arrange this, especially to meet the nomadic Punan, who often move from place to place and often they are difficult to track down”.
That conversation happened two years ago, and last month, I boarded a small motorised canoe with Thomas and his Dayak friends, and our journey to find the Punan had finally begun.
As we made our way up the small river, we soon started to enter into the extraordinary biodiversity of the world’s third largest island. There are 20,000 flowering plants in the world, and one-third are found exclusively on the magnificent island of Borneo. As we continued up the river, we were accompanied by a variety of bird species. They seemed to be leading us further into the jungle. I gave up trying to identify them, as there are 475 different species of birds that call Borneo h