Celebrating Gawai Dayak Festival in Borneo

Both Malaysia and Indonesia celebrate Gawai Dayak Festival with relish

Gawai Dayak festival in Pontianak, Indonesia
••• Gawai Dayak festival in Pontianak, Indonesia. baka_neko_baka/Creative Commons

Edited by Mike Aquino.

Celebrated with enthusiasm across the island of Borneo (in both Indonesia and Malaysia), Gawai Dayak is a multi-day festival to honor the island's indigenous people.

Gawai Dayak translates to "Dayak Day"; the Dayak people include the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Murut tribes which once roamed Borneo and relieved unsuspecting traders of their heads.

Although steeped in headhunting traditions of the past, the only head removed these days during Gawai Dayak belongs to a chicken sacrificed to honor a successful rice harvest.

As Christmas is to Westerners and Chinese New Year to people of Chinese ancestry, Gawai Dayak is to Borneo's proud indigenous tribes. More than just a kitschy demonstration of indigenous culture for tourists, Gawai Dayak is celebrated with genuine joy and enthusiasm – an occasion for weddings and joyous family reunions.

Celebrating Gawai Dayak in Sarawak, Malaysia

In the capital Kuching and around Sarawak, celebrations begin a week before June 1.

Kuching holds parades and demonstrations along the waterfront that a week prior to Gawai Dayak. The official start to festivities takes place at the Sarawak Cultural Village, a popular and convenient place for tourists to learn more about indigenous culture.

On May 31, Sarawakians kick off Gawai Dayak at the Civic Centre, with festivities including dinner, dancing, and even a beauty pageant.

Tourists are invited to visit the Iban longhouses all around Sarawak on June 1. Activities differ between longhouses; some allow tourists to shoot traditional blowpipe guns or to watch cockfights. No matter the locale, visitors are always greeted with a shot of strong rice wine; drink up or find a place to hide it – refusing is impolite! (Read about getting drunk in Southeast Asia.)

Iban and Dayak homes are opened during Gawai Dayak, allowing visitors a glimpse of daily life. Tourists are invited to wear colorful costumes for photos, participate in traditional dances, and sample delicious cakes and treats.

There is a push within the Dayak community to unify the celebration, however for now Gawai Dayak remains mostly incongruous with each longhouse holding separate events and itineraries. Do not expect any less from the festival – as many as 30 families can occupy a single longhouse!

Celebrating Gawai Dayak in Pontianak, Indonesia

Across the border, the Dayak of West Kalimantan celebrate Gawai Dayak with as much flair as their brothers in Malaysia.

The capital Pontianak holds its own Gawai Dayak festival from May 20 to 27 – with parades and parties all around the city, and major events centered around Dayak longhouse replica Rumah Radakng.

The Dayak are a heterogenous bunch, and each tribe across the districts where they hold sway (Bengkayang, Landak, Sanggau, Sintang and Sekadau) celebrate their post-harvest rituals differently, each honoring Jubata (God) in their own way.

The Rumah Radakng festivities focus on the Gawai Dayak traditions of the Kanayatn tribe in particular, but offer a tourist-friendly glimpse nonetheless: festivities include 16 different traditional arts, from oral literature to music to Dayak dance to traditional games.

Gawai Dayak in Modern Times

Forget the romantic stereotypes – not all of Borneo's indigenous people still live in longhouses or choose to don a traditional costume during Gawai Dayak.

Many Dayak people have moved from their rural homes into the cities in search of work. Urban Dayak communities may choose to celebrate their holiday simply by taking time off work – a rare occasion – to visit family outside of the city.

Christian Dayaks often attend mass at a church and then celebrate with dinner in a restaurant.