Fascinating article written by Angela Dennis on the Penan ethnic group of Borneo.
Picnic with the Penan.
A unique travel option for adventurous tourists through some of the last intact forest in Borneo, guided by the Island’s only traditionally nomadic indigenous people, the Penan.
While many visitors to Borneo take in a longhouse visit, tasting traditional Iban or Kenyah hospitality, very few have the opportunity to meet the oldest and possibly most fascinating tribal group on the island, the Penan. Unlike these other peoples, whose history was as settled farmers, Penan ancestry stretches far back to when Borneo was covered in wild jungle, flush with wildlife and they were the island’s true nomadic hunter-gatherers. As a peaceful people, living deep in the remotest reaches of the jungle, they developed a unique culture and specialized, instinctive knowledge of Borneo’s animal and plant life. Today, they are still Borneo’s jungle experts and have fascinating knowledge and jungle survival skills to share with interested and adventurous visitors. Picnic with the Penan is a sustainably-managed and community-run tourism program which offers intrepid visitors the chance to trek though some of Borneo’s last untouched forest, learn about Penan culture, and see the jungle through Penan eyes.
Who are the Penan?
The Penan people of Borneo were once the Islands’ nomadic hunter-gatherers, stewards of the forest, possessing instinctive knowledge of plants and animals, and whose lives were constantly on the move. They travelled in family groups, stopping where the sago palm and hunting was plentiful, and moving on when the area was depleted, allowing it to regenerate. Their direction was often be decided by a sign, such as the flight of the eagle or sometimes by forest messages left by other Penan; these simple signs and messages connecting them both to other roaming families, and the forest itself.
Though much has changed for the Penan in the last century, much has also stayed the same. With many now settled in villages and having converted to Christianity, the Penan’s nomadic, animistic existence is all but a memory. Yet, the Penan say that the forest is still their first home. Their knowledge of the jungle is still expert and most still rely on the forest for daily food and medicine. Most importantly, many of their most inspiring traditional cultural values remain and offer sane answers to the environmental problems of our time, such as their practice of sharing all things equally and their concept of molong, which attests that all forest plants and animals should be harvested responsibly.
Where is it?
The program is situated in the mountainous Upper Baram region of Sarawak, in and around the villages of Long Kerong, Long Spigen and Long Sait. The area is quite remote, and to reach the villages, visitors must take a light plane, 4 wheel drive and a boat. This journey usually takes the best part of a day.
Is it for you?
Picnic with the Penan is for visitors who have an adventurous spirit, a flexible schedule and an open mind. Because of the remoteness of the location and because the program is still quite new, an ability to go with the flow and take things as they come is essential! But for those who do venture into to the Penan villages, Picnic with the Penan offers an authentic and exciting experience rarely found in established tour programs. The scenery is beautiful, the people generous and there is a rich variety of activities to choose from. All trips are tailored to suit the visitors’ interests and abilities. For the adventurous and fit, there is jungle trekking, camping in the jungle, swimming, rafting and jungle survival training. For those who would like to learn about Penan culture, there is blow pipe making, Penan food gathering and cooking, demonstrations of Penan traditional music, rattan basket making, fishing, learning about Penan traditional medicines and Penan folklore. In the village, visitors will generally stay with a Penan family and thus get a taste of Penan daily life today. There are also day walks to nearby villages, community projects and flower gardens. Of course, in between all these activities, there is time to enjoy the tranquility of village life, relax by the river and talk with the Penan. For though they can be shy, the Penan are always very excited to meet visitors and the Penan children will love you!
The program is designed to directly benefit the Penan communities through bringing in income and building skills, whilst keeping visits to manageable level. Unlike most other tour programs available, Picnic with the Penan is owned and run by the Penan themselves, through the mechanism of the Koperasi, or Community Management. This ensures that the program remains relevant to the concerns and aspirations of the communities involved. All other administrative work is done on a volunteer basis, so almost all the income from visitors goes directly to the communities. Indeed, during the tour, you will pay monies directly to the person providing the service. For example after a boat ride, you would pay the boatman a set fee. Therefore you can be assured that monies are going directly to the Penan people, to spend as they see fit. In addition, each visitor with Picnic with the Penan will be required to pay a set community fee. This fee goes into a fund which the Koperasi allocate to several projects which benefit the community as a whole. One ongoing project is a tree nursery and tree replanting scheme, which aims to grow important trees such as Red Meranti, White Meranti and Belian and replant them in degraded forest. Another is a development centre, based in Miri, which will provide training and act as a base for Penan living in the town. Through such projects, it is intended that Picnic with the Penan will provide long-term and ongoing benefits to the Penan communities.
How to get more information
If you think that Picnic with the Penan might suit you, you can review our blog, www.picnicwiththepenan.wordpress.com (still under construction), and you can ‘friend’ us on Facebook. Our Facebook name is Penan Picnic. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again to Angela for great post!