The Kayan/Kayaan of Borneo

Kayan Ladies during an open house.
The Kayan are part of the Orang Ulu people, occupying Northeast Borneo. Although the term Dayak usually applies to all indigenous people of Borneo, the Kayan (or other Orang Ulus for that matter), prefer to call themselves Orang Ulu, and assign the term Dayak to the others like the Ibans and Bidayuh.

Ethnologist believe that the Kayan and Kenyah of Borneo has been inhabiting the island for about 900 years, migrating from southern China. According to a Kenyah Lepo Tau man, King Akalura of Tiongkok in China sent to ships to Borneo 900 years ago. One landed in Brunei, the people who would become the Kayan, while another landed in the Baram basin, where they settled, of which later became known as the Kenyah. This shows why the Kenyah-Kayan people have many things in common.

3 waves of migration occurred for the Kayan.

1st wave (15th century): Apo Duat (Mt. Murut and Baram River) and to Usun Apau (Balui and Tinjar)

2nd wave (16-18th century): Apau Kayan, Kayan River and Bahau River

3rd wave (18-20th century): Annexation of Malinau, Sesayap, Segah, Kelinjau, Telen, Wehea, Belayan, Mahakam and Medalam River. Some turned back to Sarawak (Balui, Tinjar, Baram and Baleh rivers)

Between the 17th to the 19th century, the Kayans were fierce headhunters (ayau kung) and conquerors. They occupied many new lands from the west of Sarawak up to the northeast of Kalimantan, displacing the locals and renaming it with new names to signify their power. They even fought wars with the Suluk, Bajau and Tidung of Sabah.

In the Mahakam (Kalimantan), the Ot Danum, Bukat, Penihing, Punan, Murut, Tunjung, Benuaq and Maloh retreated to West and Central Kalimantan to escape the Kayan. Those who stayed must accept their new masters.

In the north of East Kalimantan, the Burusu and Tenggalan escaped to the east coast of Kalimantan after the Kayan expansion.

Their huge numbers, war experience, their high mobility, and the rich resources of newly conquered lands made the Kayan absolute rulers of East Kalimantan for 300 years. But they were never acknowledged as true rulers by the colonial powers because they were deemed as primitive tribes compared to the “civilized” Sultanates of Brunei, Kutai, Bulungan, Berau and Tidung.

There are 3 types of Kayan (divided by language):

1. Ga’ay/Mengga’ay

Origin of the name comes from the word ‘gay’ (gai) meaning sword (mandau) used in headhunting (meng-ayau). A 2nd version comes from the Kenyah Lepo Tau who call these people “ba’ay” meaning people staying at the mouth of the river.

Long Glat, Long Huvung Lama and Keliway.

Kayan River: Seloy/Gong Kiyatn and Long Ba’un.

Muara Ancalong: Long Nah, Melean, dan Long Bentuk.

Segah River: Long La’ay and Long Ayan.

2. Kayan

Meaning “this is our land”. They live mostly within the Baram watershed.

East Kalimantan: Uma’ Suling, Uma’ Lekwe, Uma’ Tuatn, Uma’ Wak, Uma’ Laran, Uma Lekan etc.

West Kalimantan: Uma’ Aging, Uma’ Pagung, etc.

Sarawak, Sungai Balui, Sungai Baram, Sungai Tinjar, etc

A subgroup call themselves (Kayan) Busang, a name adopted before their migration to the Apau Kayan.

3. Bahau

According to the Kenyah, the word comes from the word “baw” meaning high (plains), where the Bahau used to live in the Baram before migrating.

Mahakam River: Hwang Tring, Hwang Siraw, Hwang Anah, and Hwang Boh.

Malinau:Ngorek, Lalu Pua’ of the Kayan River, and the Merap.


A Bahau lady and a Kenyah man
Due to the huge influence of the Kayan expansion, many ethnic groups became Kayanized, like the Melanau and the Muruts. In the Mahakam, there are two types of Kayan, Kayan Amoh (False Kayan) and Kayan Laan (True Kayan). The Kayan Amoh are the Muruts who call themselves Kayan.

Unofficial estimates of the Kayan population of Borneo is at 100,000 people.


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