We have come to see a fascinating and disappearing civilization in the Indonesian highlands of Papua (formally known as Irian Jaya)…


The Baliem Valley is about 60km long and 16km wide, and is the home of the Dani people.

The white men first chanced upon the valley in 1938, a discovery that came as a great surprise to the world that assumed it had mapped, studied and explored its remotest corners.

We took off from Sentani airport on the north coast of Papua, and 45mins later we arrived at the airport of Wamena, the main town in the Baliem Valley.

While waiting for our bags to arrive, I felt somebody touch my shoulder. I turned, and there next to me is the man I have come to see!

He was dressed up in his feather headgear, boar tusks through his nose, and the much talked about penis sheath (locally known as koteka) – and nothing else. I was gobsmacked.

Catholic missionaries had tried to blackmail the Dani into covering up in exchange for tobacco and medicine. In the 1970s, the Indonesian government’s campaign to eradicate the penis sheath was also mostly a failure.

It pleased me no end to witness these few die-hards – True traditionalists who just refuse to sacrifice their culture on the altar of progress.

Lian and Timi

Lian and the ‘true traditionalists’

Dani men traditionally wear a penis sheath made of cultivated gourd, held upright by attaching a thread to the top and looping it around the waist or chest.

In the more remote areas, the men wear pig fat in their hair, and rub their body with a mixture of pig fat and soot for warmth. They are also partial to wearing string hairnets, birds of paradise feathers, and cowry shells necklaces.

When a woman wears a grass skirt, it means she is not married. Some of the girls have safety pins in their ears because they cannot afford proper earrings. They reminded me of the Punk culture!





The traditional Dani village is set within a fenced compound. The houses are made of timber and mud, with thick thatched roofs.

The women live in a number of round huts, and the men all stay together in a larger rectangular hut. Each village has a cookhouse, and pigsties where their precious pigs are reared.

Despite objection from the missionaries, polygamy is widely practiced. A Dani man may have as many wives as he can afford — A man simply gives 4 to 5 pigs to the family of the girl he wishes to marry. His social status is measured by the number of pigs and wives he has.

After checking into the nearby hotel, we took a becha (trishaw) to the local market. Markets are the main gathering place where gossip can be exchanged as people go about buying and selling their wares.

We were the only foreigners in the marketplace so all eyes were on us.

A smile and a nod would be returned with a broad beaming smile. The men will go up to Michael to shake and hold his hand with a long lingering handshake.

The Dani are very tactile people. It is customary to have the long handshake and an opportunity to feel one’s hand.

Michael gets the “long handshake”

There were more men in penis sheaths. They were selling bows and arrows, local river fish, Birds of Paradise feathers sewn onto headgear, as well as locally grown tobacco.

Many of the older women, selling vegetables or knitting string bags, seemed to have stubby fingers! — Leprosy sprang to mind until I found out later that one of the more unusual of the Dani customs is to amputate a woman’s finger joint after a loved one dies. Although this is now outlawed, we still saw several women with fingers missing down to their second joint.

We moved around the valley in local buses in order to experience the colorful local culture — We shared extremely crowded bus rides with women suckling babies, snotty-nosed kids, feather-decked men, and sacks of sweet potatoes. The women usually have a stretchable string bag carried on their head, and in it would be filled with vegetables, or a baby, or even piglets, depending on their agenda for the day.

Both genders usually have smeared red lips and black stained teeth, from chewing betel nut from areca palm and lime. And they love cigarettes, so we bought a packet of cigarettes to pass around.



Wamena town is dusty, and sprawling, and expensive (compared to the rest of Indonesia). Everything — from doors to instant noodles — has to be shipped to Jayapura, trucked to Sentani, and flown to Wamena. There is yet to be a road connection with the outside world.

The rest of the world is moving so fast. What will the winds of change bring to the Baliem Valley? — Will they leap straight into Cyber Age without a blink? Will the youngsters have i-pods next year? — It will be interesting to see how the Dani people handle it all.

PHOTO CREDITS: Photos courtesy of Lian Ang & Michael Godfrey | Baliem Valley in Papua — Wikimedia Commons

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LIAN ANG is passionate about ‘the road less travelled’, a photographer, street foodie & wine enthusiast. She enjoys tennis, bridge, birdwatching, and exploring local haunts. Lian shares her husband’s digital nomad lifestyles before Covid struck the planet. Their family motto is “home is where our toothbrush is”.

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