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The Asmat region is a massive, remote, low-lying area of muddy, snaking rivers, mangrove forests and tidal swamps, where many villages, including their streets, are built entirely on stilts. The Asmat people, formerly feared for their headhunting and cannibalism, are now most celebrated for their woodcarvings – the most spectacular of Papuan art. It’s a fascinating area to explore but it requires time, money and patience. The one time when more than a handful of visitors appears here is during the annual Asmat Cultural Festival (Festival Budaya Asmat), five or six days of woodcarving exhibits, canoe races and traditional dance, song and dress at Agats in October.
Though Christianity has a strong hold among the Asmat today, many older beliefs and practices survive. All Asmat villages still have their jeu (men’s house), a long building adorned with carvings where young men sleep from adolescence till marriage, and married men sleep some nights. These are intriguing places to visit if you can get yourself invited.
Asmat woodcarvings were originally made only for ritual use. The famous bis poles of interlocked human and animal figures are carved from mangrove trees and can be 6m or more tall. Traditionally they were carved as objects where the spirits of slain warriors could reside until they were liberated by the killing and eating of enemies. Decorated shields, used in funeral ceremonies, also represent and avenge dead relatives. Asmat people still revere their dead ancestors and may keep their skulls as sources of spiritual strength.
Around the Asmat Region
Most visitors who make it here spend time boating along the jungle-lined rivers to different villages, seeing and buying Asmat artefacts, and maybe seeing a traditional dance or ceremony or a demo of the uses of the sago palm (the staple lowland food source). For anything more than a day-trip from Agats you’ll need a guide (300,000Rp or more per day) and maybe a porter or cook (100,000Rp or more) in addition to boat hire.
Villages to visit for their carving include Atsy, Ambisu and Jow, all south of Agats. Fos and Awok, east of Agats up Kali Sirets, and Ocenep, south of Agats, are places where traditional Asmat celebrations can be laid on for 2,000,000Rp to 3,000,000Rp. A persistent story has it that Ocenep holds the skull of Michael Rockefeller, art collector and son to a former US vice-president, who disappeared nearby in 1961, when headhunting was still a living tradition. Atsy is about the same size as Agats and has some shops and rumah makan and the clean, decent Hotel Marannu, but other villages have basic guesthouses at best, and you will need to carry some food and mosquito repellent.