Malaysian Borneo: Ethnic Groups And Tribes Of Sabah

Sabah is nicknamed the ‘Land below the Wind’, and is a colourful and rich mosaic of ethnic groups. Borneo is the third largest island in the world and Malaysia occupies about a quarter of its total land mass. The rest of Borneo is divided between Indonesia and the tiny sultanate of Brunei. Approximately 20 percent of Malaysia’s population lives in two states on the island of Borneo: Sabah and Sarawak.

Sabah occupies the north of Borneo and is covered mostly in mountainous forest, with Mt. Kinabalu its chief delight. In between, more than half of the state is covered by rainforest in national parks and forest reserves; there’s also an abundance of uninhabited islands and postcard-perfect beaches.

Sixty percent of Sabah’s population belongs to non-Malay indigenous groups; and consist of different tribes. There are as many as 30 different ethnic groups whose cultures and traditions are vastly different from the Malay majority that makes up the rest of the country.

Mari Mari Cultural Village

Mari Mari cultural village is located in a river valley around 1-hour distance away from Kota Kinabalu (KK) and highlights five major ethnic tribes of Sabah. It showcases their distinctive houses, traditional dresses, and food. Visitors can experience local rice wine, cooking food in bamboo, traditional dances and finish the cultural village tour by having an authentic village meal. 

A lovely woman from the ethnic groups of Sabah posing in her traditional attire
Photo credits: Shubham Mansingka

The entire tour takes around 3 hours and is well worth it to actually experience in a rustic setting the charm of the tribes of Sabah. Mari Mari cultural village is nestled within a jungle like setting and showcases the lifestyle of five ethnic communities of Sabah: The Bajau, the Kadazandusun, Lundayeh, Rungus, and Murut headhunters. 

Ethnic Groups and Tribes of Sabah

Indigenous tribes make up more than 60 percent of the population Sabah. Many of these groups, live in longhouses and hold animist beliefs. Some of the tribes converted to Christianity and Islam in the recent past. 

Kadazandusun Rice Farmers

About 30 percent of the population of Sabah comprises of Kadazandusun tribe and they are the largest ethnic group in Sabah. Their ancient beliefs suggest that everything has life – the rocks, trees, and rivers are all living things. Kadazandusun tribe produces the majority of Sabah’s agricultural products, but increasingly most members live in towns and hold everyday jobs.

A woman from the ethnic groups of Sabah serving chicken cooked in bamboo
Photo credits: Shubham Mansingka

They are well known for the harvest festival, held during May, where the priest presides over a ceremony performed to appease the rice spirit. They traditionally wear black silk outfits on festive occasions such as the Dusun Harvest Dance. Although originally a Kadazandusun tradition, it is now celebrated by all cultures in Sabah. 

The Bajau Laut or sea gypsies

The Bajau are a group of sea living gypsies who originally migrated from the Philippines. It is really interesting to know that the Bajau who live on the eastern coast of Sabah carry on their traditional connection to the water, living as sea gypsies and coming to shore only rarely. Nowadays, many Bajau have settled on land as farmers and cattle raisers. The Bajau men are known locally as the ‘cowboys of the east’. Their brilliant colourful costumes and decorated ponies always take centre stage at the annual Tamu Besar in Kota Belud.

Kota Belud town in Sabah is inhabited by people mostly from the Bajau tribe. It lies in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu, which dominates the landscape in most of Western Sabah. The town comes alive every Sunday morning with the weekly tamu (weekly street market). The Bajau are predominantly Muslim and are the second largest ethnic group in Sabah. They live in houseboats and stilted homes close to the water. 

A woman from the ethnic groups of Sabah making rice wine
Photo credits: Shubham Mansingka
The Murut headhunters 

The Murut tribe is the third largest indigenous group of Sabah and literally translates to hill people. They are a feared tribe – In the past days, the Murut tribe used to be headhunters, which is not practised today. They are skilled hunters and use spears, blowpipes, poisoned darts. 

One can see skulls during visits to longhouse settlements and actual villages of the Murut headhunters. A really interesting Murut tradition witnessed in Mari Mari Cultural village involves a jumping competition. The trampoline is situated in the community longhouse and is skilfully made of split bamboo. During local ceremonies, the men drink rice wine and jump on the trampoline to see who can jump the highest. A prize is hung above for the winner to grab by jumping the maximum.  

A headhunter from the Murut tribe - ethnic groups
Photo credits: Shubham Mansingka
Lundayeh hunters

The Lundayeh tribe were said to be crocodile worshipping headhunters and experts in rope making. It is said that they also had their own alarm system to stop enemies sneaking into the longhouse. On either side of the longhouse, a chicken and a boar would be caged and they would make loud sounds when unfamiliar figures emerged from the jungle.

Rungus Tribe

The Rungus are indigenous people living in northern Sabah. They are skilled in beadwork, weaving, fabric weaving and other crafts. Rungus people live communally in longhouses around Kudat in Sabah. Even the traditional costume of the women has remained the same and they still wear dresses made from cloth processed form hand-grown and hand-spun cotton. 

Read more about these ethnic groups and indigenous tribes of Sabah here.

Also read, 10 reasons you should visit Sabah.


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