Travelling gets us closer to the diverse cultures and people around the world. Each place has its unique culture. Art has always been an intrinsic part of cultures across the world. For centuries, arts and crafts have been the medium of expression for varied indigenous tribes. Ancient civilizations have been rooted in the divine creation of art, as a channel to express their spirituality. Art has been an integral part of the tribes of Sabah. My keen interest in indigenous arts led me to explore these cultural treasures. More than anything, it has been a sacred process and way of life.

Sabah is home to several tribes that have coexisted and blended harmoniously. My inclination towards tribal arts led me to explore the traditional arts and crafts of the indigenous tribes of North Borneo. What’s more? They are great souvenirs to carry back home; for it will be your most cherished memory of the destination and contribute to the lives of these tribes. Let’s journey into the world of Sabah’s indigenous works of heart.

Indigenous Arts and Crafts of Sabah

Rattan weaves

Weaving has been the backbone of the tribes of Sabah. The abundance of Rattan in the lush forests naturally transformed to art in the lives of the tribal folk. You can choose from a wide range of products such as mats, bags, traditional hats, containers, baskets, vases and so on. The tribal craftsmen have been weaving these utilities for practical purpose in their lives.

A woman wearing A Rattan ‘Seraung’ - a traditional Kadazan- Dusun hat -- arts and crafts of Sabah
A Rattan ‘Seraung’ – a traditional Kadazan- Dusun hat. Photo credits: Kitty Iyer

Bamboo crafts

The indigenous tribes of Sabah have been using Bamboo for everything from houses to fishing equipment. Crafts made out of Bamboo are a common sight in the Sabahan countryside. Baskets are mainly used by the tribes in their day-to-day lives. They use them as storage, mats, baskets and fishing equipment. Baskets, mats, trays, storage chests, musical instruments and other such products can be found at most local markets.

bamboo wind chimes - arts and crafts of Sabah
Photo credits: Divya Prasad Iyer

Leaf Origami

Pleated works using natural materials is common amongst the tribal communities. The tribes have been using Pandan and Coconut leaves to weave practical objects for daily use as it is abundantly available in the jungles. The Pandan and Coconut leaves are processed at home into flexible straws which are further woven into roofs, mats, bags, baskets, hats, plates, food wrappers and other such utility items. You can find some interesting decorative and functional household items at the local markets.

woven household products - arts and crafts of Sabah
Photo credits: Divya Prasad Iyer

Beadwork

The tribal women are extremely skilled in Beadwork. The fine artistry is reflected in their traditional attires. Beadwork serves a significant purpose in their culture. The type, colour and pattern of beads worn by the women is an indicator of their social status and identity. Beads woven in patterns and motifs inspired by nature such as flowers, butterflies, birds, plants and other elements are an integral part of their traditions.

The Rungus women are renowned for their artistry. A type of neckpiece known as ‘Vinusak’ can be found in local markets. The ‘Vinusak’ pattern stands for the young buds of flowers, symbolizing life. Beadwork on fabric and ensembles are also popular. The artistic Borneo beadworks are quite a collector’s muse.

The ‘Vinusak’ – a beaded Rungus neckpiece. - arts and crafts of Sabah
The ‘Vinusak’ – a beaded Rungus neckpiece. Photo credits: Divya Prasad Iyer

Sounds of Sabah

The indigenous tribes of Sabah are deeply rooted in music and dance. It has been a significant form of expression in their culture. Beautifully carved musical instruments with interesting sounds are a speciality. ‘Sape’ – the traditional lute of the tribes of North Borneo, carved out of a long piece of Sago tree wood or a traditional ‘Sompoton’ wind instrument are unique collectables.

Also read: the music festival held in the rainforests of Malaysia that you must visit.

‘Agung’ – a traditional metal gong - arts and crafts of Sabah
‘Agung’ – a traditional metal gong. Photo credits: Divya Prasad Iyer

Hand-woven cloth

Weaving is an integral part of the indigenous tribes of Sabah. Hand-woven cloth locally referred to as ‘Kain’ is one of the most valuable living traditions, passed on from one generation to another. One such speciality weave is ‘Dastar’ from the Bajau tribe. The art of weaving backstrap looms is still practised by the tribal women; and makes up for their source of income. The weaves are available in a variety of forms – clothes, bags, rugs, blankets, tapestries and so on.

Batik works

This ancient art of Batik involves using wax-resist dyeing to create beautiful patterns and colours. It is a form of textile printing practised for generations. Today, this art form is diminishing but a lot of local tribes have kept their traditions alive. The Rungus women typically wear batik scarves. The Sabahan Batik patterns are inspired by nature, depicting flowers, creatures, leaves and geometric patterns found in nature. Stylish Batik sarongs are quite a rave.

Woodworks

The indigenous tribes have great mastery over wood carving. Magnificent sculptures, masks and instruments carved out of wood can be found in their culture. Today, this has also become a source of income for the indigenous artisans. You can choose from a host of cultural antiques used by the tribes – a Murut Blowpipe, traditional masks, sculptures, storage, and rustic décor items.

Metal crafts

Some of the indigenous tribes are skilled in metal work. Brass and Bronze were used traditionally by the tribes to craft utensils, musical instruments, heirloom jewellery, sculptures and other utility items. The ‘Tangkong’ – a hip belt strung on rattan using coins, shell rings and brass rings is a unique heirloom piece worn by Kadazan-Dusun women. The ancestral ones are interesting items to have but are very expensive as they are usually passed on from one generation to another. However, you can find cheaper replica works at the local markets.

Pottery

Sabah is blessed with rich soil hence it has been widely used by the tribes to create utility items and crafts. Traditionally, mud utensils, pots and containers were used. You can find some great mud works at the local handicraft markets.

Sabah is truly a cultural experience. Exploring its indigenous arts and crafts is a process of learning about traditions back in time. Travel can be a beautiful medium to access these indigenous works and expose it to our own little world. This can make a meaningful contribution to the lives of these communities. This inter-connectedness can be cherished by helping each other in the smallest ways. That Rungus beaded jewellery or a Kadazan-Dusun woven hat could bring food to a family’s table or enrich someone’s life in little ways you wouldn’t imagine. So go on an indigenous hunt and bring purpose to your travels.

Also read: From headhunters to bead makers – the fascinating indigenous tribes of North Borneo.

Where to shop

The Handicraft Market located at Jalan Tun Faud Stephens along the same line as the Waterfront is the place to find all things Sabah. If you explore it patiently, you can find unique Sabahan souvenirs and local foods.

You can also find unique indigenous arts and crafts at the shop inside the Mari Mari Cultural Village.

Also read: Interesting things we found at the Sabah market that you might love to try

Where to stay

The Le Meridien would be my recommendation. Located right in the centre of Kota Kinabalu city, it accessible to the most popular attractions. Plush rooms with modern amenities and panoramic views, Le Meridien is great on hospitality. Their in-house café and bar are great for a relaxed hangout. Their Vista Sea View suites and the family suites come with the best views!

Right by the hotel, you can find the Handicrafts Market where you could shop for local handicrafts and specialities. The market has some interesting local delights and souvenirs you can carry back home. You could also indulge in a wide range of tropical Sabahan Teh Tarik in the bylanes.  You are just a few minutes away from the waterfront, handicrafts market, shopping malls and the hottest nightlife spots of Kota Kinabalu.

Reaching Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

The best way to reach Kota Kinabalu is by air. I recommend flying with Malindo Air. I must admit that they are great on comfort, connectivity, and hospitality. The flights are very affordable for the top-notch quality of services offered on board. There’s no doubt, Malindo is going to be my preferred choice for Malaysia and other South-East Asian countries.

For those from countries that have no direct flights for Kota Kinabalu can reach Kuala Lumpur and then fly to Kota Kinabalu.

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