A Journey Into The Indigenous Tribes Of North Borneo

When you think of North Borneo, flashes of deep, lush rainforests and wilderness evade your senses. My journey to Sabah with Travel Earth and Sabah Tourism has been an exploration of the indigenous tribes of North Borneo. Winding through lush landscapes and dramatic skies, I set foot in the Mari Mari cultural village.

An aura of tranquillity takes over upon entering this lush expanse of forest. The voices of the outside world fade into the chirping of birds, the gushing river and swaying trees. I was welcomed by the warmth of the indigenous people into their traditional longhouses.

A traditional longhouse: Homes rooted with natural materials - indigenous tribes of North Borneo
A traditional longhouse: Homes rooted with natural materials. Photo credits: Divya Prasad

At first glance, these indigenous tribes of North Borneo are people who are balancing out themselves in the modern world. Yet deep inside, they are firmly rooted in their culture, traditions and spirituality. And there begins my inner journey to soak in the wisdom of these ancient tribes.

Upon arriving, I was greeted with a traditional wine served in a bamboo glass that’s customary to honour guests. The longhouses constructed with natural materials exuded the rawness of the ecosystem around them.

The entrance was adorned with artefacts, bones, skulls, and elements from their traditions. The women donned their traditional attires, along with intricately woven beads as headdresses, belts and jewellery. I walked through the tales of yore, reeling back in time.

The Kadazan-Dusun

Kadazan, in true essence, are the people reigning over flatlands. Originally, they hail from the Penampang region of West Sabah. Today they are also known as Kadazan-Dusun due to stark similarities with the Dusun people – one of the major ethnic groups of Sabah. For livelihood, they cultivate rice.

The Kadazan- Dusuns take me through the traditional ‘Tapai’ rice wine making process - indigenous tribes of North Borneo
The Kadazan- Dusuns take me through the traditional ‘Tapai’ rice wine making process. Photo credits: Divya Prasad

Traditionally, they are followers of animism. They worship the Kinoingan deity and the Minamangun spirit – the creator. Their ancestors believed that nature involves four primary spirits and several other individual spirits who keep the cycles of life going. The four big spirits involve the creator, the living human spirit, the dead ancestral spirits and the evil spirit.

The Kadazan Dusuns lead a self-sustained life in tune with nature and its spirits. To maintain the balance, they perform rituals like sacrifices and dances to appease the spirits. However, today they have blended into Christianity and Islam over the years.

Living in harmony, joy and contentment are intrinsic to the tribe’s beliefs. This celebratory spirit is reflected in their day to day lives; especially during the Kaamatan harvest festival which honours the spirit of the Paddy. During the Kaamatan festival; decked up in their traditional attires, they perform the sacred Sumazu dance to appease the Paddy spirit.

Women wear the ‘sinuangga’ – a skirt, a Tapi– a blouse and intricate coin jewellery; while men wear the ‘gaung’ – a shirt, the ‘souva‘ – a trouser and ‘toogot’ – a waistband. This is followed by an indulgence in festive foods, raising a toast cheering “Aramaiti” and downing a glass of Tapai rice wine as a celebratory ritual. In all, they are simple people who are worshippers of nature.

Life wisdom from the Kadazan Dusun

Celebrate the present moment; everything else will be taken care. We are all inter-connected.

The Murut

Fierce and brave; the Muruts were the head-hunting warriors of the past. Revered and feared as headhunters; they were skilled hunters who used blowpipes and weapons with unmatched precision.

Muruts are the ‘hill people’ who lived by the Tohol River and migrated to other regions of Sabah. They cultivated rice and tapioca on hills, also hunted and fished for livelihood. They are deeply rooted in Pagan-animalistic spiritualism and worship the divine creator – Aki Kaulung.

A Murut warrior in all his feathered glory - indigenous tribes of north borneo
A Murut warrior in all his feathered glory. Photo credits: Divya Prasad

Traditionally, the women wear the Pinongkolo– a beaded blouse and wrap skirt attire, a Salupai – headdress with pheasant feathers and beaded jewellery. The men wear Babaru puputul – a tree bark vest, the ‘aba puputul’ – a bark loincloth and the essential ‘tupi sinulatan’ – an elaborate headdress with Argus Pheasant feathers.

They are known for their intricate beadwork. The people live by the river in communal longhouses constructed with natural materials. They celebrate the harvest festival to honour the spirit of paddy; indulging in feasts and ‘Tapai’ – a fermented tapioca root drink.

They also perform the traditional ‘Magunatip’ dance, jumping between bamboo sticks. Headhunting – ‘Antaboh’ has been an ancient spiritual practice for a Murut warrior to inherit magical powers. The hunted head symbolized victory and protection of identity as a tribe. It also deemed a Murut man eligible to marry a woman – at least one head was mandatory in ancient times. More the hunted heads, the higher his chance of being chosen by the woman.

However, this practice is no longer relevant in today’s times. Antaboh and other sacrificial rituals from birth to death in a Murut’s life are the only way to sustain in unison with the creator. Their ancestors believed that a Murut must be buried in the foetal position inside a ‘Sampa’ – a sacred jar in order to wholly unite with the creator.

Life wisdom from the Murut

Be brave enough to hunt down your ego first, and you have won over life’s battles

The Bajau

The Bajau are the nomadic people of the sea. Their origins can be traced back to Southern Philippines. Given their nomadic life, they inhabited the western and eastern coast of Sabah.

A Bajau woman swaying to the rhythm of the traditional gongs - Agung - indigenous tribes of North Borneo
A Bajau woman swaying to the rhythm of the traditional gongs – Agung. Photo credits: Divya Prasad

For centuries, sailing over clear waters and living on Lepas – longboats has been a way of being for the Bajau people. The ocean is home to the Bajau tribe. Fish like swimmers; they are skilled fishermen who go hunting with handmade spears, diving in deep waters.

The Bajau people were traditionally animists who worshipped the ocean god – Umboh Dilaut and its innumerable spirits. The harvest festival and the Pagumboh annual feast are celebrated to honour the sea lord. Over time, the Bajau people also settled in west coast lands by the ocean.  The land Bajaus are skilled horsemen and cattlemen, and hence known as the ‘cowboys of the east’.

Life wisdom from the Bajau

Take a plunge. Dive into uncertainty, your deepest limitations and fears. And life will take its own course.

The Rungus

The Rungus people originally belong to the Kudat area of Northern Sabah. They are a sub-group of the Kadazan-Dusun tribe. Fishing, rice cultivation and weaving are their sources of livelihood.

A Rungus woman flaunts her vivid traditional attire - indigenous tribes of north borneo
A Rungus woman flaunts her vivid traditional attire. Photo credits: Divya Prasad

The Rungus people are skilled in honey making. The Rungus women are known for their intricate beadwork, basketry and weaving on a backstrap loom. In the ancient times, the Rungus were renowned for their communal longhouses which could easily accommodate more than fifty families.

The traditional dress of Rungus women comprises of a black blouse and sarong, paired with intricate brass and beaded jewellery. The men wear a black full-sleeve shirt, a skirt and an intricately woven cap. On the occasion of the Kaamatan harvest festival, the men and women perform the traditional ‘Monigol Sumundai’ dance.

Life wisdom from the Rungus

Creativity is the nectar of life. Feel its colourful vibes. Expression is divine. No matter what, there’s beadwork!         

The Lundayeh

The Lundayeh people were the upriver settlers of interior Sabah – the mountainous central Borneo and East Kalimantan. In the past, the Lundayeh practised animism as their religion. They were former headhunters just as the Murut people. Agriculture, hunting, fishing and livestock farming are their sources of livelihood.

A traditional Lundayeh beauty and her beads - indigenous tribes of North Borneo
A traditional Lundayeh beauty and her beads. Photo credits: Divya Prasad

They are known to be the best rice farmers and traditional ‘burak’ – rice winemakers. Traditionally, the women wear a black wrap skirt with a white blouse and a beaded ‘Pata’ on their head. The men wear a natural bark vest ‘kuyu talun’ and a loin cloth – ‘abpar’. The Lundayeh people have the reputation of being the deadliest drinkers of Burak rice wine during the Kaamatan harvest festival celebrations.

Life wisdom from the Lundayeh

Live for today; and start preparing ‘Burak’ for tomorrow.

Mari Mari Village – Your Entry to the World of the Indigenous Tribes of North Borneo

The Mari Mari cultural village was a one-of-a-kind experience in learning about the various ethnic communities of Sabah. It offered me valuable insights into the way of life of the indigenous tribes of North Borneo.

The best part is, you can explore five different tribes in a natural expanse of a forest. They also host traditional meals and drinks to ensure that you have an authentic tribal experience. Mari Mari in Malay means ‘Come’. As the name suggests, Mari Mari has its doors open to those who wish to explore the lives, traditions and culture of the indigenous tribes of North Borneo and Sabah.

The performers at Mari Mari Cultural village
Photo credits: Divya Prasad

My journey with the indigenous tribes of North Borneo concluded with a spectacular music and dance performance by each tribe. I left, packing up lots of love and warmth in my heart. The Mari Mari cultural experience has further inspired me to come back to Sabah for an in-depth exploration of its indigenous tribes. Someday, I hope to return and relive these memories.

Getting to 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.

Reaching Mari Mari Cultural Village

Mari Mari Cultural Village is set in a remote forest in Kionsom at Inanam. Located about 30 minutes away from Kota Kinabalu, this cultural village is great for an authentic experience to visit the indigenous tribes of North Borneo.

A Kadazan – Dusun woman sits pretty in her traditional attire - indigenous tribes of North Borneo
A Kadazan – Dusun woman sits pretty in her traditional attire. Photo credits: Divya Prasad

Where to stay

Kota Kinabalu offers a host of hotels, hostels, homestays and guest houses to suit every budget. If you wish to explore the city, then I would recommend staying in the centre. A host of good accommodation options are available close to the major attractions in town.

I had the pleasure of being hosted by Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort. They offer impressive suites right by their private beach, recreational facilities, spa, amazing food and great hospitality. The good part is, it is located in the heart of the city so it’s easy to get around without having to spend too much on local explorations. Also, their beach-front suites come with the best views! I really had a pleasant stay here. In all, it was a luxurious affair.  I would totally recommend it!


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