Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, is a melting pot of peoples who have inhabited the island for thousands of years and intermarried with those who arrived in later waves of migration. With a varied ethnic composition comes a great diversity of cultures and religions. Borneo is still largely unpopulated, with the coastal regions being the most developed.
The most populous native ethnic group in Sarawak is the Iban, in Sabah the Kadazandusun, in Labuan the Kedayan and the Brunei Malay. There are numerous other smaller groups each with their own unique traditional way of life, customs and traditions. In addition, centuries-old trade ties with China and the colonial importation of labour for plantations and mining, account for the large Chinese population in many coastal towns in Malaysian Borneo.
More than 100 languages and dialects are spoken in Borneo, but the Malay language, the official language of the country, is the one uniting factor that allows everyone to cross the linguistic barrier. English is also widely spoken in urban centres.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Malaysian Borneo, and here you will find mosques, churches and temples for all religions. Many indigenous people in Borneo have converted to Islam and Christianity, although a minority still follow their traditional animistic beliefs. Unlike Peninsula Malaysia, the most predominant religion in Malaysian Borneo, is Christianity.
Discover Borneo holidays can lead you to experience more about Sabah and Sarawak's fascinating cultures, foods and festivals. We can provide a traditional welcome with cultural dances and performances at hotels, airports, other venues, and for all occasions (such as weddings) for a truly unforgettable experience.
- Bajau Horsemen of Kota Belud
- The Bajau race in Sabah have two different communities, each with their own language, and while those living on the east coast concentrate on fishing, the Bajau of Kota Belud have become agriculturalists and raise cattle and ponies. Nicknamed the "Cowboys of the East", they are well known for their skills as horsemen, almost all the jockeys at the local races being Bajau. On festive occasions, such as at the Tamu Besar, Bajau men dress both themselves and their horses, making a spectacular display.
- The tamu is a market where the local people meet to buy, sell and socialise. The weekly tamu are frequented by locals who bring their own home-grown or home-made produce, as well as traders from the towns, who come with their vans filled with shiny plastic, cheap clothing, kitchen utensils, knives, tools and shoes. A visit to a tamu is a perfect opportunity to see farmers and fishermen mingling, to watch water buffalo being traded, to buy honey or hill rice or handicrafts. Some of the most famous tamu include the Sunday markets at Tuaran and Kota Belud, and the Gaya Street Fair.
- Food and eating out
- If you were invited to a traditional meal in Borneo, you might feast upon juicy fern tips and bamboo shoots braised with fermented prawn paste, a leaf-wrapped packet of boiled hill rice, smoked river fish and wild boat pickled in a bamboo tube, washed down with "tapai" (rice wine) from an old Chinese ceramic jar. However, don't expect to eat much traditional 'indigenous' food while on a trip to Malaysian Borneo unless you find yourself up river, far into the ulu (forest).
- Eating out in Borneo is a delight and an adventure. Food stalls, coffee shos and restaurants dish up everything from the typical Malay/Indonesia, Chinese, Indian, Western and international foods found in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, as well as some regional native specialities. Mornings in the towns begin at the local coffee shop (kedai kopi), a ubiquitous institution which is not just somewhere to refuel, but a place to relax and discuss the issues of the day.
- If you're a lover of seafood, you're in for a treat, especially in Sabah. The range of fresh fish, prawns, lobsters, crabs, scallops and squid is matched only by the number of ways they can be cooked. A Sabah speciality is raw fish marinated in lime juice and mixed with various herbs and seasoning (called 'hinava').
- Almost all Borneo's non-Muslims enjoy rice wine (depending on where you are, known as tuak, lihing, tapai or borak). To refuse an offering of this would be considered impolite, although you could get away with just touching the glass. But why refuse? Just relax and enjoy the very real hospitality that the people of Borneo are certain to lavish upon you. With a little rice wine inside you, you might even become adept at one of the traditional dances when the wine begins to have its mellowing effect.
- Traditional Dances
- Music and dance is a vital part of nearly every social event at the village level. It symbolises the traditional harmony that exists among its inhabitants across the years. It is performed during wedding celebrations, engagement parties, harvest festivals, first birthday of children, animistic religious ceremonies and other associated events of importance to the community. Each ethnic group has its own distinct musical and dance forms although there are many similarities and several of the major instruments are common to all. Each piece of instrument is usually lovingly crafted, cut, shaped and tested. Distinction are often found in different combinations of instruments, varying dance styles, tempos and tunings. There are also certain instruments found only within the limits of an individual community and not shared with other communities.
- There was no traditional system for notating Borneo's traditional music, nor are the words for songs written down. All the music and songs were passed down by tradition from generation to generation. Both men and women perform, but certain instruments are traditionally associated with each sex. For instance, men generally play the large knobbed gongs and drums, while women play the kulintangan and the flat gongs.
- Most musical instruments are made from natural products. For example the tong Lungon, turali, suling (or flute), sompoton and togunggak are made of bamboo. Others like the gambus, kompang and gendang are made of goat skin. The gongs and kulintangan are made of brass. The sundatang is made from a soft light wood and resembles an elongated guitar with three giman strings.
- The people of Borneo have lived in and off the jungle for generations. Shelter and clothing came from the forest. Food was hunted in the jungle and planted in clearings which reverted to the wild after a season. Skilled fingers fashioned jungle produce into every item of daily use, from the profane to sacred.
- Handicrafts in Borneo consist mainly of wood carvings, metalwork, basketry, beadwork, bamboo carvings, blowpipes, masks, textiles and floor mats. Many incorporate the beliefs of tribal people and their way of life. The Iban pua kumbu (woven textile), wooden hornbill carvings used in rituals and silver jewellery are much sought after items, as are the Penan and Murut blowpipes. The weekly tamu's, village shops, and modern shopping malls have plenty to offier the avid souvenir hunter of modern and antique handicrafts.
- With numerous ethnic groups practising a variety of religions there are multitude of festivals celebrated throughout the year. The main religious celebrations of Hari Raya (at the end of the Muslim fasting month), Christmas, and Chinese New Year are celebrated extensively. During these celebrations many people hold 'open house' - a Malaysian tradition where the house is open to visitors who are invited to partake in the festivities of the host family.
- Harvest Festival
- One of the most anticipated indigenous celebrations is the harvest festival celebrated by farming communities throughout Malaysian Borneo, and especially by the Kadazan-Dusun of Sabah. Traditional dances, music and food are the order of the day as hundreds of people in each village gather to join in the festivities. In Kota Kinabalu the Harvest Festival is a big event, celebrated in the district of Penampang at the Kadazan-Dusun Cultural Association centre. Photograph opportunities are plentiful as celebrants in traditional costumes and musicians make their apprearance to add colour and pizzazz to the occasion.
- Cultural Villages
- The Sarawak Cultural Village and Sabah Museum's Heritage Village are fine examples of the excellent workmanship of the various indigenous groups of Borneo in building their traditional houses. Each house showcases the culture of a particular ethnic group. Traditional costumes, crafts and musical instruments illustrate their unique lifestyle and customs.
- The traditional longhouse is a special feature of ethnic Borneo. They are built raised off the ground on stilts and are divided into a more or less public area along one side and a row of private living quarters lined along the other side. This seems to have been the way of building best accustomed to life in the jungle in the past. The Iban and Bidayuh peoples of Sarawak and the Murut and Rungus peoples of Sabah are well known for welcoming visitors into their longhouses, and their warm hospitality.
- Water villages and fishermen
- For many indigenous peoples the main source of protein in the diet was and still is from fishing. Many ethnic groups traditionally live in water villages (Kampung Air), which are houses built on stilts extending into the estuaries or sheltered seas, thus facilitating access to fishing.
- Sea gypsies
- Some of the sea Bajaus of the east coast of Sabah have retained their seaborne lifestyle, together with remnants of traditional pre-Islamic beliefs. An example of this is the offering of thanks to the Omboh Dilaut, the God of the Sea, whenever a particularly large catch is brought in. The east coast Sabah Bajau are also famous for the annual Semporna, Lipa Regatta. Among the boat-dwellers in particular, community spirit mediums are consulted at least once a year for a public seance and nightly trance dancing. In times of epidemics, the mediums are also called upon to remove illness causing spirits from the community. They do this by setting a "spirit boat" adrift in the open sea beyond the village or anchorage.