The giant island of Borneo is the third largest in the world. The island has a total of thirteen states with Sabah being one of them. Sabah occupies the northern part of the landmass and is the second largest state in Borneo.
With a mixed landscape of mountainous forests, rainforests, uninhabited islands, and beautiful beaches, the state can easily be called picture-perfect. Additionally, the ethnic diversity of Sabah adds to its authenticity and makes it a charming tourist destination. Various cultural villages in Sabah are a beautiful example of the diverse traditions of the population in the region.
About Sabah’s History
While Sabah is recognized as a part of Malaysia, there has always been some conflict with the Philippines. To justify it, they cite an 1878 land lease agreement that was formed between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Chartered Co. According to the agreement, the land was only leased and not agreed to be a part of Malaysia.
However, as a part of the formation of the federation in 1963, Sabah was rendered as a part of Malaysia.
Around 20% of Malaysia’s population is divided between Sabah and Sarawak. Further, around 60% of the population in Sabah belongs to various indigenous people consisting of different tribes.
Ethnic Groups of Sabah, Borneo
There are a total of 33 listed ethnic groups in the state. With a high population of ethnic groups, the cultural variation is high. The traditions of the non-Malay indigenous groups are vastly different from their Malay counterparts. The cultures and lifestyles of these tribes make an interesting study for historians around the world.
The cultural villages have been set up for the purpose of giving the tourists a closer feel of the traditions of Sabah people.
Following is a brief on some of the key tribes found in Sabah, Borneo:
The Kadazandusun Rice Farmers
These groups make up around 30% of Sabah’s population, hence making them the largest ethnic group in the state. As the name suggests, the Kadazandusun tribe was traditionally into rice farming practices. However, in modern times, their farming practices have seen a shift to other agricultural products as well.
Their ancient belief system recognizes everything in nature to have life. Be it rocks, wind, rivers or plants, the Kadazandusun tribe values its contribution towards the planet.
While occupations and lifestyles have changed over the years, the rice farmer tribe still holds on to its beliefs and traditions.
The May Harvest Festival is one of the most important ceremonies of the year. Black silk outfits and the famous Dusun Harvest Dance are an integral part of the celebration.
The Murut Tribe
Also known as the headhunters, this ethnic group is commonly found in the hilly terrains. Being skilled at hunting, most Murut houses are a display of traditional handmade spears, blowpipes and poison darts.
Some of the longhouse settlements proudly display skulls within the house. The Murut cultural village showcases the ethnic decors of the tribe. Various ceremonies like the men’s trampoline jump are celebrated even today with a drink of rice wine.
The Bajau tribe live on the eastern coast of Sabah and are also popularly known as the sea gypsies. Some of the Bajau communities are now settled in other parts of Sabah. The town of Semporna is home to a large population within the community.
However, their traditional connection to the sea shows up in their lifestyle, houses and eating habits. A typical Bajau home could be a houseboat or a stilted house close to the water.
The Kota Belud town in Sabah is also one of the key inland habitations for people of the Bajau tribe. Most members of the tribe are Muslims. The annual festival of Tamu Besar is celebrated in the town and cultural villages where the tribes live. If you plan a visit at this time of the year, you can instantly spot the sea gypsies in their colorful cowboy costumes.
You can get a close look at the houses, lifestyles, and traditions of the Bajau tribe in Mari Mari Cultural Village as well as the Borneo Cultural Village.
The Rungus Tribe
This group of indigenous people occupies the northern part of Sabah. The Rungus tribal culture is still predominant in their lifestyle as well as daily activities.
Traditional occupations like craft works, fabric weaving, beadwork, etc are followed even today.
The Lundayeh Hunters
These tribes are similar to the headhunters in some of their traditions. Known as the crocodile worshipers, they are experts in animal hunting and other skills such as rope making.
Cultural festivals of Sabah
Sabah’s rich cultural heritage is famous around the globe.
The festivals are a significant part of its traditions and are a celebration of Sabah’s ethnic diversity.
Pesta Kaamatan or the May Harvest Festival is the most popular one in Sabah, Borneo. While it is originally an annual event for the Dusun and Kadazan tribe, it is celebrated throughout the state. Traditional dances, rice wine, and food are a part of the festivities. Witnessing the festival celebration in the cultural villages is a great experience, provided you’re there at during that time of the year.
Regatta Lepa Semporna is celebrated by the Bajau community in the 3rd week of April. The highlights of the festival include traditional boats, sails, flags, and colorful costumes. The winner of the boat race gets the title of the “lepa of the year”.
Other key cultural festivals include Pesta Rambia (2nd week of July), Pesta Kelapa (2nd week of September), Tamu Besar (end October) and Pesta Jagung (mid-November).
Top 5 Cultural Villages to Visit in Sabah
For those seeking an authentic Sabah, Borneo experience, a close interaction with the indigenous cultures is a must.
Some of the below listed cultural villages have been created for the tourism perspective. They are a wonderful opportunity to study the Borneo cultures, the traditional lifestyle as well as their historical significance.
If you’re planning a holiday in Sabah, Borneo, keeping a day planned for a cultural village tour is highly recommended. Following are the top five cultural villages frequented by tourists:
Mari Mari Cultural Village
Located at a short distance of about half an hour from Kota Kinabalu, this village is your time travel to prehistoric times. Surrounded by pristine rainforest, the overall ambiance of the village brings in a sense of authenticity.
The Mari Mari Cultural Village is a representation of traditions of the major ethnic groups of Sabah, Borneo. The traditional houses of Bajau, Dusun, Rungus, Murut, and the Lundayes tribes represent the lifestyles and the belief systems of each group.
Travelers are encouraged to interact with the locals to get a deeper understanding of their culture and mystical beliefs. Participating in everyday activities like henna tattoo art, preparation of Montoku (rice wine) can be enjoyable. Traditional dance performances and other cultural activities add up to the charm of this cultural village tour.
Monsopiad Cultural Village
This uniquely themed cultural village is at a half hour drive from Kota Kinabalu. Named after Monsopiad, the Kadazan warrior, the village has a feel of a live museum with stories to tell.
Legend has it that Monsopiad, the head hunter was the protector of the village from the robbers. As a part of his war, he would kill them and collect their heads as trophies. Travelers can get a closer feel of the legend during their visit to the “House of Skulls” where 42 skulls are exhibited.
The cultural village is at a 16km distance from Kota Kinabalu. A day tour is a great way to understand the tradition and history of the Kadazan tribe in Sabah, Borneo. The house settings with a background sound of gongs can transport you to a different era altogether.
Borneo Cultural Village
Located at Papar, Sabah, Borneo, this quaint cultural village is the largest in the state. This is as close as you can possibly get to experience the heritage of various ethnic groups of Sabah.
A thorough representation of some of the major tribes and their houses can be seen during the village tour. The bamboo and palm leaf houses showcase the history and add a sense of authenticity to the ambiance.
Visitors can check out the houses, their interiors and be a part of the cultural shows organized in it. Traditional games, arts and crafts, and local food can be enjoyed by tourists planning a day tour.
Murut Cultural Centre
The Murut headhunters’ tribe is one of the most fascinating studies for travelers. Murut cultural village in Sabah, Borneo is the best place to get a complete experience of the traditions of this ethnic group.
Located at a distance of 10 km from the Tenom town, the place is perfect for a day tour. Tenom is the key habitation area for the Murut community. The Cultural Centre offers unique opportunities to study the tribe’s rich history. A complete representation of Murut architecture, arts and crafts, music, costumes, cuisines, etc is available.
Tourists can participate in traditional dances, games, handicraft making, and food preparation activities in the cultural village.
Linangkit Cultural Village
Another half an hour drive from Kota Kinabalu city can take you to the Linangkit cultural village in Turan. Occupied by the Lotud tribe, the village is a complete representation of their lifestyle, activities, and traditions.
This indigenous tribe from Sabah, Borneo is famous for their weaving skills. Linangkit is a form of needlework that creates decorative embroidery. The embroidered artwork and fabrics from the Lotud tribe are highly sought out by travelers.
A day tour to the Linangkit cultural village is a good idea to understand the deep-set traditions of this ethnic group. Additionally, tourists can participate in daily activities like hunting trips, fishing, costume making, handicraft creation, etc. Trying out the local cuisine can also be an enriching experience.
Sabah is a mosaic of cultures brought in by the different indigenous populations. With more than 30 ethnic groups peacefully coexisting, the state symbolizes unity in diversity. A holiday in Sabah, Borneo is hence incomplete without soaking in some of its rich cultures. A one day trip to one of the aforementioned cultural villages will surely be the most memorable part of your Bornean holiday. After all, holidays are not just for capturing photographs but for gaining new experiences.