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Sabah and the Tribes of Malaysian Borneo

From the headhunting history of the Murut and the communal Rungus farms to the sea gypsy ways of the Bajau, Malaysian Borneo is awash in tribal cultures.

Sabah, and Kota Kinabalu in particular, has become a popular destination in recent years for its culture and wildlife. It is the second largest state in Malaysia and 40 percent of its population are indigenous peoples. Most have adopted a modern life, leaving the ways of their ancestors for a more comfortable world, often in the tourist trade. Remote Lands takes a peek at the five biggest groups of indigenous tribes that roamed Sabah long before it became the travel and safari hotspot it is today.


Also called the Dusun for short, Kadazan-Dusun is the largest indigenous ethnic group in Sabah. Its people are traditionally rice farmers. In fact, rice is so important to them that not only do they have dedicated tanku – storage buildings raised from the ground – to keep them safe from flood and animals, they also host a monthly festival to pacify and call for spirits to protect it. It’s said that rice thieves would once have their head cut off to hang above the tanku.

Often three generations live together in a longhouse with three rooms, with a Do Puran – the kitchen – at the back outside but covered. They keep dry woods on the top shelf of the three-level kitchen shelf as a backup on a rainy day. As one might expect, the Dunsan make excellent rice wines, using their own yeast.


This ethnic and cultural group is sometimes better known as the Sea Gypsies of Borneo. A tribe of sea traders and horse riders, the Bajau came to Sabah about 500 years ago from the Sulawesi in Indonesia and were among the first tribes to have a monotheistic religion, converting from animism to Islam.

On land, the Bajau are known for their equestrian ways; their houses consist of two levels, with the horses living under the one-storey high hut and the family living above. The interior is decorated in colorful, intricate fabrics with bedrooms for the parents, children, a prayer room, and a big living room where they can entertain guests.

At sea the Sea Gypsies of Borneo have gained fame in the Western world for their unique way of life, from their stilt house, unique boats (lepa-lepa), and with some able to hold their breath for an almost superhuman amount of time – claimed to be more than five minutes.


ABOVE: Traditional costume of Murut tribes.

The word Murut might mean ‘hill people’, but this infamous tribe of northern Borneo is best known for their headhunting habit – and no, not in a human resources sort of way. It was customary for Murut men to cut off the head of defeated enemies and to bring them back as a trophy. In fact, heads were once a quintessential dowry for the Muruts. It was believed that cutting the head off gave them power. The hair of the victims was also braided to be hung as an accessory on swords.

ABOVE: Replica of skull used as decoration at a Murut house.

They are said to have been last Bornean group to give up headhunting, a long abandoned history. Today most of the Muruts have converted to Christianity, some to Islam, and there are more than 100,000 ethnic Murut in Malaysian Borneo. Traditionally living in longhouses, the Marut are also well-known for their music and handcrafts.


The Lundayeh people of Borneo are also known as Lun Bawang and are a river people. They are one of the earliest ethnic groups in Sabah and are found in the southwest region bordering Sarawak, also formerly known as headhunters. Typically, a family lives in a single house with two generations, one room for the parents and one for the daughter. The son sleeps in the living room or even outside, starting at age eight. The roof of their houses can open and close for protection and to get cool air blowing through the home.

A characteristic of Lundayeh villages is a crocodile-shaped earth mound nearby. It marks the burial ground of the village, surrounded by jars that house the remains. It doubles, as one might imagine, as a warning to passers-by that this is their land. Aside from farming, the wealthier Lundayeh also rear cattle and buffaloes. The men wear homemade vests out of jackfruit tree barks while women wear beaded headbands and belts.


Rungus people can be found in northern Sabah and are a group of communal living farmers. Their longhouses range between twenty to up to seventy rooms with bedrooms to one side and a communal living area to the other. Nowadays, however, most longhouses only have around ten rooms. Although many have converted to Christianity, they were once animists with female shamen and still celebrate their harvest festivals.

Ruguns are also quite musical, with instruments such as the gong and chang nam (a type of flute), boasting large performances for special occasions such as weddings, harvest festivals, and funerals. Their attire is traditionally white, red, or black, which is dyed using plants or tree sap.

The women’s clothes are adorned with seashells as ornaments and later beads, too, with patterns unique to Rungus people. For the fan of handicrafts, these beads are one of the treasures of the Rungus tribe, items that are distinct to the Rungus buts also capabale of telling stories.