When we decided to head over to Borneo, specifically the Malaysian side, we were keen to take the opportunity to soak in all this magnificent and mysterious island had to offer. From trekking through the jungle in search of endangered animals to embracing the rich tribal culture of this wonderful region, we Borneo would allow us a fascinating insight into some of the world most diverse cultures and landscapes. Many of which, animals and people alike, are threatened by modern developments and loss of habitat. However just like the precious creatures of this land, the important cultural history is also being carefully preserved for generations to come. The Mari Mari culture village of Sabah is one such place!
Being introduced to the rich and diverse tribal culture of Borneo
Arriving at the Mari Mari culture village an hour or so away from Kota Kinabalu we were greeted by a member of one of the tribes who would be our guide for the day. Here we would have the ultimate access to many of these little know hill tribes of Borneo, we would get to learn directly from a member of those tribes about their unique cultures and customs. It was really a wonderful and unique opportunity to have an insight into what are often very secretive and wary groups hidden in remote areas of this island.
Usually and unlike many other villages around South East Asia they are very hard to visit and require much dialogue and negotiation. The Mari Mari culture village was set up for visitors as a way to allow access whilst protecting the tribes and to celebrate and protect their culture.
Coming face to face with the head hunter tribes of this unique land
Deep in the Borneo rainforest with noises from the trees emanating in every direction we hear a blowpipe whistle through the air and spear a coconut just inches from our heads. This is part of our welcome but also a warning! As is tradition when entering the villages of the Murut people of Sabah, one of the most feared head hunting tribes of Borneo the leader of the group must come face to face with the leader of the tribe. What goes on next is an interrogation, asking the visitor why they are here and what they want with the villages as they eye each other up for trouble.
Luckily with our guide as translator we were allowed into the highly guarded village and even luckier still is the fact that head hunting hasn’t actually been practiced here for many years. However the Marut were one of the last tribes of Borneo to give up this practice as was its importance to their spiritual beliefs and customs. Often the case was that a man could not marry unless he presented at least one head to the family of his potential wife to prove he was a worthy husband and warrior. Often the traditional tattoos of the tribes would indicate the wearers achievements in battle or their ancestral heritage and their application would be a ritual event.
Experiencing what life is like for the tribes of Borneo in this unique cultural setting
Referred to often as the Dayak people the indigenous tribes of Borneo are vast with many different practices, languages and cultures. Dayak is used as an umbrella term to bring these tribes together. Here we got to sample life for just a few of these amazing local tribes and see their unique traditions and culture up close.
Visiting a Murut tribe first we discovered the famous headhunters of Borneo, those feared the most for their accuracy with the blow pipe and ruthless nature when it came to punishments. Their rice and grain houses as an example would be high on stilts only accessible by ladder. Those caught stealing would end up on the end of a spike, a gruesome display to ward off the next would be thief!
Other interesting practices include sleeping arrangement, often the daughters of the man of the house would again be on high beds with ladder removed in the night and brothers sleeping below to protect their sister. There were many tribes in this region and most did not or could not communicate with each other, they spoke different languages and wore different clothing. Keeping your tribe and family safe from the other tribes was a daily challenge and often meant displaying human heads at your gates to scare others away!
Many families or even the whole village would live inside what is called a “long house”, a huge woven bamboo hut constructed with rooms for each family coming off the central area for communal use. This meant that everything was done together, cooking, entertaining, bringing up the children and importantly together they were safe. We even visited one long house with a “lansaran” in the centre, a trampoline type construction used to perform important Murut dances which test the skill and coordination of the dancers and ultimately their suitability as a husband or leader.
Supporting the nurturing of local cultures through this important centre of learning
The Mari Mari culture village is an important heritage centre for the fragile tribes of Sabah. So much of the modernisation and gentrification of Borneo has effected their centuries old traditions and customs. The Mari Mari culture village allows those unique practices to be nurtured and celebrated whilst being passed on to the next generation of villagers.
It also allows access to visitors to see these wonderful traditions up close, to learn about them and importantly to help rather than damage them. The people of Kota Kinabalu and Sabah see the village and an important place for preservation of their proud heritage whilst also allowing them to engage in the modern world without damaging that history.
How to visit this wonderful place for yourself:
Head on over to Top Peak travel where they can organise you a tour of the village alongside a local with intimate knowledge of the tribes.
Read more about the village here: www.marimariculturalvillage.com
Where to stay in KK? Head to Fat Rhino Hostel, a partner of Top Peak travel:
Whilst you are in Kota Kinabalu you will need somewhere to stay. Well Top Peak travel, the premier Borneo experts in KK also own an amazing hostel called Fat Rhino. Right in the heart of town this modern hostel offers both dorm rooms and privates for great rates as well as free breakfast, a great social space, ping pong and a roof top bar!
Book your accommodation here
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