I was strolling through the Borneo rainforest just outside Kota Kinabalu when suddenly from the dense foliage I was confronted by the chief from the Murut Tribe resplendent in a striking patterned cloth around his waist, a wooden necklace and a rather impressive headdress. My first thought was to remain calm and greet him with a friendly hello and a welcoming smile. After all - I remember reading in the guide book that the Murut had a fearsome reputation as aggressive head-hunters, where the boys, before, marriage must claim the scalp of a helpless victim otherwise they’d never be considered a man.
The imposing warrior didn’t seem to respond to my modern indicators as a friend, but rather he placed his hand on my shoulder. It seemed appropriate that I do the same. When my hand touched his shoulder, he acknowledged my friendship. Maybe I'd keep my head until at least tomorrow? Other warriors, also dressed in traditional gear, appeared to see what the commotion was about. The elder questioned me in a language that I was incapable of understanding.
After much deliberation, I was welcomed into their company and taken into a Murut Longhouse to see how this particular tribe lived.
Luckily for me, this wasn't a random unexpected encounter but one staged so that curious travellers can delve into the unique cultures of five Borneo tribes and learn more about the way they lived prior to European expansion. This isn’t a dry museum tour – it’s a highly interactive immersive experience.
The Mari Mari Cultural Village is one of Sabah’s principle attractions and is the perfect family friendly activity. I was guided around the complex by Felix from Borneo Eco Tours, who took me into the Longhouses. At each stop we were greeted by actors who demonstrated some of the activities relevant to that tribe.
First up was the Longhouse of a Dusan family.
"The Dusan are known as farmers. They hang these leaves across the entrance to scare away the evil spirits," said Felix as we entered the house.
"This house is for just one family. The grandparents sleep in this room and the parents next door. The girls sleep up this ladder and the boys will sleep on the floor downstairs to protect the girls. The Dusan are known as good drinkers. They drink rice wine.”
After a demonstration on making rice wine, we continued onto the Rungus Longhouse, where Felix showed me a puzzle that a groom must complete before he can marry. The puzzle involved removing string that's wrapped around bamboo. This would have to be the Rungus equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube. Needless to say, while Felix completed the task without even blinking, I would need a tad more practice before I would be allowed to marry.
"Here is a Lundayeh longhouse. Up there is a skull belonging to the enemy. The skull is like a trophy. The more skulls they have, the stronger they are. The Lundayeh are known as aggressive warriors but they are also known as being very hospitable. Their house is very simple. The parents sleep here and the sons here. Up there is the place for the unmarried daughters. For the Dusan girls, the parents will ask them to take the ladder up but for the Lundayeh girls, the parents will take away the ladder and they will put it inside with them. This is how they protect their daughters from the enemy. The parents, together with the sons, are always ready to protect this house," said Felix.
We move onto the Bajau Longhouse. Felix explained that the Bajau are the second largest tribe in Sabah next to the Dusan. The Bajau are divided into two groups depending on whether they’re based on land or sea. We look at the structure of the Longhouse. It’s built on stilts to take into account tidal movement – this is obviously home to the sea Bajou who are also very good at diving. The Bajau were considered as the middle men in the negotiations of the tribes – they would meet with the foreigners and trade with them.
The final Longhouse was the Murut's residence. After the “welcoming ceremony,” I was shown a blow pipe similar to one that would have been used in hunting. The arrow was dipped in poison and shot. While Felix effortlessly hit the target, my aim was not as well mastered. I definitely needed more practice if I was ever to survive as a Murut tribesman.
Inside the Murut Longhouse is a fascinating trampoline-like floor that I was told was used during celebrations. The participant would build up momentum on the lansaran, as it’s known, and then spring to the roof where they’d collect a prize that’s suspended from the roof. I was genuinely impressed by the height these young warriors achieved.
A cultural presentation and dinner rounded out the Mari Mari experience.