You are here:

The Tribes of Borneo

by Carla Sapsford Newman 1 May 2013
The Tribes of Borneo

Photos by Andy Paul/Veera Pitkänen

When you think of the original inhabitants of Borneo, you might think of head hunters, blowpipes and shrunken heads. This is the stuff of old colonial legend, and has far overshadowed the reality of how these ancient cultures are living today. And although Sabah has been in the news this year for other reasons, for most life goes on unchanged. Coming from one of the cradles of Malaysian culture, these tribes—known as orang asli—offer a glimpse into a Malaysia that is fading into the past.

There is no better time to get an up close and personal look at these cultures. Most visitors in Borneo like to hike the 130-million-year-old rainforest or to climb Mount Kinabalu. Even the famed orang utans receive more attention than their human neighbours.

Much like the popular—and misleading—caricatures of Native Americans collecting scalps and living in teepees in the United States, myths of these former head hunters don’t give a true picture of how these tribes of Borneo are surviving in the modern world. Traditionally, the four million or so orang asli have depended on nature for their survival. Many still depend on rice or rattan (used in furniture, hats, bags and traditional roofing) cultivation. But in recent years, globalisation and the clearing of their rainforest homelands has meant that this fascinating way of life is fast disappearing.

Borneo is located just across the South China Sea from mainland Malaysia. It can be confusing to outsiders to have three names bandied about—Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak. The entire island is the world’s third largest, and is carved up between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The Malaysian bit—called Borneo or sometimes East Malaysia—is comprised of Sabah and Sarawak. Together they make up only 26 per cent of the island.

Much like how Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island yet practice completely different languages and cultures, so too does Borneo. The Malaysian bit in the north is also home to the other main ethnic groups of the peninsula—the Chinese, Malays and Indians.

Collectively the dozens of indigenous tribes of Borneo are known as the orang asli, with distinct
cultures and about 140 dialects separate from the orang asli in the Malaysian mainland.

A fascinating past
The orang asli predate European and Asian settlers by many thousands of years. As an outpost along an important shipping route, many foreign soldiers and sailors reached its shores and documented their encounters with these fierce tribes. After the Spanish and Portuguese came and went, amongst others, the Dutch and British formally controlled the Borneo territory.

The tribes were traditional nomadic hunter-gatherers before the arrival of the outsiders. A minority later took to piracy in the waters between Singapore and Hong Kong, known as sea gypsies or sea orang aslis. Legions of European soldiers, traders and missionaries were sent to the island—all of whom radically altered the tribes’ ancient way of life.

It is not unfair to say that war was once a way of life for most of these tribes. Similar to the Trojans of ancient Greece, their societies were geared up for constant conflict with one another. Blowpipes were the weapon of choice. Once enemies were killed, their heads were indeed claimed as trophies and ‘shrunk’ by some of the tribesman. This practice has long died out. Tajem, or the natural poison from the ipoh tree that the indigenous use with their traditional blowpipes, is no laughing matter. It is so toxic that even the fumes emitted from its extraction can be fatal.

An uncertain future
Unlike popular culture portrayals, you won’t find mummified war trophies in orang asli huts, or see them living in trees like Tarzan. Head hunting was outlawed a century ago. What you will find are approximately 60 tribes, each uniquely adapting to their geography and raising their children in a rapidly changing world.

Most of the orang asli earn their living cultivating rice. This is changing—currently half of the global tropical timber is logged in Borneo. Particularly in Sarawak, the forests are rapidly being cleared for logging, palm oil plantations, hydroelectric dams and the orang asli traditional agriculture. Those displaced are often promised electricity, healthcare and internet access –tickets to the modern world.

One tradition that continues is river transport. Imagine taking your kids to school in...a canoe! For many tribes with little access to traditional roads or cars, their canoes are like water taxis—taking them everywhere they need to go. They become a bit treacherous in storms and passengers sometimes have to brave the occasional crocodile. With four major tributaries and many minor ones, these ancient passageways are often the fastest way to get around the interior.

A village homestay
Perhaps the best way to experience the orang asli way of life is to arrange a homestay with them in their traditional longhouses. Although this way of travelling takes more time, it offers a unique window into communities which may not be around in a generation.

For intrepid tourists interested in the ‘real’ Borneo, trekking from a longhouse (indigenous communal living houses) is one of the most unique ways of getting to know this territory. Visitors are encouraged to fly to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and take a ferry over.

It is recommended to go with a private guide, as many orang asli do not speak much English and the hiking trails can be impenetrable to even the most experienced. Many traditional orang asli are living, shocking as it may seem to a modern family, without television or even electricity. The tribes originally were nomads, but today generally live clustered around the central longhouse (communal house).

One gateway into the hinterlands is Batang Ai, 250km southeast of Kuching. Some travellers begin their introduction to the orang asli in the beautiful Meratus Mountains. Wild and relatively untouched by development, they offer a glimpse into the past.

In one of these villages, visitors can be introduced to the local shaman (if animist) and village elder and stay with a local family in a modern longhouse. The centre of village life is still the communal longhouse, once home to up to 30 families. Now, it is where they meet, perform rituals, dance and pray. Shamans traditionally were believed to cure bad spirits or bad luck by putting themselves into a trance and drawing out the disrupting energies from their supplicant.

If you’re interested in animist beliefs, a visit to the mystical Meratus Mountains might be in order. Here, traditional orang asli shamans believe they are links between humans and the spirits lurking in the forests, curing evil bodily and spiritual afflictions. Visitors can also trek the jungle or go white water rafting.

Penambawan is a traditional village of the seafaring Bajau on the northwest coast of Sabah. Here, traditional houses are on stilts directly on the water, and accessible only by boat.

The Kelabit Highlands are nestled up against the Indonesian border on the east and are home to the Kelabit, known for their elongated ears. This is a good jumping off point for jungle trekking, as hikers go from longhouse to longhouse on ancient trails.

Another window into traditional cultures are the orang asli festivals. The Tadau Ka’amatan (Harvest Festival) of the Kadazan-Dusun and Murut orang aslis takes place in May. The Gawai Orang asli in Sarawak marks the end of the rice harvest and takes place on June 1. For those who haven’t the time to view these festivals in the traditional villages, the Sarawak Cultural Festival in Kuching offers an accessible glimpse. The week before the festival, Kuching is busy partying and preparing—not a bad time to visit! If you are lucky you can listen to the traditional upriver tribal pagang or sape instruments, traditionally used in festivals and rituals.

Sabah—Home to the Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, Tidung and Murut
Sabah, or ‘the land below the wind’, is made famous by Mount Kinabalu and Sipadan Island—the diver’s paradise. About 50 per cent of the population of Sabah are indigenous, belonging to one of about 30 tribes. Some of the main tribes are the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut. The Bajau are traditionally nomadic seafaring folk, but now mainly live in stilt houses along the coast. The Tidung live in floating villages and must travel long distances by boat for fresh water.

A Bajau Laut girl rests on the steps of her home (Photo by Veera Pitkänen)

Sarawak—Home to the Iban, Penan, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Kayan and Kenyah
Sarawak is less known outside Malaysia, and is often touted by tourism organisations as being the place to experience authentic indigenous food, music and dance. Each tribe subsists on the land, either through fishing, rice cultivation or hunting. And each has their own distinctive culture and traditions.

The Iban are the largest tribe here and perhaps the most famous due to their head hunting past. The region is also home to the Bidayuh, the Kayan-Kenyah, Kelabit and Lung Bawan.

The Penan are one of the few tribes where some still practice a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They are known for their trekking and hunting skills, and where elder men still wear the traditional loincloth (avet). The children are often put to the task of kicking down the abong fruit, as they are more limber than their parents.

Some of the more distinctive rituals belong to the women. For instance, the Kayan women are disposed to homemade cigars called yakok kayan. After a long day’s work, they assemble for a communal smoke and gossip. They believe the cigars also keep away the sandflies and mosquitoes. This tribe is also known for their merrymaking—they make good use of their masks, carvings and homemade rice wine to put on a good show of dancing or comedy for the village.

The legendary warrior tribe of the Iban today are better known for their tribal tattoos. Like other orang asli, they believe the tattoos ward off evil spirits. Traditionally they acquired tattoos on their fingers after hunting the heads of their enemies. Today, as hunting and warfare are no longer principle activities, the tattoos are for more ceremonial purposes. Women were also adorned for their accomplishments in singing, dancing or weaving. In many cases, tattoos marked a rite of passage from puberty to adulthood. Today you can see the status of a tribesperson from their tattoos, and a guide can explain their meaning. The Iban are also known for their beautifully woven blankets and intricate designs.

Iban girls adorned in traditional custumes

The Kenyah tribe, similar to others, hunt the bearded pig or boar from rainforest tree platforms. Once they’ve killed their prey with their poisoned darts, they bring it back to the village

Tweet this