Meet the Five Most Epic Tribes in Sabah

Expect to discover the unexpected at Mari Mari Cultural Village, Sabah. That being said, one thing is certain: you will be sure of a warm welcome!


Incidentally, the word mari translates to “come” in the Malay language. This is a hint in itself, an indication that warmth and hospitality is in plentiful supply in Sabah, home to more than 30 indigenous ethnic groups. Mari Mari Cultural Village is a one-of-a-kind cultural hub that presents you with one of the best experiences this second largest state in Malaysia has to offer — an in-depth exploration of the fascinating traditional homes, customs, daily routines and way of life of the top five tribes in Sabah.


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It’s a totally different world out here! Entering Mari Mari Cultural Village is almost like stepping back in time and voyaging through a magical land steeped in tremendous mysteries and wonderful secrets. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to witness a headhunter sinking his blade into the flesh of a slithering snake or even see the residents casually munching on the juicy ulat butod, like the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.


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Situated in a rainforest setting about 30 minutes from Kota Kinabalu, the village is a gateway to diversity. Guests are to walk in a single file, following an elected leader who in turn is shown the way by a designated guide. At the entrance, as you are on the threshold of your journey, take the opportunity to study the map which displays the dwelling places of the five largest ethnic communities in Sabah: the Kadazan-Dusun, the Rungus, the Lundayeh, the Bajau and the Murut.



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The Rice Farmer
The first traditional house belongs to the Kadazan-Dusun, the largest indigenous group in Sabah. The Kadazan-Dusun are zealous workers, devoted to their paddy fields. This is where you’ll get a first-hand tutorial on how rice is processed. Watch how the Kadazan-Dusun thresh the paddy using hamparan for harvesting. It’s amazing how even in the olden days the villagers had already devised an ingenious storage solution for their precious rice. The fruits of their labour were safely stored in a special storage space or hut called the tangkob for half a year. No one was allowed near the tangkob. At night, for extra precaution, the Kadazan-Dusun would remove the ladder usually placed at the tangkob to protect the grains from theft. In ancient times, those caught stealing would have their heads chopped off as punishment!


Inside a Rumah Dusun or Walai Silia, the bamboo house of the tribe, you will find three rooms belonging to the grandparents, parents and unmarried female members of the family. At night, the ladies will stow the detachable stairs connecting their room to the lower floor for protection.

The Kadazan-Dusun people are also famous for their rice wines. They will teach you the two ways of making rice wine, via fermentation and distillation. Watch how they mix sugar, water and rice to produce the traditional wine known as lihing. Linapak is a popular dish cooked in bamboo and banana leaf. Taste this scrumptious delicacy that’s got just the right mix of meat, spices and salt.



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The Longhouse Resident
The first time you step inside a Rungus house, be prepared to be impressed by the 150-foot-long structure. Most Rungus longhouses consist of 80 rooms. Imagine a house with the same amount of space in the city today. It would probably be the grandest, costliest mansion in town!


A Rungus house is a communal residence, which explains its size and length. One house is dedicated to an entire village with the village chief’s room at the centre. One room is allocated to each family and every family has its own role, which is evident from the working space given to them in front of their rooms. The Rungus people are skilled honey makers. It’s interesting how they produce honey using only bamboo as tools! Another unforgettable invention is the somtoton, their version of a trumpet.



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The Hunters and Fishermen
The Lundayeh hunters and fishermen are one of the former headhunting tribes found near Kalimantan and Sarawak. Do not panic! Only fear them when you’ve committed a wrongdoing. The Lundayeh clan is known for leaving marks on ropes, stones and trees when they are out hunting. The Lundayeh use blowpipes as their weapons. You can easily identify a Lundayeh by the handmade ropes they carry and their distinctive handmade vest made from the bark of the Timbagan tree.


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The Lundayeh house will make your blood run cold! Their past reputation as the headhunters of Sabah is evident in their practice of collecting the heads of their enemies and displaying these as trophies. In these modern times, the gruesome collections are only used to scare enemies away. In comparison to other ethnic groups, the Lundayeh house is simple, featuring only two rooms for the parents downstairs and the single ladies upstairs. The men sleep on the lower floor in the open space as they are the guardians of the house.

The roof of the Lundayeh house serves many practical purposes. It provides a useful vantage point to survey the surrounding areas for foes. In warm weather, the special features of the roof provide ventilation, functioning like a natural air conditioner and cooling the interior of the house.



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The Cowboys and Sea Gypsies

The second largest clan and a Muslim community, the Bajau people settle in large, beautiful and colourful houses. They are the wealthiest among the tribes as they make a living from trading. There are two types of Bajau traders: the sea gypsies and the carters.

A popular snack from the Bajau group is kuih jala, which they make using wooden sticks that form a triangular shape in coconut oil. Triangle represents unity, a very important value in Bajau society. If you’re missing your beauty sleep, they have the perfect traditional remedy for you. The Bajau extract juice from ginger and pandan leaves to alleviate insomnia. Similar to other parts of Malaysia, a Bajau house also showcases a pelamin or dais during weddings, a centre stage for the bride and groom. The kalintangan, also known as gamelan, is played as background music.



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The Headhunters
Although this is the last pit stop before the end of the tour, guests are to remain in their position in one straight line and watch as their group leader is greeted and confronted by one of the Murut communities’ village chief. If your leader misses any of the group members or forgets the exact number of people in the group, be prepared for serious consequences! All the commotion is just for show, of course. The Murut have long renounced their headhunting custom but their legacy as fearless, aggressive warriors remains.

The Murut clan’s weapon of choice is the blowpipe, which they skillfully use when hunting. Visitors will get to test their skills with the help of the Murut experts. Be careful, poison produced from wild plants or frogs is applied at the tip of the dart! Upon entering the Murut house, an old lady will sprinkle daun tirai herbs on you for blessings. The longhouse is similar to the Rungus tribe and is inhabited by a whole village.

The best performances are saved for last. The Murut tribe will entertain you with their aerial gymnastics! Join them in the lansaran game, where five players jump up high to reach a tail hung from the roof. In the past, the man who gets the tail wins a buffalo but today the winner receives a cash prize. Join in as the tribes perform Sabah’s most famous traditional dances for you. A word of advice: do not miss your step as you take part in the highly entertaining bamboo dance. The rhythms are undeniably fast so timing is of the essence!


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