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North Borneo, Sabah Culture

Malaysia Tourism & Travel Information


As early as the 9th century A.D., Sabah, then under various chieftains, traded with China and later the Spanish and the Portuguese. During the 15th century, Sabah was a vassal of the Sultan of Brunei. In 1704, the Sultan of Brunei ceded the land east of Murudu Bay to the Sultan of Sulu. In the early 1880’s, Moses, an American trader, obtained a lease over Sabah from Brunei. The lease eventually passed to Alfred Dent, an Englishman. In 1881, he signed a treaty with Brunei and Sulu, converting the lease into a cession. Thus the British North Borneo (Sabah old name) was born. It was administered by the British North Borneo Company until the Japanese occupation during WWII.  In 1945, after World War II, Sabah became a British Crown Colony. In 1963, it gained independence and joined Malaysia. Today Sabah is an integral part of Malaysia.

North Borneo, Population about 2 million, comprising of over 30 different races speaking over 80 local dialects, it offers a diverse and multicultural experience. The three main indigenous groups of Sabah are the Kadazan-Dusun, Murut, and Bajau.


The largest native cultural group, the Kadazan-Dusun, make up about a third of the population. These are the prosperous rice producers of Sabah, although in recent times many have ventured into other trades. Living in the interior plains they are well known for their unique customs that feature female priestesses called ‘bobohizan’ presiding over still practiced ancient rituals.


The Bajaus, another cultural group, are skilled fishermen as well as rice farmers. They are also experts in rearing horses and water buffaloes. The Bajaus live mainly on the east and west coasts. East coast Bajaus are sea nomads, coming ashore only to bury their dead. The West-coast Bajaus are farmers and are dubbed the cowboys of the East, they are renowned for their horsemanship.


Finally, the Marut people, are farmers and hunters, they live in the interior region near the borders of Sarawak and Kalimantan. Once feared for their head hunting, the Muruts are great hunters with spears, blowpipes and poisoned darts. Many still reside in their traditional communal longhouses and they are well known for their elaborate displays of bride-wealth, dancing and feasting.

Like Sarawak, this East Malaysian state’s handicrafts bear the unique stamp of its many indigenous peoples.  In particular look out for beads, hand woven baskets.  Pua-weaving indigenous to the states of Sabah and Sarawak, is distinguished by ruddy hues and a predominance of plant and animal motifs.

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