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Get To Know The Ethnic Groups of Sabah

Sabah is a popular travel destination famous for its beautiful natural landscapes and abundance of wildlife, however, The Land Below The Wind is also a colourful melting pot of culture, home to a large number of indigenous communities and ethnic groups. There are an estimated 33 distinct ethnic groups with over 200 sub-ethnic groups found in Sabah, each with their own unique language, culture and beliefs. Believe it or not, there are said to be over 50 languages and 80 ethnic dialects just in this one state! 

Before we delve into the different tribes of Sabah, let us first discover how this eco-wonderland came to be filled with such a diverse range of communities and cultures. The old folk tale of Nunuk Ragang, which is believed to be the ancestral home of the Kadazandusun people, says that all people of Sabah once lived together harmoniously by the river under a giant red banyan tree known as Nunuk Ragang. As the population grew, the people moved, some across the valley and some up the highlands and some even as far as the east coast. Over time they evolved their own languages, dialects and traditions, but all of which stem from a similar oral history and tradition.  

The three largest indigenous groups in Sabah are the Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau and Murut. The coastal and low land areas are inhabited mostly by the Bajau, Illanun, Kedayan and Suluk ethnic groups who traditionally work as fishermen and farmers while the highlands and interiors are inhabited mostly by the Kadazan-Dusun, Murut, Lun Bawang/Lun Dayeh and their sub-groups. 

The Kadazan-Dusun Tribe 

The Kadazandusun is the largest ethnic group in Sabah, comprising of both the Kadazan and Dusun tribes and their 40 sub-groups. They are also known as "Mamasok", which means "originals" or "indigenous people", respectively. Traditionally, they are rice farmers and celebrate a 1 month long Harvest Festival (Pesta Kaamatan) every year during the month of May. The festival celebrates and honors Huminodun, the sacrificed daughter of God (Kinoingan) in exchange for a bountiful harvest.  

The Kadazan-Dusun believe they are the descendants of Nunuk Ragang (The Red Banyan Tree) and they believe that everything has life - the rocks, trees, and rivers are all living things. This belief is the cornerstone of their livelihood and rituals so as to maintain the balance, order and harmony between people and the environment.  


The Bajau Tribe  

The second largest indigenous group in Sabah are the Bajau people. The Bajau tribe is separated into the East Coast Bajau and the West Coast Bajau. Those on the west coast are known as the “Cowboys of the East” for their skilled horsemanship. The Bajau Laut found on the east coast are known as “Sea Gypsies” living nomadic lifestyles entirely at sea. The East Coast Bajau are famous divers and can free dive underwater without oxygen tanks for up to 5 minutes.

The Murut Tribe 

The Murut Tribe has 29 sub-ethnic groups and inhabits the northern inlands regions of Sabah. The name of the tribe itself, “Murut” means hill people. They traditionally live in longhouses by rivers and are shifting cultivators of hill paddy as well as hunter-gatherers using blowpipes. Collecting the skulls of enemies once served a very important role in Murut spiritual beliefs and they were the last of Sabah's ethnic groups to renounce the practice of headhunting

The Rungus Tribe 

The Rungus people are a sub-group of the Dayak and they have a distinctive language, dress, architecture, custom and oral literature. This tribe has a very unique traditional form of writing hieroglyphs known as Surip in their language. They are known for their beadwork which can be seen in their costumes. You can still find Rungus women wearing traditional costumes made from hand-grown and spun cotton. Some Rungus living in Kudat are still maintaining their ancient traditions in these modern times. You may visit a traditional Rungus Longhouse which can house up to 10 families and learn about their culture in Kampung Bavanggazo.

The rich cultural heritage of Sabah’s ethnic tribes makes The Land Below The Wind one of the most unique travel destinations in Southeast Asia! Book a day trip from Kota Kinabalu to Mari Mari Cultural Village to learn about the indigenous tribes and take part in fun activities such as traditional cooking, blowpipe shooting and more! 

Watch this video for a sneak peek at Mari Mari Cultural Village!