Culture in Sarawak

Sarawak is famed for its astonishing national parks and biodiversity, but its unique cultural identity tends to prove just as fascinating for visitors. Around half the Sarawak population is made up of Malays and Chinese, the other half indigenous tribes collectively known as Dayaks, each of which has its own distinct language and customs. The largest tribe, the Iban, make up 30 percent of the population and along with the Melanau, they comprise the ‘Sea Dayaks’ who actually live along the river valleys. The ‘Land Dayaks’ meanwhile live up in the hills of Sarawak, and are represented largely by the Bidayuh and the Orang Ulu, which include the Penans, hunter gatherers that live nomadically, among their numbers. Phew!
The Malay language spoken on Sarawak is very different to that which you’ll hear spoken on the mainland. To help with communication most Sarawakians use Pasar Malay, a kind of patois. As well as all the other indigenous tongues you’ve got Mandarin and English, while between the ethnic groups a variety of religions are practiced, from Christianity, Islam and animism to a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
A highlight of many tours of Sarawak is to visit an Iban kampong (tribal village) where you can stay in a traditional longhouse and learn a little about their ways of life. You can also explore the many historic and cultural landmarks of the Brooke Dynasty, the White Rajahs, particularly around the state capital, Kuching. And of course Kuching is an excellent place to whet your appetite with Sarawak’s distinctive cuisine. The food stalls along the waterfront are a good place to start for noodle dishes, kompia buns stuffed with pork, the alcoholic and herby chicken dish kacangma, the famous layer cakes, and pitcher plants that overflow with rice. There’s also a fragrant spice market and of course the many restaurants of Chinatown set just back from the promenade.

Land of the Hornbills

Eight of the world’s 54 species of hornbills are found on Sarawak. The bird is the state symbol and to Sarawak’s indigenous Dayak people, hornbills represent the spirit of God. If one of them flies over your home, you can expect good fortune.

The Iban

The largest group of Dayaks by far is the Iban people, with many different branches that are often named according to where they live, and a shared language spun off into countless dialects. The Iban consider themselves protectors of Sarawak’s endangered orangutans, which they believe carry the souls of their ancestors. Theirs is some of the most intricate of tribal tattoo artwork on Sarawak, once used to symbolise the heroism of warriors.

The Kayan

Expert blacksmiths and proficient rice-growers, the heavily tattooed Kayan people were once fearsome headhunters. Their longhouses are found on riverbanks, and most Kayan are now Christian, their former religious practices included shamanism and gauging the future by the behaviour and entrails of animals.

The Kelabit

Living in the Bario Highlands, the Kelabit are a small group, with entire communities usually sharing one large longhouse. Skilled carvers, they live on a mainly vegetarian diet with rice the staple of most dishes, and in the past were known for using salt as a form of currency.

The Kenyah

Comprising some 40 ethnic subgroups, the Kenyah people have much in common with the Kayan, though they speak different languages. The Kenyah are renowned for their creativity especially when it comes to folk music, and performances are a frequent highlight of Sarawak tours.

The Orang Ulu

This upriver people live deep in Sarawak’s forested interior. The Lun Bawang are self sufficient, farming, hunting and fishing; while another sub-group, the Penan, are the last nomadic people in Sarawak, and some of the world’s last hunter gatherers, hunting with blowpipes, defiant in the face of deforestation that threatens their land, and resisting government efforts to resettle them in permanent kampongs.

The Bidayuh

Known for the potency of their rice whisky moonshine, the Bidayuh are most frequently found in the hill country around Kuching. They are stewards of the ancestrally important Fairy Cave in Bau, a popular climbing destination. If you do any kayaking along the Sarawak River during your trip, the chances are you’ll be guided by a member of the Bidayuh tribe.

Longhouse stays

Batang Ai National Park is a sacred place for the Iban. You can trek through rainforest or travel along the river by boat to stay in a longhouse, where you’ll have a glimpse into the lives of people who have stewarded the forest for generations, perhaps helping them with mending fishing nets, weaving rattan backpacks or planting food. The river journey is particularly atmospheric, as skillful Iban boatmen steer around the branches of sunken trees and great black boulders on the way to remote villages.

Sleeping arrangements in longhouses are, as you would expect, quite basic, but comfortable enough. You may help your hosts with preparing dinner, and in the evenings you’ll often be guests at a performance of traditional music and dance. Some longhouses have a slightly unnerving feature of interior design; headhunting was a common practice between warring Dayak tribes until the first White Rajah largely stamped it out, but there are a few communities that still keep a collection of old shrunken heads around.

Sarawak Cultural Village

Outside Kuching, the Sarawak Cultural Village is an award winning ‘living museum’ that showcases the state’s remarkable cultural diversity. There are authentic replica buildings representing major Dayak groupings, craft and cookery lessons, an on-site theatre and music workshops that use traditional instruments. You can also find an excellent introduction to Sarawak’s tribes in the vast ethnographic collection at the Sarawak Museum in Kuching, founded by Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah.

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The Brooke Dynasty

James Brooke, a British soldier and adventurer, defeated rebelling Iban tribes as well as pirates on behalf of the Sultan of Brunei and was made Rajah of Sarawak in 1841 as a result. He and his family ruled for a century with what was, at the time, a relatively enlightened approach, ending the practice of headhunting but also considerably expanding the economy and their own territory. The White Rajahs are still generally remembered with respect in Sarawak, and, especially around Kuching, there are several well-preserved buildings that illuminate their legacy. Fort Margherita contains numerous artefacts from the Brookes’ time, the Astana Palace serves as the official state governor’s residence, and the Old Courthouse now contains the Sarawak Tourism Complex.

Sarawak Festivals

As you might expect from a state with such a varied cultural landscape, Sarawak has a lively events calendar. Both Christmas and Chinese New Year are celebrated here, and the annual Sarawak Regatta is a competitive boat-racing event dating all the way back to James Brooke and his attempts to placate feuding Dayak tribes. The Rainforest Music Festival, held in Kuching, is a major world music gathering. For more traditional, tribal festivals on Sarawak, you could visit during Gawai Dayak at the end of May, which marks the end of the rice harvest and sees much dancing, feasting and romance too – it’s a popular time for weddings and proposals. Kaul, meanwhile, is celebrated by Sarawak’s fishing communities at the end of the monsoon season, with offerings to placate the spirits cast off into the river in boats, and groups of young men swinging from ropes in a risky event called tibou.
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Responsible Travel would like to thank the Sarawak tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rod Waddington]  [Top box (Bidayuh man): John Ragai] [Dayak child: Anton Surya Wijaya Atmaja] [Longhouse: watchsmart] [Sarawak regatta: Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Malaysia]