The Indigenous Rungus Tribes of Northern Borneo, Malaysia

  • Mika Santos
  • 3 August 2011

Life is full of plusses and minuses. Despite all the advantages of today’s fast-paced digital world, problems such as global warming, stock-market crashes and human-rights violations are also a terrible reality. And while things like health insurance and easy Internet access are now highly prized 21st-century must-haves – making life very different from how our great-grandparents lived just a century ago – the rapid speed of modernisation today makes it nearly impossible to go off the grid. That is, unless you belong to a community in the middle of the tropical jungles of Sabah on the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo.

Borneo Malaysia Rungus dancers BEST

Organisations like Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society help the indigenous Rungus people of Borneo, Malaysia, harness the power of tourism to maintain their vibrant performing arts, customs and traditions. Photo courtesy of Borneo Eco Tours

The Remote Society of the Rungus

Borneo is home to the Rungus people, one of the island’s few remaining indigenous ethnic groups who reside in the area surrounding the former capital of Kudat. The peaceful Rungus culture revolves around the subsistence cultivation of rice and other crops, and the women are known for their weaving skills and intricate beadwork. In fact, the Rungus are famous for their distinct traditional dress: they wear black attire elaborately accessorised with antique beadwork worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Traditionally the women also wear heavy brass coils around their arms, legs and neck, accompanied by white and coral shell bracelets.

To this day the Rungus live in longhouses, which are extended single-floor structures elevated off the ground on stilts. Designed with an emphasis on community, longhouses have large common rooms but separate sleeping quarters for individual families. Many of these longhouses can still be seen in ethnic regions around Malaysia, but the sad reality is that the numbers are steadily dwindling, along with the traditions and cultures of minority groups. Kudat is one of the last remaining places to find longhouses in Sabah.

Borneo Malaysia Rungus longhouse

The indigenous Rungus people of Borneo, Malaysia, live in traditional longhouse structures, which are raised from the ground on stilts and shared by several families. Photo courtesy of Borneo Eco Tours

Cultural Tourism in Northern Borneo

The Rungus people lead unassuming lives, their job opportunities being limited to what is available to them through agriculture, weaving and building. They have therefore struggled to keep up with the economic demands of modern times, mindful of wishing to hold on to their traditions.

All hope is not lost, however, thanks to organisations like Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society, a non-profit foundation launched by Borneo Eco Tours, the whl.travel local connection in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, Malaysia.

BEST Society focuses on the sustainable development of Borneo’s local communities, utilising the benefits of tourism to provide opportunities for employment and income. On a Cultural Safari tour to North Borneo, for example, travellers are brought to the heart of a Rungus village, where they can stay in a longhouse with a family for a night and truly immerse themselves in the fascinating culture.

Borneo Malaysia Rungus tradtional performers

Dance performers keep traditional Rungus culture and costume alive through shows in their villages and on tour in the rest of Borneo and Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Borneo Eco Tours

In return, BEST Society helps with the maintenance of the longhouses and conducts community development programs that promote and preserve local traditions, as well as provide sustainable income. The people of these villages have learned to capitalise on their strengths as Rungus and are pleased to share their culture with travellers from the rest of the world.

Today, many of the Rungus are dispersed across major cities elsewhere in Malaysia and earning a living like everyone else. However, thanks to renewed local tourism efforts like those led by BEST Society, Rungus culture is not lost; the Rungus have been given reasons to be proud of who they are.

While the Rungus people can often be found performing in Malaysia’s cultural shows, now their traditional way of life is being reinforced in their native regions. Sometimes it is possible for the effects of modern tourism to go hand in hand with peaceful and responsible cultural development.

Borneo Malaysia Rungus longhouse interior

As part of a community-based tourism experience, travellers to Borneo, Malaysia, can stay inside traditional longhouses with Rungus families to sample their way of life. Photo courtesy of Borneo Eco Tours

For more suggestion about the sites and tours available in Borneo, check in with the experts at Borneo Eco Tours, your whl.travel local connection.

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Mika Santos

Mika Santos is Regional Content Editor and Programme Development Manager for the WHL Group in the Asia-Pacific region. Born and raised in the tropical Philippine Islands, she loves the outdoors and anything to do with the ocean, from surfing and scuba diving to the laid-back lifestyle around it. She also lives to travel in her own country, around Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. She shares her love for the Philippines through photos here.
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architecture & landmarks, Asia, ecotours, fine arts, forests & jungles, indigenous culture, local knowledge, Malaysia, South-Eastern Asia, whl.travel, women,

4 Responses to “The Indigenous Rungus Tribes of Northern Borneo, Malaysia”

  1. Chris Soning says:

    Glad to see people like you write a wonderful article about the Rungus People.

    ~Peace from Rungus People~

  2. melissa says:

    Mika, Kudos to this article! Sometimes, out of scarcity, people are appreciating more of what they have. The long house, the costume, and even the culture of Rungus.. are little little things that utilizes the natural resources of Rainforest Borneo. My homestay experience with them was magnificent !
    “Dolce far Niente” which literally means, “The sweetness of doing nothing” …

  3. Jessica says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article Mika! The Rungus people are really blessed because Kudat has many amazing white sandy secluded beaches. I would love to try an overnight at the Rungus longhouse soon!

  4. John says:

    Just beautifull, thank you Mika.

    Envy you, the people look so at peace and a joy be with, yet their forests are being decimated, wonder how long they will enjoy their existence?

    Keep sending your wonderfull reports.


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