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Traditional dress of the Dusun tribe in Sabah

Sabah Culture

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Sabah Culture
When considering the culture of Borneo, it is important to keep in mind exactly which part of Borneo you are traveling in.  Borneo is an island, the third largest in the world, which is made up of three countries.  The southern half of the island is the Indonesian state of Kalimantan.  The northern half of Borneo is split in three, in the Northwest and Northeast lie the Malaysian States of Sarawak and Sabah, respectively.  Squeezed between Sarawak and Sabah is the tiny country of Brunei.  

Sabah occupies the Northeastern tier of the island and is known as the wildlife hotspot of Borneo.  While orangutans, pygmy elephants, and rhinoceros hornbills may top your list of reasons to travel to this corner of the world, Sabah’s cultural wealth and diversity are not to be overlooked.  There are over 30 distinct and individually recognized indigenous groups in Sabah, each with their own dialect, hunting methods, cuisine, dress, dance and music.  The largest is the Kadazan-Dusun, followed by the Bajau and Murut.  Add to this over half a million ethnic Chinese immigrants and you will start to get a sense of the fascinatingly diverse makeup of Sabah.  Influencing art, festivals, and gastronomy, Sabah’s diversity creates a cultural destination unique in the world of travel.  

The indigenous groups of Sabah were originally animistic, believing that all of nature’s creations have a spirit, including trees, rocks, and rivers.  Later colonized by the British, Sabah has the largest population of Christians of any Malaysian state.  In 1973 Islam became the official religion of the state, and Muslims currently constitute roughly 65% of the population.  The Chinese influence can be seen in religion, as well, with a distinct number of Buddhist and Hindu citizens.  

Malaysia is an Islamic country, where conservative dress is appreciated.  When traveling, it is recommended to keep knees and shoulders covered out of respect for local customs.  When entering mosques or private homes, travelers should remove their shoes.  In places of worship,  women must cover their arms, legs, and heads.  It is a good idea to travel with a sarong or large scarf in your day bag, so you can enter temples and mosques with courtesy.  

Pointing at another person with your index finger is frowned upon, and beckoning with your palm up is considered rude.  Instead, keep your palm down while waving your fingers.  This is counterintuitive to most Westerners, but you’ll be understood in Sabah.   
When offering gifts or food to another, always pass with your right hand.

Openly consuming alcohol in public places (including restaurants) is frowned upon, and you’ll find in venues like the Kota Kinabalu Nightly Fish Market that vendors will serve you beer bottles in a paper or plastic bag, to cover the label.  Keep the cover on, out of respect for the locals eating next to you at the table.  Once you’re at a rainforest lodge or beach resort, you can feel free to consume alcohol as you would at home, since you’ll be in the company of other travelers.  

Along with over 80 indigenous languages and dialects, Sabahans speak Bahasa Malaysia as well as English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.  You will find that Sabah is one of the easiest countries in which to travel in Southeast Asia, nearly everyone will speak enough English to point you in the right direction or help you order something delicious from the menu.  


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