The Indigenous Rungus Tribes of Northern Borneo, Malaysia, by Mika Santos

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

The writer, Mika Santos, is regional content editor and programme development manager for the WHL Group in the Asia-Pacific region. Read more of her articles on The Travel Word.

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