The Borneo Region of Malaysia

Malaysia is made up of two sectors: The first is on the Indochina Peninsula and includes the cities of Kuala Lampur and Penang. You can read my write-ups on these city visits by scrolling down to April 2016 at the end of this blog.

The second area of Malaysia is on the island of Borneo. It has more area, but fewer people and much less financial revenue.  I take that back: the region has good oil reserves, but the money goes primarily to the Eastern part of the country.  Malaysia was founded by bringing together a group of English territories under one flag. This occurred before WWII and included Singapore. The Japanese controlled the entire area for a few years, and the city we visited, Kota Kinabalu, had only four buildings survive the bombings. After the war, the area pushed for independence which was finally achieved in the 1950s. They had to fight off a civil disturbance by mostly Chinese who attempted to set up a communist state. Eventually the rebellion was put down, Singapore left, and the Republic of Malaysia was formed in 1963.

Enough about Malaysia in toto…and on to what I really want to write about.     I have always been a traveler. As a child, I hated the Lone Ranger, but always wanted to know where the trails went as they galloped away. I loved the mountain trails in my California hometown, and jumped at the chance to go to college in a rural community 3000 miles away. Which leads me back to Borneo…I remember reading about New Guinea and Borneo in elementary school… The remote forests, the headhunters, and the feel that it was the end of the Earth…I never thought I’d get there. But you work hard, marry a wife who is super-fantastic about saving for the future, have good health, and don’t lose the zeal to see where the roads lead.

A few years ago, while still working, I put together a plan for a trip to Thailand and Borneo. Specifically, I found a place called the Borneo Golf and Jungle Club…Play golf in the morning, stay at the club, and trek through the jungles in the afternoon. I recall the club lists of belongings to NOT leave unattended in your cart (called a “trolley” here), or else the monkeys would abscond with them. I was psyched… but Dr Mrs Bear was in a time period when she feared being away from her office, staff, and patients for extended time. The trip got canceled, but the plans never forgotten.

So here I am, years later, finally arriving in Borneo!!!! AND we are in the Malaysian state of Sebah, less than 100 km from the Borneo Golf and Jungle Club (or where it used to be) !!!  Since this is a cruise and we put to sea at 1700, there is no way to drive up the mountain. So I did the next best thing: I signed up to visit a cultural center of the Malay native tribes…

While Mrs Bear spent the day at leisure and gym workouts onboard, I crossed the swinging bridge and visited the model villages of five Borneo tribes!!!  I was in Hog’s Heaven !!!

The Dusun Tribe was first…Their homes were built entirely from bamboo. The bedrooms were for parents and daughters. Sons slept anywhere else and acted as sentries. Cooking was done both inside and outside the house.

The Lundayeh were next. This was our first tribe of headhunters.

It was explained that headhunting was the art and skill of taking the victim’s spirit. Heads were given to the bride’s family at weddings…If she was a beauty, it might take three heads to be given consent. Bones were also valued. After a kill, the body was scrunched into a jar and put out in the jungle for a couple years. After decomposing was complete, the bones were placed in a smaller jar (see photo). Revered enemy’s jars were put up in trees (see photo).  Others were positioned on the ground. By the way, headhunters reportedly had a code.. They only  practiced this rite with other headhunting tribes !!!  Dehead or be  deheaded !!!!


Take a look at the pic above (left)…Our guide is holding up a sword. Careful inspection will reveal decoration of human hair. If the opponent had short hair, teeth or knuckles became the preferred souvenirs !!!

The Rungus Tribe was next. They lived high in the mountains in longhouses. Their buildings have a single hallway with living quarters on one side and communal space on the other. This model housed five families, while the ones in the villages routinely contained 20. The Rungus demonstrated their ability to manage bee hives built from bamboo and hung on nearby trees.

The Bajau Tribe was next. The arrived from the Philippines about 500 years ago. They were the only tribe to celebrate religious ceremonies.

Finally we were greeted by the headhunters of the Murut Tribe. They showed us how to blow darts. Mine went about 20mph, and I would have hit the target about 12” low from 20 feet. The blowgun was steel rather than bamboo, and heavy to hold.

I was asked if I’d like to become a tribe member which required a tattoo as an indoctrination. I won’t comment on this secret ceremony…


At the end of our tour, we were invited to watch a demonstration of their dances…Wow, hack heads AND dance !!!

I had a great time at the cultural village…It satisfied the fantasies of youth,and the junior anthropologist inside me. Since I couldn’t go to the mountain, the mountain came to me. AND the forest doesn’t really exist anymore. Our guest lecturer said he woke up to the smell of smoke this AM, and described severe problems with deforestation in order to cultivate more palm oil. While Malaysia has recently stopped this process, neighboring Indonesia has not. Outside of the National Parks, the forest doesn’t really exist anymore. I guess it’s tough to be a headhunter with no trees to hide behind. Still, my fantasies were alive for this day !!!!

Tomorrow, we set sail for another destination of stark fantasy and reality: Vietnam!!!


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