Melting Pot: Sarawak’s Tribes & Cultures

Known as ‘The Land of the Hornbills’, Sarawak is Malaysia’s largest state. Heavily swathed in lush tropical rainforest, it is home to some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, encompassing everything from coastal swamps to ancient cave systems. Coupled with a rich and thriving tribal culture, Sarawak offers plenty of opportunities for both hard adventure and cultural exploration alike.




Sarawak has been inhabited for over 40,000 years, with the earliest hunter-gatherers (ancestors of today’s Orang Asli) living in caves and forests. Over the following centuries, the arrival of traders and migrant tribes from around the region populated the state, forming the many different tribes – like the Melanau and formerly head-hunt-ing Iban – that we know of today.

From the 19th century, Sarawak entered a historically colourful era under the rule of the so-called “White Rajahs”. Founded by British explorer James Brooke in 1841, his descendants would continue to rule Sarawak for over a century, before eventually ceding control to England after WWII. Known then as the Kingdom of Sarawak, the Brooke family’s legacy lives on still through their many historic forts (crucial in repelling pirates and quelling warring tribes) which still survive today.


Sarawak has a population of over 2 million people, made up of more than 40 ethnic groups, making it Malaysia’s most culturally and ethnically diverse state.

These comprise large indigenous communities such as the Bidayuh, Bugis, Iban and Orang Ulu, as well as comparatively tiny tribes such as the Penan, some of Sarawak’s last true hunter-gatherers.

Although many of these sub-groups are closely related, they each have their own language, culture and lifestyle. And while many of these ancient communities face immense challenges, today tourism is providing one of the most viable ways to sustain their living culture and traditions in the face of modern development, in the form of eco-tourism, festivals and homestays.


Numbering over 130,000, the Melanau is one of Sarawak’s largest tribal communities. Considered to be among Borneo’s earliest inhabitants, they were traditionally animists, and best known for their impressive “tall houses” – fortified to protect against marauding coastal pirates.

While few of these massive stilt structures remain today, homestays such as Lamin Dana (in Mukah) offer opportunities to experience traditional Melanau life first-hand.



Numerous operators offer regular visits to Melanau villages and traditional homestays, concentrated along the Rajang River (near Sibu) and nearby Mukah.

These days, most Melanau live in cities or kampong-style villages but continue to celebrate traditional festivals such as Pesta Kaul, held annually on the third week of April to appease the spirits and bring good fortune.


Sarawak’s single-largest ethnic group at nearly 30% of the population, Iban are renowned for their excellent craftwork, and their tattoos which used to be symbols of bravery among the head-hunting warriors.

You can also experience the culture of these former head-hunters first-hand by staying in one of their traditional longhouses. Most longhouse visits will include a tour of the village with the chief,  traditional dances in full ceremonial dress, and a serving or two of tuak (local liquor). Despite being mostly Christian these days, Iban still celebrates traditional festivals, including Gawai Antu (Festival of the Dead), which usually occurs in June.

Numerous tour operators provide overnight stays in rumah panjai (traditional Iban longhouses) across the state.


From abandoned gold mines in Bau to a host of world-famous caves, Sarawak is an ideal place for amateur spelunking.

Niah National Park, for instance, is where you can see traces of the earliest homo
in Sarawak, who called the area home over 40,000 years ago. The caves are located in the middle of the 3,000+ hectare park, 480km east of Kuching.

Surrounded by thick jungle, the main cave is a hollow 400m sandstone shaft and is famous for its resident colony of swiftlets, which are known for their edible nests. Local operators provide guided tours of the caves for multi-day expeditions.

Gunung Mulu National Park



There’s also Gunung Mulu National Park, home to the largest limestone cave system in the world. With four main caves (Deer, Lang’s, Clearwater and Wind), as well as a host of other smaller ones, it’s a veritable smörgåsbord of spelunking options.

The park is also home to the Sarawak Chamber, the largest known cave chamber in the world, as well as The Pinnacles – a series of jagged stone needles that rise up out of the jungle-like a giant’s teeth – located 900m up the side of Mount Api. The park also has a rich array of flora and fauna, including over 1,500 flowering plant species (including the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia), 75 species of mammals and over 200 species of birds, which can be seen year-round, such as Sarawak’s state bird, the Rhinoceros Hornbill.

To explore Mulu, there are plenty of guided/self-guided options for multi-day hikes, day and night walks, climbing in the famous Pinnacles, and camping trips both in the jungle and the caves themselves.

The park is fairly remote, near the border with Brunei, and serviced via daily flights from Miri or Kuching into Mulu Airport. Despite its seclusion, visitors can find a variety of accommodation options, ranging from the Park Headquarters’ bungalows and longhouses to the nearby Benarat Inn,  and the luxurious 5-start Mulu Marriott Resort. A range of homestays is also available just outside the park.


The Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) is the state’s biggest music fest and brings together bands and musicians from around the world, as well as indigenous performances from all over Borneo.



Over three days, attendees will be treated to musical performances, interactive educational workshops, ethno-musical lectures and even jam sessions, allowing them to learn all about the rich culture and heritage of Sarawak. Held since 1998, it is now a major global music event with over 20,000 people attending annually. This year’s RWMF will be held from 5-7 August; more details can be found on their website at

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