Malaysian Borneo: Mari Mari Village

I flew in to Kota Kinabalu which is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.  Borneo is occupied by three different countries, Malaysia to the North, Indonesia to the South, and Brunei which is situated right smack in the middle of Sabah on the coast.  If you look at Borneo, KK (as it's called by the locals) is on the northwest side, right on the South China Sea. The city itself is quite modern in comparison, with many American fast food options, as well as British pubs to go along with colossal malls and local food markets.  With so many modern conveniences and city selections I decided to make my first day a step back before the sprawling city was built.  

After scouring the internet and forums I found that a tour of the historic Mari Mari Cultural Village was my best bet.  You can book a tour (which is highly recommended) and you will be picked up right at your hotel or home stay and driven to the entrance.  Once you get to the entrance you will be lead to "registration" which has fresh water, some pet lizards to meet, and a brief waiting period while they assign certain groups to guides.  I was able to secure a discount and tour through the shop I will be working with, but there are numerous tour companies in the city or you can go directly to them at Marimariculturalvillage.com and book a tour which is 180RM ($42 US) per person.  It is well worth the price.  You will be exploring an ancient village that used to house five different tribes and the tour guides are all descendants of these same villagers.  Our guide came here to visit his grandmother as a young child who was still living in their old long house and living off the land.

Once your group is put together you will be greeted by a guide and taken to the entrance of the village and given a brief run down of what you will see, and what to expect.  We were quite lucky as it was cloudy that day, so it wasn't all that hot, although it is quite humid here.  Once your guide has finished his introduction you will follow him into the village.  The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, fun, and all of them provide an English speaking experience.  Don't be afraid to ask them questions or to engage with them whenever you want to, they enjoy answering questions and sharing their heritage with all of us.

The first thing you see is a rope bridge that isn't all that high off the ground for those of you that aren't great with heights, but it is a sight.  It isn't a giant swinging bridge connecting two cliffs but you still need to proceed slowly and with caution.    Taking a picture of my mother on this bridge wasn't easy, you will need both hands to secure your crossing.  There is a rumbling creek below, and beautiful trees and sounds all around.  Once you are over this bridge you will join the rest of your party and proceed down to the first tribes area.

Once you all gather around the first tribal dwelling you will get a glimpse into the simple life that housed these people for generations.  Simple and hand built long houses that protected the entire village all in one domicile.  These villagers lived off of what was around them, so their construction, food, and way of living were unique to this one little area.  You get a nice story explaining how they lived, how they cooked, and more importantly, how they made rice wine.  A tasting is followed after being told how it is made, and you get to take a shot out of cute little bamboo shot glasses!  Rice is so incredibly important here, between the wine and the food, without rice I can't imagine how this tribe would exist, it is that important.  We were brought inside and a local girl was hard at work making the rice wine, getting prepared for all the visitors.  Another fact we were told was how to spot the single ladies, they have no sleeves, so the girl making our wine was available.

After our shots we were lead out of the house to the produce section, where handmade bowls were full of local vegetables.  The villagers go out and pick whatever they can find in the surrounding forest and make eclectic dishes with what they have around them.  Beautiful pottery made specifically for what they hold, all different sizes, and a myriad of designs.  The jungle around is lavish and makes for an easy experiment of different dishes.  Palm leaves are used as a sort of sanitation paper to line the bowls and serving dishes.  Traditionally the women are in charge of the kitchen, the picking, and the making of utensils and dishes.  The men hunt and protect the village, as well as do the heavy lifting and building.  

One of the most fascinating details for me was how the tribe lived in the long house.  The house was just that, long, and housed the entire tribe.  When you walked in there was a long hallway in the middle, bedrooms on the left, and a mildly raised platform on the right with sleeping pads.  The young single girls slept in the same room as the parents, but up high above.  They would climb a ladder to get to their bedroom, then the parents would remove the ladder once they were up there so nobody could reach them (and they couldn't sneak out).  The brothers would sleep outside of the rooms on the raised part on the front of the house to be able to fight if they were invaded.  The homes were all made from bamboo, and raised up off the ground in case of flooding and attack.  A very tricky ladder was used to enter the house which was basically a log with tiny steps carved into it that could be brought up once the whole village was inside.  There was also a kitchen in the house that was a flame grill with logs that could keep food fresh and eatable for a day or longer.  The also had "air-conditioning" which consisted of pushing the roof up and placing a stick strategically to pull in excess air from outside when it was windy and not raining.

One of the things that I was curious about was activities, what do they do for fun?  They have to do something to pass the time, much like we drink and watch Netflix or check Facebook and post cat videos right?  They actually have a bunch of entertainment to pass the time, and their interests are quite interesting.  They make beads and turn them into beautiful bracelets, earrings, and necklaces.  Henna is made for tattoos, musical instruments (especially drums and gongs), pottery, blowguns and darts, tobacco cigarettes (just the plant, no additives or chemicals), armored vests that can protect them from opposing darts, pots for cooking, and clothing.  Their hobbies and fun create functional items for the village.  

Once you have finished up with the history and making your way through the whole village you will go to lunch.  A buffet of local food prepared by the villagers will await you in the bamboo dining hall equipped with a gift shop of course.  Roasted chicken, rice, local vegetables and fruit, a delicious lunch in a tranquil setting before the show.  The main event is what follows the lunch, and it is a traditional dance that has been passed down for generations.  They have a band that consists of different types of drums, and a singer for a few numbers, but all the young ones celebrate with a number of dance routines.  Obviously they have grown a bit and have lighting, speakers, and a microphone to make the experience a bit more modern, but it is still full of tradition and incredible.  They always welcome photography and video, and at the end invite everyone up to try their dance routines with some minimal instruction.  

If you ever make your way to Borneo and find yourself in KK this is #1 on my list of things to do.  There is so much culture, and so much to learn if you are interested in learning about an ancient tribe you would have otherwise never known about.  The people are so nice and accommodating and incredibly happy to share their ancestry with you as you would be them.  I have been to many countries and experienced many cultures but this was an experience I will never forget because of how it was presented.  I know that most of the performers albeit genuine and descendants are just that, performers, and you are likely to see them in jeans and a t-shirt at the bar later, but does that make it any less genuine?  They still dress up in their parents and grandparents garb and perform the same dances, and show us exactly how their family lived not all that long ago, so it is just as palpable.  I left some things out of the experience as I think certain aspects are better experienced firsthand and didn't want to ruin the reality.  This was such an amazing event, and I'm so happy I was able to experience Sabah in this manner, and will recommend this village and tour to everyone every time I speak about KK.