King for a Day Among Descendants of Headhunters

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Mari Mari Cultural Village offers insight into the traditional lifestyle of Borneo’s headhunting tribes. Photo Credit: Viator.

Malaysia Travel

The Mari Mari Cultural Village is located deep in the jungles of Borneo. Five tribes are represented in the village, showcasing the traditional lifestyles of headhunters. Guides are tribal descendants. My visit was a highlight of my stay in Malaysia. Find out why!

I knew we would be visiting a cultural village, but I hadn’t really taken the time to read the brief.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when I learned that this village was populated by the descendants of head hunters.

Which is NOT to say that I wasn’t TOTALLY fascinated!

And I must say, when Lydia Silas, business development manager of the Mari Mari Cultural Village in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia, launched into her briefing on what we were to experience, I hung on her every word.

I had no idea what she had in store for us. Lydia was a very compelling storyteller.

And because I hadn’t read the brief, I took EVERYTHING she said quite  LITERALLY!

Village People

First Lydia explained the villages rules. She said that this was sacred land, and that while they had given up the practice of headhunting, the villagers still adhered to many of their traditional beliefs.

And that included many of their religious beliefs. Such as the land was sacred …

We were warned not to litter during our tour.

If we were to leave trash behind, the villagers might fear that the gods would be angry with them for allowing the land to be disrespected, and the gods might therefore take revenge on them. So the villagers might take revenge on us.

“Better not to upset the villagers,” Lydia joked. “You don’t want to lose your heads!”

Smile, but PLEASE Don’t Laugh!

We were told by Lydia that it was okay for us to take pictures, and we could smile.

But we should not laugh – lest the villagers take offense.

Again, better not to upset the descendants of head hunters. They had given up the practice, she assured us, but, still … did we really want to take the risk?

Lydia said we would be taken through various traditional homes of the Sabahan ethnic communities that for generations had called the area home – the Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus, and Dusun.

The houses, which were constructed of bamboo, were set amid a lush green rain forest bisected by a gurgling stream. Did head hunters really live in such a bucolic environment?

Traditional Skills

Each of the homes in the cultural village had been built by the descendants of the tribes they represented.

And in each one, we would see both their living environment together with demonstrations of traditional skills.

We saw how to make fire from reeds, how to distill rice wine, how to make clothes and rope from tree bark, and how to pack a lunchbox – in a tube of bamboo! Would you believe that they threw it into a fire at their destination, and it came out perfectly cooked?

You really do have to admire the skills – and the symbiotic relationship with their environment – that these Bornean tribesmen had.

Headhunting Descendants

On the final leg of our tour, we would be presented to the descendants of a tribe of head hunters.

The king would come out. Our guide would explain the purpose of our visit to him. He would size us up and decide if we should be allowed to enter his village.

If we passed muster, we would be blessed by an elderly witch. We could then enter their home.

Into the Abyss …

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Here I am crossing the bridge into the head hunter’s village. Photo Credit: June Chow.

“You will need to choose a king to represent you,” Lydia said solemnly.

When nobody made a move, she gestured toward me and suggested that I would make a good candidate.

Somebody objected. Was I a worthy representative of Hong Kong? 

He was overruled, and Lydia anointed me King for the Day.

I was told to go first, and everyone else should follow me in single file. If anyone broke a taboo, I, as king, was to be held responsible.

And I can assure you … I was taking my responsibilities VERY seriously!

Meet Adam, Our Guide, Interpreter, and Cook

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More than our guide and interpreter, Adam also appears to be a master chef. Photo Credit: June Chow.

Our amiable guide was nicknamed Adam, and he was to explain things to us as we toured the village and act as our interpreter when we met the tribe of headhunters.

Adam clearly relished his role as go between between the indigenous villagers and visiting tourists.

He enthusiastically explained things as we went. And he often demonstrated various skills, such as cooking.

As king, I had a private audience with Adam when he wasn’t explaining things to the entire group.

I peppered him with questions as we navigated the Mari Mari Cultural Village, and he always enthusiastically explained things to me.

Mutual Distrust

Adam explained to me that there had been a mutual distrust – and fear – among tribes, who didn’t understand each other. They spoke different languages. They wore different clothes. They had different customs, as well.

Imagine what it must have been like in days of yore, wandering through the wilderness and suddenly stumbling across someone from another tribe, who was probably as scared of you as you were of him (or her)!

And don’t forget, there were no mobile phones in those days! No one to call for help!

For survival, it was therefore necessary for tribes to display ferociousness.

If they didn’t have shrunken heads strategically placed at the entrance to their village, it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by other tribes, putting the entire village at risk.

Headhunting 101

Here are a few of the things I learned …

  • I had always wondered how heads were “shrunken”, and I learned that the skulls were skillfully removed from the heads, while keeping the facial features and hair intact. Talk about attention to detail!
  • I learned that there was a difference between head hunters and cannibals. “We did NOT eat our captives,” I was assured.
  • I learned that in addition to the heads that were on display at the entrance of villages, heads were also hung inside dwellings as they were thought to offer protection and give strength. No hard feelings, apparently!
  • I learned that headhunting was stamped out by the British – but not completely. Occasionally it still happens. “Sometimes it is good,” I was told thoughtfully.

Command Performance

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Adam briefs me as the king of the village looks on suspiciously. Photo Credit: June Chow.

The moment I had been waiting for had come. We had arrived at a village of descendants of fierce head hunters.

Would we be granted entry?

(I was really hoping the king would say yes!)

I was told to remain calm while Adam negotiated with the king to see if he would allow us to enter his village.

When I was presented to the King, he looked me over with the suspicious demeanor you would expect of the descendant of head hunters.

Adam explained to him who we were in the tribe’s dialect – I picked out the words Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur.

I stood there as His Majesty scrutinized me from head to toe.

Never breaking eye contact with me, he slowly reached out and placed his hand on my shoulder. I reciprocated. Apparently, I had passed muster. After being blessed by an elderly witch, I was given a seat of honour as the rest of my “tribe” stood behind and watched.

Shooting Poison Darts

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Here I am attempting to blow poison darts as Adam and the village king look on. They don’t seem impressed. Photo Credit: June Chow.

My first duty as king was to watch one of the warriors demonstrate the fine art of blowing poison darts.

When asked if I wanted to give it a try, I didn’t react fast enough, and another member of my “tribe” stepped forward. And another … And another …

In the end, I had to wait my turn. My dart was way off the mark. I didn’t appear to be making much of an impression as king.

Care for a Cigarette?

My gracious hosts, however, didn’t seem to mind and invited me into their dwelling, where some youthful warriors were busy rolling cigarettes.

They smiled enthusiastically at me. They offered me one of their hand rolled cigarettes, and they seemed genuinely appreciative when I accepted it without hesitation.

I’m not a smoker, but I thought, “What the heck!” I inhaled deeply, and all I can say is, “Wow!” That smoke had some kick! If you could package those things, I think there just might be a market for them!

Built-in Trampoline

In the middle of the Long House was a Lansaran, a trampoline built into the floor.

After a demonstration – it was a bit like a piñada on steroids – we were asked to give it a try.

I was about as successful on the trampoline as I had been with the blow gun.

I was thankful when one of the young warriors suggested that I sit on the sidelines and watch from a safe distance, saying that it was a bit “dangerous”.

“Oh,” I thought. “The headhunter  speaks English!”

Tattoo Time

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Adam applies tattoos to my shoulders, which causes jealousy among others on the tour. Photo Credit: June Chow.

Our tour of the village was drawing to a close. It was time for a souvenir that we could not leave the village without – a tattoo.

Adam and some of the warriors started applying beautiful designs in henna on to the arms of the members of our group. They said they would last a few days.

“I want my tattoo on my shoulder, not my arm,” I said.

“No problem,” Adam replied. And he drew the most beautiful design on my right shoulder. I loved it. And I was feeling a bit greedy.

“Can I have one on my other shoulder, too?” I asked.

Spotting the beautiful – and super sized – designs on my shoulders, a member of our group appeared jealous.

“Why is his tattoo so much bigger than our tattoos?” he demanded.

“Because he is the king,” Adam said simply.

I can’t be sure, but I think it was the same person that objected to my being anointed king.

Within hours, the tattoo had started to flake off. If I have any regrets, it is only that that tattoo wasn’t permanent!

And I can assure you!  If I ever go back to Borneo, I will NOT leave Borneo without one!

Show Time!

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Male dancers perform after the tour. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

I could hear drumming in the distance, and I LOVE drumming. I was dying to find out what, exactly, was going on. As it turned out, our tour was over, but a spectacular show was already underway.

One by one we climbed out of the Long House and were led to another open air structure. There were rows of benches, with a stage in front.

The female dancers were breathtakingly beautiful (were they chosen for their looks or their dancing ability?) and the male dancers were skillful, convincing, and fierce (they seemed to have been chosen more for their dancing ability than their looks).

And if I had any OTHER regrets that day, it’s that I didn’t get to see this show from the very beginning. It was truly amazing!

Everyone Say Cheese!

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Journalists, travel writers, and bloggers from Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore pose with performers at the Mari Mari Cultural Village in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

After the show, and before lunch, we were invited on stage to give it a try. And I must say, I was MUCH more successful at dancing than I had been at blowing poison darts or trampoline jumping.

At least I didn’t get my feet trapped in those fast moving bamboo poles – like several other people did!

Adam had been too polite to comment on my blow dart abilities (poor) and my trampoline skills (worse than poor).

Noticing that I had been one of only two or three participants not to get my feet caught in the fast moving bamboo sticks, he looked at me approvingly and said, “You can do it!”

I felt vindicated. I had not let my tribe down. And then it was time for photo shoots before a buffet lunch – headhunter style.

If You Wanna Go …

Click HERE for more information on tours of the Mari Mari Cultural Village.

Where to Stay

Click on the following links for more information on recommended hotels within a roughly half hour drive of the Mari Mari Cultural Village.

Hotels are listed in alphabetical order …

If You’re Flying …

Kota Kinabalu has an international airport with flights to other cities in Malaysia and other countries in the region.

If there are no direct flights, changing planes in Kuala Lumpur is probably your best bet.

Click HERE for a Passenger’s Guide to Kota Kinabalu International Airport.

This post on the Mari Mari Cultural Village in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, was originally published in 2012. It was updated on 16 February 2019. It contains affiliate links.

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