Sarawak's "Living Museum" in Borneo


Accompany Margaret Deefholts on this Magic Carpet Journal as she journeys to Malaysia to discover 

 The Sarawak Cultural Centre,  in Borneo


hunter&blowpipe at the Sarawak Cultural Centre, Borneo

The young man, wearing only a loin cloth around his waist,  raises a long wooden pipe to his lips.  In a single smooth exhalation, he sends a dart zooming to hit a can nailed to a tree about sixty feet away.  In different surroundings, the can would be a wild deer, and the hardwood dart tipped with poison, would guarantee dinner for his family. He offers me a blow pipe to have a go but I beg off; I couldn’t hit a billboard at three feet, let alone an object which at this distance looks no bigger than a flashlight battery.


The marksman is a Penan, one of the shy, nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in the deep jungles of central Borneo.  But today he is far from home, and in a very different milieu.  He is one of Borneo’s many tribal people who are providing visitors to the Sarawak Cultural Centre with an insight into ways of life which have endured for centuries.  The Penan, for example, despite the onslaught of modern technology, remain stubbornly independent.  They still dwell in thatched bamboo huts (a replica of which is here at the Cultural Centre) and continue to live off the bounty of the forests—fish, wild game, plants and fruit.     


orang-ulu_longhouse at the Sarawak Cultural Centre, Sarawak (formerly Borneo)

Other communities represented at the Sarawak Cultural Centre cover the gamut of Sarawak’s diverse population. In contrast to the simplicity of the Penan shack, the Orang-Ulu Long House is an imposing structure perched on ten-foot high stilts, and fronted by iron-wood totemic poles embellished with swirling orange and black designs.  James, my guide, explains that Orang-Ulu is a generic term covering several indigenous tribes, who live either along the shores of Sarawak’s rivers, or in the interior highlands.  There are no blow-pipes on show here, but a musician beams at me as he plucks a melody on a stringed instrument, shaped like an elongated lute.  Also on display is a nose flute - it works on the same principle as a mouth harmonica, except that, as the name implies, it is held against the nostrils.  Not a good idea if you have a cold!


orang-ulu_warrior at the Sarawak Cultural Centre in Borneo

James is stocky and muscular and his appearance possibly owes something to his Bidayuh tribal ancestry.  As we walk to the Bidayuh Long House, he talks about his roots.  “Because we are mainly farmers—my family cultivated rice paddy and pepper—the Dutch called us “Land Dyaks”. 


“Were you also head-hunters?” I ask.


He laughs.  “Yes, but that doesn’t happen any more.”   I ask him whether dried skulls are still displayed in rural long houses. He shakes his head.  “No.  It was different in the old days when we believed that the spirits of the vanquished protected the people of the long house—so they were considered sacred trophies, not to be disturbed or moved. But after Christianity became widespread,  that became an outdated taboo.”


Traditional occupations, however, still endure.  In the Bidayuh Long House veranda, a woman looks up to smile briefly for my camera, before going back to pounding raw rice on a rattan mat.  Further along, an older woman is absorbed in weaving a complex design on a her loom. James points out an iron shield decorated with orange and black motifs. “In the old days these shields used to be presented to the bride’s family as part of her marriage dowry,” he says. “They are very beautiful, but,” he rolls his eyes,  “also v-e-r-y expensive!”

shaman in the Sarawak Cultural Centre in Borneo


Unlike the Bidayuh Long House, with its airy bamboo decor, the Iban Long House is constructed of axe hewn timber tied together with creeper fibres and roofed with leaf thatch and a notched log serves as a staircase.   However, both the  Bidayuhs and Ibans use a communal veranda to chit-chat, drink rice wine, play traditional games, or work on bead-work ornaments and palm-leaf baskets.  I’m invited to browse through one of the typical family “apartments”  leading off the veranda. It consists of two windowless rooms: a main sitting-cum-bedroom, behind which is a kitchen, where a young woman is stir-frying a meal, and the smell of noodles, fish and spices, makes my tummy growl appreciatively. 


Even though Christianity has been embraced by several village and urban communities,  old animist beliefs die hard.  Spirits—both demonic and benign—are said to dwell in the forests, certain species of trees, rivers and lakes—and everyone I meet offers me a “true” story drawn from personal experience about a hantu (ghost).  James professes scepticism, but is, nonetheless, eager to introduce me to the resident bomoh (shaman) at the Melanu Tall House.  I step into an entrance hall, decorated with an extravaganza of brightly coloured streamers, woven palm ringlets and flags.  At one end of the room is an array of herbs, charms, masks, feathers, rattles and small carved effigies, all necessary equipment for demonic exorcism, fertility rites, curative spells and effective communication with the spirit world.  However the bomoh is nowhere in sight.  Apparently he has been called away, and is presently in consultation with his otherworldly contacts while at the bedside of a gravely ill tribal woman in a nearby village.   


I peek in at the Malay House;  it is easily the most elegant of all the homes in the Village—a stately residence with hand-carved woodwork adorning the staircase and balconies,  hardwood floors and patterned window drapes. But time is running short.  I rush through the traditional Chinese farmhouse set in garden of pepper trees, and head over to the Function House auditorium with a minute to spare before the curtain rises on a performance featuring the tribal dances of Sarawak.


tribal_dancers at the Sarawak Cultural Centre in Borneo

To the accompaniment of metal gongs, drums, flutes, pipes, stringed instruments and the liquid notes of a xylophone, the dancers erupt on stage in a mélange of colour and movement. There are lively harvest celebration dances, gravity-defying acrobatic routines and stately ceremonial dances.  In a well enacted scene,  an Oran-Ulu hunter in a feathered head-dress, blow pipe in hand, stalks his jungle prey…and turns his brooding gaze on the audience to take mock aim at a woman sitting in the front row!  The men wear appliquéd vests, brocade turbans, satin tunics and pantaloons; the women are arrayed in black, turquoise, scarlet or green gowns, their bodices embroidered in intricate bead-work, their waists clinched by broad belts of glittering gold coins. The finale is a show-stopper with all the dancers on stage interweaving, swaying and dipping like colourful butterflies, to the catchy sing-a-long melody, “Malaysia.”


 The audience is captivated.  They stand up and join in, clapping to the beat—and when the last note dies away, their applause and whistles of appreciation resound through the auditorium. 


James turns to me as we walk to the exit.  “So what do you think of our “living museum” here at the Sarawak Cultural Centre?” He asks. 


“Stupendous!” I reply.

Story:  by Margaret Deefholts


If you enjoy Margaret's writing you may be interested to know that her first book "Haunting India," is coming out this fall.  The book will be in book stores this fall.  For further information the contact may be found on our links page. 


Pictures: courtesy of Tourism Malaysia except  the Shaman and the Shaman's office which are courtesy of Margaret Deefholts.

shaman's office in the Sarawak Cultural Centre in Borneo

IF YOU GO:                                                                 

Getting There:

The Sarawak Cultural Centre is a 40 minute drive (approx 35 km) out of Kuching, Sarawak’s capital city. A shuttle bus at 9.00 am (re–check the time, as this is subject to change) runs from Kuching’s downtown Holiday Inn Hotel and will drop passengers off at the Centre while en–route to the Damai Beach Hotel. 

Malaysia Airlines connects Kuching to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Kota Kinabalu, and via connecting flights to other Malaysian and international destinations. The airline has a well-deserved reputation for efficient service and excellent hospitality.

chinese_dancer in the Sarawak Cultural Centre in Sarawak or Borneo

Where to Stay:


Holiday Inn Damai Lagoon Resort (Tel: 60–82–846–900; Fax: 60–82–846–901; ), and Holiday Inn Damai Beach Resort (Tel: 60–82–846–999; Fax: 60–82–846–777;   Both these resorts located on the shores of the South China Sea, pamper their guests in luxuriously appointed rooms, a choice of excellent on-site restaurants and a variety of both recreational facilities (swimming pools, mini-golf course, tennis and squash courts etc.) and water sports.  They are a 5 minute walk away from the Sarawak Cultural Centre

If staying in Kuching, the city offers a wide range of accommodation, ranging from budget hostels to five star hotels.  Contact Sarawak Tourism in Vancouver at (604) 662-8781 (Agnes Chung)




The Sarawak Cultural Centre  


malay_couple in the Sarawak Cultural Centre in Borneo or Sarawak

This “Living Museum” has been the deserving recipient of several prestigious international Tourism Industry gold awards, including the Tourism Malaysia Award for two consecutive years.


Hours:                         9.00 am to 5.15 p.m. daily

Cultural Show: 11.30 am – 12.15 pm

                                     4.30 pm – 5.15 pm

Entrance Fee:               Adult: RM45.00 (CA$18.00)

                                    6–12 Years: RM22.50 (CA$9.00)


Contact Information:     Tel: 6–082–846–411; Fax: 6–082–846–988




Tourism Malaysia                    

830 Burrard St., Vancouver, B.C. V6Z 2K4

Phone: 1-888-689-6872  Fax: 011 603 746 5637

Malaysia Airlines

Reservations: 1-800-552-9264







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Last Updated on January 24, 2005 by M. Maxine George editor.
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