The Fascinating and Diverse Indigenous People of Sarawak

Sarawak People

Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, is situated on the island of Borneo. Like its fauna and flora, Sarawak’s local culture and indigenous people are colourful, exotic and interesting. There are 26 distinct ethnic groups residing in Sarawak but most of the population is made up of the Iban, Chinese, Malay, Bidayu, Melanau and Orang Ulu people. These groups have captivating customs and a history steeped in tradition.

The Fierce Iban

Also known as the Sea Dayaks, the Iban people make up nearly 30% of the population of Sarawak. Although this group used to be known as the most fearsome head hunters on the island, they are now placid people better known for their hospitality and generosity. All head hunting practices were ceased in 1930. Historically the Iban were fishermen and farmers, with some of the seafarers becoming pirates. They were known as formidable warriors and their prowess was traditionally celebrated with distinctive Iban tattoos – symbols of bravery.

The Enterprising Chinese

About 24% of the population of Sarawak is made up of Chinese people. The Chinese communities in Sarawak were established between the 19th and 20th century when migrant workers started settling, after actively travelling to and from Sarawak since the 6th century. Today these intrepid people make up one of the most economically successful groups.

The Crafty Malay

Originally mostly fishermen, the Malay are now known in Sarawak for their stilted wooden houses and excellent craftsmanship. A cluster of these houses together is known as a Kampung and is often home to traditional industries like wood carvings and brass and silver craft work.

The Hospitable Bidayu

In the history of Sarawak, most of the ethnic groups moved to the coastal regions. The Bidayu remained inland and are known as the Land Dayaks. They make up around 8% of the population. Also known for being supremely hospitable, the Bidayu are likely to entertain visitors with their locally produced tuak, a type of rice wine. The Bidayu also distill a drink called arak tonok, the local version of moonshine.

The Boat Building Melanau

Renowned for being excellent boat builders and also fishermen, the Melanau are thought to be the descendents of some of the original settlers of Sarawak. This group makes up approximately 6% of the people of Sarawak and share many lifestyle similarities with the Malay. Although most of the Melanau converted to Islam or Christianity, their religion used to be similar to paganism and until today, this group continues to celebrate traditional animist festivals.

The Musical Orang Ulu

Orang Ulu means upriver and this group comprises of all the ethnic tribes that live along the rivers and in the hills in inland Sarawak. Also for their intricate beading skills and meticulous tattoos, the Orang Ulu people are particularly skilled musicians. The distinctive sound of the sapeh, an instrument similar to a mandolin, is what distinguishes the Orang Ulu from the other residents of Sarawak. This group makes up about 5% of the population of Sarawak.

After meeting the locals, no matter which ethnic group they belong to, and exploring their intriguing culture, visitors to Sarawak are bound to return.

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