Meet the highlanders of Sarawak

The ethnic Lun Bawang and Kelabit communities, also known as the highlanders, have long lived side by side with each other on the Kelabit Highlands and Maligan Highlands in Miri and Limbang Divisions.

The Kelabit and the Lun Bawang are close-knit communities living within the same area and sharing similar lifestyles. Historically, they lived in inherited longhouses. However, these days the Lun Bawang prefer to live in single houses.

Like with other indigenous communities of Sarawak, each longhouse or village has its own chief. For the Kelabit and Lun Bawang, their chief is known as Tua’ Kapung.


Rich past and heritage

The Kelabit people have a rich heritage that includes stone megaliths and mounds that can be found in the highlands. One famous natural wonder located Northwest of Bario is Bukit Batu Lawi, a giant limestone twin-peaked megalith.

Batu Lawi from Mount Murud

Both of these highland communities are known for their traditional crafts as well. The Kelabit are highly skilled in wood carving, blacksmithing and pottery while the Lun Bawang are skilled clay beadmakers and basket weavers.


Famous for their homegrown products 

Due to the high altitude and temperate climate of the highlands where they live, the Kelabit and Lun Bawang are able to grow produce like Bario Rice (small grain) and pineapples. They also produce salt called Bario salt, harvested from the salt springs found in the highlands.

Meet the highlanders of Sarawak – Lun Bawang and KelabitInstagram: @visitbario

If you’re planning to visit Bario, do check out their traditional irrigation system that has been refined over centuries and used to cultivate their famous Bario rice.

Meet the highlanders of Sarawak at BarioInstagram: @malaysia.truly.asia


Status symbol

These two highland communities generally place a high value on ancient beads and bead caps. These beads are a symbol of status among the indigenous aristocrats. A woman’s bead cap, for example indicates which tribe she belongs to.

Kelabit dance at BarioInstagram: @nadiyah.shahab

Meanwhile, the upper class of these communities can be identified through their valuable possessions such as antique dragon jars, land, and livestock such as buffaloes and pigs.


Observing traditions

Although both the Kelabit and Lun Bawang have embraced Christianity since the 1930s, most of them still observe traditional customs such as not to laugh at animals. According to them, this taboo is so powerful that it can turn a longhouse and its occupants to stone if one dares to break it!

The Kelabit and Lun Bawang also observe a number of festivals, or ‘irau’ in their language. One of them is Irau Meka Ngadan, which is a name-changing ceremony of the Kelabit. In this ceremony, parents and grandparents change their names after the birth of a child.

Another festival is Irau Aco Lun Bawang, a particularly famous traditional celebration of rice harvest. During this festival, visitors will be entertained by the beautiful melodies of the Lun Bawang Bamboo Band (ngiup suling), which consists more than a hundred musicians. (more about “Beautiful Sounds of Bamboo in Sarawak”)

Lun Bawang Bamboo Band

There’s so much more to learn about the Kelabit and Lun Bawang of Sarawak, and the best way to learn more about these highlanders is to visit them in the highlands to experience first-hand their culture and lifestyle. So have you met a Sarawak highlander before?


Source: The Guide to Sarawak, 2015

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