12 Destinations to Experience the Best of Sabah Culture

Mari-Mari and Beyond: 12 Destinations to Experience the Best of Sabah’s Cultural Heritage

See the best of the Land Below the Wind!

Sabah is an unforgettable destination that takes Malaysian multiculturalism to new heights. The Land Below the Wind is home to many indigenous ethnic groups, each sporting a unique lifestyle and heritage. Your trip to Sabah won’t be complete without exploring this rich cultural tapestry. To help you get started, here’s are some of the best destinations you can visit to experience Sabah culture.

Cultural destinations in Sabah you can’t miss!

1. Mari – Mari Cultural Village – Kota Kinabalu

sabah culture

Image credit (L-R): Mari-Mari Cultural Village Official Facebook Page

Mari-Mari Cultural Village is one of the best beginner’s destinations to experience Sabah culture. A visit to this tranquil village will teach you everything you need to know about the five main indigenous tribes in the Land Below the Wind.

Firstly, there are the Kadazan-Dusun and Rungus, who have farmed and traded in the land for generations, and the Lundayeh, who are skilled hunters and fishermen. Besides that, there are also the Bajau peoples of Kota Belud, renowned for their horseriding, and the Bajau Laut of Semporna. This tribe is also known as Sea Gypsies because of their seafaring prowess. Finally, there is the legendary warrior tribe of the Murut.

Each of these tribes has its own “house” at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. You can visit all of them to try out different activities or enjoy mesmerising performances. Learn about traditional crafts and try your hand at fire-starting at the Rungus house. 

Besides that, the Bajau house is a great place to learn how to make a traditional snack known as kuih jala, and play the popular Malaysian game of congkak. Another popular activity here is trying out the art of sumpit (also known as the blowpipe), which is used by the Murut tribe in their hunting activities.

Also read: 4D3N Kota Kinabalu Itinerary: The Ultimate Adventure in Sabah’s Capital

2. Monsopiad Cultural Village – Penampang

sabah culture

Image credit: (L-R): Monsopiad Cultural Village Official Facebook Page

Monsopiad Cultural Village is one of the most unique destinations to experience Sabah culture. In the heart of Kadazandusun territory, this village was built to commemorate a legendary Kadazan head-hunter and warrior named Monsopiad. The villagers are the direct descendants of Monsopiad and are more than happy to share their ancient cultural treasures with visitors.

Enter the House of Skulls in Monsopiad Cultural Village to see all 42 of Monsopiad’s trophies (yes, these are human skulls) hanging from the rafters. In days past, head-hunting was a spiritual practice among the Kadazan-Dusun, taken from invading enemies to offer as proof of victory. With that in mind, it gives you an idea of how great a warrior Monsopiad was in his time.

Image credit: (L-R): Monsopiad Cultural Village Official Facebook Page

Grim trophies aside, there are plenty of other activities in Monsopiad Cultural Village like watching traditional Sumazau dance performances, blow-darting, and trying out sago grubs. These fleshy grubs are eaten raw or roasted and are considered a local delicacy. Don’t forget to check out the Gitutun de Mohoing, a massive monolith that was erected ages past, and is believed to be a dwelling place for ancient spirits.

3. Murut Cultural Centre – Tenom

Image credit: Sabah Cultural Board Official Website

The Murut Cultural Centre sprawls for 33 acres next to the Pegalan River and is one of the larger cultural centres in Sabah. The central building is a massive affair built from local timbre, with gigantic supporting pillars and panels carved with traditional Murut designs.

Image credit: Sabah Tourism Official Website

There are lots of Murut artifacts on display here like jars, gongs, traditional clothing, and even ancient weapons. If you’re feeling up to it, you can even have a go on the lansaran, which is a wooden trampoline of sorts that’s unique to the Murut tribe.

Image credit: Sabah Cultural Board Official Website

The Murut people also sell crafts and artworks for visitors to purchase as souvenirs like bamboo hats, blowpipes, mats, and beaded accessories. All in all, this is a great travel destination to experience Sabah culture.

4. Marais Centre – Tenom

Image credit: Sabah Tourism Official Website

A charming little village in Tenom, the Marais Centre lets you enjoy peaceful views of its surrounding paddy fields and flowing rivers. Surrounded by majestic mountains, it’s an amazing place to enjoy fresh air and immerse yourself a little further in the lifestyle of the Murut people to understand Sabah culture.

Image credit: Sabah Tourism Official Website

Marais Centre is filled with exciting activities for all who visit. You can try out a cycling route around the lush paddy fields, take basket-weaving lessons, or learn how to cultivate paddy. Other activities include rubber tapping, learning how to craft fishing nets, and trying your hand at setting traps. Be sure to also stick around for the Magunatip; a traditional Murut performance where skilled dancers use their agile feet to navigate a pair of increasingly fast, clapping bamboo poles.

5. Linangkit Cultural Village – Tuaran

Image credit: Linangkit Cultural Village Official Facebook Page

Located roughly an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu, the Linangkit Cultural Village does its part to uplift Sabah culture by teaching visitors about the Lotud tribe. The Lotud are a sub-group of the Kadazandusun people, with approximately 25,000 of them residing in and around Tuaran.

Image credit: Linangkit Cultural Village Official Facebook Page

At the Linangkit Cultural Village, visitors can experience a day in the life of a Lotud native. Enjoy a guided tour around the village to learn more about how the Lotud live. They are well-known for their colourful and elaborate traditional outfits, which you can try on. Besides that, visitors to this cultural village can watch demonstrations to prepare traditional Lotud delicacies, try traditional fish netting, and tapioca plucking,

There are also cultural performances to check out, like the traditional Lotud dance of Sumayau (or Mongingol Tuaran). This dance is akin to the Sumazau but with minor differences. On top of that, the Linangkit Cultural Village also offers a river cruise and firefly-watching activities.

6. Sabah Bajau Sama Cultural Centre – Tuaran

Image credit: Pusat Kebudayaan Rumpun Bajau Sama Sabah Official Facebook Page

Officially opened in 2022, the Sabah Bajau Sama Cultural Centre is an adventurous and exciting experience that shouldn’t be missed! In Sabah culture, the Bajau are the second largest indigenous group. Because of their excellent horsemanship, the Bajau Sama are also famously known as the Cowboys of the East. 

A visit to the Sabah Bajau Sama Cultural Centre lets you get up close and personal with the traditions and heritage of the Bajau people. The Bajau are one of the most colourful tribes in Sabah and their creative uses of bright yellows, reds, and blues are reflected in their craftwork; the Serdang boxes and Tudung Duang (food covers).

Image credit: Pusat Kebudayaan Rumpun Bajau Sama Sabah Official Facebook Page

Bajau craftsmanship includes making various parang (machetes) with beautiful, hand-carved hilts and sheaths. The cultural centre displays plenty of Bajau artifacts from the past and present, including jewelry, copperware, musical instruments, and even the grand Bajau wedding dais.

Also read: 10 Experiences in Sabah That Will Make You Fall in Love With The Land Below The Wind

7. Batu Puteh – Kinabatangan

Image credit: KOPEL Kinabatangan Official Website

Batu Puteh is a tranquil and peaceful village region of Kinabatangan that has a lot going on in terms of tourism. In 2021, it was officially recognised as the annual Best Tourism Village by the UN, thanks to the efforts of local community members. A good experience for your first visit to Batu Puteh is the Miso Walai Homestay in the Mengaris Village.

This affordable and exciting experience lets visitors stay with the local Orang Sungai (River People), and enjoy various activities like cruises on the Kinabatangan River and forest trekking. You can also participate in cooking lessons and outdoor farming activities. Each homestay at Miso Walai is truly unique. Some houses are rather modern by rural village standards, while others are more rustic, maintaining their traditional stilt architecture.

8. Gaya Street Market – Kota Kinabalu

Image credit (L-R): Uwe Aranas | Wikimedia Commons

Sabah culture extends far beyond its villages and homestays. A good example of that is the Gaya Street Market, a Kota Kinabalu institution. This place has been of importance to traders for more than a hundred years and is a must-visit for every traveler’s bucket list. Also known as the Sunday Market, it’s the perfect destination to buy fresh local produce, crowd watch, and hunt for beautiful souvenirs to take home.

9. Atkinson Clock Tower – Kota Kinabalu

Image credit: Annette Teng | Wikimedia Commons

The Atkinson Clock Tower is an unmissable sight in Kota Kinabalu and a local historical landmark that can’t be missed as you explore the city. The clock tower is the oldest standing wooden structure in Kota Kinabalu, surviving the destruction of Jesselton during World War II. It has undergone various restoration efforts throughout the years but still serves to keep the city’s time until today.

10. Sabah Art Gallery – Kota Kinabalu

Are you looking for a great place to immerse yourself in East Malaysian art and Sabah culture? The Sabah Art Gallery is the perfect space to dip your toe into Sabah’s thriving art scene. There are plenty of traditional and contemporary pieces that are guaranteed to give you pause, and the very design of the building itself is unique.

Image credit: Image credit: Sabah Art Gallery Official Facebook Page

The gallery also regularly hosts events in collaboration with local artists and other bodies for members of the public to attend. 

11. Lumuyu Rock Carving – Tenom

This unique and obscure rock carving is located on a small hill, roughly 60km from Tenom’s main town, near Bekuku Village in Ulu Tomani. In 1971, locals discovered the sandstone boulder carved with unique designs including human-like faces, footprints, and more. 

According to folklore in Sabah culture, the carvings were made by six brothers to express their grief for the loss of their youngest brother, who was murdered. The site also has a gallery that provides more information about rock carvings in Sabah.

12. Bukit Tengkorak Archeological Site – Semporna

The name Bukit Tengkorak translates to ‘Skull Hill’, but don’t let the spooky name fool you. This stretch of land is home to an important historical and cultural site. Located at Tampi-Tampi Road, Bukit Tengkorak is a volcanic rock shelter site that was once the largest site for pottery crafting in Southeast Asia during the Neolithic period. 

The hillside is littered with pottery shards with different patterns dating back to 3,000 BP. Fascinatingly, the patterns on the pottery shards are quite similar to the works of present Bajau craftsmen, proving a unique link to prehistoric sea trading that took place thousands of years ago.

Also read: Bucket List Dreams: 5 Must-Visit Sabah Destinations You’ll Regret Missing!

Sabah’s rich tapestry of culture and heritage is one of the highlights of visiting East Malaysia. From unique and exciting cultural villages to historical monuments and ancient sites, you definitely need to add these amazing destinations to your next Sabah itinerary. It’s always a good time to visit the Land Below the Wind, so pack your bags and let’s go!

Brought to you by Sabah Tourism

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Jeremiah Patrick
Jeremiah Patrick

A journeyman wordsmith wandering the creative lexicon, looking to craft a masterpiece. The only thing on par with Jerry’s love for a good story is the time he spends playing dauntingly difficult video games, reading works of fiction, and listening to horror podcasts. His mood shifts between dark brooding and cheery quips, depending on how much caffeine swirls in his system.