The Rungus People ~ Kudat: Sabah Borneo

At seven in the morning, we were on our way to catch a ride to Kudat. Jin, a friend, offered to send me to the outstation taxi stand at Padang Merdeka in Kota Kinabalu. Already, a row of vans and 4WDs were available, scheduled for destinations down south and up north. Jin found a 4WD going to Kudat and negotiated a front seat for me. There were already 5 passengers in the car and they only needed one more before pushing off - lucky me! Destination Kudat normally costs RM20 per person but because I had wanted to be dropped off at Bavanggazo Longhouse which required a short detour off the main road, there was a RM5 surcharge for the door drop off.

paddyfields along the drive to kudat

Quick goodbyes to Jin and I was off. The road was wide and in good condition. Hardly any traffic really. I settled down and watched the countryside roll past for 2 1/2 hours and daydreamed about my stay at Bavanggazo. I've never stayed at a longhouse before and as this was a solo trip, I was a little apprehensive.

A couple of days before, I visited the Sabah Tourism Info Centre in KK for some help on where to stay in Kudat and came across a folder on the reading shelf. A few pages and a short description on the Rungus Longhouse peeked my interest. Since I had a bit of free time before my Mount Kinabalu climb, 2 nights at the longhouse would be just fine. The tourism officer advised me to make arrangements with the manager of the longhouse directly. I dialled and Angkung, the manager answered. I enquired for 1 room and as a group of 40 persons had just checked out, he had a room for me for the night. What luck! All he said over the phone was..yes available, come over. Come over? That was easy.but was the room guaranteed or it's a come over and we'll see where we can fit you.. that happens sometimes especially with impromptu visits.

As all this was playing out in my head, a signboard along the way jolted me back to the present. 'Kampung Tinanggol'. That sounded familiar, I was sure we were close. The driver turned off into a dirt road and we bounced our way up a 2km stretch before stopping at Bavanggazo. Wow, it's exactly as the photos showed in the folder back at the tourist info centre! The driver carried my rucksack to the rest hut and for a moment I felt a bit lost - there didn't seem to be anyone around. A few minutes later a young lady popped her head out of the kitchen window and informed me that Angkung and the rest of the family had gone to Kota Marudu, a town nearby for the Tadau Kaamatan (Harvest Festival)

locals gather for the festival, having lots of fun

I had completely forgotten that the festival was to be held at Kota Marudu that weekend. Every year the opening ceremony of Tadau Kaamatan is held at different localities in Sabah and communities from various districts will travel to the hosting district to participate. The opening ceremony is normally on 1 st May and the festival lasts about a month with the closing ceremony held at Panampang, Kota Kinabalu on the 31 st May.

Until the mid-1960's, about 85% of the natives in Sabah lived in the interiors and many practiced their own pagan beliefs despite the possible influence from Christian missionaries and Muslim traders. There were many beliefs attached to their environment, their lifestyle, their homes and even their crops

The natives believed that Kinoingan, the Almighty Creator sacrificed His only daughter, Huminodun for his people and from her body, padi shoots sprouted. The livelihood of His people flourished and with the protection of Huminodun's spirit called Bambaazon, they were never want for food.

In gratitude, ceremonies and festivals such as Tadau Kaamatan is now celebrated to honour and give thanks to Bambaazon. For the festival to commence, a rituals called the Magavau is conducted by the Bobohizan or high priestess to invite the Bambaazon or Rice Spirit for a feast in celebration of a year of bountiful harvest.


In the past, Magavau was conducted in the padi fields on the first full moon night after the harvest. An entourage of Bobohizan led a slow procession through the fields chanting prayers to Bambaazon. A sword-wielding warrior would walk ahead of this group to ensure no evil spirits disrupted the ritual. Only the Bobihizan could sense the presence of the Bobohizan and upon Her arrival, the best of the harvest and produce meticulously were laid out on banana leaves for the ethereal guest to feast on and this included chicken meat, eggs, the finest tapai or rice wine, betel nut, tobacco and kirai ("rollie").

Another offering was placed on a specially built bamboo platform. This was for the spirit to bring back to the spirit world to feed creatures that would otherwise feed off the padi.

It is this time of year that the Kadazandusun communities celebrate and in some communities; it is a month long celebration with much merry making and drinking of the rice wine.

A ride to Kota Marudu

rungus ladies bartering..homemade beaded necklaces are popular

Back on the main road again, I flagged down a 4WD and headed back towards Kota Marudu. RM4 and ½ hour later I was in the middle of a field. There were people in a variety of traditional wear, cultural dances on a raised platform, blaring music and at a little corner, a collection of attap huts hosting all sorts of activities conducted by various ethnic communities - showcasing their traditional way of life, handiwork and ethnic music. At the Rungus show hut, the peoples were dressed in their colourful wear. a group of young people were showing off their balancing skills, stomping around on a pair of wooden stilts. Women were sitting in the shade, chewing on pinang wrapped in sireh (betelnut and sireh), and working on beaded necklaces.

The festival was a big gathering of local communities ~ everyone happy to see each other, relatives from villages all over Sabah, meeting up, joyous and over food and rice wine - music and dancing. Laughs and stories.

I finally caught up with Angkung. His family was performing at the cultural performance and caught a ride back with them.

Kampung Tinanggol

stall on the mainroad selling all sorts of shellfish for as little as RM2.00 per bag

On the way back to the longhouse, we dropped a few people off at Kampung Tinanggol. This village has about 75 families living in longhouses that were rebuilt after the earlier ones had burnt down. One had to be rebuilt as early as 2005 when fire consumed the entire structure whilst everyone was at midnight mass on the eve of xmas 2004.

Adrian invited me to a take a stroll round the grounds and to visit one of the longhouses in which his grandmother still lives in. it was very dim in the longhouse as the sun was setting. Unlike the traditional Rungus longhouse, this one was much larger and the living quarters had lofts were the family could sleep. Cooking, dining and studying were done downstairs. I noticed that one of the units had been converted into a little sundry shop downstairs where else the loft was still used by the family as sleeping quarters. Ladies were still weaving in the dark. They had their backstrap loom firmly placed and were working hard to meet a deadline for an order. It's not really a wonder why some return home to stay despite being away and having experienced the world. This lifestyle holds a community spirit. Something that cities no longer provide, and something that if we did have, then perhaps there would be more tolerance on earth.

tinanggol village. a civet cat kept in a small cage awaits its untimely death in a cooking pot later

The women here make their living out of making beaded jewelry and weaving. Their fine workmanship is now very much sought after thanks to the recent media attention as well as help from organisations such as Gerai Orang Asli/Asal (a non-profit, mobile stall in Kuala Lumpur that sells crafts from 17 indigenous groups), Pacos (a community-based voluntary organisation that helps raise the quality of life for indigenous communities based in KK) as well the Sabah Tourism Centre selling crafts from the villages.

With commitment and training from Gerai O.A.'s Reita Faida Rahim, a welfare fund project was set up at the village to help the women at Kg.Tinangol especially the single mothers who are in need of help to raise their family and elderly women who want to support themselves. Each member contributes about 25% from the sale of their crafts to the fund and if required, any member can borrow up to RM300 from the fund, interest-free, to use for her child's schooling or medical needs. The borrower can repay in installments or the money is deducted from the sale of her beadwork. These women are now able to help their families with 90% of the income contributed by their handiwork and the remaining 10% from selling homegrown produce, babysitting and laundry.

ladies weaving late into the evening

Support the Gerai O.A.

The Gerai O.A. is a mobile stall and if you would like to invite the Gerai O.A. to trade during your event,

Run solely by volunteers, Gerai gives 100% of its sales revenue to the craftsmen and provides technical advice

Beaded Work

The most distinctive accessory worn by the Rungus is the Pinakol. A pair of 6 to 8 cms wide shoulder bands, it's worn diagonally over each shoulder, crossing the chest and back - these bands usually have stories beaded into them with 4 basic figures namely a beautiful flower called a vinusak, a riverine animal, a spear for catching fish called an inompuling and a Rungus man named tiningulung.

Most tourists however, choose more contemporary designs. The traditional designs are made for the older Rungus ladies as they trade on designs such as the sulau , a flat beaded choker worn around the neck with two clamshell discs, one in front and one in back ; Sandang , a pair of long beaded strands, mostly with matching beads and are worn crossed over the chest like the pinakol, Sad'ang, a pair of brass earrings etc.

Although much of the material are now mainly imported from India, China, west Asia and Europe ; it is the uniqueness in design and of use/wear that makes the Rungus beadwork stand out from the crowd. However, there are still artisans who continue to use local beads made out of local tree seeds, pods etc

"We've spent the last three days with Sinompuru members in Kg Tinangol, Kudat in Sabah. It's been a great annual reunion, sharing meals & stories as well as picking up almost 20kg of Rungus beaded accessories from 13 members plus associates. Here's something new we'll bring back to KL: large "ramag" seed necklace, strung with either "saga" or "petai" seeds. These were made by Sinungihi (62)"

Taken from Gerai OA's Facebook page on a 2016 visit to Kg Tinangol

The Rungus Longhouse

bavanggazo longhouse

I was shown to my room to freshen up before dinner. Being the only guest there that night, I had the entire longhouse to myself. The accommodation I was given was at the show longhouse where guests slept. Several of Angkung's relatives slept in another longhouse down the slope about 50m away. The longhouse had 8 rooms. The room was basic with wooden beams and structures, bamboo slat flooring and walls, a raised platform with a mattress and mosquito netting neatly folded under. There is no electricity so oil lamps are used. Guests must be extremely careful with the lamps as the house is highly flammable.

A corridor separates the rooms from the public space (apad). This public area is where women do work like hulling padi, weaving and making beaded jewellery. Men sometimes mend their fish nets, sharpen their tools and in the afternoon, take naps. The slanting walls made of timber polls are ideal as back rests for the occupants as they sit on the floor. The Rungus used to orientate their longhouse towards Mount Kinabalu for it was considered sacred and would also sleep with their heads at right angles to the mountain.

Lunching with the family. Such sweet, kind , giving people

The washroom and toilets are a short walk away. Piped in from a mountain stream, the frigid water can be a bit of a shock to the system. There's no hot water shower but at least there are flush toilets!

The first night, I had dinner at the resthut. It was a treat to be able to dine under a million stars and taste authentic Rungus cuisine. The night ended early and we retired after having taken swigs of customary tapai or rice wine which Adrian, Angkung's son had insisted guests should have. I guess, that helped knock me out. Despite being the only person in the longhouse, no locks on the door and lots of strange,unfamiliar night noises, I slept pretty soundly. The next morning, I awoke to sounds of scratching and clucking under my sleeping platform. I leant over and through the bamboo slats I could see a cluck of hen and chicks happily scratching the ground for worms.

It was a new day for some exploring. After breakfast Adrian volunteered to be my guide. He suggested that we visit the Gong making village nearby.

Rungus traditions

Rungus Customary Dance and Music

When we got back to Bavanggazo (which means Big River in Rungus language), guests had arrived and we were told that there was to be dinner and a cultural performance that evening. The folks at the longhouse hurried off to prepare for their performance. After dinner, the women and men dressed in their traditional wear, performed the mongigol samundai ritual dance. The women resplendent in their beaded wear and headwear moved in slow short steps, behind the man who had his arms outstretched. The traditional instruments playing in the background accompanies their movement.

As we settled down after the performance, one of the older ladies picked up her nose flute and started playing a soothing tune. She was then accompanied by one of Adrian’s uncles who played a 2 string lute called the timpalan. The duo played a quiet tune and when they ended she explained why her interest in the instrument. In the old days, playing musical instruments was one of the ways to communicate especially when wooing girls. The boy would play a tune not unlike the one we listened to earlier and the girl would reply with her nose flute to agree to meet. These instruments are only now known to the older generation and will die out with them eventually as none of the younger generation has interest in carrying on the traditions.

Rungus Traditional Wear

The next day as we were just sitting around chatting, I noticed the kapok or cotton tree nearby. One of the women pointed out that they still use the cotton from these trees to spun cotton threads for their traditional wear.

There were a few pieces of the Tapi', a Tube-skirt falling below the knees and normally worn during festival or ceremonies. The floating weft motifs in the horizontal bands comprise of different motifs such as the fern, vegetable seeds, a drunken woman and a pattern derived from the body of the black bird.

This skirt takes roughly 1 month to produce from preparing the raw cotton for spinning into threads and dyeing to weaving. It costs some RM200/- . The tight bodice is called the Banat and the cloth is also woven from raw cotton collected from trees around the village.

The men wear the adu’; a Long-sleeved handwoven shirt with geometric motifs with the Soval sarabulu’; Baggy trousers with wide waistline and rinangkit decorated seams. Plain trousers, without rinangkit are called masap or souval tanaru'. A waitband called Hokos is made of red,green and yellow cotton strips sewn together. The different tribes in old days also traded wares amongst each other. Perhaps the presence of other tribal influence in the Rungus traditional attire could be attributed to this. For example, the Sigal a headdress worn by the Rungus men are produced by the Binadan women. The Mogah or the sarong made from mogah cloth are woven by Iranun weavers. This particular piece is worn during the Mogigal ritual dance.

The Rungus people must be one of the friendliest people around. They are a gem and being a city girl, it is such a refreshing outlook of having immediate friends without having to make a lot of effort. Although Bavanggazo is only a showcase of a Rungus longhouse but the hospitality and warmth of Angkung’s family and relatives are very real indeed. I felt completely at ease and they shared their stories, their food and their laughter with me without inhibitions. Before leaving, i was given a local puzzle as a parting gift from the family which was totally unexpected. The hand puzzle is a tradition used whereby the suitor for a girl's hand in marriage must solve within the length of time the future father-in-law takes to smoke his cigarrette. If the suitor succeeds in solving the puzzle, he gets to marry the girl. These puzzles called inuogdazang were used to test the suitor's problem solving skills and success correlated with his future capabilities in bringing up a family well enough to please the father-in-law.

Bavanggazo is a show house but there is life here and there is livelihood and there is heart. The ladies and men who have taken to living and working at Bavanggazo treat this their home and home is where the heart is…

Rungus Longhouse - best time to go

Anytime would be alright. Only thing is to book in advance as there are limited number of rooms available.

Rungus Longhouse - getting there

By Air

You can also take a flight from Kota Kinabalu to Kudat and catch a taxi from Kudat to the bavanggazo or maranjak longhouses. For flight schedule, log onto: Mas Wings

By Bus

It's possible to catch a bus going to Kudat and ask for a drop off on the mainroad where the turnoff to Tinaggol village is. The Kota Kinabalu Bus Terminal is located 10KM from the city centre at Inanamand leaves for towns in the north and north east of Sabah.

But from the main road to the Bavanggazo longhouse or Maranjak longhouse, it's another 2.5kms in and on a hot day and with's not fun.

my ride to Bavanggazo longhouse

By Van/4WD

Chartered vehicles are stationed in front of the Indian Restaurant opposite the Health Clinic at Kampung Air in the city. But if you're in the town centre, close to the Padang Merdeka, there are 4WDs there for hire as well. Just look for an area close to Australia Place where there are rows of taxis and vans parked, waiting for passengers.

Four-wheel drives take up to 8 passengers and charge RM25.00 per passenger. Hiring a Saloon car carry up to 4 passengers and charge about RM200.00 return per vehicle.