Borneo Murut Adventures

We have to admit that before coming to Borneo we did not really have a clue about what to expect here. The word “Borneo” somehow sounded very exotic to us but apart from rain forest we did not associate anything else with it. However, before coming here we met a few other travelers who told us about their travels including the Orangutans they saw and a first fuzzy image formed in our head. We then read about a four-day tour through the deep jungle by an organization called Orou Sapulot, who, according to the Lonely Planet, take you to places that are “as remote as it gets in Sabah“. After reading the amazing reviews on TripAdvisor we immediately booked the tour.

We flew from Manila to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah and two days later found ourselves in a minivan heading for Sapulut, an area close to the border with Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.

Orou Sapulot is a family run organisation that started to welcome tourists to their home in 2013. The family are Murut, an ethnic group that lives in various parts of Borneo. This means that visitors do not only get to experience the Borneo jungle but also learn a lot about Murut heritage and traditions. (More on this later)

One of our local Murut guides, using leafs to imitate bird sounds

We started our journey to the jungle by taking a bus from Kota Kinabalu (or “KK” as the locals call it) and our guide Jaria picked us up at the bus station in Keningau. After some snacks we continued our trip by van and boat to reach our first destination: a beautiful and idyllic river in the middle of the rain forest. Since we had opted not to explore a nearby cave our first activity was fishing.

Fishing Murut style

It turned out we were the first group they took fishing since caving is the standard activity here. Even our lovely guide Jaria went fishing the first time here with the local family. (Jaria is also a Murut but from a different area in Sabah.) The Murut family was really lovely and after an amazing lunch went to great lengths to show us the traditional way of fishing. We used various different methods and…

  • …attached tapioca to a stone and let it sink to the ground. About an hour later we then came back and threw a net over the area of the tapioca with the hope to find some fish eating the tapioca
  • … installed a net spanning about half way across the river – this felt a bit like the “brute force” method 🙂
  • … used simple bamboo fishing rods with small worms on the hooks
  • … fixed strings with a hook at the end on tree branches hanging over the river

Unfortunately all the efforts were only partially successful since it did not seem to be the best time to go fishing. Still, it was really interesting for us to be part of it and to experience all the work that goes into catching fish. On the positive side, we did actually catch some catfish and really enjoyed eating it for dinner 🙂

Throwing the net, hoping to catch some fish who are devouring tapioca in the water

Rock climbing Borneo style

Our next activity was rock climbing on day two. We used a 4×4 Jeep and a boat and were brought to the Batu Punggul pinnacle, a rock formation considered sacred by the Murut. The climb was about 300m in altitude and well, what a climb it was! When Tanja saw the entrance her first reaction was, “No way I am climbing up there…!” 🙂

However, we got great support from our guides and somehow made it to the top. The view up there was simply stunning – untouched pristine rain forest and just green everywhere! It felt amazing to have mastered the climb and to be rewarded with such a view…

Waterfall long sock style

In the afternoon we arrived at our next camp – a tent and a small wooden house next to the most beautiful waterfall right in the middle of the jungle. We spent the next 24 hours exploring the waterfall and its surroundings. Apart from its beauty we will probably also remember all the leeches we found… 🙂 Despite us wearing long trousers and really long socks they still somehow found our skin and got to enjoy sucking some of our blood. Quite a unique experience on our part to be honest…

A small part of the beautiful waterfall we slept next to

Murut culture experience

On day three we then reached our final destination, the home village of the Murut family who is running Orou Sapulot. We met its founder Richard and his son Virgil and were soon enchanted by their tales how everything started and what vision they have for the future of their their organistion and their entire village.

Dancing was part of the cultural experience on the final evening

Murut hospitality customs

Virgil told us a lot about Murut customs and the traditional way of life in the jungle. The Murut people have a wide range of different customs and traditions. As an example, guests would always eat first and only when they are finished eating will the host eat what is left over. For us this lead to some, let’s say, a bit awkward situations where the two of us would sit on a big table and eat while the whole family was waiting in the kitchen. We furthermore learned that the Murut under no circumstances want their guests to perform any work. We understood this only after we asked if we could help prepare the food several times… 🙂 Speaking of food, guests are usually given food and drinks without asking since otherwise polite Murut guests would always say no anyway.

As per Murut custom we were guests and ate dinner alone before everyone else
Our guide Jaria offering us amazingly delicious food four times a day


Traditionally Murut live in a longhouse. This is a house in which several nuclear families that belong to the same family live. Whenever the family is extended, for example when a son marries, a new annex is built to the house. All annexes are connected through a corridor and the center of the house is a community hall for festivities. Traditionally the Murut only celebrated weddings and funerals since they did not record/ care about cyclical dates such as birthdays or the beginning of a new year. Interestingly, the youngest son inherits the longhouse since he is expected to be the last one to live and take care of it.

Murut headhunting / family custom

Virgil also explained us that the Murut practiced headhunting in the past. There is a saying that you could only marry a girl once you killed a man. This meant that fewer men than women survived and polygamy was therefore widespread. Furthermore, children were very valuable and since they always went with the mother it was not uncommon for someone to re-marry the wife of his late brother, whose head might have been cut off. Longhouses by the way were built in a way to defend its inhabitants. The floor was made from extra hard wood in order to prevent spears from getting through and windows were often covered by leaves to prevent poisonous blow darts from entering. In cases of attack, the above mentioned community hall was used as a safe place for children and women. The practice of headhunting was eventually stopped by the British in the 1920s but the techniques were revived briefly during WW2 when the Japanese attacked the area.

Rice wine jar challenge

Another interesting aspect of the longhouse is that it is actually built to accommodate a rice wine drinking game. We learned this the hard way when Virgil invited us to the traditional rice wine jar drinking, usually only practiced during big festivities. Let us explain in more detail.

Longhouses are actually built to accommodate a rice wine drinking game

Jars of homemade rice wine are a mandatory gift for festivities like weddings. The wine is not distilled but only fermented using a specific type of (dry) hill rice as well as special types of yeast. An important further element is the cleaning of the jars which has to be done with specific plants such as lemongrass. Apparently there is also a great deal of superstition involved. Nightmares, for example, lead to bad batches of wine. As you can see in the pictures below the game works as follows: In the jar is a measuring rod with several markings. The jar is full of rice wine and the eldest guest receives the honor to start drinking, using the bamboo straw which is also visible in the picture. Once the first drinker is finished, he/she invites a second drinker to the jar. This person validates the amount drunk, i.e. the number of markings. Now the initial drinker fills up the jar with water and also pours a bit of water on the straw to clean it. The jar actually needs to be filled until it overflows a bit. The overflowing water is then collected by a special drainage on the floor of the house, thus our comment that a traditional longhouse is actually built around drinking rice wine… 🙂

Virgil next to the rice wine jar – ready for the challenge!

This cycle is repeated with each drinker always having to drink at least the amount of their previous drinker. This means that if someone ups the game and drinks two and not only one marking then everybody has to follow.

Virgil also explained to us that the jars itself can be very valuable – if they are old enough. The real thing – original old jars from China – are a very popular and valuable dowry.

Old rice wine jar collection in a corner of the Murut longhouse

It is hard to put into words the unforgettable experience we had with Orou Sapulot. We not only had an incredible time with everybody but also learned so much about the rain forest, Murut culture, EcoTourism etc… The whole project is definitely a unique example for us what is possible in this world and will continue to inspire our future path.

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