Attending a traditional tribal wedding in Sabah, Borneo

Attending a traditional tribal wedding in Sabah, Borneo

Sometimes weird and wonderful things happen when you travel. I had a good feeling about Malaysian Borneo the moment I arrived in Kota Kinabalu and I ended up spending longer in KK than I had intended. I wasn’t in a hurry to leave and things just kept happening. On what was meant to be my last day there I sent a text message to the travel agent who arranged my bus to see Mt Kinabalu. From that text message we went out for dinner that night.

At dinner my new friend, Tania, was telling me about her family and how she comes from the Dusun tribe of Sabah. She mentioned that her cousins wedding was on the next day and then asked if I wanted to go as well. I said I would love to go. I had a ferry ticket booked for the next morning but that was easy enough to change, and I would have taken the loss anyway if it wasn’t.

Then it occurred to me that I had nothing to wear. After all I’m backpacking. In the tropics. I don’t have formal wear, even when I am at home with a full wardrobe. I mentioned this to my friend, and she said:

“Oh that’s ok, I’ve got something for you to wear”.

Now, when I was in China I learnt that it is a fallacy that westerners can’t learn Chinese because they are tone deaf. If you are not deaf, then you can hear tones. For example, take that last sentence that was said to me:

“Oh that’s ok, I’ve got something for you to wear”.

Say it to yourself in an innocent, matter-of-fact manner.

Now say the exact same sentence in a devious trouble making manner, chock-full of tones.

The way it was delivered to me the “oh” was elongated and the “I’ve” was emphasised. The tone was so devious that alarm bells should have been ringing. It did register with me, and I thought maybe she has a nice floral Hawaiian style Borneo shirt I could borrow. I left it at that.

So I said yes I will go, and the next morning I was picked up by Tania and her brother, who drove us to the family house. Their home is in a kampung (village) which lies in the shadow of the great Mount Kinabalu. The family house is a small farm, with cats, dogs and chickens roaming everywhere and the back yard consisting of rice fields.

View of Mt Kinabalu
[Kinabalu view]

Later on in the day I went with Tania and her brothers down to the river for a “shower”. Just a bar of soap in the clean waters running off the mountain.

The Wedding Day

The next day the family house was the base for the wedding party. The actual wedding was about 200 metres down the road at her cousins house. We originally weren’t even going to go as Tania had to go back to work, but luckily her work let her off at the last minute.

There wasn’t much for me to do in the morning so I was sitting around with the rest of the guys watching DVD’s while the girls were doing each others hair.

After lunch everyone started getting ready and the wedding party entered the room with their magnificent costumes on.

Dusun women in wedding clothes
[Dusun women dressed up]

I was wondering what to wear but I noticed that everyone else who was attending the wedding was wearing jeans and t-shirts, so I needn’t have worried about not getting dressed up.

Then at the last minute, Tania’s dad came over and lead me to the costume wardrobe. Oh how convenient, they just so happened to have a big size jacket for me. I tried to turn down the offer, but they were having none of it. So I said yes, coat me up, but first let me go to the toilet, as once this thing goes on I don’t want to try and work out how to take it off.

The jacket went on, then the bells, belt and other bits of flare. Then to top it off was the winged hat.

James in Dusun wedding costume
[In costume]

Wow, what a costume. I felt truly honoured to take part in this.

From the house Tania and I lead the wedding procession down the road to the wedding reception.

At the wedding the bride and groom take their seat in the house, and everyone comes in to give their good wishes. Anyone who has a camera is the official wedding photographer.

Everyone in a costume then went outside where there was some dancing to be done. None of it was rehearsed. I just worked out the steps as you go. Can you imagine a wedding in US/UK/OZ unrehearsed. It was so casual and seemingly stress free.

Wedding guys

I felt a bit odd being a part of the wedding party, but I have been told since that it is common to be invited to weddings in Sabah. I have also been told not to turn down an invitation to a Dusun wedding. I tell you, I’m so glad I didn’t.

Wedding Group

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  1. James, Your mother sent us a link to this blog and I really enjoyed reading about the wedding and your costume was quite extraordinary but quite ordinary with the company you were with. Great writting.

  2. What a cool experience that must have been!

  3. Life Exceptional says

    I love the costumes! It looks like such an amazing experience.

  4. That is a kick-ass outfit! You look better than the entire bridal party! haha
    What an AWESOME experience!

  5. Ha! I don’t know about that, Tina. They’re are pretty good looking bridal party. It certainly was fun 🙂

  6. Absolutely LOVED this! Travel is an adventure in open-mindedness and it led you to a winged hat and Dusan wedding! Looks like it was a blast (although I can see that hitting the loo beforehand was prudent!) I will be sure to check in to see where else you end up..and what you wore!

  7. I totally want that hat.

  8. Hi James.

    I am from Sabah, Malaysia. I am glad you’re having a great day in Sabah.
    They don’t asked you to try Sumazau Dance?

  9. The traditional dress is so beautiful!

  10. Bert Ramadanovic says

    Howdy This is a really nice post !

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