First Time (Not) Starting A Fire – Mari Mari Cultural Village – Kota Kinabalu
The Mari Mari cultural village is the highest rated thing to do around Kota Kinabalu, according to Trip Adviser. After reading about it elsewhere, then seeing its high ratings, we put it on our list of things that we absolutely had to do before we left. Despite both having an interest in it, we had consistently managed to put it off and put it off.
Finally, having set a leaving date from KK, we realised that time was running out to take in this unique piece of culture. Discovering that there were three tours a day around the village, we decided upon the evening tour. We shopped around a little, and found that we could do the tour for 150 Ringgits (roughly our entire daily budget of £30) each, and could do it that evening.
We were picked up from our hostel and whisked away to the Mari Mari cultural village. After 45 minutes, we arrived and were greeted with some melon juice. After a few minutes our guide, Switchely Michael, beckoned us forward. Mari Mari translates into “Come come” in the native Kazadan-Dusun tribe’s language, and was a frequent refrain throughout the evening, as Switchely moved us onto the next section, keen to show us what laid around the next corner. He was an incredibly helpful and knowledgable guide, and as Laura and I were the only two English speaking people on the tour, very attentive.
First up we visited the Kazadan-Dusun house, replete with grain store outside, this also contained a morbid explanation of a black magic ritual to ward off thieves – removing their head and hanging it above the rice as a threat to other thieves.
We were then led to the house and had the layout explained to us – and how the daughter of the family lives on the second floor, complete with retractable ladder. We were also given the opportunity to sample some traditional rice wine, which was incredibly sweet, and still surprisingly palatable after it was distilled into something stronger.
We were then led onto the longhouse of the second tribe – the Rungus. Each room housed a different family, and upon choosing a bride, a prospective husband would have to gain the village elder’s permission to extend the longhouse. This house also included a demonstration of fire starting, using bamboo. I was given the opportunity to try my hand at it, but after two attempts, I’d managed smoke, but no fire.
Next up in the Mari Mari cultural village was the Lundayeh, the third tribe – and the third house – we were told of a gruesome head hunters ritual, which was still carried out as recently as the 1950s. The house would have belonged to a village elder of high status – earned by collecting skulls. It, like the Kazadan-Dusun house, had a similar second-storey solution to maintaining their daughters purity. Although I would have thought that the skulls of vanquished foes hanging from the rafters of the house would probably suffice for this.
The fourth house – belonging to the Bajau tribe – was my personal favourite, as we got to try some traditional treats. Outside the house, we were offered Kuih Jala – triangles that resembled uncooked noodle nests, but were sweet. The triangle is a treasured symbol to this particular tribe, and was woven into much of the fabric and decorations of the house. Before heading inside, we were offered the chance to taste a pandan and ginger tea. Pandan was one of our favourite discoveries of the trip so far, featuring in some delicious steamed buns on our first morning in Borneo, and a frequently appearing flavouring for various food stuffs. This tea was an excellent use for it, and we were thrilled to find that our hostel was offering a similar drink when we returned.
Once inside, we bore witness to a mocked up wedding ceremony, which naturally involved us getting dressed up in some fetching traditional costumes and taking some awkward photos. As a reward we were provided with another treat – a sort of pancake made with rice flour and tapioca, deep fried, this was as delicious as the triangles, albeit not as mysterious.
The final house belonged to the Murut – another more widely renowned headhunter tribe, we had been previously warned that their means of welcoming guests involved an ambush, followed by an exchange of names outside the front of the village, after getting a bit of a scare, I exchanged pleasantries with one of the people who seemed like he’d had enough of playing chief for the day and wanted to go home. We were given a chance to use a blowpipe – which turned out to be a lot harder than it looked.
We headed into the Murut house, which featured, of all things, a trampoline of bamboo construction. We were told that, in order to prove their worth, young men would have to jump on the trampoline, gaining enough height to pull a lock of hair of their betrothed which was hung from the ceiling.
We were then given henna tattoos, before proceeding to an outdoor stage, where we were treated to a traditional performance by the assembled individuals we’d met around the houses. This was entertaining, and even quite exciting when they brought out bamboo poles, with various members of the ensemble having to dance their way through, avoiding the poles as they were snapped together, potentially causing some very sore ankles.
As the evening drew to an end, we sampled some more local cuisine – including an incredibly spicy sauce – and were then driven back to the hotel. I can see why the Mari Mari cultural village is such a highly rated experience, it was very interactive and whilst the concept runs the risk of being a bit of a dry activity, in practice it was actually very fun.