The Culture of Borneo

Borneo is largely a conservative and traditional society. However, this does vary from location to location and generally Malaysian Borneo is more relaxed in most aspects than Peninsular Malaysia. Many of the following guidelines would come under a general banner of polite subtlety and respect.

"Jam Karat" - a different approach to time

Borneo is a rapidly changing place, especially in the cities which are very metropolitan, but it is definitely Asian in culture. A good expression to learn and appreciate is that of 'Jam Karat’ - literally translated this means rubber time; in the rural areas this is very much the case. This is to say do not expect the timings within each day to run to exact minutes and seconds - try removing your watch when you step off the plane and slow down.

Borneo Culture and Society

Malaysia Borneo society is split between several ethnic Groups - these are approximate figures to highlight the multi-cultural nature of Malaysia: Malay 50%, Chinese 24%, Indigenous groups 11%, Indian 7%, other 8%.

Malaysia Borneo's cultural mosaic is marked by many differences, some of which have had a lasting influence on the country. Chief among these is the ancient Malay culture, and the cultures of Malaysia's two most prominent trading partners throughout history--the Chinese, and the Indians. These three groups are joined by a dizzying array of indigenous tribes, many of which live in the forests and coastal areas of Borneo. The oldest inhabitants of Malaysia are its tribal people. They account for about 11% of the total population and represent a majority in Sarawak and Sabah.

Though Malaysia's tribal people prefer to be categorized by their individual tribes, peninsular Malaysia blankets them under the term Orang Asli, or "Original People." In Sarawak, the dominant tribal groups are the Dayak, who typically live in longhouses and are either Iban (Sea Dayak) or Bidayuh (Land Dayak). In Sabah, most tribes fall under the term Kadazan. All of Malaysia's tribal people generally share a strong spiritual tie to the rainforest. When visiting the country it is clear that the ethnicities retain their religions, customs and way of life. The most important festivals of each group are public holidays of which there are many.

Despite attending the same schools and socialising as children, few marry outside their own ethnicity. Families tend to socialise within their own ethnic group – all part of retaining their individual traditions and lifestyles.

In all groups, the family is considered the centre of the social structure. As a result, there is a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. The family is the place where the individual can be guaranteed both emotional and financial support. When one member of the family suffers a financial setback, the rest of the family will contribute what they can to help.

Malaysia Borneo Religions

Borneo is a great example of a place where tolerance of religious and political views can create a peaceful and respectful society. The population is approximately split between Islam 60%; Buddhist 19%; Christian 9%; Hindu 6%. Many of the indigenous groups, such as the Penan, are Christian.

Social Interactions in Borneo

Malays, Chinese and Indians all strive to maintain 'face' and avoid shame both in public and private. 'Face' is a concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in high esteem. Face is considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this face also extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself. The desire to maintain 'face' makes Malaysians avoid public confrontations and maintain peaceful relationships.

Greetings in Borneo

In general, most Malays are aware of Western ways so the handshake is normal. However, there are slight differences between the ethnic groups.

Malay women may not shake hands with men. Women can, of course, shake hands with women. Men may also not shake hands with women and may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart.

The Muslim communities consider the left hand to be unclean. You should always, therefore, shake hands, offer and receive with the right hand.

The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect.

Etiquette in Borneo

  • Remove shoes when entering homes and places of worship.
  • Dress neatly in suitable attire which covers arms and legs when visiting places of worship.
  • Handle food with your right hand.
  • Do not point your foot at someone.
  • When giving or receiving money gifts to/from a Malaysian, do so with your right hand.
  • Avoid public displays of affection 

Dress code in Borneo

Dress code in Borneo is generally modest, especially for female visitors. You should keep your shoulders and knee covered. Tops should not finish above the waistline of your trousers and expose your midriff and your neckline should not show cleavage. If you are visiting a temple or holy place it would be appropriate wear long sleeves for both men and women, and to cover your hair.

On beaches or trekking in the forest it is more relaxed but be mindful of when bathing in rivers, women should wash in their sarongs and not just underwear.

Food and Hospitality in Borneo

In some homestays, it is not uncommon to be expected to eat with your hands. Most restaurant will serve with a choice of fork and spoon, or chopsticks.

In non-Muslim communities, eating wild pig is considered just about the best meal there is, whilst of course, this is not the case with the Muslim faith so be aware of where you are. The same goes with cows. Hindus do not eat cow, as it is considered sacred.

The concept of vegetarianism is little understood or known so be careful when ordering food as often shrimp paste and small fish (ikan bilis) will be in the food to add flavour. Rice is considered a valuable commodity so start with small amounts and go back for more rather than waste any.

Haggling in Borneo

Unlike most countries in the region there is not a strong culture of haggling in Malaysian Borneo. If you are making a large purchase, you could ask for a discount, however, in most shops, if there is a price marked on an object then it is inappropriate to negotiate.

In markets, if the price is not marked then you may begin the fine art of haggling. You can roughly start haggling at 50-25% less than the asking price and expect to meet somewhere in the middle. While paying inflated prices can be unfair for tourists, please remember to be respectful and mindful that driving the price down by the equivalent of 25c will make virtually no difference to you, it may change the weekly income of a rural family.

Gift Giving Etiquette in Borneo

Gift giving to Malays:

  • Never give alcohol.
  • If invited to someone's home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.

  • Do not give toy dogs or pigs to children.

  • Do not give anything made of pigskin.                                                                                     

  • Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning.

  • Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the colour of royalty.

  • If you give food, it must be “Halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims). Most food in stores is labeled with an official seal stating it is Halal.

  • Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.

  • Gifts are generally not opened when received

Gift giving to Chinese:

  • If invited to someone's home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes, saying that it is for the children.
  • A gift is traditionally refused before it is accepted to demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy.
  • Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever the relationship.
  • Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and are used at funerals.
  • Do not wrap gifts in mourning colours - white, blue, or black.
  • Wrap the gifts in happy colours - red, pink, or yellow.
  • It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky.
  • Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Environmental and Social Issues in Borneo

Borneo contains one of the most diverse and oldest jungles on earth. However, logging and clear-cutting are a real concern for the welfare of the jungle. It is a complicated issue as many people would like to better the quality of life, despite destroying the landscape. Although things are starting to turn around and Borneo is developing a culture for sustainable tourism and protecting their wild spaces, it is still a problem. You are encouraged to do your part as a visitor to this wonderful place. Be sure to pack out any trash you accumulate on the trail or in wildlife areas. Do not use plastic disposable water bottles, instead opt to filter water from taps and streams.

Another way to be a responsible tourist is to travel with a re-usable grocery bag. When you do your shopping while in Borneo, do not use a plastic bag, instead bring your own reusable bag. Bringing your own bag greatly reduces the impact of plastics on the environment.

Borneo Festivals and Holidays

With so many different tribes and cultures, it is hard to encapsulate all of the holidays of Borneo. It should be noted, however, that Malaysia officially celebrates Muslim holidays. Since the Muslim calendar differs from that of the west, holidays are celebrated at a different time during the year, be sure to check a Muslim calendar for big events such as Ramadan. Unlike much of the Muslim world, Malaysia still operates during the day throughout Ramadan. It is possible to eat, but understandably the mood is quiet until fast is broken in the evening. Since Malaysia has such a diverse culture, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian holidays are also observed. Other holidays to note include:

  • Labor Day: May 1st
  • Wesak Day: Buddha’s birthday. May
  • Harvest Festival (Sabah) and Gawai Dayak (Sarawak): These festivals occur near one another and celebrate the harvest for the year. Many businesses are closed and people return to their home villages to celebrate. Festivities include cock fights, blow gun contests, and a feast. Happens in the beginning of June
  • Independence Day: 31 August
  • Sarawak Head of State’s Birthday: Only celebrated in Sarawak on September 8
  • Malaysia Day: September 16
  • Sabah Head of State’s Birthday: Only celebrated in Sabah. 1st Saturday in October.
  • Malaysia Day: 23rd of October

Borneo Food and Drink

With all of the diversity in Borneo the food is no exception. Delicious flavors of the jungle and the sea combine to make mouthwatering dishes. Most of the food is spiced to add extra flavor, although there is not too much heat in the food as compared to some places.

One famous dish that one must try is Laksa. Usually eaten in the morning, Laksa consists of prawn sambal, coconut milk, thin noodles, eggs, chicken, prawns and fish. Add a bit of lime juice and enjoy. Another dish worth trying is Kolo Mee. This fried pork and noodle concoction certainly doesn’t rank high on the healthy scale, but it is certainly delicious!

Iban-style food provides another culinary option. This style of cooking refers to anything that can be cooked in a bamboo shoot over an open flame. The bamboo add an additional layer of flavor that is hard to replicate any other way.

Although Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is still legal to consume alcohol. Alcohol is more prevalent on the island of Borneo than it is on the mainland, however do be conservative with how much you drink.

There are a few local drinks worth noting. One is Tuak. Tuak is arguably the most prevalent native drink. It is a gentle rice wine made with rice, milk and water. However, it certainly doesn’t taste like wine. Langkau, Tuak’s more potent cousin, is another form of Sarawak moonshine. Although it is a type of rice wine, it is certainly more strong and pungent than wine from the west. It is more like a strong liquor.

Take care when drinking either Tuak or Langkau, as both of these drinks are usually sold in unmarked green bottles. Oftentimes, the alcohol content is unknown. It is best to sip slowly or avoid it all together.


It is not customary to tip for services in Malaysia with the exception of tour guides and porters. Tipping in restaurants is considered rude, and if you do so there is a good chance that someone will chase after you with your change. If you tip someone at a restaurant, spa, or taxi it says that you don’t believe they are getting paid enough. It insults both the workers and the establishment.

However, tipping a guide is customary. How much to tip is entirely up to you. For more information regarding Adventure Alternative and our tipping recommendations see our Tipping Page.