Mari Mari Cultural Village is a little bit amusement park, a little bit museum and completely manufactured tourist attraction. Yes, it’s every bit as cheesy as it sounds, but despite ourselves, we found it interesting and fun.
The village showcases historical cultural traditions of five indigenous ethnic groups of Borneo: the rice-farming Kadazan-Dusun, Sabah’s largest ethnic group; the longhouse-dwelling Rungus; the Lundayeh, farmers of the interior; the Bajau, famously sea gypsies and cowboys; and the once feared headhunters, the Murut. Most modern day indigenous Sabahans live in contemporary houses and dress in Western clothes; Mari Mari Cultural Village aims to preserve their ancestors’ culture and provide employment for people.
Rather than just turn up and look around, Mari Mari Cultural Village is more like an interactive show, and must be pre-booked. There are three daily start times, 10:00, 14:00 and 18:00, and each three-hour session includes a meal. The village is about 40 minutes out of Kota Kinabalu (one hour at peak hour) and the village itself and many tour operators offer packages that include transport.
Upon arrival you are met by a fact-filled guide (with a group maximum of 20 people), and led “mari mari” (“come on” in Malay) over a suspension bridge to the traditional houses. The forest setting adds to the authenticity, but paths can be slippery and there are a few mozzies about. Wear sturdy footwear and bring mozzie repellent. If you go to the evening session, you may want a torch as it’s not that well lit.
As well as seeing the beautifully crafted traditional houses, staff dressed in traditional costume, offer drinks, snacks and activities. There’s rice wine (lihing), a local distilled spirit, honey, cakes and pandan tea among others. Demonstrations include traditional fire-making, bark clothing and rope making, and you get to have a go at shooting a blowpipe, and bounce on a (very fun) traditional trampoline (the lansaran of the Murut people).
Traditionally, the jumping (maningkawot) is performed during festivities to reach a target tied high above the trampoline built into the floor of the longhouse — we wish we could have one at home! Of course there are also the (made in China) skulls of the headhunters to ohh and aah at.
The tour concludes with a dance performance, again with audience participation. Don’t join in if you’re not so sure-footed, as it involves jumping between clashing bamboo poles and our driver mentioned someone had had serious injuries the previous week. Finally a buffet dinner is served (mention food preferences when booking). Food is plentiful and tasty.
Mari Mari Cultural Village is fun for kids too (avoid the rice wine!), and offers a little more insight into the indigenous ways of life in the past than a dry museum. It’s enjoyable and educational, but somewhat expensive. Travellers on a budget can visit the traditional houses at Sabah Museum, included in the museum ticket price — it’s not the same experience, but you can see similar traditional architecture.
Several other cultural villages close to Kota Kinabalu including: Monsopiad Cultural Village,Linangkit Cultural Village, and The Kadazan-Dusun Cultural Association Sabah (KDCA) Cultural Village.
How to get there
There is no public transport to Mari Mari Cultural Village. A taxi from Kota Kinabalu city centre will cost approximately 40 ringgit one way. You will need to arrange a pickup for the return journey, which may cost more.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 4th April, 2016.