Helpful host, gracious guest.
Ancient rainforests, mystical mountain peaks, breath-taking landscapes and a tapestry of cultural diversity like no other…. you’re definitely in for a treat! As a team that brings travellers to our backyard Borneo, we want to enable you to be gracious guests. Outback Venture has compiled cultural etiquette tips to save you from awkward social blunders, because local customs can be tricky and we want you to enjoy your Borneo adventure to the fullest.
There are currently 32 officially recognized ethnic groups in Sabah. It is a beautiful mathematical equation, one that makes visiting the island so memorable.
Apart from the Sabahans’ very own diverse mother tongues, Bahasa Malaysia (national language) and English is widely spoken, and so is Mandarin and some Chinese dialects.
In Sabah, we greet people by saying “selamat datang” (welcome) and/or “terima kasih” (thank you) with a smile. But a “Hello” would do just fine. Or crack a few more smiles by saying “apa khabar boss!” which means, “How are you” and “boss” is the local-lingo for addressing a friend. If your hosts are older men and women, addressing them as ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ is considered polite.
Due to religious reasons, some may prefer not to have physical contact with others. Handshakes are generally acceptable. However, 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.
On a very important note, the Muslim communities consider the left hand to be unclean. Shaking hands, offering and receiving should always be done with the right hand.
In Malaysian Borneo, the dress code is more relaxed and it is common to see women wear short-sleeve tops and shorts.
However, we do suggest keeping your shoulders and knees covered, including your cleavage. Modesty is the best policy here, and dressing discreetly is a good idea. If you are visiting a temple or holy site, long sleeves for both men and women, and to cover your hair with a scarf. When entering a home or mosque, remove your shoes.
On beaches, bikinis are acceptable. No skinny-dipping and no nude sunbathing either. When trekking in the forest, keep it comfortable and relaxed, something along the lines of shorts that are slightly above the knees and a sleeveless/T-shirt to combat humidity. Be mindful of when bathing in rivers, we suggest bringing a “Sarong” along.
EATING, DRINKING AND ALCOHOL
Most restaurants will serve you with a choice of fork, spoon or chopsticks. However in some homestays, you might be expected to eat with your hands, which isn’t rocket science! The oldest person is usually seated first and should start eating before others. Do not begin eating until the eldest diner does.
Wild boar is a local favourite and is considered the best meal there is, but be mindful of where you are, Pork is forbidden in the Muslim communities.
Vegetarianism is yet to be fully embraced. The concept is little understood so be careful when placing your food order. Shrimp paste is usually added to food for more flavour. Always ask questions and never assume.
Although Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is legal to consume alcohol. Alcohol is more prevalent on the island of Borneo. Sabah communities consider alcohol to be part of their culture which is enjoyed at many cultural events. However do pace yourself and be conservative with how much you drink.
TO HAGGLE OR NOT TO HAGGLE?
Truth is, there is not a strong culture of haggling in Malaysian Borneo. Here’s an easy rule to abide to, if there is a price marked on an object then it is inappropriate to negotiate.
In markets, however, if the price is not stated, then you may ease yourself into bargaining. You can start at 50-25% less than the asking price and expect to meet somewhere in the middle.
Hiked up prices can be unfair for tourists, but please be mindful and respectful of the fact that it may change the weekly income of a rural family.
TIPS ON TIPPING
Tipping in Malaysian Borneo is not expected, with the exception of tour guides and porters. If you feel you get exceptional service a tip is acceptable and the amount is up to you. If you leave a tip at a restaurant, there is a good chance that someone will chase after you with your change. Most hotels & restaurants levy a 10% service charge on the bill.
OTHER WAYS OF BEING A RESPONSIBLE TRAVELLER
Borneo contains one of the most diverse and oldest jungles on earth. Covered in thick jungle, the region is known as a sanctuary for endangered wildlife. We at Outback Venture want you to feel encouraged to do your part as a visitor to this wonderful place. Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories and be sure to responsible of the trash you accumulate on the trail or in wildlife areas. We suggest you avoid the use plastic disposable water bottles, instead use a refillable bottle and opt to filter water from taps and streams. Using a reusable grocery bag when you do your shopping while in Borneo greatly reduces the impact of plastics on the environment too.