page contents
Go to Top

The Orang Ulu

Introducing the Orang Ulu

Orang Ulu (literally “upriver people”) is a term used to describe the indigenous groups of central and northern Sarawak who make up about 5% of the state’s population. Their longhouses and villages are scattered throughout the  “Heart of Borneo”, namely the upper Rejang, middle and upper Baram, upper Limbang and Trusan river systems.

There are three major groupings of Orang Ulu, as well as a number of smaller communities. The major groups are Kayan and Kenyah, the  Kajang, and  the Northern Highlanders  (Lun Bawang and Kelabit), each with a host of sub-groups and affiliated tribes. Smaller communities include the Bisaya, the Penan, the Tagal and four minor groups – the Bekitan, the Bhuket,  the Lisun and the Punan Busang. 

Sarawak’s most artistic peoples, the various Orang Ulu groups share many aspects of culture and custom. They build ornate and imposing longhouses decorated with exquisite woodcarvings and bizarre “tree of life” paintings; they weave complex and haunting melodies on their mandolin-like instrument, the Sape; they practice ear-lengthening with heavy brass pendants; and both sexes delight in ornate tattoos.

Orang Ulu men are renowned warriors, hunters, boatbuilders and blacksmiths, while the women are noted for their exquisite beadwork and the brewing of excellent rice wine, known as borak. Most importantly, like all Sarawakians, the Orang Ulu take hospitality very seriously. An evening spent in an upriver or highland longhouse – listening to elderly ladies singing praise songs to the guests between chews of betel nut – is an unforgettable experience.

Orang Ulu Links

The Kelabit Net: An excellent resource about the Kelabit people and their homeland in and around the Bario Highlands.

Paren Nyawai’s Blog: A fascinating, if typographically eccentric, blog by an Iban/Orang Ulu who’s a chartered accountant by day and a traditional dancer and musician by night.

Orang Ulu Music: An informative blog from a young Orang Ulu musician, with some nice sound bites.

Recommended Reading

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon: This description of a failed attempt by two middle-aged academics to find an albino rhino in the Borneo rainforest is one of the finest – and funniest – examples of modern travel writing.

World Within: A Borneo Story by Tom Harrison: This fascinating account of Harrisson’s experiences as a guerrilla commander during WWII appears to be a work of military history,  but most of the book is devoted to dazzling descriptions of the Kelabit people and their way of life.

Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo by Eric Hansen: The first westerner ever to walk across Borneo, Hansen lovingly describes his trek with the nomadic Penan through a hauntingly beautiful jungle where snakes and frogs fly, pigs climb trees, giant carnivorous plants eat mice, and mushrooms glow at night.

Penans: The Vanishing Nomads of Borneo by Dennis Lau: A heartfelt photo tribute to the Penan people and their vanishing way of life by Sarawak’s finest photojournalist.

An Aristocratic Orang Ulu Lady