there are tall tales among the people and villages of sabah and sarawak in north
borneo, malaysia. simply wrought folktales. mythical tales and tribal stories
that are passed on orally from one generation to the next. from father to son,
from uncle to nephew, from sister to cousin, from native to traveler. like
endangered species, these tales are at risk of disappearing altogether, being
forgotten and lost unto the vacuous caverns and mtv concerns of the modern
megamalls and kids of kota kinabalu.
these are tales of fierce and warring tribes – the kadazan, dusun, rungus, bajau
– of magical forests, headhunting muruts, flying dragons, talking crocodiles,
enchanted snakes, rats, civets, and boar. tales of huge and hairy giants, brown
and beautiful maidens, of poisoned darts and sharpened spears, golden goose
eggs, lethal blowpipes, dancing mousedeer. of wizened witches and wily
witchdoctors, evil jungle spirits and shy rhinocerii; of pirated sulu seaships
and raging pre-colonial fires; of potions and spells and pagan marriages and
avenged betrayals. of bamboo huts built with strong nipah leaves, of squawking
hornbill singing to walking baskets. of sultans and kings, clever hermit crabs,
and the ever-flowing kinabatangan. of kampongs and parangs, and the place all
spirits return to, the domineering gunung kinabalu.
one such kadazan tale i paraphrase tells of montuk, fierce leader of the tagahas
tribe, he of the herculean figure and magical powers. he whose daring and
cunning were no match for his even greater and volcanic irritability. war dances
and headhunting were the tagahas' most exciting games in those days. men could
not marry without providing plentiful dowries of human heads to their
betrothed's families. as such, montuk had a hut full of human heads and a house
full of wistful wives.
the main rival and enemy of the tagahas were the tambunans. believed to be the
first settlers of the area, the tambunans' numbers were in steady decline, too
often being found, so to speak, on the short end of the headhunting stick. each
time the tagahas would attack, they would fill themselves on rice wine (tapai),
fermented tapioca root, and beer, and after whipping themselves into a frenzy
with a ritual beating of gongs and drums, they would release their fury on the
unfortunate tambunans, over-running their villages, burning their houses, raping
their women, and collecting their heads.
but montuk was not only crafty and cruel, he was also cautious. he had many
spies who would steal information from the tambunans to his own tribe's
advantage. but one day, while preparing another raid on the tambunan's kampong,
one of montuk's warriors betrayed him and warned the tambunans on their other
side of the river pegalon. expecting another successful ambush, instead it was
montuk and his warriors who were caught in the middle of the pegalon and cut to
pieces by the awaiting tambunans. and although montuk survived, he was furious.
he went to his tribe's head witchdoctor, found the culprit among the remaining
survivors, and brutally slew the traitor in front of women and children alike.
then montuk had an idea. he would face his enemies alone. he sharpened his
parang and crossed the river. he beheaded his first assailant at the river's
edge and drank his blood lustily. it was midnight before he reached his enemy's
village. all was quiet. everyone was asleep. so to be cautious and wise, montuk
changed himself into a mouse and entered the longhouse through a little hole in
the floor. alas, luck was not with him that night. he was caught and killed in a
mouse trap. people say that when the tambunans found him, they boiled him and
ate him greedily.
not all stories have a happy ending!
but neither are all tales recorded so amicably in the reprinted books of
folklore and traditions of sabah. some are just whispered among the kampongs
and villagers in the outback, or told with an incredulous smile among the modern
day city dwellers who have carried their tribal stories with them from the small
kampongs of their elders and their elders' elders. no, these "other" stories are
the tales of black magic. of voodoo. the stories of the "bomos".
the "bomo" is the local witchdoctor. the shaman of the kampong. the man with the
potions, curses, and spells. unfortunately, he (and it is always a he) is often
not a very altruistic or healing kind of dude in borneo. he is more often the
bad-ass medicine man for hire. the black magic maker who, if you are jealous,
envious, or angry at someone, for whatever reason – legitimate of otherwise – he
is the man you go to for your pound of flesh. he can make an ugly man desirable
to a harem of women; he can make a beautiful woman into waddling goose. he can
curse, starve, or even kill a man or woman – for a price.
and so this little story goes – there was once a young husband, arang-arang, who
lived happily with his wife mei, deep in the interior of sabah, in the hunting
and logging village of keningau. one day arang-arang came home hot and tired
from working in the rain forest, and his gossipy neighbor told him that one of
his fellow murut tribesman, lingkut, had been found with his wife. arang-arang,
not knowing what to do, or what to believe, asked around to see if what he had
been told was true. no one would say. arang-arang was beside himself. but having
done his due diligence and not knowing where to turn, he beseeched the helped of
the local bomo. now we already know that a bomo is a really scary and daunting
character, but what was arang-arang to do?
his worst fears were confirmed by the bomo. yes, his wife had been unfaithful to
him. and what did arang-arang want to do about it? well, of course arang-arang
wanted revenge. so after paying the bomo handsomely – two wild boar, two gongs,
four packs of cigarettes, and a precious family burial urn, the bomo used all of
his black magic powers, and with poetic justice and malice aforethought, he
placed lingkut's private parts on his forehead. that's right. it has been
confirmed by the local chinese nurse in keningau hospital. lingkut's penis was
on his head. it was as if lingkut was no longer a man between his legs. he
couldn't pee. he could no longer have sex. he could neither see or feel his own
dick. except on his forehead.
now there are other versions of the tale that say that no one but lingkut could
see his own dick on his forehead. that it was the power of the spell that made
it seem so. but lingkut looked in the river and saw his dick on his head. and
day after day his bladder filled, and his kidneys screamed for mercy. and so
finally lingkut went to the bomo himself and offered him all his worldly
possessions. all his cattle and buffalo, his home and all its holdings - even
his wife. but the bomo refused. a matter of pride. of power. of
professionalism. the bomo had already been paid by arang-arang; he had done his
job. three days later, lingkut died. the hospital said his bladder had burst.
and so ends another sad, brief, unadorned - and they say, true, tale of black
magic and revenge.
another such tale exists in the northeast villages of borneo, near kudat,
amongst the inherit tribe. it is the story of the flying head, or "balan balan".
it all begins with a young fisherman, this time too, doubly named, anak-anak,
and his young, impatient bride, latinah. it seems that one day, young anak-anak
came proudly home with a healthy and freshly caught catfish. unfortunately,
latinah despised such an unsightly fish and demanded that anak-anak return it
immediately to the sea. hungry and feeling greatly unappreciated, anak-anak took
his fishing knife and cut off the catfish's head, preparing to gut him for
dinner. but all of a sudden, in a violent and unpredictable rage, latinah picked
up a parang and cut off her husband's head!
as the story goes, after he was buried by his wife, anak-anak came back from the
grave. he wandered around kudat looking for his head. however the only way he
could stay alive was to drink blood. at first he survived off small animals and
rodents, but the longer he looked, the harder it became to stay alive. he
resorted to whatever he had to eat to find the blood to stay alive. finally,
anak-anak found his head and sewed it back on to his shoulders, covering the
stitching with a scarf. but still he needed to drink blood to stay alive. it was
his great shame and sorrow. he would fish during the day and drink blood at
night. like a borneon vampire.
eventually anak-anak re-married and had a son. but he never told his new wife
about his curse. and so the shortcomings of the father fell onto the son. and
onto his son's son. and now, every first born of anak-anak's offspring, will fly
around headless at night, looking for blood – to keep itself alive. the flying
head, or "balan balan" is greatly feared in the inherit tribe and around kudat,
and the balan balan can often be found hiding under the home of a pregnant woman
waiting for the blood to flow with a new child's birth. it is easier, it is
said, to wait so – under the naturally-spaced bamboo sticks of the floor, than
to kill small animals, or worse yet, human beings - to stay alive. sometimes,
the balan balan can be found working in construction sites, even in modern
cities like kota kinabalu, a kerchief tied around its neck during the day, under
which lie the same stitches as those of anak-anak. and at night, these strange,
cursed, terrible creatures can be seeing flying across the night sky, with
firecracker sparks shooting into the sky from the bottom of their severed necks…
more stories of flying, cursed and avenging eggs, and strange 1-eyed forest
creatures called "rogons" who protect the forests from intruders killing game
and taking it from the forest, still exist in borneo. some rogons have 1 green
eye, and they are shy and can be avoided if you are terribly quiet and polite.
but if you run into the 1 red-eyed rogon, beware. and run for your life. the
bomo hordes the rogon's rough body hair, and can make special powerful potions
out of it. bringing us full black magic circle back to the bomos – who are also
known for keeping a "toyol", or misshapen little creature at its side in a
bottle to help it steal rings, watches, or other valuables. the "toyol" is known
to be the developed remains of human miscarriages….!
so when you next come to borneo, to enjoy the luxury hotels, the slick eco
tourist cruises, and the great beauty of its still natural resources -- in a
world that truly has to be rigorously preserved by nature enthusiasts and
governmental agencies alike -- don't forget some of the folklore. it's still
alive and well in the outback, upriver, and in the dark interior of deepest
as for me, if you don't hear from me again, i think you'll know why………….