If you’ve never been to Sabah or Sarawak in East Malaysia, here’s a good reason why you should make one trip soon. In May and June, Sabah and Sarawak are especially festive, thanks to the harvest festivals celebrated by their largest native groups in both states. The harvest festivals, known as Hari Gawai in Sarawak, and Pesta Keamatan in Sabah, are to give thanks for a bountiful rice harvest. It is a festival with customs and traditions passed down through generations, and its roots could be traced to animistic beliefs formerly practiced by the communities.
Technically, the two harvest festivals are similarly celebrated, and parties in the villages last throughout the day, with lots of food, singing, dancing and drinking to usher in the new farming season.
However, there are variations in the celebration dates. The Pesta Keamatan in Sabah is usually celebrated throughout May, with its finale on May 30 and 31. On the other hand, Hari Gawai, widely celebrated in Sarawak, falls on 1 and 2 June each year and the celebration even continues throughout June in some parts of the state. So, what can you expect if you’re in a Pesta Keamatan or Hari Gawai party? Read on to find out!
Get fascinated by some ancient practices and rituals
During the harvest festival, the Kadazan priestess called the Bobohizan will lead ceremonies early in the morning for the next harvest season to be bountiful. So, make sure you’re awake by then to be in the thick of the action of these ancient practices.
Meanwhile, in Sarawak, the ritual starts at dusk where food and drinks are prepared to be offered to the deities. While the festival of yesteryears involved gory headhunting traditions, the only head to be removed these days is that of a chicken to thank the rice spirits for the harvest season.
Sample exotic traditional delicacies and rice wine
The harvest festival is the best time for you to try traditional cuisines with recipes that have been passed down for generations. We’d highly recommend you to try butod (sago grub). While these fat grubs are nutritious (rich in protein!) and taste good, according to locals, it’s still a test of bravery to put one live, wriggling bug into your mouth!
Whether you’re in Sabah or Sarawak (and if you don’t have religious restrictions), do try the traditional rice wine called lihing (in Sabah) or tuak (in Sarawak), which is brewed from glutinous rice mixed with homemade yeast. Participate in a “pub crawl” where you could visit different longhouses to drink tuak and to celebrate with the locals!
Dance off with the locals
The festival is a time for family and friends to get together, and dance away. Challenge yourself to the magunatip dance, a.k.a the bamboo dance in which the dancers have to jump in between and over moving bamboo logs held by two people at opposite ends. It’s a survival of the fittest when it comes to stamina, as the dance gets progressively faster and faster, and would surely leave both the dancers and audience out of breath! Whew!
An important dance in the Iban community is the ngajat dance. The dance consists of graceful movements of the body, hands and feet. The dance is usually performed by warriors on their return from battles. Feel the goosebumps running through arms and back as the dancers occasionally shout battle cries in the midst of the dance!
Train your skills at shooting with the blowpipe
As the merriment continues, some of the activities included playing a few rounds of games (even more fun after a few glasses of tuak!). Find your inner warrior and show off your hunting skills in sumpit (blowpipe) shooting. Playing games is also a great way to build friendships with the locals. So, don’t be shy and do take part in a few rounds of games!
See Sabah and Sarawak beauties in a pageant
On the last day of the festival, a beauty pageant is usually held. It’s considered as one of the important aspects of the festival, and this is where you’ll see the best of Sabah and Sarawaks’s beauties as it attracts contestants from different districts. The pageant is also quite lucrative as winners will take home a cash prize up to RM12,000! Oh la la!
Bring home some handmade souvenirs
Bring home souvenirs from Sabah and Sarawak as a momento from your amazing trip! Get traditional souvenirs such as multi colored beads bracelet and necklace with traditional motives. You can also get local harvested pearls, hand woven baskets and rattan products. We’d recommend the sompoton, which is a type of mouth organ with eight bamboo pipes and a head resembling a duck. You just need to learn how to play it 😉
But wait, where can I celebrate the harvest season?
Good question. The best way to experience the harvest festival is to get the locals to invite you to one. People in Sabah and Sarawak are usually hospitable and enthusiastic in welcoming you to stay at longhouses throughout the festival. However, as these villages are usually in the more interior parts of Sarawak and Sabah, it is not easy to get to them on your own and so, meticulous planning is almost necessary for you to gain this rare, cultural experience. Nevertheless, there are a few places in Sabah and Sarawak which are open to the public as part of the states’ initiative to boost tourism. We’ve compiled a few places below where you could visit as a tourist.
If you’re in Sabah during the end of May and not sure where to fully experience this rich celebration, make your way to the Kadazan-Dusun Cultural Association (KDCA) in Penampang where the main event would be held on 30 and 31 May. The KDCA is located about a 30-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu and you’ll be welcomed with songs and dances, as well as the aromatic scent of tasty local food.
This year’s state-level Gawai celebrations is hosted by the Bidayuh community and in conjunction with Visit Sarawak Year 2019 campaign, there’ll be a few locations where you could experience Gawai first-hand. Head over to the Annah Rais Longhouse, which is just an hour’s drive from Kuching on May 31. There’ll be a month-long celebration in June in a few locations around Sarawak so be sure to plan your travels! Some of the celebrations will be in Pueh (Lundu) on June 2, Serikin (Bau) on June 21 and Pichin (Serian) on June 29.
The harvest festivals are rich in history and culture and if you have the chance to visit Sabah or Sarawak during their harvesting season, be sure to take part in at least one of these activities!
Ready to party? Fly to Sabah or Sarawak with our fantastic flight and hotel deals on Traveloka!