Category Archives: Culture

Giant Fig Fruit with Big Uses

Wong couple selling fig fruit in Tamu market of Donggongon

Medicines are bad, herbs are good. This is how most Sabahans view drugs. It’s always a bitter feeling to bring home a lot of colorful candies (pills) from the clinic. Sabahans describe western medicines as a powerful but “toxic” remedy, and you can often hear us say, “It’s too ‘chemical’ and has side effects!”

small fig fruits on tree

Fig fruit is normally very small

That’s why we prefer herbs as it’s more natural and gentle (true in most cases, but not absolutely). In old days, local people have been using plant to heal various type of diseases. Some scientists even say our rainforest is the biggest pharmacy in the world.

monkey picking fig fruit

Fig fruit is a very important food source for wildlife of Borneo

Two months ago, I was intrigued by a photo taken by my friend in tamu (local weekly alfresco market) of Donggongon town. It is a huge fig fruit as big as a cannon ball!

Known as Buah Maja locally, fig tree is everywhere in Sabah. It is so common that Quentin Phillipps, the author of the book Phillipps’ Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and Their Ecology, says in Borneo, you are rarely more than 100 Meters away from a fig. Fig is the fruit of life in rainforest, and it’s an important food source for Borneo wildlife.

Fig fruit for sale

Fig fruit for sale

Though I’ve seen dozens of fig fruit species, most of them are small, I never saw one that is so big. Therefore, I went to the tamu of Donggongon town, which is open in the mornings of every Thursday and Friday. It didn’t take long for me to locate the stall that sold this fig fruit. The seller, Mr. Wong is very friendly and eager to introduce this amazing fruit to me.

I was surprised to learn that this fig fruit is consumed as herb rather than fruit. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Though Sabah doesn’t have apple, this giant-green-apple-looking fig fruit probably can offer the same health benefits.

fig fruit almost as big as a soccer ball

This fig fruit species is almost as big as a soccer ball

According to Mrs Wong, the wife of seller, she discovered this fruit in Lido and paid RM20 for it. At first her husband scold her for paying too much. Due to high Cholesterol level, she used to wake up with a dizzy head in the morning. After she drank the juice of this fruit, miracle happened. This discomfort vanished.

Therefore, her husband also becomes an advocate of this fig fruit. He plants and sells the fruits and juice. Based on what I found online, figs are high in fiber and a good source of magnesium, manganese, calcium, copper and potassium (which helps lower blood pressure), as well as vitamins, especially K and B6.

Other alleged benefits include detoxification and the ability to cure asthma, hemorrhoid, thyroiditis, minor kidney problem, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, constipation, fever, cough, etc. (I would strongly recommend you to see a doctor if you are sick). Anyway, the nutrition composition may vary among different fig species. Not all figs are edible.

Fig tree with big fruits

Fig tree with low hanging big fruits

The good thing is – herb is relatively safe to experiment for people who are looking for alternative treatment for ailments and hard-to-cure diseases. This fig juice can be taken as a traditional tonic too.

Mr. Wong sells the fig fruit for RM5-10 each. You can boil its pulp with water for 3 hours until the juice turns dark. If you are too busy to do this, you can buy the juice from him for only RM3 per bottle (which is boiled with other herbs too). You can drink the juice like water. However, it’s not an instant fix that can heal everything overnight, so you need to try it for some time.

Mr. Wong sells fig fruit juice for RM3 per bottle (500ml)

Mr. Wong sells fig fruit juice for RM3 per bottle (500ml)

If you want to plant this fig, the seedling is sold for RM20. It takes 3 years to mature, and it fruits throughout the year, so you will have so many fruits that you can even sell or share with others.

Seedling of fig tree

Seedling of fig tree

Everyone wants to be healthy. Selling multivitamin supplement makes nutraceutical firms laugh all the way to the bank. The fact is – these synthetic and unnatural forms of vitamin can’t be used by the body in the same way as natural versions, and it could do more harm than good, according to the Organic Consumers Association.

Fig fruit herb juice for sale

Fig fruit herb juice for sale

Most man-made vitamins are simply a waste of money. I used to take heavy daily dose of Vitamin C for months, but it did nothing more than turning my urine into yellow. After I get real Vitamin C by eating fruits, I see positive changes in less than a week. Some might argue that I should pay higher price to get Vitamin pills of better quality. Well, why not spending that money to buy real and natural food?

The expensive solution is not always the best solution. Pharmaceutical companies and some doctors love clients to buy medicines, so they can make profit. Therefore, they like to label folk prescription with the magic phrase “not scientifically proven”, rather than saying “I don’t know because our institution is too poor to fund a research. But I can’t say that it might work because I won’t make any money. Besides, I’m so afraid that you would sue me if anything doesn’t go well.”

Fig fruit (Buah Maja)

Fig fruit is known as Buah Maja in Malay language

For example, Tongkat Ali could be a great alternative to the expensive blue “V” pill and needs no doctor recommendation. Soursop is an excellent agent to fight cancer better than radiotherapy, which is infamous for its nasty side effects.

Ok, back to the fig fruit. I’m a very curious person, so I can’t stop without looking what is inside this big fruit. I bought one home to dissect it in the kitchen.

This fruit has very hard and smooth skin, so be careful with your knife. For my mom, it’s an easy task to cut it into half. The skin is thin and hard, like an eggshell.

white flesh of fig fruit

The flesh of this fig fruit is sweet and sour, with weird taste like medicine.

I can smell a very fresh and fruity aroma when it is open. The flesh is marshy and soft, with scattered brown seeds. I tasted its pulp. It’s sweet with a bit of sour that smells like herb. Frankly it isn’t yummy, which is logic, because things with medical properties never taste great.

marshy flesh of fig fruit

The flesh of fig fruit is marshy

This fig is just one of the treasures in Borneo. We should read the story below:
The U.S. National Cancer Institute funded a 1987 plant collection expedition on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian State of Sarawak. Among the samples obtained were those from the tree Calophyllum lanigerum var austrocoriaceum, an incredibly rare species. When extracts of this plant were discovered to show good antiviral activity toward the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), researchers returned to the site of the original collection to find that the tree was gone, cut down for firewood or building purposes. (Source: Rainforest Trust News)

fig fruit cut into half

The flesh of fig fruit has very pleasing fresh aroma

You see. A precious plant that might hold the key to cure AIDS was used as firewood or building materials! We really need to carry out more studies to uncover more secret formula in our plant to battle illness.

Photos taken in Donggongon, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Himpogot, the money belt


A guy is lucky if he is born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It’s a blessing if a Kadazandusun lady inherits a himpogot from her mother. Himpogot is a “money belt” made of 18 or more British silver coins chained together, and it is the most shiny accessory of traditional costume of Kadazandusun, the largest indigenous group of Sabah.

Tangkong and Himpogot

The older the Tangkong and Himpogot, the more valuable they are

In old days, wearing precious metal such as silver is a way of showing off a person’s wealth. Now himpogot is a symbol of elegance and classy beauty. The “ori” (original) himpogot means antique silver coin belt passed down (to daughters normally) as heirloom from ancestors and it’s very rare now.

Kadazan Dusun and Murut people wearing himpogot

Himpogot is a common accessory among Kadazan, Dusun and Murut people of Sabah

Therefore, due to its rarity, it’s a great pride for a Kadazandusun girl to wear a full set of 3 sparkling ori himpogot belts, which weigh more than 1.5 Kilograms, about as heavy as a big bottle of mineral water. The term Himpogot is derived from the Kadazan word pogoton, which means to tighten the tie.

One to five Himpogot belts are worn

One to five Himpogot belts are worn

Himpogot is widely used in traditional costumes of native tribes in Borneo and have different names, e.g. Botungkat in Dusun, Pipirot Linggit in Murut, and Sementing Ringgit in Iban. The way Himpogot being worn is also different among ethnic groups.

Standard way of wearing himpogot by Kadazan Penampang

Standard way of wearing himpogot by Kadazan Penampang

The “standard” way of wearing himpogot is usually referring to Kadazan Penampang style. A maximum of three himpogot belts are used, one on the waist and another two, before and after the tangkong brass belts. This looks beautiful with black velvet dress with gold trimmings (siling).

Bajau lady (left) wearing Himpogot

Bajau lady (left) wearing Himpogot

In contrast, Dusun Lotud uses one himpogot together with Lilimbo (Rattan Hip Band), whereas Dusun Tempasuk from Kota Belud will wear up to 3 himpogot on the hip. Kadazan Papar ladies use one on the waist and 2 or 3 on the hip.

The coin belt (Sementing ringgit and dangling coins (Sementing Buchai) of Iban girl

The coin belts (Sementing ringgit) and dangling coins (Sementing Buchai) of Iban girl

Though Iban is considered as a Sarawak tribe, Sabah has some Iban people living around Sipitang and Tawau too. In addition to silver coin waist belts (Sementing ringgit), Iban female also wears the dangling silver coin chains on skirts, hundreds of coins are used, pretty impressive. But Iban has its whole way of using and wearing silver coins, and I won’t cover more.

Dusun Tindal men wearing Himpogot

The men of Dusun Tindal also wear Himpogot

The prices of himpogot can vary considerably. The “ori” (original) himpogot can cost more than 1,000 Ringgit. The fake or imitation ones usually cost from RM90 to RM200, depending on the quality.

Tangkong (left), the brass belt and Himpogot (right), the silver belt

Tangkong (left), the brass belt and Himpogot (right), the silver belt

The original Tangkong brass belts also cost a fortune. A complete set of 3 tangkong and 3 himpogot belts can worth over RM15,000 (≈USD$3,750). But these are traditional jewelleries that are seldom available for sale.

Himpogot worn as shoulder bands by a Murut Paluan woman

Himpogot worn as shoulder bands by a Murut Paluan woman

British Trade Dollar

Most of the time I only see old British coins used in himpogot. The most common coin being used in himpogot is the British Trade Dollar issued between 1895 and 1937 . This silver coin consists of 90% silver and was used to be a ‘Trade Coinage’ (coins manufactured by one country for use in another country) widely circulated in China, Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo and Brunei as an international currency in early 20th century.

Antique himpogot exhibited in Monsopiad Cultural Village

Antique himpogot exhibited in Monsopiad Cultural Village

Now let’s play a game to see if you can identify an original himpogot. There are two himpogot below, tell me which one costs RM3,500 and RM150. Guess. Don’t scroll down too fast for answers ok.

MYR150 and MYR3,500 Himpogot

Guess which Himpogot is MYR150 and MYR3,500

On the coin is the Britannia standing on a shore, holding a trident in one hand and a shield in the other, with a merchant ship under full sail in the background. This coin was known as Ringgit Tongkat (Walking Stick Dollar) and Botungkat (having a stick) in Malaya and some Dusun respectively because of this figure. Britannia is the female personification of the British Isles and she symbolizes unity, liberty and strength. The Britannia side must face outward when himpogot is worn.

This himpogot is valued at MYR3,500

This himpogot is valued at MYR3,500 (≈USD$880)

Answer: The second (bottom) himpogot is valued at RM3,500, while the one on top is only RM150. Have you gotten the right answer? The average price of each coin in ori himpogot is RM184! I checked eBay and found these coins are worth more than USD$50 each (collector’s quality). FYI, each coin has different value. Anyway, their prices exceeds silver value due to their numismatic (coin collector) appeal.

Himpogot with faked coins

Himpogot using faked coins is a lot cheaper

Look at the photo of RM150 himpogot above. The words and graphics have shallower emboss and the surface is more whitish in color. According to the seller, the shiny surface is a plated silver. Another thing you can see is the year on these coins are all the same.

The coins of Himpogot in different years

The coins of ori Himpogot in different years (1897, 1898, 1900, 1901, 1903, 1911).

Now look at the original himpogot above. The British trade dollar coins are naturally worn and have different years. The weight of this .900 fine silver coin is about 26.95 g. Stanis, the seller, says the real silver coins will make crisp ding-ding sound when hit each other, whereas the fake coins will make “ta-ta” dull sound. It’s a fake too if it is magnetic. You can read this article to spot counterfeit British Trade Dollar.

These three himpogot cost MYR2,500 to MYR3,500.

These three “ori” himpogot cost MYR2,500 to MYR3,500.

Above are three original himpogot that costs (from top to bottom) RM2,500, RM3,000 and RM3,500. It costs RM9,000 if you want these three belts as a complete himpogot set! On the reverse of the coin is an arabesque design with the Chinese symbol for longevity in the center, and the denomination in two languages: Chinese (壹圓 = One Dollar) and Jawi ( ساتو رڠڬية‎ = One Ringgit). You can learn more about the history of this coin.

Mexican coin in Himpogot

Note the Mexican coin (used as buckle)

Sometimes other silver coins are used in himpogot, like the Mexican coin above and the following copper-nickel 25 Pence in 1977 that celebrated the Silver Jubilee (25th Anniversary) of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Straits Dollar, and Hong Kong Silver Dollar. Himpogot with coins that aren’t drilled with holes has higher value.

Himpogot made of copper-nickel 25 Pence coins in 1977 that celebrates the Silver Jubilee (25th Anniversary) of Queen Elizabeth’s reign

Himpogot made of copper-nickel 25 Pence coins in 1977 that celebrates the Silver Jubilee (25th Anniversary) of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (Photo from the book “Cultures, Customs and Traditions of Sabah Malaysia – An Introduction”)

Just a thought. Does anyone make new himpogot with new silver coins? For example, they can buy new British silver coins, which costs about RM75 to RM90 each, for making of a new himpogot which costs about RM1,500. Though it’s not an antique, it’ll become ori after passing down for a few generations, a good investment.

Handicraft stall of Stanis in Tamu (open market) of Donggongon town

Handicraft stall of Stanis in Tamu (open market) of Donggongon town

If you want to buy original himpogot, you may look for the stall of Mr. Stanis in Tamu (open air weekly market) in Donggongon town, which is open in Thursday and Friday mornings. His stall is the largest handicraft stall in the middle of tamu.

stall of Stanis

His stall only opens in the morning of every Thursday and Friday.

However, these himpogots are stored in his little treasure chest. You can ask him to show you. You better hurry. Last time I mentioned about his RM8,000 Tangkong and it was sold. Original himpogot is a rare and highly sought-after item, so I’m sure it’ll be gone soon. No, he didn’t pay me any commission or ad fee.

Special thanks to Anne from Chanteek Borneo Gallery for providing a lot of information about Himpogot.

Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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