Category Archives: Culture

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

Miniature Himpogot

Miniature Himpogot for children, which is half the size of standard himpogot.

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”)

Himpogot with Chinese words

Himpogot with Chinese words that reads “中國古代四大美女” (means 4 prettiest ladies in ancient China), with name and portrait of these women on the coins. (actually this isn’t coin)

Himpogot made from France coins

Himpogot made from France coins?

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

Sunsuron Homestay in Tambunan, the Valley of Bamboo

cultural performance of Sunsuron Homestay

Tourism is defined [1] as “…the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment…” Oh yea, travelling should be an extraordinary experience. If we go sightseeing like a typical tourist, everyone would see the same thing and go home telling the same story. Probably the only interaction between most tourists and the locals is waving hands to each other to and from a tourist bus.

Group photo with Tambunan Valley in the background

Group photo with Tambunan Valley in the background

Therefore, instead of staying in a hotel that looks no different to other hotels in your hometown, you may consider homestay. In hotel you are just a guest, in homestay you are a friend. Don’t just leave your footprint on a foreign land, leave a wonderful memory between you and the local people.

Sumazau dance by Dusun Tambunan people

Sumazau dance by Dusun Tambunan youth

Last month I decided to live like a local in homestay of Kampung Sunsuron (“Kampung” is Village in Malay word) in Tambunan, a remote town 80 Kilometers away from Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital city of Sabah. The mountainous landscape, cooling climate and scenic greenery earns Tambunan the nickname Switzerland of the East.

Sunsuron Village & Homestay

Tambunan is on a highland with average altitude of 750 Meters, so it is refreshing and can be quite chilling at night. Besides, it’s a land uninvaded by McDonald’s and Starbucks, where you can appreciate more authentic cultural experience and village lifestyle.

One of the houses of Sunsuron Homestay

One of the houses of Sunsuron Homestay

More than 130 years ago, the Sunsuron area was uninhabited, because it was a hot zone of headhunting and tribe wars. In 1885, British North Borneo Chartered Company established police base in Sunsuron to end the unrest.

Bamboo trees and shrubs in Tambunan

Bamboo is everywhere in Tambunan, and this is not by accident.

Thanks to Taliban and the bygone British colonial government, Tambunan is also known as the Valley of Bamboo. When peace was restored in 1930s, flourishing agriculture and development created huge demand for bamboo, which caused over-harvesting and led to more shortage of bamboo.

Guests enjoying the traditional dance performance

Welcoming traditional dance for the guests of homestay

Therefore, OKK Taliban, the first Native Chief of Tambunan, worked with Peter Lupang Tingkalus from Tambunan Forestry Department, to implement a policy requiring everyone to plant ten bamboo for every bamboo cut [2]. This worked so well that thriving bamboo has became an icon of Tambunan.

Welcoming gong by villagers

Welcoming gong by villagers

The name Sunsuron is the slip of the tongue over time from the Kadazan Dusun word “Sunsuyon”, which means bridge. There was a bamboo bridge for the villagers to cross the Sunsuron River at that time. The host of our homestay is Mr. Peter Gatulik and his wife. Peter is a retired police officer and his children had grown up and live somewhere else, leaving some empty rooms that he is happy to offer to traveller who wants a home away from hometown.

Gastronomic Adventure

Homestay in Sabah means more than cheap accommodation. You live like part of their family. It’s not a hotel where you can find bellboy or your favorite sweet-and-sour food.

traditional food as dinner

“We have everything except pizza and muffin. Please make yourself at home.”

You eat what they eat. No salad but tuhau; No salmon but basung; No red wine but lihing. None of our exotic food tastes like chicken. Enjoy the acquired taste!

Traditional appetizer (from left): Serunding Tuhau, Tuhau and Bambangan

Traditional appetizer (from left): Serunding Tuhau, Tuhau and Bambangan

In Sabah culture, food is important for building friendship, so your host will make sure that you are well-fed. For traditional appetizers, you would be given hinava (fish slices marinated in lime juice), tuhau (a type of wild ginger) and bambangan (pickled mango-like fruit).

Feast on local food

Feast on local food

Hinava is a “safe choice”. For first timers, tuhau can either taste like stink bug or food from heaven to them. No matter what, Tambunan is famous for Tuhau, so at least take a bite, or you can try Serunding (Deep-fried) Tuhau, a less potent version of tuhau.

Meat soup with banana trunks

Broth with wild banana stems (umbut pisang)

You are lucky if it is the season for getting Borot (a type of small freshwater fish) and Birid (horn shell) from local river. Both are delicacy only available in rural area. Our traditional dish could be a bit of culture shock to you, but just be open-minded. You don’t travel a long way to Sabah just to eat hotel food right.

Linopot: rice and food wrapped in tarap leaf

Linopot: rice and food wrapped in leaf

Just for fun, they also serve linopot, which is rice wrapped in big leaf. In the past, farmers and hunters brought linopot with them to the field and used the leaf as a plate.

Steamed Tilapia fishes

Steamed Tilapia fishes

Tambunan is an agricultural district, so the meals of homestay usually comprise fresh and organic vegetables from local plantation. You would find that almost every house in village has a mini-farm and fish pond besides garden.

Lihing (left) and Tapai (right), rice wines of Sabah

Lihing (left) and Tapai (right) are rice wines of Sabah

The villagers are very friendly, so it’s quite likely you would be offered a couple of drink. You may love the idea of warming up your body with locally brewed liquor in the cool evening, or you can politely decline if you don’t drink, no problem at all.

Beer and banana fritters

Beer and banana fritters as our breakfast lol

Normally beer and wine are not included in homestay unless you request. Anyway, you would be invited to wedding or festival celebrations if there is any nearby, so be prepared.

Turtle Rocks

Village is an excellent source of folk stories about strange things, but I was surprised that there is a weird “treasure” in the front yard of my host. Interestingly enough, it’s a rock, not gold or gem.

A pair of turtle rocks that look like carapace

A pair of “turtle” rocks that look like carapace. It’s Ms Bibiana beside them.

More than two decades ago, Peter was on duty and patrolled around Pamol, Sandakan. A contractor was digging the ground to build a house near to a river, and pair of strange rocks were unearthed. Peter found the rocks very beautiful because they looked like the carapace of a turtle. Since nobody wanted them, he took them back home and left them at the staircase.

The turtle rock is quite heavy

The turtle rock is quite heavy

The amazing rocks generated a lot of curiosity and the news spread. The rocks were even featured in Mystic magazine. Then a Chinese from Peninsular Malaysia offered RM30,000 (≈USD$7,300) to buy the turtle rocks. Even though the offer was irresistible, Peter cherished such serendipity and decided to keep them.

Turtle Rocks

The value of these rocks is almost worth a car!

Before leaving, this buyer was kind to advise Peter that it’s more auspicious to place these rocks near the water. Probably this has something to do with Feng Shui, as tortoise or turtle is a sign of longevity and water symbolizes wealth.

Bottom of the Turtle Rock

Bottom of the Turtle Rock

Therefore, Peter put these rocks at the fish pond in his front yard. OMG I can’t believe he just leaves the RM30,000 rocks laying around like that. The whole village knows about these rocks, but for 20 years nobody steals them. Btw, Peter also welcomes anyone to study these rocks and tell him why they are so special.

Anyway, Bibiana, the daughter of Peter showed me more unbelievable things in Kampung Sunsuron, when we toured around the village later.

House of Skulls

In the past, the people of Sunsuron practised head-hunting to defend their territory. The skull was kept as a war trophy which locals believe was endowed with supernatural power and would protect the owner. Some said whenever their enemies approached their village, these skulls would shout to warn the people.

Checking out the House of Skulls

Checking out the House of Skulls

Most of the 35 skulls were the followers of Mat Salleh and collected during his last battle with British at Tambunan plain in 1900. These skulls were used to be hanged or placed in a wooden hut that didn’t last and always required repair, so a concrete head house was built, next to Spiritu Tobitua Church and a burial ground, in June 1959 by Y.N. Gampin to house the skulls.

Head House next to Spiritu Tobitua Church of Kampung Sunsuron

The Head House is next to Spiritu Tobitua Church of Kampung Sunsuron

The locals call this head house Sunsuron Guritom. Guritom means black people in Kadazan Dusun language, because Mat Salleh’s followers had darker skin than Sunsuron people. One of the skulls belong to Sambatangan, the most-wanted hero of the enemy, whose head is said as big as a bucket. The head house is still standing today (GPS Location: 5.742147, 116.377498, see Location Map or Street View), but the skulls are gone (a local says some of them are buried under the head house) because somebody stole them for use in black or white magic.

photo next to head house of skulls

The plan of head house is almost square (about 1 Meter in width and height), and the roof is in the form of pyramid, with an apex surmounted with a concrete image of a skull.

According to a research [3], at least half of the skulls were female, the majority being either young or very old, while some 10 percent of the remainder are adolescent boys.

An old skull belongs to a headhunter (now kept by Sabah Museum)

An old skull belongs to a headhunter (now kept by Sabah Museum)

In early days, you must ask head-house keeper to take you to visit the head house. If you go alone you must pay 2 dollars sogit (fine) to the village. People who disturb the skull would become sick, insane, or worst, die.

Inscription on the Head House of Kampung Sunsuron

Inscription on the Head House

The elder villagers would tell you that the village used to perform ritual to feed and appease these skulls annually. Villagers were required to contribute some money to share the cost of buying food such as buffalo. If the ritual was postponed, people would hear the noise of chattering teeth from the skulls, it was freaking scary when there was no lamppost at night that time. However, villagers were too poor to feed them, so the last ritual was performed in 1970s, with Bobolian (native priest) declared to the skulls that there would be no more feeding.

Watu Tinuridung the Bulletproof Stone

Just a stone’s throw away from the Head House is the historical Watu Tinuridung Stone (GPS Location: 5.742725, 116.378539. See Location Map). According to oral tradition of Kampung Sunsuron, this stone was found in late 19th century, the time Mat Salleh revolted against the British ruling.

Watu Tinuridung stone was used as bullet shield by the rebels in old days

This menhir is 2.13 Meters high with an average thickness of 23 cm.

In 1898, Mat Salleh agreed to ceasefire (Palatan Peace Pact) with British North Borneo and stayed in Tambunan. However, Mat Salleh was hostile to Kampung Sunsuron, and he raided the village. Mat Salleh was more well-equipped with weapons such as cannon, so Kampung Sunsuron was asking for help from British government.

Watu Tinuridung stone

This Watu Tinuridung stone was part of a 40-Meter circular defensive site. I found no bullet mark on the stone though.

The men of Sunsuron also prepared to defend themselves by digging a circular hollowed-out area, which has a circumference of 40 Meters, and used the earth to erect ramparts around it [4]. The excavated area was deep enough to hide standing men behind the wall. While digging they saw this large and flat stone and thought it’s an excellent shield for firearm. They erected the stone to make it stood.

Mat Salleh was killed by the British in 1900

Mat Salleh was defeated by the British force in 1900 with the help of Sunsuron warriors (Actually he was shot by a Maxim machine gun)

In local dialect, the action of erecting something is called monuridung hence this stone was named Tinuridung. Then two priestesses (bobolian) performed a ceremony to invite the spirit to reside in this stone as a guardian to keep the village away from any sickness and harm.

A car shields itself from sunlight with Watu Tinuridung stone

A car uses Watu Tinuridung stone as a shield to sunlight haha

Until today, some villagers believe a friendly spirit is still living inside Watu Tinuridung. Probably for this reason they don’t remove the stone, and it also becomes a memorial to commemorate the brave Sunsuron warriors who perished in the war.

Traditional Tambunan House

There is a traditional Tambunan house beside Watu Tinuridung Stone (GPS Location: 5.742818, 116.378591. See Location Map). This house was a real residence but now vacant after it was gazetted by Sabah Museum as a heritage house.

A traditional Tambunan house in Sunsuron Village

A traditional Tambunan house in Sunsuron Village

The bamboo house is raised on hardwood stilts, sometimes large river stones are used instead. Though the window is small, the translucent quality of bamboo allows enough light to get inside the house.

Photo behind the Tambunan traditional house

The double pitched roof made entirely of interlocking bamboo shingles is the main characteristic of Tambunan bamboo house [5]

The beauty of this house is it was first constructed without using any nail. The wood, bamboo and poles are lashed together with rattan strips. However, after the ongoing maintenance, some nails are added to the structure.

Explore inside the Tambunan house

Sirang is main part of the house, where residents eat and entertain the guests

This is a 100% wooden house, and most of the floor and wall are made of bamboo. There were many taboos in house building. For example, bamboo should not be taken during the time of full moon, and it’s bad luck to orientate the house entrance to the path of the setting sun, which is associated with death.

Chamber for young girls

The top is where the girls sleep, or is used as a storeroom (dumpang)

For safety reason, young girls overnight in an attic (Linimput), a small platform built above the house’s main cross-lintel, and parents would remove the ladder that accesses their room. The rattan knots that bind the wood together are already an art. I wonder how many people can tie these knots nowadays.

Wood and poles bind by rattan ropes

Wood tied by rattan. Note how they join two poles together in photo at the left.

Sunsuron is awesome huh? Currently, there are 18 families participated in Sunsuron Homestay (Muslim host available). The standard rate of accommodation (with 2 meals) in homestay is RM85 per day (≈US$21/day). You can request your host to organize more activities (additional fees applied) such as visiting Mahua Waterfall, Mt. Trus Madi, Mt. Wakid, Batu Gong Rock and Rafflesia Information Center, biking, birding, fishing and hiking.

The following is the contact of Sunsuron Homestay. You are advised to book the tour earlier instead of walking in:
Facebook: ValleyOfSwitzerland
Sunsuron Homestay’s Coordinator: Ms Bibiana P. Gatulik (Cellphone: +60 14-6792148)


  1. Definition by World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)
  2. Source: Bamboo Planting in Tambunan, by Rahim Sulaiman
  3. For further reading: Head-hunting and the Magang Ceremony in Sabah, by Peter R. Phelan, published by Natural History Publications (Borneo), ISBN-13: 978-9839638158
  4. See Traditional stone and wood monuments of Sabah, by Peter R. Phelan, ISBN-13: 978-9839722031
  5. More Info: The Tambunan Bamboo House in Local and national History, by Richard Nelson Sokial, Vol 23 – The Sabah Society Journal – (2006)

Photos taken in Tambunan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo