Sarawakian taboos to observe in the jungle

Patricia Hului

The jungle is sacred for Sarawak’s indigenous people. Apart from their farms, the jungle provides an extra source of food.

While there are many superstitions or dos and donts surrounding farming, there are jungle taboos as well.

Keep the fire burning throughout the night while camping.


Jungle Taboos: Watch what you say

If you smell something nice, do not say anything. And if you smell something rotten, do not say anything. Let’s say you hear a sudden noise, what should you do? Do not say anything.

In any horror movie, there has to be one character who always asks the ridiculous question, “Hello, anyone there?” Do not do that in the jungle even if you think you saw something. Instead of ‘someone’, a ‘something else’ might be there.

It is a jungle taboo to ask about something, especially if you are just trying to make conversation. For example, if you haven’t seen a hornbill, do not say, “How come I haven’t seen a hornbill flying around here these days?”

The belief is that some other spirit might suddenly present themselves to you as a hornbill.

There is a story of a man who went hunting with a group of friends. He commented on how he hadn’t seen an old man who lived alone at the edge of jungle for awhile.

He kept on asking his hunting party what happened to the old man. Yet, nobody answered him. After awhile, they saw a shadow which appeared to be a deer and the hunting began. The group kept chasing after the deer to get a good shot of it.
The chase led them to an abandoned house at the edge of the jungle before the deer disappeared. The house belonged to the old man.

Apparently, the old man had died a few months earlier, leaving his house abandoned. The man finally got his answer.

Watch out you say while in the jungle.

Jungle Taboos: Watch what you call out

If you are going into the jungle with a group of people, some people believe in the practice of using nicknames. This is to avoid calling out your real names in the jungles. Some jungle spirits might be pretending to be your friend if you call out their names.

This practice of giving nicknames when it comes to jungle trekking is being practiced even in local scout clubs. Every scout club member in a school in Bintulu, for instance, is given a nickname which starts with ‘mambang’ or ‘haunter’ in Malay, inspired by a P. Ramlee movie.

In the classic movie Pendekar Bujang Lapok (1959), P. Ramlee and the gang have to recite a chant where they call out all the mambangs including Mambang Tanah (land), Air (water), Api (fire) and Angin (wind).

Assuming you have agreed on nicknames with your trekking party, if you hear somebody call out your real name in the jungle, do not respond. It might be one the jungle spirits calling out for you.

While it is a known superstition not to whistle at night, the same rule applies in the jungle as well, no matter what time of day it is.

Jungle taboos: Watch what you do

Sometimes in the jungle you need to clear out new paths to hike. However before you do that, ask permission from the jungle first.

Here in Sarawak where jungle cover is still considerably large, there is a small chance you might stumble upon ancestral burial sites.

Be respectful if you are lucky enough to find one and do not take anything that doesn’t belong to you.

Another situation requires you to ask for permission when you are about to relieve yourself. This is supposedly to show respect to the spirits who call the jungle home.

Jungle taboos: Watch out at night

Watch out when camping in the jungle at night.

If you had to spend a night in the jungle, it is a taboo to set up camp next to the river. There is a logical explanation for it, as you might get washed away if there is flash flood during heavy rain.

Apart from the river, do not set up camp underneath bamboo trees. It is believed that spirits live there… unless you do not mind sleeping with them.

While spending the night at the jungle, do not simply flash your torchlight wherever you want. You might shine the light in the eyes of a spirit.

Back in the olden days, it was taboo for women who are menstruating to go into the jungle. The logical explanation for this was that women back then used cloths instead of sanitary pads, making it inconvenient for women to clean up after themselves just in case there was no ready water source.

Some jungle taboos – like not setting up camp by the river – exist to protect you from mishaps.
Be respectful in the jungle

Many cultures apart from Sarawak believe that the jungle is home to different kinds of spirits.

Just as we should mind our manners as a guest when house visiting, the same rule can be applied when we are in the jungle.

Do you know  about other jungle taboos? Leave your comments!