The Penan
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The Penan

Forest dwellers

Forest dwellers

Move step-by-step through the precious undergrove on this epic adventure to meet the Penan.

Split across the winding Baram river, there’s two distinctive sides to this fascinating tribe. Discover local traditions and culture, rooted in a long-standing love of storytelling.
Snapshot

Snapshot

  • Region is Southern Asia

  • Climate here is Tropical

  • The challenge here is Medium

  • This trip has been rated 5 by other travelers

Life

Life

The Penan are divided in two main groups: the East Penan and the West Penan. These two groups are culturally distinct and geographically separated by the Baram River. There are currently over 10,000 Penan, with just 300 living a completely nomadic life.
Home

Home

The Eastern Penan live in traditionally built semi-permanent camps. Western Penan on the other hand can be settled for up to two years. Instead of using tents, every night Penan nomads set up camps that are built from scratch in just 20 minutes.

Culture

Social Structure

Penan society is organized around nuclear families and camp groups. The community lives under a set of customs known as molong that aim to create balance and harmony with nature, helping to preserve resources for future generations.

Religion

The tribe believes in a creator god named Peselong and rely on shaman to remove illness-causing spirits. Since World War II, Christianity has also been adopted by some of the community.

Traditions

Known for storytelling, the Penan display their tribe’s rich symbolism through tattoos and piercings.

Shaman and elders sometimes wear loincloths headdresses made from rattan and hornbill feathers.

The staple has traditionally been sago, a paste derived from Sago palm trees, which grow extensively in the swampy lowlands.

Language

The Penan language belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family.

Art

Music is an important part of Penan culture. Borneo bluegrass music is produced with bamboo nose flutes and vine-stringed instruments crafted from animal skins.

Celebrations

The tribe’s celebrations include traditional wedding and funeral ceremonies, as well as festivals. Penan hunted heads, believed to have magical powers, are present during some of these events. During important festivals shaman go into a ‘dream wandering’ trance in which they speak in a language that only the gods can understand.
Further knowledge

Further knowledge

The home of the Penan, the longhouse, is not just a building, it is a common space to share life. It is more a spiritual point of encounter rather than a house.



Photo credit: Sunset in Borneo
iStock.com/zodebala

Photo credit: Great hornbill
iStock.com/BirdHunter591

Photo credit: Traditional wooden houses
iStock.com/Mieszko9

Other photos credit / Ecogreen, Malaysia