This traditional Murut vest is made from tree bark

A Murut vest typically takes about three days to make. — Photos: HANIS MAKETAB/The Star

In a world of fast fashion and instantaneous gratification, traditional Murut vest-maker Natanel Atum believes that making something of good quality takes time – and is a matter of pride.

“It takes about three days to make just one vest, but when it’s made well, that one vest can last you for 10 years,” says the 37-year-old Sabahan.

Atum explains that the vest, called “babaru puputul” in the Murut language, is part of the traditional Murut costume worn by men, which includes a loincloth and a headdress decorated with Argus pheasant feathers.

The vest is made from the inner bark of the puputul tree, which takes around 10 years to grow to the size needed, before the bark can be harvested to make the vest.

“Traditionally, it was worn by Murut warriors for special occasions, like celebrating a victory in battle or when there are visitors,” shares Atum, who learned Murut stories and traditions from his grandmother.

“I’ve been making the babaru puputul since I was 20. At the time, there was no one in the village who knew how to make the vest, so I had to learn from other Murut people outside the village,” he adds.

Atum showing a piece of bark-cloth that is ready to be fashioned into a vest.Atum showing a piece of bark-cloth that is ready to be fashioned into a vest.

In addition to making and selling the vests, Atum now teaches other youths how to make it, as he wants to ensure that the practice is continued by future generations.

Village elder Ansapi Pawan, 80, helps Atum in making the vests. He demonstrates how the bark-cloth is processed for the vest, vigorously knocking the puputul log with a mallet before slicing and peeling large strips of bark from it.

The bark is then beaten flat, its sap washed off and dried out before it is cut and sewn into a vest and decorated using natural dyes.

“The motifs used to decorate Murut vests differ based on which suku (ethnic sub-group) you’re from – each motif has its own meaning,” says Atum, adding that the motifs are inspired by nature, often depicting animals such as buffaloes and birds.

Boosting local economy

Marais village in the Sabah district of Tenom, where Atum and Pawan live, is surrounded by a picturesque vista of padi fields, mountains and rivers.

The village is home to just over 600 people, mainly of the Tahol sub-group of the Murut people, and while padi, rubber and oil palm have previously been their main sources of income, in recent years, tourism has been a great boon for the community.

The Marais Centre, set up in 2018, is one of Sabah’s top community-based tourism destinations, championing the concept of working with a local community to offer attractive and sustainable tourism activities while providing a lucrative income for the community and improving quality of life.

Visitors to Marais village can get a taste of Sabah’s famed hospitality, as Marais Centre offers a range of activities, such as cycling through lush padi fields, river rafting on Marais River, cooking delicious Murut dishes and, of course, making a Murut vest with Atum and Pawan.

You can also book a homestay to experience how the villagers live day-to-day.

Head of the Marais Centre cooperative, James Ranggi, tells us that around 500 visitors come to the centre annually, contributing about RM21,000 per month for the community.

“I hope more visitors will choose to come to Marais Centre, as it provides job opportunities for our youth,” says Ranggi.

“If all our youths were to leave the village, who would carry on our traditions?”

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Murut , Sabah , Traditional Costume , heritage , tourism


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