Penan is the only nomadic tribe left in Sarawak. They are found in Miri, Baram, Limbang, Tutoh and Belaga districts. Although they speak a language that is distinctly different from neighbouring tribes such as the Kenyah, Kayan or Kelabit, they are classified as the indigenous people collectively known as Orang Ulu. In comparison to other Orang Ulu, the Penan live and hunt in the forest, making use of animal skins for clothing and shelter.
Up until the 1950's, the majority of Penans were still nomads. From then on, through the urging of Christian missionaries as well as consistent state government programmes, today the majority of the 10,000 Penans in Sarawak live in permanent settlements in longhouse-type villages. Only less than 500 continue to lead a nomadic lifestyle.
Now many live on the fringes of the rainforest where they cultivate rice and vegetables, supplementing their diet with forest animals. The Penan do not take more from the jungle than they need - they have a word for it, "molong", so their lifestyle does not pose a strain on the forest they live in. Theirs is a society where possessions are shared. However, today the nomadic lifestyle of the Penan is under the threat of logging. International publicity of their plight has made them one of the best known tribes in Sarawak, and this has somewhat reduced the in-roads by logging into their turf.
Penan Tribesman, Sarawak Cultural Village (2 October 2004)
© Timothy Tye using this photo