Borneo's Fearsome Loch Ness Monsters

Pleisaurus Skeleton at Grand Palais, Paris, France

Rozan Yunos
Bandar Seri Begawan
Sunday, January 31, 2016

On February 19, 2009, an English newspaper The Daily Telegraph ran a story entitled “Has the Loch Ness Monster emigrated to Borneo?”

For the record, the Loch Ness monster is a mysterious aquatic animal which is said to inhabit Loch Ness, a lake in the Scotland. It has never been found but many sightings described it as a large animal since it was first sighted in 1933. Up to now the most common speculation among believers is that the creature is a long surviving pleisosaurs.

And so in Sarawak, when a member of a disaster relief committee in Sibu on 31 January 2009 monitoring the flood situation in Ulu Rajang in a helicopter saw a monster that looked like a big snake cruising along the river, triggered a reaction similar to the sighting of the Loch Ness monster not just in Sarawak but also overseas including that newspaper report in England.

The official took photographs of the monster at 5.30pm at one of the Sungai Baleh tributaries from a helicopter. Sungai Baleh is a tributary of the Rajang River. The photograph showed a green, wavy object floating along the meandering river. With Sarawak having its own monster cult, this sighting immediately sparked rumours that it was the mythical Sarawak snake called the ‘Nabau’. It was said that the Nabau had a dragon’s head and seven nostrils and it prowled the rivers of Borneo.

The monster Nabau, a python-type of snake, is much bigger in size and much longer in length than a normal python. Among the Iban folk tales, super Nabau is like a “petara” (deity) which has super natural powers. Seeing it alone will bring luck to the man who saw it. Its scales according to the Iban people can be used as “pangkor” which can give super strength to the wearer.

A Malaysian blog called The Malaysian Life stated that the legend also says that Nabau is a shape shifter capable of transforming itself into different animals. One version of its origins is that the Nabau had once turned into a human being, and tried to seduce a warrior’s wife. The warrior, having caught the Nabau, sliced the serpent into seven parts and threw them into the river. These parts then became the seven rocks rapids now found along the Rejang River.

However, a fellow English newspaper, The Guardian ran a story the next day with the headline “Borneo’s 100ft snake stretches the truth” pointing out the various issues that they had with the photo. The Scientific American in its news blog posted on the same day also pointed out to a number of factors leading one to dismiss that the Nabauphoto was not real and was tampered with.

Can we then dismiss the ‘Nabau’ as just legendary?

But it is not just in Sarawak where giant serpent like creatures are said to exist.

In neighbouring Sabah, another creature was also said to exist called the ‘Tambuakar’. From a video uploaded to Youtube on January 29, 2014, there were also cries about another serpent-like creature called the Tambuakar. The 59-second video entitled “Misteri Tambuakar di Sungai Padas Beaufort” (“the Tambuakar Mystery at Padas River, Beaufort”) taken on January 25, 2011 showed strange waves formation of the river as if there was a giant animal swimming in the waters of the Padas River. This strange animal was known to be the Tambuakar.

Who is or what is the Tambuakar? Depending on who you speak to, there are a number of version as to who or what is the Tambuakar. What is the most common description is that the Tambuakar is said to be a huge fierce animal with sharp claws and teeth, and has a frightening or scary feature. Some say that the name Tambuakar was originally given by the Brunei people from the words ‘tumbuhakar’ or loosely translated as ‘growing roots’.

This name was said to have been given to a strange giant animal found in Papar, Benoni in 1903. Another version said that the Tambuakar originated here and it is the emodiment of 16 meditating ducks which have entered into a cave of Karuaya or Akar Kayu (‘wooden roots’) and became a semi aquatic animal which can live in both water and on land.

Another version from the Dusun people in Sabah, is that the Tambuakar originated from an eel like fish called Raja Ikan Sinsilog which is said to be the king of all fishes and therefore must live for hundreds and thousands of years to look after its domain. The Tambukar will keep on growing until it reached the size of a dragon. According to this legend, residents of the Ranau district, recalled that the Tambuakar even though it originated from a fish and a great body shape-shifting dragon, can grow its own legs and hands. Due to the shape of the body and with the arms and legs, it can make its own home.

It lived in deep water and hollow. It is said that, the Tambuakar can resist the flow of river water by making a dam and can turn the river turned into a lake. It was said that the town of Ranau was once a large lake. The lake is formed due to the damming activities of theTambuakar. The Tambuakar that inhabited this lake, made any animals it found as food. Tambuakar can ravenously eat a buffalo or cow in one bite. The Ranau Lake was said to be the scariest place as men can also become victims when approaching the lake.

The Tambuakar of the Brunei legend in 1903 was that the Tambuakar is a shape shifter and can alter its appearances.

The legend of Tambuakar has kept on changing and today some say that it resembled a pleisosaurs, a pre historic aquatic animal, very much similar to what the Loch Ness animal was imagined to have look like. Although many also believed it is more akin to a serpent like animal like the ‘Nabau’ in Sarawak.

The original Tambuakar can materialise in the depth of the night or in the dark woods or in the dark waters of the river. They can be found during the daytime if they chose to show themselves. It can manifest into 40 different characters. What is important to note is that whatever form it materialise in, even in human form, their faces or parts of their bodies will sprout a red rootlike root shaped like a horn.

The popular places where the Tambuakar was said to be found was along the banks of Sungai Kampung Surati in Papar. Even though not much has been heard about the Tambuakar, every now and then a fisherman would still tell tales about seeing these animal every now and then.

It was still believed to be alive until today. The evidence according to the villagers were huge holes found under the banks of the river when the first foundation for a replacement bridge to replace an older bridge in the year 2000. These holes were said to be used by the Tambuakar as they wanted to use their own tunnels for their own safety without being disturbed by humans.

We may never know the truth but mysteries such as these enliven our cultures and these Borneo’s monsters in some sense helped to provide answers, albeit not the right ones, to some of the mysterious phenomenon that occur in our environment.

The writer of The Golden Legacy – the longest running column in The Brunei Times – also runs a website at

The Brunei Times


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