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Visit Sabah Essay

Sabah, Best of Borneo

Situated on the beautiful island of Borneo, Sabah is one of the thirteen states which Malaysia is made of. Sabah is the second largest state in Malaysia and shares the island of Borneo with Sarawak, Brunei, and Indonesian Kalimantan.

Sabah is richly blessed with nature diversity, unique cultures, fun adventure, beautiful beaches, and fantastic cuisines for the adventurous taste buds. We have it all, from the world’s largest flower - the Rafflesia, one of the highest mountains in South East Asia - Mount Kinabalu, to one of the world’s top dive sites - Sipadan Island. Sabah is also known for her great natural treasures which include the world-renowned Danum Valley Conservation Area and Tabin which is Sabah’s largest wildlife reserve.

Not only will you be amazed by the places to see and things to do here, you will also be treated with unique Sabahan hospitality. Explore the unique culture and tradition of Sabah and get ready to experience sweet memories to last a lifetime!

Borneo Island

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is located at the centre of the Maritime Southeast Asia. This island is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Nevertheless, for people outside of Indonesia, “Kalimantan” refers to the area which is occupied by Indonesia on the island of Borneo. Malaysia’s region of Borneo is called East Malaysia or Malaysian Borneo. The independent nation of Brunei occupies the remainder of the island, being the wealthiest of the rest.

Once known as North Borneo, Sabah was under the British colony during the late 19th century till the early 20th century. Sabah gained self-government on the 31st of August, 1963. Sabah, together with Malaya, Singapore and Sarawak formed the Federation of Malaysia on the 16th of September 1963.  

People and Culture

The people of Sabah are known as Sabahans. Sabah is the third most populous state in Malaysia after Selangor and Johor; it also has one of the highest population growth rates in the country.

There are currently 32 officially recognized ethnic groups in Sabah with the largest non-indigenous ethnic group being the Chinese and the largest indigenous group being the Kadazan-Dusun people. Two other larger ethnic groups in Sabah are the Bajau and Murut, compared to other states in the country; Sabah has relatively very small population of Indians and South Asians.

Apart from the Sabahans’ very own diverse mother tongues, Bahasa Malaysia (national language) and English is widely spoken; Mandarin and some Chinese dialects are also widely spoken.

In Sabah, we greet people by saying “selamat datang” (welcome) and/or “terima kasih” (thank you) with a smile. Due to religious reasons, some may prefer not to have physical contact with others. However, a handshake is generally acceptable as a way of introducing oneself.

It’s customary to remove shoes before entering a mosque as well as homes. In places of worship, visitors are required to dress modestly. Nude sunbathing is not allowed and is very frowned upon. Avoid pointing your index finger at others, as this is considered rude in the local custom.

Still, I couldn’t resist starting with one touristy outing: I jumped in a taxi and headed to the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, one of the most majestic in all of South Asia. Most of the taxis in the city seem to be barely functional ’80s-model Toyota Camrys, charmingly cluttered with odd knickknacks (stuffed animals, sequined air fresheners) dangling from the rearview mirror or propped on the dashboard.

A 10-minute ride from seaside downtown, the mosque is near Likas Bay; its reflection in the water gives the illusion that it is floating on the man-made lagoon that surrounds it. The blue in the mosque’s azure and gold dome is an electric shade not unlike the coral waters on the coast.

Construction was completed in 2000, and it accommodates about 12,000 worshipers. On the grounds is an ATM, madrasas, a palliative care clinic, and — in a joint project with Universiti Malaysia Sabah — a fish farm. Paddle boats can be rented to circle the location. Along one side of the mosque, I found a gaggle of teenage boys playing soccer in flip-flops who invited me to join their game. I politely declined but their friendliness became a recurring theme throughout Kota Kinabalu.

Heading back downtown, we drove alongside a seafront bike path. The paved path is lined with exercise equipment, in pristine condition, and not a single person was using it. It got me thinking. By all accounts, I had been told that tourism was on a steady uptick and everywhere I looked construction cranes were putting up towering new malls and hotels. But I saw few visitors, save for the Indonesian, Chinese and Australian tourists in predictable places like the boardwalk and the white sandy beaches.

The driver dropped me off at the Central Market downtown. Inside one tent were crammed smoky grills laden with chicken kebabs and fish. Ten feet behind the tents, weatherworn fishermen stood on their boats looking over the sale of their day’s bounty.

The dry goods section in the connected Philippine market was an olfactory overload. Baskets hung from the ceiling filled with spices, live caged rabbits, herbal teas, medicinal flowers. I closed my eyes to focus on the voices of the table callers, who created an amazing orchestra as they hawked their wares; each caller had his or her own rhythm, arranged in neat syncopation with the callers nearest them.

I stopped to watch a British couple challenging each other to try hinava, among the best known dishes of the Kadazandusun people, one of Sabah’s oldest tribes. The dish is made with thinly sliced tenggiri (mackerel) mixed with diced chile, ginger, red onions, ground Bambangan seed, salt and lime juice. They also ordered grilled prawns, nearly a foot long each.

While they waited, the chef encouraged them to mix up their own combination of chile paste, salt, sugar and lime as a dipping sauce. Apparently, the couple used too much chile paste — two bites into their prawns they were in a panic, tears streaming down their faces. A nearby vendor rushed to the rescue, orange sodas in hand.

The spectacle inspired me to embark on my own act of daring. Earlier at my hotel, I had noticed a curious sign posted by the elevator that showed a small round fruit with a spiky orange husk. “No Durian Beyond This Point!” the sign warned. I was later informed that the durian is found in many places in South Asia and its smell is so pungent that it is banned at some establishments. I resolved to try it. Verdict: It was tough to like (though most locals say they do). Its stench — a mix of turpentine and raw sewage. I did, however, manage to get down three bites of the slimy fruit, which tasted like mushy, spoiled onion.

Borneo’s population is a colorful mix of Chinese, indigenous Kadazan and Malays. A fair number of expats, especially from Australia, live here, too. The state of Sabah alone has at least 30 ethnic groups. It’s no wonder that so many of KK’s restaurants have the word “fusion” on their menu. Residents mostly speak Malay, though almost everyone speaks some English, too.

Street attire attests to the city’s diversity. Women in hijab (or head scarves) or black niqabs (a veil that covers all but the wearer’s eyes) shop alongside Western and local women in tight miniskirts; men, many having driven six hours from nearby Brunei, in white robes and kaffiyehs (a common Middle Eastern scarf) stroll along the flip-flop- and cargo-short-clad backpackers.

The city’s diversity in some ways belies its British background. Modern-day KK can trace its history back to colonial occupation starting in 1881 by the British, whose first outpost was on the adjacent island of Gaya. This encampment was burned down in 1897 by Mat Salleh, a rebel leader of the native Bajau tribe, forcing the British to relocate to a fishing village then called Api-Api. The British renamed the place Jesselton after Sir Charles Jessel, the vice chairman of the British North Borneo Company, and the local economy boomed after the Trans-Borneo Railway was built in the early 20th century, allowing rubber to be transported efficiently from the interior to the coast.

The Japanese invasion of North Borneo in 1941 marked the start of roughly three and a half years of military occupation. Old Jesselton was largely leveled by subsequent Allied bombing. The city’s name was changed in 1968 to Kota Kinabalu, around the same time that foreign investment, especially from China, began pouring into the city’s seafront.

And much of that investment can be seen along the several-blocks-long boardwalk, which is lined with open-air markets and restaurants. Abutting Likas Bay, beyond which is the South China Sea, the boardwalk was thick with tourists and ragamuffin children on the August day I strolled along it.

After walking for 20 minutes, I stopped to enjoy a stunning sunset. Couples lined the railing; behind them teenagers were skateboarding on the stairs. Their raucousness was the sort of thing that police might shoo away from tourists in other places. But I had yet to see a single police officer during my several days in the city. Crime is low, I was told by locals.

Still, KK is not without its rough edges. The waterfront promenade is clearly among the city’s most appealing attractions, but the occasional rancid stench suggests that the waters below may have a runoff problem.

Across the Jesselton Point harbor I could just make out a ramshackle village. I asked a local man standing nearby who lived there, and he waved his hand dismissively. “No one. No one,” he said in a tense tone that surprised me.

A little digging later on the Internet, and I discovered that I was looking at the eastern coast of the large and adjacent island of Gaya, where a stateless people, so-called sea Gypsies, live, many of them commuting to work each day on boat taxis to KK resorts. A controversial topic in KK, these Gypsies are a mix of Philippine refugees from Mindanao, Indonesians who came seeking work and the descendants of Sabahans who swapped life on “mainland Borneo” for one of its small satellite islands rather than live under British rule.

Relied upon as a cheap source of labor, many of these people entered the country illegally and are shunned by KK residents. The village of Kampung Lok Urai, among the larger encampments on this smaller orbit island just across the water from KK proper, is a high crime area that even the local police avoid at night.

None of that is visible from the boardwalk. For dinner that night, I headed to Toscani’s Wine and Dine Cafe, which offers a hybrid of Asian and Western cuisine and was among the first establishments to have opened on the boardwalk, a major portion of which was finished in 2007.

Liang (he uses only one name), the owner and lead chef, visited my table in the hushed, candlelit restaurant. In staccato English, he mused about his hometown and seemed baffled by the popularity of a place he still considers a backwater. “Chinese, Korean, Australian, they all just keep coming,” he said.

Liang advised me that to truly experience KK, I needed to end the day with a massage. Don’t get it on the boardwalk though, he warned, whispering, “That’s just for tourists.” He suggested Helen Beauty Reflexology on Jalan Dua Puluhabah, a couple of blocks inland. It has been around the longest, he said. “Stronger hands,” he added with a toothy grin. I made a beeline to Helen’s, which I found on a street lined with high-rises, shoe stores and coffee shops.

Massage parlors stay open late here, but do not generally overlap with prostitution, as is sometimes the case elsewhere. Still, Helen’s has a sign near the entrance: “Strictly No Immoral Activities.”

My decadent hourlong massage plus half-hour foot soothing cost only $26 and left me so relaxed that I wasn’t sure I could make it to my next stop, a bar that I heard was among the liveliest.

Barely a block from the boardwalk, the Velvet Bar and Grill is a crowded, sticky-floored place. As I sipped a Corona and listened to a local band shift from Lady Gaga to Bob Marley, a group of very drunk guys stumbled on and offstage, commandeering the microphone from the lead singer.

I tried to figure out whether the unruly bunch was Chinese or Korean tourists. Before long, I broke down and asked the waiter. “From here,” he said. Pointing at the most raucous among them, he added that this was the owner of the bar. It was further proof that the locals here still enjoy themselves as much as their visitors.

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