Eden of the east

Eden of the east

Culturally rich

Iconic: Mount Kinabalu

Sabah is not quite ‘truly Malaysia’. It sits on the northern tip of the island of Borneo, and together with Sarawak, became a part of Malaysia only as recently as 1963. The huge geographical separation (650 miles) from mainland Malaysia, and the fact of its relative isolation for so many centuries, makes it one of the last few hidden places on our sorely over-explored planet. So, before they go and build a shopping mall in the rainforest and a McDonalds outlet in a village of head-hunters, visit this ‘land below the wind’.

A 2.5-hour flight from Singapore takes you to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. The first thing you notice about Sabah is the sky. It’s crimson streaked with gold, lilac edged with silver, royal purple studded with glittering diamonds, periwinkle with luminous white clouds. The centrepiece of this canvas is the siren mountain Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain east of Everest, wreathed in mists, shrouded by forests dense with legends.

The Sabahans affectionately call it Balu, which means ‘widow’ — for the mountain is in fact a sorrowing Kadazan girl waiting eternally for her dead husband’s ship to return from across the South China Sea, petrified to stone in her unending grief. 

The mountain, despite its formidable height of 13,432 ft, is probably the world’s easiest mountain to climb. If you have no mountaineering experience, but have a reasonable level of fitness, you could do it in just two to three days. Local tribesmen have been known to sprint to the summit in under three hours! But while the mountain permits easy conquest, it does not allow itself to be taken lightly. It is a sacred mountain; the resting place of the dead. The tribes of Borneo believe that all things have an indwelling spirit.

Here, one must tread softly so as not to offend the trees. Not a branch must be broken, not a stone taken away, not a flower violated. Brash and irreverent foreign tourists have been known to suffer for their arrogance. An Australian woman, who had taken a stone as a souvenir from the mountain top, mailed it back to Sabah Tourism, because it brought her so much bad luck.

The climb takes you through dense rainforest — a 750 sq km protected zone, a World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most complex ecosystems. Temperatures dip and weather conditions change without warning — from bright sunshine to swirling mists, torrential downpour to sub-zero temperatures and back. The trail takes you through a primal Jurassic world of gnarled tree roots, orchid-draped trees, thick rope-like vines, mossy rocks and clear streams with colourful butterflies fluttering over them.


The next day’s climb takes you through a completely different landscape — a bare and bleak one of granite slabs and sheer cliffs. The three-hour leg to the summit is usually undertaken at 3 am. At the summit, you wait in the cold dawn for the sun to light up the planet; a planet which you have now begun to view in an oddly detached way. From up here, it is possible to finally unloose the cord that binds you so closely to earth, permitting you to take a step back, and perhaps for the first time, appreciate her unique, eternal yet fragile beauty. By 10 am, clouds begin to form, and it is advisable to start your descent.

Kota Kinabalu town looks like Singapore probably did 60 years ago. Like Singapore, it is also built on land reclaimed from the sea and is being increasingly defined by shopping, entertainment and leisure. Deluxe hotels, golf courses, pubs and karaoke joints along the waterfront, malls and entertainment hotspots, glass and concrete towers, are cropping up all over the city and its suburban townships. The city is less than a 100 years old, having been bombed to a rubble by the Americans in 1945. Thus, having ‘liberated’ the city from the Japanese, Sabah was immediately annexed by the British and became a crown colony. And in that subversive English practice of bestowing a mantle of  nobility on their most venal pursuits, the town is dotted with memorials to the sacrifices of Australian soldiers and British officers who braved malarial mosquitoes to rule this land.
One of the city’s most atmospheric areas are the stalls of street food that come alive on the waterfront after 5 pm. Bare light-bulbs hang over rows of wooden tables as locals tuck into satay (marinated meat), sometimes exotic meats like venison and rabbit, skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over hot charcoals. This is served with a fresh salad of cucumber and onion with a spicy-sweet peanut sauce as a dip. Ketupat, Malay rice cake, is also an accompaniment to satay. Roti jala or lacy bread is a sort of net-like crepe cooked on a hot greased griddle. Then there are exquisite banana fritters and roti canai, which is a flaky paratha stuffed with meat.
A culinary must-do is a traditional steamboat soup supper, where everyone sits around a circular table, in the centre of which is a pot filled with clear broth simmering on a little stove. Around this are laid fresh, thinly-sliced marinated meats, shelled seafood, bite-size vegetables, pre-cooked dumplings and noodles. With your chopsticks you chuck in bits of food into the broth, allowing it to stew awhile, and then fish it out with a small sieve into your own bowl. Steamboats are healthy, low-cal and great fun.

Two-thirds of the state of Sabah is a tropical rainforest and it is among the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. A short flight to the east coast is Sandakan, where at the Sepilok Sanctuary live Sabah’s favourite icons — the orangutans. Adult orangutans are ugly, pot-bellied creatures with skinny legs, given to baring their teeth nastily, stealing, and rubbing their faeces all over themselves. Even as monkeys, they are depressingly incompetent, falling off trees fairly regularly.

The culture of the indigenous tribes of Sabah is startlingly similar to that of the Tibeto-Burmese tribes of north-eastern India. The dances, cloth-weaves, crafts, community living and social practices could just as easily be those of the Nagas and Manipuris. We are taken to a longhouse of the Rungus tribe and to a village of gong-makers. Besides Malays and Chinese there are scores of sub-ethnic indigenous groups, making Borneo a wonderfully diverse multicultural hotspot. The countryside is impossibly green, moist and exploding with life. Villagers live in brightly-painted clapboard homes built on stilts standing in swamps and marshes, under a canopy of spreading vines with a rope bridge leading across the swamp, right up to the doorway.

It’s the Eden of the east.

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