As my plane descended over a dreamy view of lush tropical islands, strings of white sandy coasts, and the sapphire-blue South China Sea, my attention was momentarily fixated on a structure from afar.
In this part of the world, home to one of Mother Nature’s oldest rainforests (130 million years old), a large structure was seen glittering under the afternoon sun, nestling alongside pea-green paddy fields, and a partially obscured mountainous range.
After a candid inquiry about what that structure was, the flight attendant presented me a surprised yet composed glance. “It’s Kota Kinabalu Terminal 1,” she said. “We will be touching down shortly, sir. Kindly hoist your seat upright to prepare for landing.”
Realizing my folly as a city-bumpkin, I buckled the seatbelt and began my maiden trip to this exotic East Malaysian terrain called Sabah.
Ambushed by headhunting tribesmen; living on treetops; and seeking shelter in caves. These were all the laughable notions I had about Sabah, which were vaporized the instant I stepped afoot its modern Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA).
Serving more than 70 international flights per week, Kota Kinabalu International Airport ( KKIA) is the second busiest airport in Malaysia next to Kuala Lumpur International. Its central locality allows flights from regional cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taipei to reach Kota Kinabalu directly in about three hours.
Located some 8 km from KKIA, Sabah’s state capital Kota Kinabalu is a modern city cradled between turquoise-blue waters and the lush undulating plains. About 90 minutes away sits the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu, which is a popular destination for adventurous tourists aiming to climb the 20th tallest mountain in the world.
Kota Kinabalu (affectionately called KK by the locals) is also the state’s main administrative and business center, with a population of about 610,000 people. Culturally diverse, Sabah has over 30 different ethnic races with Bahasa Melayu being the most spoken language among its 80 dialects.
Popularly known as The Land Below the Wind, Sabah was bestowed the title for her geographical position under the typhoon belt, which sets the state free from climatic disturbances. Occupying the northern portion of the Borneo Island (the third largest island in the world) Sabah is the second largest state of Malaysia, after its neighbor Sarawak.
Beneath the wind in this diverse rainforest, aquatic and eco-related activities thrive all year round. Visitors travel thousands of miles to this Promised Land to experience Mother Nature’s unrivaled splendor, including some of the world’s most beautiful dive sites, pristine corals, and the richest wildlife region in Southeast Asia.
The Borneo Bird Festival
The complex beauty of Sabah’s lowland rainforest has unceasingly lured avid bird watchers, wildlife photographers, and documentary filming crew from all over the world. There are some 620 resident and migratory species of birds found in the wild, including the rare Bornean Ground Cuckoo, Golden-naped Barbet, and all eight species of hornbills.
Lately, the statewide effort to conserve its rich habitat and ecosystem has yielded commendations from wildlife organizations worldwide. The Borneo Bird Festival, an annual event held at the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) in Sepilok, Sandakan, this year, is now a rendezvous for international bird observers and enthusiasts. Since its inception three years ago, wildlife experts and scientists from renowned universities have graced the event to conduct workshops and talks to nature lovers and share knowledge on birds, conservation, wildlife photography, and nature-based tourism.
Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre
While the thrill of sighting rare Proboscis Monkeys, Clouded Leopard, Borneo Pygmy Elephants, or Bornean Orangutans in the wild heightens your wildlife experience, a visit to the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok was equally an eye-opener. Orangutans here are trained to adapt and to eventually return to the wild, once these critically endangered primates learn the necessary survival skills, such as the ability to socialize and search for food. For a couple of ringgit and some luck, you may spot them swinging from tree to tree high above the nature trail you are walking along or during their daily feeding hours at the feeding platform.
Night Safari River Cruise
River cruise—and particularly night river cruise—is very much an integral component of wildlife observation in Sabah. Documenting wildlife along Kinabatangan (Sabah’s longest river) in the stillness of dusk is such a phenomenal experience. Under an endless blanket of sparkling stars, our boat inched intimately close to nocturnal animals ranging from Slow Loris, Kingfishers, and Wallace’s flying frogs.
In practical darkness, all six tourists, including the two Canadians sitting behind me, sat dumbfounded as our guide from Sukau Rainforest Lodge beamed his searchlight to spot far away birds and animals by the riverbank. His night-vision-enabled eyesight served us well that night. We spotted other nocturnal animals including an owl, baby crocodile, monitor lizard, and various species of birds.
I vividly recall a fresh distinctive smell when on a late afternoon trip to the Sabah Parks forest reserve to witness birds nesting inside the Gomantong Caves.
As we tracked some 20 minutes through the rainforest to the cave entrance, the initial coffee bean aroma turned out in fact to be “bats poo poo,” described Fernando, my tour guide for that day.
“You better not talk or open your mouth when you look up the caves,” he said, before adding “you didn’t bring a cap, George?”
Bypassing tribes of Long-tailed macaques feasting on fruits at the cave’s entrance, we took a bamboo pole and tracked cautiously into the dim Gomantong Caves. The cave system is home to massive populations of resident bats, swiftlets, cockroaches, crabs, and creepy crawlers. According to Fernando, bats and swiftlets co-exist in the caves—while the bats leave the caves to search for food every evening, the swiftlets would in turn begin their journey back to the caves after a day of foraging.
Despite the stench, which had caused an earlier batch of tourists to throw up, I felt somewhat acclimatized and amazed by what nature has offered. The interior has a strange mystical charm. The lime-green boulders, penetrative ceiling light forming an opening above, and the faint orchestrated resonance by the cave’s inhabitants left a deep impression in my memory.
I politely declined Fernando’s suggestion that I spend a night there together with the cave protectors, to get the real experience of Gomantong Caves. Seriously, sleeping with more than 2 million bats spiraling above, even for one night, is no joking matter for a city dweller, and I’m glad nothing landed on my head during my hour-long exploration.
Sun-kissed beaches, emerald-green waters, and offshore coral reefs have popularized several dive sites in Sabah, which now rate among the best in the world. Aquamarine activities like scuba diving, underwater photography, and parasailing seem to be the favorites among European vacationers and neighboring tourists from Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.
Located 15 minutes by speedboat from Kota Kinabalu, a beautiful island named Pulau Manukan is a hotspot for water sports. Popular among tourists from Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia, Pulau Manukan (which means Chicken Island in a local slang) is the second largest and most developed island out of the five that formed the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP). Beyond its fine sandy shore, activities such as ocean kayaking, jet skiing and scuba-dooing (an underwater scooter with breathing apparatus) rein the crystal clear waters that surround the island.
World’s richest marine diversity
The sandy seabed of TARP has enriched a variety of marine lives such as scorpion fish, blue-spotted rays, cuttlefish, mantis shrimps, and the occasional green or hawksbill turtle. At some locations, rare creatures such as the harlequin ghost pipefish and mandarin fish can be spotted especially with the help of local dive guides. If you are lucky, you may witness the presence of whale sharks (the world’s largest fish) during cooler months from November to February.
Turning the tide on marine conservation
While marine tourism in Sabah has gained increasing popularity as a major attraction (boosting the state’s tourism industry), joint efforts by the local authorities and industrial players have taken precedence lately to protect the world’s richest marine habitat from recreational and fishing-based activities, such as reef-walking, the use of explosives, and waste discharging.
An island-hop from Pulau Manukan to Pulau Gaya has broadened my understanding and appreciation of marine conservation. Known for conducting educational programs and projects for schools in marine conservation, the island’s Gayana Eco Resort owns an on-site Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) that aims to restore vibrancy to once damaged ocean floors.
The research center propagates endangered giant clams, restores coral reefs, and allows guests to actively participate in their conservation programs. One program includes clam induced spawning to repopulate the diversity of giant clams—giant clams are one of the many marine species to have demised around Sabah in recent years.
MERC holds The Malaysia Book of Records as the first center in Malaysia to have successfully spawned all the seven species of giant clams found in Malaysian waters, and its effort was shared at the World Congress of Malacology 2010.
Another program allows participants to transfer replanted fragile corals from stabilizing tanks in the coral growth nursery to the sea. Being replanted and stabilized a week earlier in the tank, these corals would be ready for a second chance in the sea.
Some of the region’s most beautiful resorts and hotels can be found in Kota Kinabalu. Popular ones include the Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort (voted Best Hotel for Leisure Facilities in Asia, Condé Nast Traveler Gold List (UK) 2009; Nexus Resort & Spa Karambunai (known for its award-winning spa and 18-hole championship golf course); and Le Meridian, with its exclusive Club lounge overlooking the esplanade and popular Philippine night market.
If you were expecting a marvelous surprise, spend at least two nights at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, some two and a half hours from Sandakan by boat. The 20 rooms, multi-international award winner is managed by Borneo Eco Tours. According to Borneo Eco, the lounge was built in 1995 in traditional Malaysian architecture using several Borneo hardwood species.
Kota Kinabalu has seen the arrival of new shopping malls in the city’s most popular shopper’s stop on Gaya Street. Here you can hunt for modern and traditional items such as wooden carvings and boutiques. With a variety of shops, including a multitude of eateries and restaurants, combined with boutiques, jewelry stores, and computer shops, Kota Kinabalu is a popular shopping and hangout destination. Some popular shopping malls in KK include Centre Point, City Mall, and the latest Suria Sabah (located by the promenade).
For tourism information go to: http://www.sabahtourism.com/sabah-malaysian-borneo/en/
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