One with nature and culture. A Bornean escape in Malaysia’s rich diverse state – Sabah.
You don’t wake up in the morning with the sound of a boorish alarm clock like a cat that’s hit by a pan. You don’t scuttle, walk like a zombie and hurriedly go downstairs for a sip of coffee that’s too hot that it could almost cook your tongue. Rather, you wake up to a symphony orchestra brought on by 568 species of birds and amplified by a refreshing tropical zephyr from one of the world’s oldest rainforests. You check the time, slowly get up from the bed and head out to open the door to welcome a new day in Sabah.
I recalled flying an altitude of 14,000 feet heading to the easternmost region of Malaysia and seeing Mt. Kinabalu’s rugged terrain and elevation from my window. I could almost touched the pinnacle of South East Asia’s tallest mountain.
Just before the plane touched down, I felt like I had been sucked into a wormhole and had been transported to a different era – to the historical period of WWII or shortly thereafter. Originally founded as Jesselton, the city is a living witness to the Japanese invasion against the British-Australian forces. After the war, it was rebuilt and renamed Kota Kinabalu in the year 1963.
Today, Kota Kinabalu or universally known as KK, is becoming a great global player in the hospitality and tourism industries. The heart of the city is filled with stalls that sell native products and shopping centers where an encounter with 31 different ethnicities such as Kadazans, Bajao’s, Sulu, Muruts, Kedayan’s, Rumanau, Minokok, Rungus and Bisaya from neighboring Philippines is a common happening. Away from the buzz of the city, the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a must visit.
A 25minute flight from the vibrant city of KK to the little Hong Kong of Sabah, I reached Sandakan. The second largest city in Sabah situated on the north-eastern coast of Borneo and is the administrative center of the Sandakan Division. It had served as the capital of the British North Borneo during the colonial time.
The pages of history came flashing before me once again. Sandakan, formerly known as Elopura, was also a site of WWII. The Sandakan airport used to be a Japanese airfield that was built by the forced labor of 6000 Javanese civilians and allied prisoners of war. In 1945, the surviving Australian prisoners were sent on the Sandakan Death Marches and only 6 of them survived.
This sleepy ancestral town is now an ecotourism destination which houses the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Built in 1964 within the 4,300 hectare Kabili-Sepilok forest reserve, the center is home to a notoriously friendly rehabilitated chimps that will soon be re-introduced back into the wild. The Sun Bear conservation center looks after the world’s smallest bear is a draw amongst visiting wildlife lovers. Those who are blessed with high energy levels, trekking the Rainforest Discovery Centre is absolutely rewarding where the trail leads to the deeper part of the rainforest. A 300 meter canopy is erected, 25 meters above the ground and offers majestic views of the lush rainforest that is home to different species of birds and animals. Nearby are the heart-stirring Turtle Islands Park, Kinabatangan River and Gomantong caves.
The chill made my frail figure shiver in a banshee-like reverberations. Did the gods of the rainforest know that I would be leaving the next day and sent the storm? Or was it a way to make me stay a little longer so I could go back to the woods and help in the conservation efforts?
I walked and entered the Four Points Hotel by Sheraton that lies in the scenic harbor pedestrian promenade overlooking the Sulu Sea. I may have saved myself from getting totally soaked but I failed to save my heart now drenched with the feeling of already missing the places that I have traveled to in a short span of time.
I could go on. Yet there aren’t enough pixie dusts to carry me back there soon or be whisked away by a Boeing 737. Perhaps I shall wait for the bold pirate of Sabah’s Forestry Department to grab me by his hook and get back on his jungle boat as we go sailing along the river past the deepest and mysterious expanse of Borneo’s 130th million years old rainforest.