Amid the vast rain forests of Borneo Island, lies a region unlike anyother. A world made up of animal kingdoms, mystical prehistoric caves,lofty mountains and amazing underwater gardens.
|Island idyll: The cool breeze and clear waters on Pulau Manukan Island make this a perfect spot to relax.
Kota Kinabalu, formerly known as Jesselton, house of the roof ofSoutheast Asia, is the capital of Sabah, which is one of two states inEast Malaysia, and home to many ethnic groups, who practice age-oldcustoms and fascinating rituals.
Having done some research, Kota Kinabalu sounded much moreinteresting than the modern capital I had first imagined. Kota in thelocal language means city, and Kinabalu is the Mount Kinabalu – it’s thecity of Mount Kinabalu, my friendly local tour guide explained.
It takes a two-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, asmall and pretty city perched on the coast. I was excited about theamazing few days ahead of me, to be spent studying the traditions oflocal ethnic groups on one of the most beautiful islands I had ever beento.
Conquering the peak of Kinabalu and enjoying what the forest has tooffer – rafting, trekking, kayaking – are the top attractions atJesselton. Unfortunately, while we were in Sabah, it was rainy season,and we were advised not to venture too far into the forest for safetyreasons.
However, I had the opportunity to explore a bit of the Sabah forestwhile visiting the Mari Mari Cultural Village, which offers insightsinto the living cultures of five tribes in Sabah.
The three-hour-trek through the jungle took me through five tribaldwellings and taught me much about the tribes’ cultures and customs inKota Kinabalu. Every member of the village dresses in handmadeloincloths and feathers and we were taught how to cook bamboo rice andrice-wine, a shirt from the jackfruit tree and how to start a fire frombamboo.
All visitors to the village, including myself, had to have their bodyand belongings checked carefully by the locals, according to theirtradition to ensure people do not bring weapons into their home.
Although I knew it was fake, I felt strangely intimidated by theritual chanting they perform when accepting strangers to the village.The traditional music and bamboo dancing gave us tourists an insightinto their cultural heritage. It is a must-visit destination in KotaKinabalu, a chance to witness little known ways of life up-close andright at the very heart of nature.
|Traditional ritual: Visitors to the Mari Mari Cultural Village can see a bamboo dance performance by ethnic tribe members.
To visit Kota Kinabalu without taking a boat to some of the nearbyislands for a snorkeling or diving trip, would be a shame. I opted forTunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park not far from the city – from JesseltonPoint, it is just 20 minutes on boat.
The marine park, named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, is agreat way to see the islands. I was amazed with the beauty of the clearsea, blue sky and the scattering of beautiful green islands.
The park consists of five islands of varying size: Pulau Gaya, PulauManukan, Pulau Mamutik, Pulau Sapi and Pulau Sulug. The tour guidesuggested we visit two of them on this visit and save the rest for asecond visit.
After arriving on Pulau Mamutik and having taken more than enoughphotos, I joined some friends swimming and snorkeling. Some went islandhopping, others rode on a banana boat, and some wandered around theisland enjoying the breeze and stunning views. All of us found a way toenjoy the natural beauty of the island.
As ever, our time on the island was too short. After finishing theseafood buffet there, we headed to Pulau Manukan. Again, we spent theday swimming, snorkeling and soaking up the views, until it was time toreturn to shore once more.
Once back on land we went to check out what the local markets had tooffer. Just ten minutes walk from the hotel, we reached the FilipinoMarket, where almost 70 per cent of traders are Filipino. The tour guideexplained that this is because Kota Kinabalu is located very near tothe Philippines.
If visitors want to witness an Asian market in full swing and get asense of local culture, the Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu is theplace to go. The people there were so friendly and smiley and took thetime to say hello to us, even though we bought nothing, and just tooklots of pictures.
The market sells handicrafts and souvenirs, especially pearls, and islocated close to the sea, where fish arrives straight from thefishermen’s boats.
Myself and two friends then went to try a taste of Malay gastronomy.All along the waterfront, stall holders serve up delicious local food.We ate big grilled lobsters and some delicious fish that had beenprepared by locals.
After a magical few days visiting the tribal villages in Sabah,enjoying the sun and sea breeze on the nearby islands and the amazinglocal hospitality, I had no regrets leaving Kota Kinabalu City exceptthat I couldn’t stay any longer. I promised myself I would return, andwhen I do, I will conquer the roof of Southeast Asia.