Islands basking in the sea, high mountains, rain forest, the proboscis monkey… Sabah offers so much, writes Gita Arjun
Lina, a guide in the Kinabalu National Park, emphatically said Sabah was the poorest state in Malaysia. And, all I could think was, ‘If this is poor, what is their definition of rich?’
The infrastructure for tourists is stunning, the roads wide and smooth and the facilities definitely not third world. Sabah lies at the tip of Borneo, a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. It is separated by an ocean from the country it is part of, Malaysia.
Sabah unfolds its natural riches tantalisingly. The seafront view from our hotel room opens out onto the South China Sea, with three mysterious islands looming out of the ocean. Riding the waves on a speed boat to the largest of them, we reach Mandukan Island.
Mandukan Island was a revelation. White coral sands spread their welcome with the pale aqua sea forming a stunning backdrop. Several restaurants display their tempting offerings. We chose to pick up a simple, authentic Malaysian lunch from a shack selling food at 3-4 ringgits per dish. Not a single plastic container or stray piece of paper lay on the pristine sands. Sitting at a picnic table, we soaked in the serene atmosphere and took in the endless roiling of the waves.
Sabah offers a stunning array of landscapes within a few hours of each other. Islands basking in the sea, a mangrove river, high mountains and rain forest — all are reachable with the least amount of effort. You can see flora and fauna unique to the Borneo land mass — the Rafflesia flower, one of the largest flowers in the world, hundreds of orchids and pitcher plants, the strangely pot-bellied proboscis monkey and the flame-coloured orangutan.
It was pouring unusually when we set out to look for the proboscis monkey. Getting onto the boat, which was to carry us down the river, we were warned that we may not be lucky enough to sight one. Our guide was worried that the rain might make the monkeys stay away deep in the forest and prevent them from coming out to the river edge. But, we have always been optimistic travellers.
As we floated along the river, churned into a chocolate-coloured, fast-flowing torrent by the rain, the mangrove forests closed in on us. Our boatman suddenly made a soft hooting noise and pointed to the trees swaying ahead of us. A skittish group of monkeys swarmed on the trees.
As we watched in awe, a female proboscis monkey took a giant leap, flying from one branch to another, at least 15 feet away, with her baby clinging to her. We ended up seeing at least 30 of them. The proboscis monkey is the only monkey that will not eat a banana! Its giant belly holds a soup of digestive juices that can digest raw and even poisonous fruits. But, add a ripe banana to this potent concoction and it can turn into alcohol, which will bubble and cause the monkey to explode. And, they are too smart for that!
When we had planned our trip to Sabah in Borneo, I was seduced by the idea of seeing the Rafflesia, one of the largest flowers in the world. Getting to see a Rafflesia in bloom can be a hit or miss thing. It blooms randomly, taking nine months from bud to bloom (maybe explaining its fascination for the obstetrician that I am). Luck always favours the intrepid traveller and we saw not just one, but two, blooming. A banner on the side of the road alerted us to the fact that a Rafflesia was blooming on private land. After paying a hefty sum as viewing fee, we walked along a path made of planks to see this floral marvel.
Mount Kinabalu towers majestically over us as we drive along the curving road. The tallest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea, it is unique in that it does not require any special equipment to climb. It is just a strenuous trek and if you have the stamina, the climb can be arranged over three days. We contented ourselves with a visit to the Mount Kinabalu Park, a sprawling botanical garden with myriad plant varieties.
Our next stop was Poring Hot Springs, a beautiful area at the entrance to the rain forests. Hot sulphurous water bubbles out of the earth and is channelled into pools and bathtubs for people to enjoy. Walking on and upwards, we entered the rain forest, the atmosphere getting gloomy and humid. A tough hike later we reached the promised Canopy Walk.
Forty metres above ground, planks and ropes form a walkway between majestic rainforest trees looming above our heads. The shaking and swaying notwithstanding, we made our way along the walkway, pausing to take pictures from the vertiginous height and being rewarded by stunning vistas.
How can I not mention the famous Filipino Market? A warren of small shops, it provides the opportunity to polish your bargaining skills. Selling pearls and various semi-precious stones, the women running the stalls can whip up a piece of jewellery to your taste. Sabah is known as ‘The Land Beneath the Wind’. It definitely should not be beneath your travel radar.