Malaysia is a state in Southeast Asia that extends into two geographical areas, the Malaysian Peninsula and the island of Borneo which shares with Indonesia and Brunei. It has a population of about 32 million people, with Islam as predominant religion and a political system of constitutional monarchy. Its recent history involves intense colonial activity by the Portuguese, Dutch and British that took control of the local empires. Malaysia has a success story in development, with modern infrastructure and is considered one of the richest countries in the region, attracting labor from other countries. However, in many cases the living standard is that of an underdeveloped country. Malaysia produces and exports significant quantities of hydrocarbons, electronic systems and agricultural products, while in recent years there has been a systematic promotion of its tourism product, ranking it in the third place of priority. The marine and terrestrial natural environment surrounding this country, is of unparalleled beauty. But the excessive human intervention and reckless exploitation of natural resources, degrade, pollute and threaten the ecosystem. Systematic palm oil plantations replacing virgin forests are the largest in the world after Indonesia, combined with overfishing and climate change having irreversible effects on marine flora and fauna.
Malaysia is a multicultural country with half of the population being of Malay origin, with the rest being Chinese, Indians, Portuguese descendants and local tribes. They are generally kind people and used to the foreign visitor.
The Malaysian Peninsula having most of human presence is home to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, as well as the nearby new technological town of Putrajaya, the historic town of Malacca, the Cameron Highlands with tea plantations, Taman Negara National Park and the popular islands of Langkawi and Penang. The eastern part contains more conservative, traditionally Islamic communities and idyllic small islands that fortunately have not yet been discovered by mass tourism.
Oon the island of Borneo, of which 1/3 belong to Malaysia, there are two provinces Sabah and Sarawak with main cities of Kota Kinabalu and Kuching respectively. Although much of Borneo is occupied by impenetrable jungle, development and tourism degrade the rest. In Borneo survives the rare and endangered orangutan, one of the three species of large primates.
I never appreciated much Malaysia as a travel destination. On my first visit, except from the capital city, I focused on the relatively unpopular but enchanting islands of the east coast and their underwater world. I visited Kuala Lumpur again a few years later, as it is a major hub for other Asian destinations. In 2019 I decide to include Borneo in my Asian trip, with a plan of approaching the settlements of the Bajau nomadic tribe, also known as the “sea gypsies”. Together with my travel buddies, we wished to experience their way of life, staying in huts on stilts, built in the shallow waters of eastern Sabah, near the border line with the Philippines. Although the goal was achieved, this part of Malaysia didn’t offer me great impressions overall, and as I do not belong to travelers who consider all their choices as amazing, I would simply describe Borneo as a… failure. Nevertheless, in order to reach your ultimate goal, you often have to make an effort.
Οn the 3rd leg of my Asian trip, after Bangladesh, Indonesia and a short visit to Bangkok, i meet my travel buddies in Kota Kinabalu, the usual entry point to Borneo…
I didn’t have high expectations from Kota Kinabalu. A modern and dull seaside town, where the only point of interest were the nearby islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Unfortunately, the experience was far below expectations. The islands are beautiful, with small beaches of turquoise waters, but they are very touristy, crowded, and the biggest hit is the large number of Chinese visitors. They are many… they are noisy, sometimes rude and as they are novice travellers and of peculiar customs… they act hysterically! Their urge to take selfies wherever they stand is too excessive! On the island of Sapi, we decided to explore a path through the dense vegetation to lead us to a secluded beach, but the was much rubbish around and the seabed without a live reef.
Near the town is a settlement built on piles above the water. These are illegal immigrants from the Philippines, but no one wanted to take us there as it is considered a ghetto, a no-go place. After all, there are similar coastal settlements across Borneo, more accessible.
The night market of Kota kinabalu was interesting, with numerous stalls and outdoor kitchens where you could taste the many varieties of fish, shellfish and sea snells. The Grand Mosque is also one of the few sights worth visiting. For transfers we used the Grab app, which is popular in Asia and costs 1-2 euros per route within the city or even to the airport.
Since the islands did not fascinate us, we decided to take a tour headed south, to an area called Weston where the rare species of “proboscis monkey” lives and as the name suggests, is a primate mammal with a characteristic long nose that reminiscent of proboscis. The river boat ride, just before it meets the ocean surrounded by the natural environment, under the sunset rays diffused through the overcast clouds of an oncoming storm, were well worth the experience, if you could isolate from the touristy character of the activity. The monkeys were also interesting, despite the distance from view, and after the dinner our program included a show of nature with countless fireflies as protagonists. Another major attraction of Borneo is Mount Kinabalu at 4,095 meters high. But even here the tourist business has set a huge price tag for the climb and combined with our limited time we did not attempt.
The flight to Sandakan took almost half an hour. The main attraction for visitors in the area is Sepilok, about 30 kms from town, at the starting point of the rainforest. Here is a rehabilitation centre for the rare, tiny Borneo bear and more especially the endangered orangutan. If you’re lucky like us, you may be in very close contact with the amazing reddish haired primate, that is considered to be the most intelligent of all! Sepilok has few accommodation and restaurant options, perfect for enjoying the tranquility of nature.
Returning to Sandakan, there is no particular sights to admire and of course the sea is neither clean nor suitable for swimming. Some blocks of flats with their moist black patina stand up against the backdrop of lush jungle. Combined with the desolate tropical heat, create a surreal feeling. Two Chinese temples and a cathedral, the oldest of Borneo, are some of the few sights. Multicolored fishing boats were parked at the pier and to my surprise I discovered that the giant “monitor lizards”- found also in other parts of the country- could swim in salty water. Just a short distance from Sandakan are some private islands with overpriced resorts as well as the group of “Turtle islands”, where as the name suggests you could see turtles nesting. Unfortunately, the only way to visit is some overpriced tourist packages, with an obligatory overnight stay. All these tourist restrictions disappoint me much. I tried to arrange a boat trip to the nearby island of Pulau Berhala which is geologically interesting and hosts a small village, but my effort was vain. No boatman was in mood to get there and the sole option was a public boat with no return schedule on the same day. On the outskirts of town, there’s a typical slum establishment built on poles above the water. The inhabitants were mainly of Chinese origin and the houses of good living standard, but in the muddy soil beneath the settlement, amidst a multitude of rubbish and filth, was a kingdom of countless rats strolling undisturbed. Trying to ignore the fact, we dined on sunset at one of the waterfront restaurants.
Living with the Bajau “Sea Gypsies”…
Despite warnings … the main reason we are in Borneo is the Bajau Sea Gypsies. These are nomads with a tradition in fishing, found in the seas of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. In recent decades, large populations have migrated from the southern Philippines where is their main origin, to escape hostilities in Mindanao between government and Islamist insurgent groups operating in the area. Crossing the disputed maritime border with Malaysia, they settled in makeshift settlements on the sea, as modern Bajau don’t live all their life in a boat anymore. In spite of any government effort of resettlement, they are treated as illegal immigrants, intruders, of paganistic religion, uneducated and other negative prejudices. It is also believed they have destructive fishing practices using dynamite, cyanide and coral mining.
Another half-hour flight takes us to Tawau and from there at 80 ringgits (€17) we move 100 kilometers east to the seaside town of Semporna. This is another unassuming, dirty city with no sightseeing. We rent a room in a hostel to leave our luggage and take with us just basic equipment, before heading to the pier to search for a boat. We already know that it is illegal to wander around the Tun Sakaran archipelago without an authorized boat and away from the permitted touristic islands. The reason for the ban is the action of the Islamist organization Abu Sayyaf, which is based in the nearby southern Philippines Islands and is now considered as the eastern branch of ISIS, launching bomb attacks, piracy and many kidnappings of westerners, many of them with a tragic end.
At the Semporna pier we are looking for a fisherman to take us to any remote settlement of the Bajaus, risking himself with severe penalties if the authorities find out and for us undertaking the danger of jihadist pirates. After several failed attempts without help of any locals, a boatman appeared to accept at an affordable price. We sail off the coast of Semporna, in a sea of rubbish. We stop at a nearby floating settlement where we pay half of the amount to buy fuel. The rest of the tour was joyful, viewing villages “standing” on wooden stilts in the middle of a shallow ocean, with the color of water alternating from deep blue to bright turquoise. Small islands, not pointed on the map, full of palm trees, are scattered in the sea, as we are approaching the largest of, GPS indicated as Bodgaya Island. There, a Bajau settlement began to populate above water. The boatman left us on a hut that seemed to be the most stable and well made of the village, and we agreed to pick us up on the following day to visit some nearby islands. We climbed to the “patio” of the hut, which had plenty of space as the building was in an expansion phase. A family with several relatives welcomed us, but they were relatively uninterested, as there was no common language of communication. Apart from the small fee for our stay, along the way they asked money for other reasons, such as going fishing or salt for cooking! Unfortunately, one little girl in the family was constantly asking for money as well.
The panoramic view of the village was exceptional, I was in one of the most beautiful, most breathtaking places I’ve come across. The shallow waters that surrounded the settlement had an extraordinarily dazzling brightness and intense turquoise color, while the clouds created variations of light. In the background, on the side of the nearby island stood a steep slope with dense impermeable vegetation, while on the other side an ocean of scattered small islands. The camera sensor could not capture this impressive bright effect. All around, there was a continuous choreography of Bajau’s daily routine, with adults and young children navigating their pirogues and climbing from house to house, doing their daily work or just socializing. I could not stop admiring this setting and absorbing those moments.
Many visitors and relatives came to the hut. Women taking care of young children and having a kind of improvised sunscreen, similar to other parts of the world, such as Madagascar or the “tanhaka” in Burma. The men were carveing wooden boards to create oars. We decided to go to the nearby island where happy children of all ages were playing. The waters were so shallow not exceeding waist height, but some caution was needed for sharp objects on seabed, of human or natural origin. Of course, while we were in the water we begged no one to use the toilet, which was nothing more than a hole on the floor of each hut. Children on the island were playing soccer or swinging from two long ropes between palm trees. Most of them were asking for money with annoying persistence. We continued along the coast barefoot around lots of rubbish and human waste, searching for a passage to the beach we spotted on the small islet joined by a thin strip of land. Unfortunately it was an optical illusion, the path was full of sharp rocks, small sharp shells and the white beach was not made of thin sand but dead sharp corals. The water was shallow and without much underwater life, moreover, those exotic places that look great in pictures, often do not meet expectations. Before we left the hut we had offered pens and balloons to the kids and upon return we saw the entire patio painted with imaginative illustrations of sharks, helicopters, rockets and more. After all, the house proved to be the only one in the village that had a TV and a generator. Before night time, the hut was full of visitors of all ages, arriving to watch the “magic box”. We enjoyed the enchanting colors of sunset, satisfying our thirst with tea and our hunger for white rice, some tiny fish with bad taste and canned tuna… to our great surprise from a tribe renowned for its fishing skills! We regretted not fishing with them, which didn’t happen the next day either because the chief had left. We laid our sleeping bags on the hard floor that made every position uncomfortable, while the TV sound, the loud discussions and the generator noise, disturbed all the tranquility, at least until the fuel ran out. The grandfather of the family, who could hardly walk around and preferred to move on four legs, made use of the “toilet” that was nearby and shared views, night and day. The sky shone from a thunderstorm on the horizon, but fortunately it offered only spectacle, despite my concern.
The accommodation did not include breakfast and in addition, some mice ate the two croissants that my friend had with him and including some holes on his backpack. The boatman came to pick us up at some time, but despite the agreement he refused to take us to the islands we had asked for, because he said there was coast guard presence. Eventually we negotiated to take us to some other. Indeed, we arrive at the first of those, named Maiga islet, that had a small Bajau settlement and stunning beaches. We spent some time enjoying the scenery and taking photos. But before we take a swim, the boatman called us to leave. We were not at all happy about that, but in his poor English, he explained that the village chief was not there to give us the necessary approval, a tradition we know from others countries like the Solomon Islands. Fortunately on the next island we got approval, but the beach was modest. The children of the island were very kind and shy, we offered them markers and balloons and no one asked for money.
Returning to Semporna we booked regular rooms in a hostel, ate “regular” food and drank fresh juices in street restaurants. Some days before the celebrations of the Independence Day, local events were organized with night market and a band concert. Nightlife is virtually non-existent, so the best solution was to buy whiskey from the supermarket and spend the night on the patio of the hotel. Semporna is unimpressive in day time too. The main attraction is the central mosque with its glossy marble courtyard and another stilt-house quarter. The latter’s sightseeing consists of the shocking dirt from the immense rubbish dump in the mud beneath the houses and apparently no public sector was interested in cleaning it. The carcass of a large lizard was laying there and a young drug addict, after inhaling something from a nylon bag, went barefoot in the mud inspecting the carcass with his hands …
The islands of Tun Sakaran archipelago
For the following days’ schedule, we couldn’t between one more stay with the Sea Gypsies or some legal, organized day trips to the islands of the national park. The most reasonable choice prevailed, and despite my usual dislike of anything massive touristy, it was quite worth it. The first island is the famous Bohay Dulang, separated from Bodgaya by a shallow stream. The tour begins with a hiking trail through the jungle, to the top where a view reveals leaving your mouth open. “Laces” of coral in various shades of blue extend between the two islands and around them, with the view from this height giving a rare, idyllic picture of nature’s majesty. Unfortunately, the Chinese people were quite noisy in their selfie shots cravings and disrupted the magic, but luckily the surrounding went empty at some point. On that day we visited two more islands, the Mantabuan and Sibuan, both with stunning beaches, where you could find your private swimming place after small distance. Each island had a small settlement and army presence.
The folowing day’s trip was to the island of Kapalai and the famous Mabul. These islands attract scuba diving tourism, consisting the starting point for neighboring Sipadan, a world-class destination where rare species of marine life can be seen depending on the season, from microorganisms to large predators. Overnight in Sipadan is not permitted and diving packages are somewhat overpriced. I decide that a day of snorkeling is enough for me and my first stop for a dive is in Kapalai, where a luxury resort delimits its maritime ownership by banning access. Despite this frustrating prohibition, the coral reef was not restricted by the resort’s buoys and the seabed was full of life. Among other things, I saw flocks of barracuda, parrot fish and the famous Titan triggerfish with its imposing size, big teeth and well-known aggression defending its dominance. A warning attack was also fired at me who came close enough to take a photo.
The island of Mabul, though rich in sea life as well, aided by artificial reefs, presented the same frustrating setting as the resorts had occupied part of the island. Fortunately there was no restricted sea access here, and beyond the cluster of bungalows, there was a vast lagoon with amazing water color, where strangely, I was alone! In Mabul there is also a Bajau village on land, less picturesque, poor, with few shops selling tourist items. The social contrast was intense here, with the barbed wire separating the worlds of the privileged and the outcasts of this planet.
We leave toBorneo with mixed emotions. Personally, I was happy to meet and live for a while with the “sea gypsies” and I was frustrated with the ugly tourist development and the irrational exploitation of the natural environment. Maybe if I spent more time exploring Borneo’s deep dense jungles, I would feel more fulfilled.
©Alexandros Tsoutis. August 2019
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