Splendid views and extraordinary ancient culture combine in the landscape beyond Kota Kinabalu
IT TAKES considerable time to get to Mount Kinabalu and Sipadan Island, two of Malaysia’s most famous landmarks outside Kuala Lumpur, but Sabah State’s capital, Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), is a great place to spend the day. It offers a rich cultural heritage, lush landscapes and the turquoise waters of the South China Sea.
Easily accessed by a 15-minute speedboat ride from downtown, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is home to Gaya Island, whose name means “big” in the Bajau dialect. Unfortunately it developed a crime problem many years ago and went on the no-go list for KK residents.
Tourists race along the Coral Flyer zip line in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
In the 1970s, illegal Filipino immigrants established a stilt village at water’s edge and then more communities scattered all around the isle. The state government has since cleared them out and is promoting Gaya as a re-born attraction of white-sand beaches and interesting trekking trails.
Just a few kilometres from Gaya is Sapi Island, now developed as a fun water-sports hub with more sandy beaches. This is one of the area’s most popular spots for snorkelling, even though some of the coral’s been bleached out.
Borneo Reef World’s huge pontoon features tourists a breathtaking undersea walk.
Seasoned scuba divers head to the isles of Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sulug, where the coral reefs are dazzlingly colourful and teem with clownfish, trevally, jackfish, barracudas, marble rays, reef sharks, seahorses, sea turtles and frogfish.
Floating between Sapi and Gaya islands is “the world’s second-largest pontoon”, operated by Borneo Reef World. It’s ideal for people who don’t want to dive but who do want to see the marine life up close.
Everyone is fitted with a helmet that’s heavy enough to sink the body deep in the water. Oxygen is pumped in through an air compressor as you stroll along a lengthy underwater path admiring the sea creatures as they dart or swim lazily past.
Once-troubled Gaya Island has become a popular holiday destination again.
A climb up Padang Point on Gaya Island takes you to a thrilling but entirely safe 250-metre-long zip line, the Coral Flyer. Ropeskills Rigging uses the latest technology to ensure no one miss-zips as they soar 45 metres above the water at up to 60 kilometres per hour, all the way to Sapi Island.
The best views on the mainland can be found at the Signal Hill Observatory Tower, a two-minute drive from Padang Merdeka. From the breezy deck you can take in fantastic views of downtown KK and the marine park with its five islands.
North Borneo Cruise treats travellers to a twohour sunset journey.
In the evening, a two-hour luxury boat ride with North Borneo Cruise features a buffet of local and international delicacies and great sunsets as you pass stilt villages and beautiful islands.
The air-conditioned dining area on the main deck becomes a dance floor when the live musicians start performing, continuing until the boat arrives on the lovely, illuminated KK waterfront.
The Signal Hill Observatory Tower offers stunning views.
A wonderful morning excursion to the Mari Mari Cultural Village out in the countryside feels like a voyage back to the Iron Age. Designed to conserve Borneo ethnic culture, this living museum has traditional houses that never did get electricity.
Five different ethnic tribes live in the hamlet – Kadazan rice farmers, Murut headhunters, Rungus witch doctors, Bajau cowboys and sea gypsies – as well as Lundayeh people who raise livestock and catch fish.
A bamboo Lundayeh house is graced with skulls.
An old wooden Kadazan house has a remarkable design and functionality and easily accommodates a large family with its two bedrooms and living room. A rice barn stands nearby, most of the rice roasted for sticky rice and used to make a liquor called montoku.
The Lundayeh, expert in producing metal weapons and bamboo vests, live in a house of bamboo that’s decorated with skulls, signifying the occupants’ strength and bravery.
A traditional Rungus longhouse features more than 75 rooms, each housing a family, and a communal space where spirit rituals are performed and ailing people are cured. The residents are also gifted at making honey.
Murut villagers spend festivals jumping on a bamboo trampoline.
The Murut also occupy a longhouse, this one surrounded by towering walls for privacy. Inside is a wood-and-bamboo on which the residents jump during festive rituals. A gateway at the centre of the house is only used when someone has died. That’s where the body is carried outside.
The village tour includes demonstration of cooking with bamboo, making fire, using a blowpipe and traditional dances.
The writer travelled courtesy of AirAsia and the Sabah Tourism Board.
IF YOU GO
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