Regular-article-logo Monday, 04 March 2024

A Borneo diary

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A tropical island — after the bedlam of your own wedding — is the perfect retreat for an overwrought mind after the stress of planning the biggest event of your life. And the pristine rainforests of Borneo are just the place where you can get away from it all. This is the home of Mt Kinabalu (the highest peak in Southeast Asia), some stunning diving sites around coral islands, intriguing cave systems and jungle-fringed emerald green rivers.

But more than all this, I was looking forward to making an acquaintance with some of its famous local inhabitants — the charming and now endangered orang-utans of the Borneo forests.

Borneo is divided into three or four parts. There’s the Sultanate of Brunei, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

We first caught sight of Sabah, located on the northern fringe of Borneo, from the air as we hovered above the archipelago of islands in East Malaysia. Through a sea of cotton candy clouds, we saw tropical forests laid out beneath us like swathes of wild green carpet. I was immediately reminded of Sabah’s nickname — ‘the land below the wind’ because of its location below the typhoon-prone belt of the Philippines.

We quickly got down to tasting the local fare but it didn’t start on a promising note. Bland rendangs at Nasi Padang Ibu, an Indonesian restaurant, left us disheartened till I chanced upon the fluffiest caramel popcorn. As I munched on those golden puffs with their perfect blend of toasty sugar and buttery flavours and washed it down with beer, it more than made up for the disappointment of that first meal in Sabah.

We had divided our stay into three parts. A couple of days in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park on the coast — a short distance from Kota Kinabalu (Sabah’s capital city). Then we toodled along to the Pantai Dalit Beach also not far from Kota Kinabalu. The last few days were to be spent in Kota Kinabalu itself.

So we had a gamut of experiences in our travel-happy bag — from lolling around blissfully in the national park area to gambolling amidst choppy waves, playing beach football, wandering through the forests and winding it all up with some serious mall ratting.

Jesselton Point, the waterfront in Kota Kinabalu with its unmistakable historical feel, was one of the key ferry points from where we sped to Pulau Gaya (‘Pulau’ is the Malay word for island), part of the cluster of islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, the park’s other islands include Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug — where you can snorkel and indulge in deep sea diving to your heart’s content.

Our haven in Pulau Gaya was Gayana Eco Resort located in Malohom Bay. The first couple of days were spent wallowing in the idyllic emerald-turquoise waters. There were as-lazy-as-lazy-gets Long Tom, needlefish that seem content to float the entire day in shallow waters. We also had sightings of the unpleasant stone fish and the repulsive sea cucumbers.

Then there were kingfish which we mistook for baby sharks. The cutest were the clown fish and the puffer fish, which is the famous fugu that they serve as a delicacy in Japan, and which if prepared by unskilled hands, can kill you.

I have to admit that all seafood dishes on the menu succeeded in putting me off. Perhaps that was because of the giant fish tanks in the restaurants filled with huge crabs, lobsters and buff-coloured, speckled groupers that looked nothing less than grotesque. A quick aside: Expect to pay the earth if you want to dig into a grouper. As it turns out, it’s quite a delicacy.

Nevertheless, I was left a bit unsatisfied by Gayana because it seemed like a sharp pinch on the pocket without delivering its worth. It was beautiful, yes, but it was cut off from the main land and therefore the prices were exorbitant.

My mood picked up when we hit the Pantai Dalit beach in Tuaran town near Kota Kinabalu. We whooped with joy at the sight of long stretches of soft, white sands. It so happened that the Shangri-La Rasa Ria we stayed at here was right on the beach.

Besides feasting at the various restaurants there, which included an excellent Japanese teppanyaki eatery, we had the most wonderful time at a cabana on the beach that was ours for a night of wining and dining. We were sent food from Coast, its beach restaurant — a Continental spread that could hold its head high anywhere. The evenings were spent splashing around in the sea and playing beach football.

It was in the vicinity of the beach that we went on a jungle walk to see the orang-utans, found only in tropical jungles. There were three young female orphans called Wulan, Katie and Ten Ten who swung around slender branches, showed off their acrobatic skills and then took a potshot or two at the gaping crowd below with broken-off bits of branches. Luckily, their aim was off the mark.

Our trip was rounded off with some time in Kota Kinabalu where we strolled through its night market. The overwhelming, almost putrid odour of seafood had us gagging, but it did not stop us from taking a close look at the dried sea food. Colourful sea horses that locals bung into their soups were intriguing.

Borneo gives you cultural and wildlife adventure to the hilt and there are pleasant quaint touches. And if you are smart, it won’t break your bank and will still give you the unique experience of a tropical paradise.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: There are flights to Kota Kinabalu from places like KL and Singapore.

Staying there: The Shangri-La Rasa Ria ( is a fantastic resort. Also book into the Bunga Raya Island Resort ( that offers treehouse stays and plunge pool villas.

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