It seems a lifetime ago that I was in the rainforests of Borneo. My husband and I had a big and beautiful Indian wedding (about five years ago). If you have been a part of an Indian wedding, you know you need a few tall drinks and a tropical getaway promptly after.
Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state on the island of Borneo, was our perfectly planned escape. Borneo is divided into three or four parts – the Sultanate of Brunei, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Untamed tropical forests spread out beneath us like swathes of wild green carpet, as we peered down from the flight. Sabah has a nickname. It is called ‘The Land Below the Wind’. It is how seamen from the past used to describe places south of the typhoon belt.
We landed in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and my hair decided to cast a frizzy verdict upon it. The humidity was unbearable and we were in the middle of December. My husband dubbed me Monica (ref: the frizzy hair episode in ‘Friends’).
We had to take a ferry from Jesselton Point, a quaint looking waterfront that is a legacy of Kota Kinabalu’s colonial past when it was known as Jesselton. Once known as North Borneo, Sabah was a British colony between the late 19th century and the early 20th century.
As it always happens when you are tired – and cannot wait to take up on the promise of a luxurious bed – things will go wrong, in a Murphy-esque way. We missed the ferry to the luxurious resort in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park where we had booked a couple of nights stay. With two hours to while away, we decided upon local grub at Nasi Padang Ibu, an Indonesian restaurant on Jesselton Point. Its bland rendangs did nothing for our mood, till I chanced upon glorious caramel popcorn in a large cone. That perfect blend of toasty caramel and butter, washed down with beer, made up for the disappointment of our first meal in Sabah.
When the ferry finally arrived, it took us past a cluster of islands to the biggest of the islands, Pulau Gaya (‘Pulau’ is Malay for island). The Gayana Eco Resort enchanted us straightaway. In the middle of a lagoon, among the startlingly blue waters of the South China Sea, stood a posse of stilted huts. It was a scene out of a postcard.
Those huts, once we walked into our appointed one, turned out to be villas. My chosen part was the deck and our own little pier. Breakfast arrived everyday by a motorboat. A fascinating spread would be laid out on the deck and we would sit watching the emerald green waters and nibble away at pancakes, freshly baked bread and sausages. If we peeked down into the shallow waters around our hut, lazy-as-lazy-gets Long Tom (that is needlefish) could always be seen to be floating around. We were as lazy as them.
The resort had a marine park centre on the island whose main residents were stone fish, sea cucumber, kingfish, clown fish and puffer fish. One of the centre helpers insisted I touch a few of them. I did, just to indulge his enthusiasm. Shudder.
Nearby, within the waters of the marine park which is named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, were the islands of Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug where one can snorkel and indulge in deep sea diving. We spent time in Malohom Bay bonding with ocean creatures. An abundance of seafood featured on the menu and if you wanted a speckled grouper on your plate, why you had to pay a ransom. It is a delicacy in this part of the world.
It was romantic on Gayana – they serenaded me the first evening that we reached – yet there was hardly anybody on the island apart from us. And I always like social contact on a holiday. I am a people’s person. It made me crave civilization, and by the end of our stay, Gayana was a sharp pinch on the pocket.
I was quite ready for the next leg of our honeymoon.
The most entertaining part of our holiday was spent on the Pantai Dalit beach in Tuaran, a town near Kota Kinabalu. We whooped with joy at the sight of long stretch of soft, white sands which were part of the private beach of Shangri-La Rasa Ria, one of the best properties we have stayed in. The warm reception at the five-star property was soothing and so very Asian in its hospitality. We were upgraded to a suite with a Jacuzzi. For a newly-wed, it is bliss.
We played beach football during the evenings, splashed about in the sea and at night had a cabana to ourselves with Continental-style dinners laid out beneath the stars.
We made the most of a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in the hotel that rustled up mean fish dishes and offered an interactive time with the chef while dining. My husband indulged in a bit of balancing-the-egg-act and had a pleasurable time cooking with the chef.
Now, for the rainforests of Sabah which are home to orangutans. In the vicinity of the beach a path led into the tropical forests. There live some orangutan orphans, protected by Rasa Ria Nature Reserve that offers them a home in their natural habitat.
Orangutans are a protected species because they are dying out.
We had to wait for them beneath a heavy canopy. The tropical rainforests are charming. They barely allow sunlight to filter in, and in those humid climes, it is a welcome respite from the heat. We had to peel our eyes out for them before we spied three orangutans swinging through the branches and making their way towards us with great alacrity. In a while I realized that they were actually making a beeline for the buckets of fruits that had been laid out on a raised platform in the trees. They came closer and we saw three long-limbed females. Their names were Wulan, Katie and Ten Ten.
Swinging around the slender branches of the gigantic trees, they did a few acrobatic feats. Then they decided that they wanted a potshot or two at the gaping crowd below with broken-off bits of branches. So they chucked a few branches down.
Their aim was off the mark. And we came out unscathed.
Sabah is not only about such naughty-playful encounters with orangutans. It is made up of virgin rainforests, emerald green rivers, coral reefs and remote tribes, deep caves, and it is home to Mount Kota Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.
We rounded off our bonding-with-nature kinda holiday with exploring the city of Kota Kinabalu. My sister-in-law had gifted us a stay at a hotel which overlooked the bustling waterfront of Kota Kinabalu. I fell in love with the view from the hotel, the colourful barges and fishing vessels floating in the midst of the South China Sea and the local market adjacent the dock.
We indulged in some mall ratting during the day and at night, strolled through the night market that came to life outside the hotel. The overwhelming, almost putrid odour of dried fish had us gagging, but it did not stop us from browsing through the smelly array of dried sea food and worms and sea horses. Colourful sea horses (which look almost unreal) are a speciality in this part of the world. Locals bung them into their soups. Kiosks sell snacks or ‘pusas’ and shopkeepers try to sell you fake versions of designer bags. It is the kind of chaos and life that you see only in the East.
The best bit of a holiday in Borneo is that the budget goes a long way there. It is one of the few tropical paradises that does not break the bank.