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Postcard from Borneo: Kota Kinabalu, a sacred mountain and my favourite fruit

March 7, 2018
Borneo Durian

Durian plants at the Kota Kinabalu Sunday Market

A few days ago, before I swapped Borneo for the chilling embrace of the Beast from the East, I posted a piece about the island’s wildlife. While memories are still strong, time perhaps to write a few words about human life. Less wild, though no less interesting to this inveterate people-watcher.

Sabah, which is on the northern part of Borneo, is a province of Malaysia. Its permanent population is a mix of ethnic origins: Malay, Indian, Chinese and native Sabahan. The predominant narrative about Malaysian demographics is that the Bumiputra – a word which loosely translates as “sons of the soil”, in other words descendants of the original populations of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak –  get most of the government jobs. The Chinese are the business dynamos, and the Indians dominate the professions, such as law and accountancy.

From a casual glance at street hoardings, that would certainly seem to be the case in Borneo. Malaysian law positively discriminates in favour of the Bumiputra in a number of areas, including access to further education, though how this is different from negatively discriminating against Indian and Chinese Malaysians is beyond me.

Be that as it may, the narrative doesn’t do full justice to the reality on the ground. There are plenty of poor Indian and Chinese Malaysians, and not all Bumiputra occupy cosy government jobs. And for that matter, there are plenty of representatives from the less advantaged ethnic groups in parliament.

How Sabah fits into this mix is quite interesting, particularly in terms of religion. In 1960, according to Wikipedia, approximately 38% of Sabahans were Muslim, 33% animist and 17% Christian. In 2010 the numbers were 65% Muslim, 26% Christian and 6% Buddhist. In other words, animism has virtually died out. The rise in the Muslim population is said to be because of immigration from the peninsula, and mass conversion programs – hence the demise of animism.

The ethnic mix has also changed. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the indigenous population – in other words, the people who lived in Sabah when we wicked Brits arrived – is now in a minority. No surprise, I suppose, since colonisation often results in the decline of the original population.

But enough of the demographic stuff, except to add that the influence of a conservative shade of Islam, as in the rest of Malaysia and virtually every other south-east Asian country I’ve visited which have significant Muslim populations, is manifest. More often than not, Muslim women wear the hijab, whereas forty years ago, I was once assured, this was far from the case.

The presence of the lavish mosque in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, built with funding from Saudi Arabia, provides a clue as to why the change has taken place. So it’s worth remembering that not everybody subscribes to Western values, or takes kindly to our more esoteric holiday dress sense.

KK Cafe

Kota Kinabalu was our second stop in Borneo after our close encounters with French birdwatchers and the abundant wildlife of the rain forest.

Western tourists tend to think of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Langkawi when Malaysia comes to mind. KK, as it’s known locally, comes a poor forth. Yet it’s a fast-growing tourist destination, not so much because of the delights of the city itself, but also as a jumping-off point for journeys into the interior. Wildlife, as always, awaits, and if you’re reasonably fit you can climb Mount Kinabalu, which rises 13,000 feet above the forest.

If you do, you would be advised not to take your clothes off when you reach the top, as a young group of tourists discovered a couple of years ago when they got into trouble for doing exactly that. The mountain is sacred to the local inhabitants, who claimed that the spirits sent an earthquake to register their displeasure. This is definitely something I would have avoided, since the sight of me unclothed would most likely have triggered the equivalent of an asteroid strike.

There’s no shortage of posh hotels in the city, which is more than can be said about Sandakan, Sabah’s original capital. Both towns were devastated at the end of the Second World War in the fighting between the Japanese and the Australians. In KK, the only pre-war buildings still in place are a lonely clock tower and the original post office.

The modern city has a familiar mix of malls, office blocks and traffic jams. The airport is the second largest in Malaysia. It’s newish and swanky, an investment that might have something to do with the fact that an average of eight thousand Chinese visitors from the People’s Republic are said to arrive every week.

The coming of mass tourism from China is a phenomenon wherever you go in the region. If ever you needed evidence of the shift in economic gravity between west and east, this is the most striking. Most of the visitors from mainland China come in large tour groups. There seems to be few independent travellers. They arrive at airports, decant into buses that take them to hotels. And every day the same buses take them en masse on organised tours.

Just about every hotel we’ve stayed throughout the region on a regular basis over the past ten years reports a huge increase in Chinese guests. Which is good for the hotels because they have guaranteed business. But not so good for the local communities, because the visitors are often on limited budgets, and tend not to spend as much as European or American tourists might.

I can only see positives in the large number of Chinese exploring beyond the mainland, even if I instinctively reach for my noise cancelling headphones when I find myself among large groups of them. At present, they tend to keep themselves to themselves, but this is possibly because of language barriers. This too is changing. I often encounter travellers from Shanghai and Shenzhen who speak excellent English. The more Westerners learn mandarin, and the more Chinese learn English, the less we will regard each other with wariness and suspicion.

When we visited Kota Kinabalu, we were lucky enough to be able to stay with some old friends who had moved from the UK eighteen months ago. Our host knows the city from childhood; his father had worked there as a bank executive for a number of years.

Of all the joys of KK to which we were introduced, the Sunday market was the most memorable. If you haven’t encountered an Asian market before, you could certainly start with this one. It runs for about a mile down Gaya Street. You can hardly move through the throng, but if you’re looking for stuff to take home, you’ll find reasonably priced clothes, fabrics and local art, not to mention the usual tourist souvenirs.

Locals come for fruit – including the delicious-tasting but foul-smelling durian that’s in season right now – vegetables and all manner of exotic living things: baby turtles, frog spawn, cats, dogs, geese, chicken and other species that I failed to identify. You can actually buy durian plants, which I thought would be a nice addition to our friend’s garden collection. He politely disagreed.

After picking up a couple of gifts for our baby grandson, we finally had our reward – breakfast in a cacophonous restaurant that sells the best lakhsa in town.


Lakhsa addicts

Lakhsa is about as traditional Malaysian cuisine as you can get, rivalled only by the ubiquitous beef rendang. It’s basically noodles, tofu, seafood and chicken in a spicy broth. In this place, it was doled out on an industrial scale via waitresses who screamed out our orders across the throng to the serving station. Which partly explains the cacophony.

Will I visit Borneo again? You bet. Next time I want to see some pygmy elephants in the wild and say hello to a few more orangutan and proboscis monkeys. I love the people who live on the island, but I have to say that the animals have the edge – those that you don’t find sitting in cages at markets, that is.

From → Postcards, Travel, UK

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