A tropical island — after the bedlam of your own wedding — is the perfect retreat for an overwrought mind. The pristine rainforests of Borneo were my refuge for the senses following the stress of planning the biggest, and certainly, the plushest event of my life.
Home to Mount Kinabalu (the highest peak in Southeast Asia), stunning diving sites around coral islands, eerie caves and jungle-fringed emerald green rivers, Borneo holds up a myriad experiences on its platter. My high point lay in the thought of making acquaintance with its local inhabitants – the charming and now endangered species of orang-utans.
Borneo is divided into roughly four parts. There’s the Sultanate of Brunei, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
My husband and I first lay eyes on Sabah as we hovered above the archipelago of islands in East Malaysia. It was through a sea of cotton candy clouds that we beheld untamed tropical forests laid out beneath us like swathes of wild green carpet. It somehow put me in mind of its 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 that unfortunately did not start on the most promising of notes. 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 flavour and washed it down with beer, it more than made up for the disappointment of our first meal.
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.
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. The variety of sea life was revealed by sightings of some rather unpleasant looking stone fish and sea cucumbers. Then there were the 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.
My favourite part of the stay was the breakfast that arrived on a boat for us. And subsequently a grand feast on the deck, soaking in the sight of the blue waters.
I have to admit that the seafood delicacies on the menu put me off. The giant fish tanks in the restaurants filled with huge crabs, lobsters and buff-coloured, speckled groupers did nothing to help the case. They were 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.
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. The Shangri-La Rasa Ria we stayed at 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 its beach restaurant — a Continental spread that could hold its head high anywhere. The evenings were spent splashing around in the sea and frolicking around, indulging in 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.
The trip was rounded off with time spent in Kota Kinabalu where we stayed in a hotel facing the waterfront. The one view I remember distinctly when I close my eyes is that of the colourful yellow, red and blue rice barges and the equally colourful awnings of the night market. We spent time strolling through the market, even as the overwhelming, almost putrid odour of seafood had us gagging. What fascinates me every time is the array of dried sea food that the Far East boasts of. My pick were colourful sea horses that locals bung into their soups.
Yes, Borneo gives you cultural and wildlife adventures to the hilt. There are pleasant quaint touches too. And if you are smart, it won’t break your bank and yet afford you the experience of a tropical paradise.