While tropical adventures are aplenty in Malaysia’s Borneo, the state of Sabah oozes a tumultuous cultural past. The phrase “land below the wind” was coined a century ago by sailors to describe the Malaysian state of Sabah on the northern coast of Borneo because of its location south of the typhoon belt.
From Kota Kinabalu’s Signal Hill Observatory, the sun gently slid into the turquoise bay of the South China Sea. In the middle of Mother Nature’s spectacular show, we had stumbled into the filming of a documentary about a group of Australian women who were about to start working with the orang-utans at Sepilok, in the north of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Despite the disruption, they graciously explained their plight and inspiration.
The centre was established in 1963 after the wife of the curator of the Sarawak Museum, Barbara Harrisson began rescuing and training young orang-utans in 1961. Thanks to her dedication and backing from the World Wildlife Fund, the orang-utans became a protected animal in Sabah under the Fauna Conservation Ordinance, which prohibits trading, hunting or keeping them as pets.
And it wasn’t too long until I too got up close and personal with the cheeky primates.
A short plane ride north from the capital Kota Kinabalu to Sabah’s second largest town Sandakan is the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, which was established in 1963, a year after Sabah became an independent state. Housing between 60 to 80 orang-utans, the centre protects orphans whose mothers were illegally hunted and teaches them how to live in the wild again. As one delicately selects a banana, I have no doubt we share 96% of our genes, and after hearing about the orang-utan who distracts his victims by pulling down their pants and running off with their cameras, we also share a wicked sense of humour.
The term “land below the wind” was coined by sailors a century ago because of Sabah’s proximity to the typhoon belt. American author and expat Agnes Keith gave notoriety to the phrase in her book of the same name, plus the two more books about her life in Sandakan titled Three Came Home and White Man Returns. Living high on a hill in a colonial mansion overlooking the town with her husband, a prominent Conservator of Forests and Director for Agriculture, and being a six-foot-tall flamboyantly dressed western woman, Agnes was an unforgettable sight in the 1930s. The restored Agnes Keith House is open to the public and pays homage to the remarkable woman who writes about her exotic home with great warmth considering the harsh conditions, particularly during the Japanese occupation when she was incarcerated during the Second World War. Linger for a civilised cup of tea and dainty afternoon tea at the onsite restaurant where you can also buy her books.
The beautiful Sandakan Memorial Park belies the atrocities of the Sandakan Death Marches, which spanned 260km through the jungle and out of 2,400 prisoners, only six survived. The original town centre Buli Sim Sim Water Village, is open to visitors, and despite its rickety appearance, it’s a traditional suburb with plumbing and electricity, and many of the occupants are Muslim fishermen who sell their catch from their doorsteps.
Many travellers arrive in Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu and get no further than wandering the windy streets in search of food and bargains. The intrepid might conquer Mt Kinabalu or chug through the jungle on the Northern Borneo Railway for a gentler pace. Some will delve into the deep blue, board a boat, and explore the surrounding islands.
Or head to @mosphere, a revolving restaurant on the 18th floor of an imposing government building. With Kota Kinabalu at our feet, we snuggled into booths in shades of lime green and orange burnt to the same colour as an orangutan’s hair. We sipped martinis to the tunes of Shirley Bassey and my only complaint about this James Bond-inspired restaurant was the struggle I had choosing between the scallops on potatoes cakes, paella, and duck risotto. Settling on a Japanese tasting plate we figured it required the least amount of decision. The chilli infused chocolate fondant and chilli sorbet embraced our soaring fever for the region.
Interestingly, this foodie gem wasn’t readily advertised and like much of Borneo nothing is in your face but it’s worth the effort to seek out its treasures. That may explain why Sabah, “the land beneath the wind”, has been the destination below the tourist radar. However, gathering from the amount of construction in progress, the laid-back pace will be revitalised into a traveller’s haven. Naturally, there are mixed emotions about this. But no one will argue that raising the standard of living will be beneficial to the locals. Headway is in the making as many of the shanty-towns stand vacant alongside new apartment blocks. Just as the balconies are decorated with brightly-coloured washing; the future of Sabah looks luminous.
While in Kota Kinabalu, I highly recommend The Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa, especially for families. We once spent our daughter’s birthday here and they made a huge fuss with a birthday cake and a performance by the staff at the resort’s signature restaurant. And after returning to our suite, one last surprise lay in-store. Set out was another cake, and in a champagne bucket was a bottle of milk on ice. As I tucked my little wild one into bed, she was still giggling at, “the funny milk.” The evening’s turndown scent included lime, rose, ginger, lavender and Ylang Ylang and was named Moments, aptly for joy and contentment.
If you’re lucky, you might even arrange to be stranded on Gaya Island, located within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. On approach by speed boat, it’s almost impossible to tell that Gaya Island Resort’s villas are nuzzled into the hillside of an ancient rainforest. Built with local materials blending seamlessly into the natural escarpment, each luxurious villa has a unique outlook of the South China Sea, lush rainforest or the mangroves.
Meet some of the island’s inhabitants, such as the proboscis and macaque monkeys, red giant flying squirrels, bearded pigs, lizards or any of the 622 bird species recorded on the island. Or escape to a deserted beach with your beloved and little more than a snorkel and a picnic basket, or learn how to cook your favourite local delicacies. There are no vehicles on the hilly island, so even if you missed an early morning power walk, yoga or the gym, the mini trek to the day spa should iron out any indulgences by the time you’ve been tenderised and wrapped in an assortment of essential oils.
Local marine biologists invite guests into Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park to explore a wonder world of coral, colourful sea sponges, giant clams, sea anemones, clown fish, turtles and lobsters. So clear is the water, it’s a popular spot for underwater photography, and specialty photography courses are offered. Or postpone the inevitable return to reality by jumping aboard the resort’s 64-foot yacht and sailing off into the sunset.
For more adventures in Sabah, please check out 10 REASONS TO DESERT YOURSELF ON GAYA ISLAND
Carmen Jenner was a guest of Gaya Island Resort (www.gayaislandresort.com), Four Points Sheraton (which sadly closed in 2020 due to the pandemic) and Sabah Tourism www.sabahtourism.com.
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