Welcome to the land below the wind
“You don’t wake up in the morning with the sound of a boorish alarm clock like a cat that’s hit by a pan. You don’t scuttle, walk like a zombie, and hurriedly go downstairs for a sip of coffee that’s so hot it could almost cook your tongue. Rather you wake up with a melodic symphony coming from an orchestra of 568 species of birds, skillfully amplified by the refreshing tropical zephyr of one of the world’s oldest rainforests. You check the time, slowly get up from the bed, and head out to open the door to welcome a new day in Sabah.”
That’s how I usually recount my evocative days I had with the “Land Below the Wind” to my forever curious friends. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how I ended up in the second largest state of Malaysia. I never had enough pixie dust to carry my own weight nor could I be blown away by traversing along the typhoon belt. It would also be wishful thinking of having to teleport myself in a zap or by a magic carpet ride. As my unmindful brain is starting to dwindle over the matter, I looked inside my bag and found the very simple answer to my quandary – my boarding pass.
I remembered flying an altitude of 14,000 feet and while heading to the easternmost region of Malaysia, it seemed that I could almost touch the pinnacle of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, Mt. Kinabalu. Seeing its rugged terrain and elevation from my window and the approximate two-and-a-half-hour flight gave me enough exploding energy to reach my climax of excitement.
Up ahead in a distance, I could see the city of Kota Kinabalu shining like a faded silver blanket. Sabah’s capital serves as an international access point to Malaysia’s eastern gateway and caters to flights from Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Kuching, Singapore, Manila, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Brunei. If traveling domestically, daily flights between Labuan, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, and Tawau are available, too.
Just before the plane touched down, I felt like I had been sucked into a wormhole and had been transported to a different era - to the historical period of WWII or shortly thereafter. My rusty and limited knowledge of the subject had come in handy, and it was almost the last thing that I needed to help me get through in my quest. Inside my head, quickly scanning the pages of my left hemisphere, I dug out some information about the place. Originally founded as Jesselton, the city is a living witness to the Japanese invasion against the British-Australian forces. After the war, the whole city was rebuilt and was renamed Kota Kinabalu by the year 1963.
Today, Kota Kinabalu, or universally known as KK, is becoming a great global player in the hospitality and tourism industries. The city comprises a handful of prestige buildings, excellent budget accommodation, and a growing number of shopping centers from the simple native stalls to competitive department stores. The engaging town provides great activities of leisure including the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park and a surprisingly fun nightlife. In the heart of the city you may encounter 31 different ethnicities of people or groups such as Kadazans, Bajaos, Sulu, Muruts, Kedayan’s, Rumanau, Minokok, Rungus, and Bisaya from the neighboring Philippines.
A 25-minute flight from the vibrant city of KK to the little Hong Kong of Sabah, I reached Sandakan. The second largest city in Sabah situated on the northeastern coast of Borneo and is the administrative center of the Sandakan Division. It had served as the capital of the British North Borneo during the colonial time.
The pages of history came flashing before me once again. Sandakan, formerly known as Elopura, was also a site of WWII. The Sandakan airport used to be a Japanese airfield that was built by the forced labor of 6,000 Javanese civilians and allied prisoners of war. In 1945, the surviving Australian prisoners were sent on the Sandakan Death Marches and only 6 of them survived.
In recent time, this sleepy ancestral town has now become an ecotourism destination in Sabah which houses the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center that was built in 1964 within the 4,300 hectare Kabili-Sepilok forest reserve where friendly yet notorious chimps are rehabilitated before releasing them into the wild. The new Sun Bear conservation center established in 2008, to mother the world’s smallest bear also raises curiosity among nature lovers. For those who are blessed with high-energy levels, trekking the Rainforest Discovery Centre is absolutely rewarding, as the trail leads you to the deeper part of the rainforest. A 300-meter canopy is erected, 25 meters above the ground and offers majestic views of the lush rainforest that is home to different species of birds and animals. Nearby are the heart-stirring Turtle Islands Park, Kinabatangan River, and Gomantong caves.
The three-to-four story concrete shop houses hoisted side-by-side with taller office buildings seen in the center of town evokes a memory of a distant past. The presence of Agnes Keith House, the succulent scones of the old English Tea House, Sandakan War Memorial Park, the Japanese Cemetery, the granite parish church of St. Michael and All Angels, Puu Jhi Shih Buddhist Temple, Sam Sing Kung Temple (the oldest building in Sandakan completed in 1887) Barhala and Lankayan island proved that the town is a one great adventure itself.
As I walked along the pavement, down the old shops in the cool month of January, the rain started to fall slowly from the sky. One by one, each drop continued to get bigger until it poured furiously like it never happened before. While everybody was squeezing themselves to a corner for cover, the umbrella that I tightly held onto was twisted by an angry gust of wind.
The chill in the air had totally enveloped my frail figure making me shiver in banshee-like reverberations. Did the gods of the rainforest know that I would be leaving the next day and sent the storm to punish me? Or was it a way of begging me to stay for a little longer and go back to the woods and help in the conservation effort? It left me thinking about a million different things.
Yet I continued my stride, smiling while remembering Mr. Snuggles’ words “most are not aware that when it rains, one will end up getting wetter if one runs, walking in steady steps, on a nice runway, with a worthy strut, is still the best way to keep oneself from soaking.”
So it was, as I walked and entered the Four Points hotel by Sheraton that lies in the scenic harbor pedestrian promenade overlooking the Sulu Sea, I saved myself from getting soaked. But I failed to save my heart for it was drenched with the feeling of missing the places that I have traveled to in a short span of time. Through all this, the warm hospitality of the newly -built hotel coupled with the General Manager’s comical wit, Syntio Camilleri had not only given me a sense of relief but uniquely the hotel offers tours to eco-attractions and that left me wanting for more.
I could go on and on, but I’m afraid that if I talk too much I won’t be able to hold myself back and will spoil the adventures and surprises that await everyone who visits Sabah. Like anybody out of the ordinary, each one has a story to be told. If you ask me, there will be no more pixie dust to carry me back to that place or be whisked away by a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 737. It will only be a matter of time until the Sabah Tourism Board will generously invite me again. But if all else fails, I’ll patiently wait for the bold pirate of the forest, Sam Mannan of Sabah’s Forestry Department to get me in his hook and in his big ship as we go sailing to the deepest and mysterious expanse of Borneo’s 130 million years old rainforest.
Tomorrow, I will be back in my apartment and my reality will flash before me again and together with that, I will throw the boorish alarm clock out the window and the nosy cat outside will welcome the change.
Jan Sevilla is a quixotic nomadic chick from the Philippines with some difficulty of having her subject agree to her verb. She is forever 25. Convinced herself that she is alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how oxygenated the blood that flows in her brain. Catch more of her travel murmurs at : http://najsevilla.blogspot.com/