Updated  
January, 28 2014 04:10:00

Malaysian island offers jungle getaway

Island idyll: The cool breeze and clear waters on Pulau Manukan Island make this a perfect spot to relax. — VNS Photo Van Dat.

by Van Dat

Amid the vast rain forests of Borneo Island, lies a region unlike any other. A world made up of animal kingdoms, mystical prehistoric caves, lofty mountains and amazing underwater gardens.

Kota Kinabalu, formerly known as Jesselton, house of the roof of Southeast Asia, is the capital of Sabah, which is one of two states in East Malaysia, and home to many ethnic groups, who practice age-old customs and fascinating rituals.

Having done some research, Kota Kinabalu sounded much more interesting than the modern capital I had first imagined. Kota in the local language means city, and Kinabalu is the Mount Kinabalu - it's the city of Mount Kinabalu, my friendly local tour guide explained.

It takes a two-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, a small and pretty city perched on the coast. I was excited about the amazing few days ahead of me, to be spent studying the traditions of local ethnic groups on one of the most beautiful islands I had ever been to.

Conquering the peak of Kinabalu and enjoying what the forest has to offer - rafting, trekking, kayaking - are the top attractions at Jesselton. Unfortunately, while we were in Sabah, it was rainy season, and we were advised not to venture too far into the forest for safety reasons.

However, I had the opportunity to explore a bit of the Sabah forest while visiting the Mari Mari Cultural Village, which offers insights into the living cultures of five tribes in Sabah.

The three-hour-trek through the jungle took me through five tribal dwellings and taught me much about the tribes' cultures and customs in Kota Kinabalu. Every member of the village dresses in handmade loincloths and feathers and we were taught how to cook bamboo rice and rice-wine, a shirt from the jackfruit tree and how to start a fire from bamboo.

All visitors to the village, including myself, had to have their body and belongings checked carefully by the locals, according to their tradition to ensure people do not bring weapons into their home.

Although I knew it was fake, I felt strangely intimidated by the ritual chanting they perform when accepting strangers to the village. The traditional music and bamboo dancing gave us tourists an insight into their cultural heritage. It is a must-visit destination in Kota Kinabalu, a chance to witness little known ways of life up-close and right at the very heart of nature.

Traditional ritual: Visitors to the Mari Mari Cultural Village can see a bamboo dance performance by ethnic tribe members. — VNS Photo Van Dat.

To visit Kota Kinabalu without taking a boat to some of the nearby islands for a snorkeling or diving trip, would be a shame. I opted for Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park not far from the city - from Jesselton Point, it is just 20 minutes on boat.

The marine park, named after Malaysia's first Prime Minister, is a great way to see the islands. I was amazed with the beauty of the clear sea, blue sky and the scattering of beautiful green islands.

The park consists of five islands of varying size: Pulau Gaya, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik, Pulau Sapi and Pulau Sulug. The tour guide suggested we visit two of them on this visit and save the rest for a second visit.

After arriving on Pulau Mamutik and having taken more than enough photos, I joined some friends swimming and snorkeling. Some went island hopping, others rode on a banana boat, and some wandered around the island enjoying the breeze and stunning views. All of us found a way to enjoy the natural beauty of the island.

As ever, our time on the island was too short. After finishing the seafood buffet there, we headed to Pulau Manukan. Again, we spent the day swimming, snorkeling and soaking up the views, until it was time to return to shore once more.

Once back on land we went to check out what the local markets had to offer. Just ten minutes walk from the hotel, we reached the Filipino Market, where almost 70 per cent of traders are Filipino. The tour guide explained that this is because Kota Kinabalu is located very near to the Philippines.

If visitors want to witness an Asian market in full swing and get a sense of local culture, the Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu is the place to go. The people there were so friendly and smiley and took the time to say hello to us, even though we bought nothing, and just took lots of pictures.

The market sells handicrafts and souvenirs, especially pearls, and is located close to the sea, where fish arrives straight from the fishermen's boats.

Myself and two friends then went to try a taste of Malay gastronomy. All along the waterfront, stall holders serve up delicious local food. We ate big grilled lobsters and some delicious fish that had been prepared by locals.

After a magical few days visiting the tribal villages in Sabah, enjoying the sun and sea breeze on the nearby islands and the amazing local hospitality, I had no regrets leaving Kota Kinabalu City except that I couldn't stay any longer. I promised myself I would return, and when I do, I will conquer the roof of Southeast Asia. — VNS

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