Kudat, Two Hotels And The Tip Of Borneo

Tip of Borneo

School holidays, how sweet they are. Looking forward to escaping the clutches of Sandakan City for a few days, we decided to fly to Kudat.

Kudat is the last major town before you reach the tip of Borneo – Tanjung Simpang Mengayau. It’s isolated and relatively small with a population of about 85,000.
It is a 7-hour drive from Sandakan, a little too much for the old car, so we decided to fly. My wife had never been to this part of Sabah and I had only briefly transited on a flight to Kota Kinabalu

To be honest, I was looking for any excuse to fly in the Twin Otter again. It’s real flying and reminds me of my own relatively short experience as a private pilot over 30 years ago in Adelaide. The noise of the engines, the smell of aviation fuel and the rather uncomfortable seats add to that exquisite feeling of the gentle floating sensation you don’t get in a heavier jet aircraft.

“Sit anywhere you like.” I was told when we boarded – it’s that sort of flight. You see the every movement of the pilots, observe most of the flight instruments and the monotony of the job ( for them) after the takeoff and before the landing. Nothing like watching the knees of these young men bouncing up and down like nervous school boys who are longing for the home time bell to ring. It instils a sense of confidence in the passengers, I can assure you!

The flight lasts a mere 50 minutes over low lying mangrove and palm oil plantations – not a lot of jungle left in this part of Sabah.

The airport is really only an airstrip with a single green storey one-roomed building for arrivals and departures. The fire truck/van with its small water trailer has its attendant in an easy chair next to it, whiling away the time, waiting for the airports only daily flight. What a life.

Originally we intended to use these few days to just veg out and relax, but I wanted to hire a vehicle for a day for a little exploring. The hotel we intended to stay in, the Ria, seemed very casual about obtaining any information other than my wife’s name for the booking. They just said to call the morning of the departure to confirm. It’s interesting how you get so used to pre booking online and instant confirmation. This was very refreshing.

As it turned out, close friends of ours were spending the weekend in Kota Kinabalu and decided to come up the day of our arrival to take us to the tip of Borneo. They wanted to stay in the Kudat Golf and Marina Resort, consequently we agreed to stay there for our first night. After picking us up at the airport, we drove there to check in only to find the rooms were not ready. We decided to have a bite to eat at the hawker stalls near the town centre. The ambience and the odour weren’t the best, but the food was superb – a comprehensive collection of local seafood with rice and Chinese tea.

Arriving back to the hotel we were informed that the rooms were ready; gathering our bags we trundled down the corridor when a strange thing occurred. From some 10 metres away, I noticed a man in his swimming gear leave a room that I thought was ours. Not being sure, I opened the door to find to my horror, the room was strewn with clothes on the bed and shoes in the entrance. How embarrassing! My friend’s room was 2 doors down, so they entered using the electronic card provided. There just behind the door stood a man with an electronic card in hand. For a second or two, both men stared at each other speechless – a mini Mexican standoff. The occupant in the room felt indignant that his private space was being invaded and my friend astonished that the hotel should have stuffed up so badly.

What I find interesting is the hotel staff feigned indifference. This only made me mad to the point that the rest of the stay in that hotel was tainted by it.

Another 30 minutes past before we managed to secure our this time empty rooms. I did knock on the door before entering to make sure!

The hotel is only average, full of youngish families that entertained their children in the pool. The rooms are nothing special, dated and small. The shower or should I say a fountain with a peeing Cherub which surged to 4 separate trickles between periods of inactivity. (think of 4 young boys relieving themselves into a puddle of water ) Not in many showers can you watch an individual water droplet travel down your body without interference, turn the shower on and wait; a 2-minute shower that took 10. Marvellous!

After freshening up, kind of, we piled into the car for the journey to the tip of Borneo some 23 kilometres away though it seemed further.

Kudat was for a few years in the 1880’s the capital of North Borneo and an arrival point for many immigrating Hakka from China to escape persecution ( Taiping rebellion) or for economic reasons. Many cleared the area for coconut plantations before becoming farmers themselves.
My wife’s paternal ancestors arrived in this way before finally settling in Sandakan a number of years later.

The roads were of a similar standard to else where in Sabah – barely adequate; the reason most people here drive larger four wheel drives, especially if they travel outside of the major towns.

Kudat is still growing a significant amount of coconut, a pleasant change from palm oil. This area is still famous for its coconut virgin oil. The small kampongs swarmed with small unkempt children, mange ridden dogs and traditional local Rungus women weaving baskets on their wooden dilapidated thatched roofed verandas.

Just before the tip there is a long stretch of beach that is now the home to a few tacky tourist resorts of sorts. The beach would have been magnificent in years gone by, but like a lot of coastal regions in this part of the world is littered with mainly plastic objects. Nevertheless if you didn’t look too closely, it was a pleasant enough scene.

There is a car park 300 metres south of the tip with a few nondescript shelters to sit and admire the view. Just before the tip is a large concrete model of the world showing Borneo in all its glory. A plague with a brief description of the site and mentioning of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation fleet stopping there in 1421 for repair. (He himself was actually killed in the Philippines before this.)

The land finally peters out into a narrow stretch of sandstone jutting into the ocean to divide the South China Sea with the Sulu.

A number of islands can be seen on the horizon, one with a lighthouse and interesting sandstone formations adds to the spectacle. The obligatory selfies were being taken by the 50 or so visitors there at the time which is always a distraction, but it’s isolated enough to find some space away from the masses and go for a walk along the long sweeping beach.

Seafood again on the Kudat esplanade rounded off the day. Great meal, inexpensive, in a ramshackle timber restaurant that hangs over the water / plastic bottles. You can have too much of a good thing. By the time we left Kudat a few days later, I never wanted to see another prawn, fish or scallops during the rest of my life. ( feeling didn’t last long of course)

The following day our friends left to drive back to Sandakan while we moved to the Ria hotel. Compared with what we left, it was like chalk and cheese. A clean, smart and newly painted building in the centre of town. In fact it stood out because it was the best kept building in town. The staff were efficient and polite to deal with. The room was twice the size of the one in the Kudat Golf and Marina resort and a lot cleaner and in better repair. The view out of the window was across some roof tops to the harbour, not perfect but pleasant enough.

We ended up spending 2 more memorable days being driven around to explore both sides of the peninsular. The beaches on the South China Sea side had the least pollution.

To top off the visit, a friend of my wife took us to a local business man who amongst other things produces bird nests for the local market, but that did not interest us. He is the owner of a collection of relics from an old Chinese junk that had sunk only 400 metres form the tip of Borneo over 1000 years ago. He had obtained them off the fishermen that had found the wreck in 2003.

There is something magical to hold in your own hands pieces of pottery and bronze plaques of such age. Who made them? For Whom? Where were they going to? Questions that have no answers; lost in the midst of time.

All goods things must come to an end, so after a seafood meal or two it was time to return via the twin otter.

So, would I go back again? Yes, for the seafood, the hotel and of course the twin otter.

Kudat

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A Few Days In Malacca

The morning after the wedding’s reception, the alarm decided to relieve me from my sleep. The head was heavy, the half dozen glasses of red wine had seen to that, but I quickly remembered the task at hand for the early morn – find our way to TBS, the relatively new bus station in KL for our trip to Malacca.

Always worried about being on time, my phobia forced us to leave our hotel at 6.30 for an 8 am departure. The trip there involved changing from the LRT to another line, but with no hassles. KL’s underground rail system works very well apart from the ticket vending machines that more often than not, don’t work. The authorities recently have made an effort to make it easier to transfer from one line to another by improving the walking access and multi-trip ticketing, far better than the somewhat disjointed arrangement a few years back.

We arrived with plenty of time to spare and waited for our host and daughter. This station, I must say, is nothing like your average bus station. It’s large, very modern and most importantly for me, clean. Only a few years old, it mostly replaces a facility in Chinatown for those travelling south in the country.

The Transnational bus arrived on time. I sat with Lili and Poh with her daughter Karin across the aisle. Word of warning here. Never sit between good friends as you spend the time being talked across, it feels a lot like playing piggy in the middle. I jest, of course, it was not really a problem and made the 2.5 hour trip fly by, even if both ears are still ringing.

Malacca lies on the West coast of Peninsular Malaysia roughly half way between KL and Singapore. It has a long, interesting and varied history. This is not immediately apparent, as you bus in; the outer areas have a lot of modern construction, housing as well as business. This leaves an impression of an economically growing vibrant city.

I have previously been here a number of years before, but recognised very little at first. I was told a lot of people investing here are from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Tourists abound, so there is a very significant major hotel presence, very grand for a city of this size.

We arrived at 1030 and were picked up by Poh’s niece, Joyce and taken to a small Chinese restaurant on the side of the road near the coast. The very congenial owner greeted us with a broad smile and after much chatter in Chinese, a course of food was decided on. I’ll admit now on most occasions I allow my wife to decide what to eat. If it was left up to me, I’d eat the same old boring stuff every day. I am not that adventurous when it comes to trying new food, but when forced to, I usually enjoy the experience. This was no exception. The food, apart from being inexpensive was of high quality. The ambiance of the surroundings and the owner’s ancestry’s looking forlornly down upon the diners added to the culinary experience.

Our hosts live about 10 kilometres north of the city centre along a road full of old abandoned mansions and multi-storey high rise. I fear the old buildings with their large grounds will in time, create a great wall of towering condominiums. They are too much to maintain for the average private owner and are only saved from demolition, if business is interested in utilising the size for commerce. Some of the local banks have done just that in the centre of the city, but unfortunately there are more mansions than interested parties.

Poh and her families’ houses are just a street back from the sea. The ambiance of the area is one of peace and quiet; only the occasional dog barking intruded, no cacophony here.

After meeting the family and a quick shower, we ventured first to a coffee shop to try the local brew and watch ‘kaya’ being made. ( a coconut, sugar and egg yolk spread ) The golden brown treacly substance is smeared onto a piece of toasted bread or bun and served with local black coffee. We watched it being made in a back room. Two ladies sitting over a metal stewing pot, the ingredients heated over a low gas flame and stirred for 3 hours to get the right consistency. It is very sweet, fattening but scrumptious. After a short walk to view the straits and its shipping, we ventured back into town.

Half way there, the traffic started to grind to a halt and it soon became apparent this was no ordinary jam. As we crawled along at walking pace a long line of parked and par king cars snaked for a hundred metres or more in front of us. The reason, you ask? The world famous ( for this place at least ) Klebang coconut milk shake. Yes, the world here was grinding to a stand still for a milkshake. I don’t know about you, but for me to line up dozens deep, it would have to be something very special. I was to learn later that Malacca inhabitants won’t give another thought to waiting in a long queue for an indeterminate amount of time to get into their favourite chicken and rice ball or satay celup restaurant. Nothing like good food to create your routine and habits. We did some general sightseeing and shopping, then returned for the evening Mother’s Day dinner.

The old Portuguese Fort encompassing St Paul's church - Wikipedia

The old Portuguese Fort encompassing St Paul’s church – Wikipedia

Malacca is steeped in history. Going back 500 years, it was a strategic outpost, one of three ( the others being Singapore and Penang) due to its location on the Straits of Malacca. It controlled trade that passed through the very narrow waters between Malaya and Sumatra. This all changed in 1511 when the Portuguese arrived and overthrew the local Sultan. The European presence in the region was increasing due to the spice trade which led to increased colonisation of the region.

Fortaleza Malacca

Fortaleza Malacca

The Portuguese built A Famosa ( fort, only the front gate exists today ) and remained for about 130 years with limited success as traders until the Dutch in cahoots with the Sultan of Johore replaced them, though even today there is still an enclave of Portuguese descendants.

" Red " Centre of town

” Red ” Centre of town

The Dutch for their part built the ” Red Stadthuys” administration centre of town that can be still be seen today though these days, it consists of museums and various churches.

Eventually 180 years later, the British replaced the Dutch, who had agreed to accept some land in Java in exchange. There they remained until independence in 1957.

The eclectic blend of European and Asian buildings makes Malacca the interesting place it is. The old part of town has very narrow honeycomb streets that were never designed to cater for motor vehicles. Most are one way and frequent traffic jams are common. There is a mixture of trendy modern business with traditional Chinese family homes. The old buildings are generally narrow, deep terraces with roofs made of rows of unique corrugated clay red tiles. In the oldest buildings, the original plain dutch facades are hard to find being replaced later by Classical, Chinese and Malay additions.

The town has many churches, temples and mosques – all interesting in their own way and its diverse inhabitants complement the feeling of something unique.

Unique Mosque

Unique Mosque

The evenings meal was in part prepared by the adult children of the family to show appreciation for their mothers’ efforts. Most of the children live and work in other parts of the country or overseas and made the effort to be there for their mothers as well as for the Vesak day celebrations, the Buddha’s birthday.

We were asked if we would like to walk in their annual parade the next evening and accepted the invitation without question.

The following morning saw us exploring the old St Paul’s Church on top of a small steep hill in the historical centre. Upon ascent, you are greeted by St Francis Xavier himself in all his marble glory. ( he was interned here for a short period of time after his death). Built by the Portuguese early on in its occupation for its Catholic population, only the outer walls and Apse of the church are now intact. The interior walls support many tomb stones of the local Dutch and Portuguese dating from the 16th century, but unfortunately for me, not in English. The Dutch converted it to Dutch Reformed where it remained as a place of worship until Christ Church was completed in 1753 in the Stadthuys.

Old Portuguese Gate

Old Portuguese Gate

After investigating the tombstones behind the church from the English period, we ventured down to the remains of the Old Portuguese fort. Not a lot to see but interesting all the same. My attention was distracted by a group of people using what I could only describe as a golf shaft-cum-telescopic rod with a frame to hold a telephone on, so one could, by stretching the arm and rod away from the body, take the perfect self-indulging selfie. Really, I could think of better ways of taking photos without looking ridiculous. Anyway each to their own.

The old fort that was unceremoniously blown up by the British is continuously being rediscovered, the foundations at least, each time they excavate old car parks and building lots. Some of these areas are quite a distance from the remaining gate meaning this must have been an impressive structure in its time; at one stage it housed the entire Portuguese population in Malacca.

That afternoon we prepared for the Vesak precession. The participants wear all white, so that proved a challenge to find a clothing combination that came close. My wife and I had a slightly offbeat look, but came close to looking the part.

We drove to Poh’s uncle’s place to collect a bus with 40 other devotees that took us to the site to assemble. Due to anticipated traffic issues, we left early and arrived with plenty of time to spare. In fact, time to try out the famous local celup satays.

The dining tables are round with a circular metal container sunk into the centre. This pot contains a mixture of what looks like peanut sauce and oil. Underneath the table is a gas flame to keep the contents simmering. The idea is to go to a large bank of refrigerators and choose from an assortment of skewers with either chicken, pork products, seafood or various vegetables. The food is then placed into the boiling sauce and cooked. Occasionally, the staff add more sauce into the mixture and gives it a stir. The smell of peanuts permeates through out the premises. Simple, effective and delicious and when finished, the waiting staff just tallies up the empty skewers left and you pay for what you eat.

After dinner, we all looked forward to our impending walk. With 42 floats in the parade, we were assigned to number 19. I assumed for some unknown reason this was just going to be a jaunt around the block. How wrong I was.

The night was hot and sultry. I was sweating profusely before we even began. The start was slow due to the sheer number of people involved. I won’t attempt to estimate the numbers, but it would have been in the thousands. This stop start affair meandered through the older sectors of town with large numbers of people lining both sides of the streets to pay their respects to the Buddha. Small gifts were handed out to the crowd with children being the main beneficiaries. Almost all were of Chinese descent apart from a small sprinkling of overseas tourists.

The walk lasted two and a half hours and all of us were foot weary by the end, the atmosphere – the sounds and sights and the sense of community made it a fulfilling and tranquil experience.

The last full day in Malacca was spend eating and talking with our new found friends. One last surprise awaited me though. An evening meal was arranged in a popular open air restaurant. Our group who had been doing a little last minute window shopping were the last to arrive. And there on the table in front of me was, to my utter surprise, a Klebang coconut milkshake.

Famous Coconut Milkshake

Famous Coconut Milkshake

Everyone, by this stage, had heard I would not get into a line up for a milkshake, but someone made the effort for me.
This simple gesture typifies the great hospitality and generosity shown to us for the few days we were in Malacca. I extent my deep gratitude to Poh and her family members who went out of their way to make our experience an exceptional one.

The next morning we bused it to the new KLIA2 terminal (another post) and returned to Sandakan.

Is that milkshake worth lining up for, you ask?
All I’ll say is go to Malacca to find out.

 

 

 

 

On A Wing And A Prayer

 

photo

 

A bleak afternoon, thunderstorms and driving winds. I arrived at Kota Kinabalu International Airport 4 hours early for my flight back to Sandakan. Very early I know, but being the conservative person I am and the water rising in the street, persuaded me to err on the side of caution.

This airport is only 6 years old and I must say usually a pleasure to arrive or depart from compared with most. It’s medium sized as airports go, the third biggest in Malaysia after KL, catering for about 12 million passengers a year who visit Sabah. It’s modern, metallic and has 12 air bridges, never feels busy and you can easily find a place to sit away from others.

After disembarking from the taxi drenched, I sloshed towards the check-in counter and waddled through the x-ray past immigration that appeared to make only a cursory glance at the screen whilst continuing their more important discussion on the day’s current gossip. Maybe I don’t look like a terrorist.

I arrived before my wife and her conference colleagues, waited in a state of misery, some what exacerbated by the building’s cold air-conditioning.
Being a creature of habit I had immediately gone straight to my flight’s departure gate, indicated by the electronic board as A8.

My wife and her friends duly arrived and as per usual discussed work, ignoring me. Feeling neglected, I got up and wandered around the terminal which is mostly empty of things to do.

The major shortcoming in the departure hall is that most of the allocated shop spaces are empty. There are dozens and dozens of empty ‘shop fronts, in a myriad of short passages coming off the main thoroughfare. It’s possible to go into the bowels of the retail area and be completely alone.

Interestingly there are two terminals at this airport which are diagonal across the runway from each other. The low cost terminal which is smaller is always very busy. It seems odd to me that they don’t incorporate both under the same roof; more efficient way of using space and I suspect a way to enliven the retail areas. Anyway, the authorities must have their reasons, I suppose.

I happened to glance up at the departure board to discover, to my surprise, that the gate had changed to A6. I duly informed the others, so we gathered our belongings and moved to the new allocated gate.

Upon arrival, only a small group of tourists were milling around, we sat ourselves close to the front counter. The electronic board flashed up Sandakan and the flight number. A man sat there doing his paper shuffling and all seemed well. Except…

The gate next to us was experiencing some sort of commotion with a group of about 10 passengers milling around an official all looking very animated. I had no idea what it was about, but can only assume it was something to do with a communication breakdown. ( maybe the infamous departure board) I couldn’t hear anything from where we were, but it was highly entertaining and helped while away the remaining 45 minutes.

Being the observant creature I am , I noticed as the departure time approached, a distinct lack of passengers and no aircraft in the bay. Besides that, the little man at the front counter had suddenly disappeared and the electronic sign board had stopped flashing Sandakan. I walked to the departure board and as I am sure you have already guessed, discovered we were now back at A8. !!!

A mad dash to the new gate ensured where we joined the throngs who were about to board the aircraft. ( How did they know and not us?) Throughout all of this there were no announcements on the intercom that things had changed.

Lesson to be learned. Mistake on my part – If I hadn’t constantly been checking the departure board we would have been blissfully ignorant of the transitory change. Don’t assume officialdom will tell you everything you need to know in this part of the world. Most information seems to be gained by the mysterious process of mental osmosis, you are just expected to know. For some reason, the authorities don’t like giving out info unless it’s deemed unequivocally necessary (to them). Who decides this is anyone’s guess, so be prepared to expect the unexpected.

One little side issue to finish, Just before take off, after the safety video, a short prayer was offered for the safe passage of the flight.
Now that really does instil confidence!