Sabahs capital city a springboard to adventure

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KOTA KINABALU, Sabah -- One of the 13 states that make up Malaysia, Sabah is perched on the northeasternmost corner of the vast tropical island of Borneo, jutting out into the South China Sea.

The capital, Kota Kinabalu, on Sabahs west coast, is a curious mix of traditional markets, new buildings, hotels and resorts, which share the city with ramshackle residential areas.

Boats bring to the fish market an amazing array of fresh fish each morning, and the fruits and vegetables are a kaleidoscope of color and taste.

Eating out in Sabah, where the cuisine has many different Asian influences, is a mouth-watering delight.

The State Mosque in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.I was fascinated to wander through some of the residential areas as well as other villages along the coast where the houses are built in traditional fashion on stilts above the water; the poles of the stilts are square rather than round to prevent snakes and other crawlies from climbing them.

Beaming children gathered round to have their photos taken.

Within the city area are some interesting places to visit, including the State Museum, housed in a building based on the architecture of a longhouse; the Monsopiad Cultural Village, which includes a collection of human skulls; a couple of imposing mosques; and the Sabah Foundation building, a 30-story glass structure supported by high-tensile steel rods.

I had expected Mount Kinabalu (13,485 feet) to tower over the city, but even on a clear day only the outline of the peak is visible. It is about a two-hour drive inland to the headquarters of Kinabalu Park.

Most people spend a day in the park, taking in the Poring Hot Springs, tackling the nature trails, playing a round of golf, bird-watching and, hopefully, spotting a rafflesia, the worlds largest flower, in bloom.

It is possible to climb to the summit, but you need three days and must be properly prepared and equipped.

In recent years there has been a boom in construction of resort complexes, usually with a golf course to attract the corporate and leisure market, particularly from Asian countries.

It is usual to see the men out on the course while the wives and children laze round the pool or beach. There are seven top-class golf courses in Sabah, ranging from the Jack Nicklaus-designed Borneo Golf & Country Club to the spectacularly situated Mount Kinabalu Golf Club in the mountains foothills.

However, for a more central location close to the waterfront in Kota Kinabalu and all activities, I would recommend the Hotel Promenade; as with most hotels in Sabah, the rates are inexpensive.

For the more adventurous, a side trip to other parts of Sabah is recommended. A short flight past towering Mount Kinabalu brings you to Sandakan, which, until its total destruction at the end of World War II, was the capital of what was then known as British North Borneo. 

Sandakan is the site of the beginning of the infamous death march near the end of World War II, when about 2,400 Allied soldiers, mostly Australians, perished. The Australian Memorial is a stark reminder.

About 16 miles from the town is the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, established in 1964 in a virgin rain forest, where abandoned baby orangutans (usually the mother has been killed) are brought to be rehabilitated and reared. There they learn the basics of climbing, swinging and foraging before being returned to the wild.

This is a long process, taking up to six years. The orangutans are fed twice daily, and crowds of tourists gather at each session to watch and photograph these charming creatures.

My tour with Borneo Eco Tours continued into the jungle past huge plantations of palm loi trees. A boat ride on the Kinabatangan River brought us to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, tucked away among the thick vegetation. There we spent a comfortable night. 

On a late afternoon cruise along the narrow Menanggul River, a tributary of the Kinabatangan, we spied a number of proboscis monkeys, a couple of small snakes and numerous birds as well as macaque monkeys that showed amazing aerial skills high in the tree canopy.

On the return journey, the tour visited the Gomantong Caves where the locals collect bird nests that are used in birds nest soup.

Two huge caves are full of the swifts that make the edible nests found high up on the walls. The nests are collected (a short two-week season three times a year) by climbing long, swinging rattan ladders and prying them carefully off the walls with poles. No wonder the price of the soup is exorbitant.

The eastern and southern areas of Sabah are also famous for other activities, including turtle-breeding on some of the tiny islands in the Sulu Sea off Sandakan, the Danum Valley Conservation Area of primary lowland rain forest and scuba diving on the island of Sipadan.

Malaysia Airlines has regular flights to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur.

For more information on Sabah, visit www.sabahtourism.com. For more information on Borneo Eco Tours, call (208) 693-9118 for voice mail and fax. The Web site for Borneo Eco Tours is at www.borneoecotours.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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