City gal roughs it in Kampung Penambawan

Travel Weekly editor at large Nadine Godwin, a city dweller by inclination, nevertheless seeks out small towns and villages for their tourist appeal. Her report on one such day trip in Malaysia's state of Sabah follows:

he world's small places are excellent additions to tour itineraries. They are easy to take in on short visits, and the people are usually friendlier than city folks and may be more colorful in their clothing styles and practices.

Besides, to the extent that visitors go outside the population centers, they spread tourist dollars around.

For reasons less altruistic -- curiosity and a wish to collect another experience that is unique in a travel career -- I contracted with a local ground operator, Exotic Adventure, based in the Sabahan capital of Kota Kinabalu (K.K.), to take another journalist and me to the fishing village of Kampung Penambawan.

We drove less than an hour north of the capital -- where our hotel, Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort, was located (see room key below) -- to a river town called Serusup.

The fishing village of Kampung Penambawan is situated entirely over water, save for the school which sits on land abutting the village. Here we boarded a small motorized boat for the 10-minute ride to our destination. We had the best spaces, on the floor at the widest point in the middle; our transport accommodated the boatman, our guide and two hitchhikers aiming to get home.

Getting out of that rocking boat was a precarious enterprise but a fitting prelude to walking a city-block-long pier that was 3 to 4 feet wide and bound on both sides by nothing but water that seemed to reach forever.

It was good training for walking in the village of about 1,000, where the wooden, stilt-supported "sidewalks" wend their way among the houses and stores.

Fishing is the on-site business -- naturally -- made apparent by the boats and the tools of the trade here and there.

Cats are not exactly tools of the trade, but these fish-eaters are everywhere, bobtailed about half the time.

Overwater housing requires stilts, but stilts are a land-based tradition, too, to stay clear of animals and water, to better circulate the air and, in the bad old days, to thwart headhunters by pulling the staircase into the house.

One guidebook calls Penambawan a kind of Venice, but I wouldn't. At least there is some land in Venice. Here, everything is over water, except for the school that sits on land abutting the village.

But the people -- who are of the Bajau ethnic group and Muslim -- are not exactly backward. Some commute to jobs in the information technology industry, but there are no places to plug in at home.

The children are studying English; I heard youngsters serenading us with a Peter, Paul and Mary folksong.

Happy to see us, they ran on those overwater paths (falling in probably isn't the issue for them that it would be for me) and happily practiced language skills with me. They were glad to pose for photos, as well; one small boy rushed for his baby brother, then dived in front of me to be sure he was included. It worked.

Because of the heat, it is best to arrive early at the village. After taking a soft drink on the shaded porch of a small shop in Penambawan, we walked the long pier again and were in Serusup well before noon.

For the return to K.K., we took a more inland route through territory distinguished by mountains, river valleys in daunting ravines and the suspension bridges that make travel by foot among villages practical. They cross the Kiulu River, which is used by local tour operators for river-rafting trips.

These days, the bridges, which sway at an altitude well above the top of a New York walk-up apartment building (more than five stories), are hung on steel cables.

We walked on sturdy planks and were comfortingly enclosed, up to the shoulder-height cables, by netting.

They are good enough, in fact, that locals even drive their motorcycles across.

That would be a unique experience, wouldn't it?

Room key: Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru RESORT
Address: Locked bag 174, 88995 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Telephone: (011) 60-88 225-800
Fax: (011) 60-88 244-871/217-155
E-mail:[email protected]
Manager: Mark Heywood
Head concierge: Abdul Lasid Imao Sid
Number of units: 254 in Tanjung Wing; 245 in Kinabalu Wing. The total includes 40 suites.
Renovation report: Property dates from 1983, the newer wing (Kinabalu) from 1994; rooms in older wing (Tanjung) set for upgrade and expansion.
Rates: From $127 per room, single, or $140 per room, double.
Room amenities: Ironing board and iron; cloth bathrobe; hair dryer; safe; skirt hangers; minibar; detergent in amenities kit; U.S.-style phone jacks and U.K.-style electrical outlets; 24-hour cable TV news; 24-hour room service.
Facilities: Six restaurants; swimming pools, tennis courts, nine-hole golf course, water-sports facilities.
Business facilities: Fully equipped business center; Horizon Club providing free breakfast and other amenities; conference facilities.
Noteworthy: Beautiful beach setting, though limited sand; more beach and sand on nearby island national park; waiters deliver to the outdoor Sunset Bar on bikes; appealing mini-art gallery displaying carved items, some old traditional tribal goods, some new and based on the old.
Not worthy: Could not tame the air conditioning.

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