Travel · Travel stories

Land below the wind – Malaysian Borneo

This piece was written by  celebrated cricket writer R.Mohan for The Deccan Chronicle and Puliyogare Travels

Sabah, also known as Malaysian Borneo, has been famous for centuries as the ‘land below the wind’ Travel brochures are known to exaggerate but the description of an “untouched paradise’ fits the land as snugly as the poisoned darts of the head hunters fit inside the iron wood pipe from which they launched them at visitors with just their breath. The conflicted land with a chequered colonial history is now a well developed paradise of nature trails in a rain forest that is 130 million years old, beach resorts, golf courses and the tallest mountain in this part of the world – Mt Kinabalu – which is set amid the finest unspoilt natural resources.

It may have been a deep, mysterious and unknown part of the world even a few decades ago, but the ultra modern infrastructure and the easy air connectivity to India, China and all the cities of the eastern region, which are never more than two flights away, belie the ancient history of Borneo filled with tales of head hunters and sea gypsies. The last pirates were disabled a century ago and the head hunters are even more of ancient history, which is simply re-enacted by surviving members of the fiercest Murut tribe for the edification and cultural information of tourists. What the country is most sold on these days are big fat Indian weddings.

The Shangri-la Rasa Ria resort here hosted a famous one recently and the people have not stopped talking about it yet. They are in awe of the startling opulence, the mind boggling logistics and the sheer imagination of bringing 700 guests to a virtually unknown corner of the world and making such a success of it that wedding planning has become the national pastime while the resorts and hotels are fascinated by the prospect of hosting such mega events. They just can’t wait to see the next big Indian wedding to lay out the great taste of Sabah hospitality.

As an Indian billionaire’s son, the scion of a mall and real estate tycoon, wed in the country, the family flew in 50 cooks and 30 helpers. As many as 400 Innovas were ordered to ferry the guests around even as logistics managers flew hither and thither to ensure the best ingredients, including the right size of almonds, were available for the VIPs. In keeping with the traditions of the song and dance at the barats, the enjoyment of weddings comes with the loudest noises along with the colour and the excitement. Other guests of the 499-room resort were told they could either stay and enjoy their holiday at the cost of the wedding host or check out. No one left.

A wedding planning department is now one of the busiest in the Shangri- la resorts – yes there are two, one in the heart of Kota Kinabalu and the other 40 kms away and nearer Mt Kinabalu. Most weddings may pale in comparison to what the mall millionaires Sarafs conducted, but there have already been two other big fat Indian weddings and hundreds of others as KK has transformed into the most famous wedding destination of eastern Malaysia. The scope for imagination in using the beach, the water spots, the gardens and the spas is virtually unlimited and the friendly KK tourism office goes out of the way to arrange anything, including elephants for the barat.

This fascination with weddings may even come from the history of Borneo. The father tribals were so fiercely protective of their virgin daughters that they would go to great lengths to protect them. A whole village would live in a common wooden house that could have as many 150 rooms for the tribal elders. Their unmarried daughters were always made to sleep in the loft and the dad would pull the ladder away at night and store it right next to his bed so there would be no sexual threat to his daughter. The climb to the loft would also be so perilous without the timber pole for support that there was a fair guarantee there would be no hanky-panky at night. And then there would be the fierce head hunter’s temperament and hunting ability to consider.

The hand of the Murut woman was hard to win. The prospective grooms had to have killed a couple of men and strung their skulls to the rope belt on their hunting dress if they were to impress a head hunter father-in-law. And then there is the trampoline test. The village house would have this quite amazing sunken floor made of spring-like wood that would enable a man to jump in the air as if off a spring-loaded trampoline. Coveted prizes would be hanging from the ceiling some 20 feet from the platform and the agility of warriors would be tested as they jump to snag the prize with their fingertips.

The preservation of a woman’s honour in the commune was an early cultural priority even in a people who believed in hunting heads not only for honour but also cannibalism. Such is the history of a land with the greatest biodiversity which has metamorphosed into a modern society now offering the best of comforts and the most diverse of activities and adventure sport in an exciting cocktail that ensures tourist footfalls. There is one other factor – the unassuming and simple Sabah folk with absolutely the best temperament in the world – which lends comfort and assurance to a stay in the country.

The clinching factor is the climate. It rained for days on end in August when we were there, but those weather conditions were most unusual. The region offers the finest climate. In warm summer, the temperature sometimes gets to a high of 35 degrees Celsius. In the cold of winter sometimes the mercury drops to 23 Celsius. It is hard to imagine a more temperate climate in the tropical world unless, of course, the tourist is hardy enough or foolhardy to attempt to scale Mt Kinabalu’s 13,000 feet where the oxygen may be less and the temperature below zero.

(to be continued…..)

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