Buffalo race at Tamu Besar, Kota Belud. PICTURE BY CLEMENT LIEW SABAH TOURISM BOARD (credit Clement Liew and Sabah Tourism Board )

A weekend backpacking trip to Kota Belud whets Zulkifly Ab Latif’s appetite for more discoveries

IT’S nearly 3pm when I reach Padang Merdeka Bus Terminal, located within the centre of Kota Kinabalu.

The feeling of anxiety begins to creep in as I realise how big and chaotic the terminal is, which stretches along Jalan Padang that leads to Padang Merdeka field.

Serving as a public transportation hub that connects the city to Sabah’s interior rural towns, Padang Merdeka Bus Terminal is abuzz with activities as locals board the many buses, minivans and taxis to their respective destinations.

My backpack feels heavy and sweaty against my back as I walk through diesel fumes and along the terminal’s road looking for vehicles heading to Kota Belud town, located some 70 kilometres away.

The anxious feeling in my mind gets stronger as I worry that I may have missed the last trip of the day. I am on a tight budget for this three-day trip to Sabah, and naturally a taxi ride or even an e-hailing ride is an expensive alternative.


NohutoEco-Tourism consists of bamboo houses and camping grounds beside a serene river

Mumbling to myself that I should have chosen an earlier AirAsia flight from Johor Baru, I suddenly spot a white minivan parked in front of a signpost that says Kota Belud. I feel a deep sense of relief when the driver affirms my question if he is heading towards Kota Belud town.

Paying my fare of RM10 and loading my backpack into the van, I find out that the van will only depart after it is filled with passengers, which might take another hour or so of waiting.

Estimating the drive to be around two hours, I realise that I will only reach Kota Belud sometime around 6pm.

This would not be of any concern if I am spending the night in the town, but since I am planning to take the local public transportation there to another destination some 30km further into the interior, the anxiety that had disappeared swiftly returns.

FINAL DESTINATION

Guessing it right, the mini van I am in finally reaches Kota Belud at 6.15pm. Compared to Peninsular Malaysia, the sunsets a little bit earlier here in Sabah, and its already a bit dark while I try to get my bearings in the small town of Kota Belud.

With not a taxi or a minivan or a bus in sight, I make my way to the town’s main market area. I open the e-hailing app on my phone, desperately hoping I may be able to hail a car to the destination I planned but it is a futile attempt as the map reads there are no available e-hailing cars inthe area.

The day is getting darker and darker as I walk around town asking the locals if there are any buses or minivans to Melangkap Tiong, my final destination for the day.

Most of the answers I receive are disappointing, since according to them any public transportation trips have ended this late in the evening. Perhaps noticing my backpack and how I aimlessly walk, a man standing next to a beaten up Proton Waja car asks me where I am headed to.

Telling him my destination, he pauses for awhile before asking for some payment to drive me there. I realise that the amount he is asking for is perhaps twice the normal taxi fare, but without any other available recourse I frustratingly agree.

It is nearly 8pm when I finally reach the compound of Sekolah Kebangsaan Melangkap, a primary school near the village of Melangkap Tiong. Remembering the directions given by the campsite’s owner, I walkpass the school to a house with some banners that reads Nohutu Eco-tourism.

A friendly woman who I assume is one of the staff greets me and confirms my accommodation booking. Tired from the journey and from the many anxiety attacks to reach here, I am ready to throw down my backpack and keel over on a bed when I find out that the bamboo house and campsite grounds are actually another 200 metres away down river.

THE MORNING AFTER

Despite the insulated sleeping bag I’m using as a blanket, the crisp and cold morning air that seeps through the spaces between the bamboo floors and walls of the house I am staying in wakes me before dawn.

Shivering and hungry, I make breakfast with the supplies I’ve packed. Sitting on the small balcony nursing a pleasantly hot cup of instant coffee, I begin to finally take in the surroundings that I was oblivious to the night I arrived.

As the day begins with the coming of light, the magnificent view of the Sungai Panataran takes shape, elegantly flowing in the foreground against the backdrop of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain.

Nohutu Eco-Tourism’s main attraction is definitely this beautiful sprawling hillside river scenery, which it shares with other campsites and chalets built by local villagers along the river banks.

Interestingly, this area near the river only gained popularity after the 2015 earthquake that struck Ranau causing massive boulders and granite rocks to tumble down from Mount Kinabalu and into the riverbeds, altering the landscape that now attracts throngs of visitors.

Apart from the unique scenery of the river and Mount Kinabalu, Nohuto EcoTourism also offers six rustic bamboo houses for accommodations, as well as a camping ground near the riverbank and a jungle trekking trailthatleads to a serene and secluded lagoon.

CHANGE OF PLAN

Although as beautiful as I imagined it to be, the picturesque village of Melangkap Tiong is too remote to be reliably reached by an almost non-existent public transportation.

Even though it is possible to charter a taxi or car from Kota Belud, it is highly advisable and farmore convenientto rent a car and simply self drive to Melangkap Tiong village and Nohuto Eco-Tourism.

A mere 31km from Kota Belud town, I had initially planned to spend two nights at Nohuto Eco-Tourism, venturing only to Kota Belud town by bus foradaytrip exploring its town and Tamu Besar open-air market. Realising the plan to be impractical, I bid beautiful Nohuto an early farewell and decide to find accommodations within the Kota Belud town area.

Situated on the west coast of Sabah, Kota Belud town is the capital for the district of Kota Belud. With a high population of Sama-Bajau, a collective term for various related ethnic groups that identify as Bajaus, Kota Belud is a bustling small town brimming with ethnic culture, best exemplified by its weekly Sunday tamu or open-air markets.

On top of that, there is also the Tamu Besar or Great Market, held annually in October on the grounds of Kota Belud’s tamu.

A two-day event which is also Sabah’s largest tamu, the annual Tamu Besar attracts local traders and visitors alike from the rural areas of Kota Belud, to sell and trade various wares, fresh produce and colourful handicrafts.

Having planned my visit to coincide with the Tamu Besar, it is not surprising whenI discover that all of the town’s hotels and accommodations are fully occupied.

Searching online for accommodation around Kota Belud, I come across Taun Gusi Village Homestay,located 6km away in the rice farming village of Taun Gusi.

I am in luck as when I call Ismail, the owner of the homestay, he informs me that there is a single room available for the night. Taking a local taxi to the homestay, I discover that Taun Gusi Village Homestay is right beside a picturesque paddy field, also owned by Ismail.

Completing the scenery is a wooden bamboo house built on stilts, which Ismail informs me was built by international volunteers during a homestay programme.

Looking out onto the paddy fields with Mount Kinabalu in the background, it is an unexpected stroke of luck to find myself here in this rustic village of Taun Gusi.

THE ELUSIVE COWBOYS

Another unexpected stroke of luck comes later in the day when Ismail graciously offers me a ride to the town of Kota Belud since he has some errands to run. Welcoming his offer, Ismail drops me near the grounds of the Tamu Besar.

Once an open-aired space with only a few wooden stalls and buildings, the Tamu Kota Belud has been upgraded by the local district authorities, and now features steel roofed structures for the traders and even a performance platform.


Bajau Horsemen at Tamu Besar, Kota Belud (credit Clement Liew and Sabah Tourism Board )

Walking through the lanes of handicrafts for sale, the sight of sharp machetes with intricately carved wooden handles and sheaths catches my eye. These are handmade Bajau machetes or parangs, a symbol of bravery and manhood within the Bajau community.

Another symbol of Bajau bravery and manhood is the skill of horsemanship, since the Bajaus of Kota Belud are renowned for it and are even nicknamed the ‘cowboys of Sabah’.

During festive occasions the Bajau men will dress themselves and their horses in colourful costumes, and proudly prance and parade about town. Peculiarly, I see no sign of these colourful horsemen or their horses as I wander throughout the grounds of the Tamu Besar.

Curious and eager to photograph the sight of them, I ask a trader about their absence. From his answer I discover that the venue for the horse riding and even the buffalo racing is not in the Tamu Besar grounds but at a large field within the town’s centre.

Disappointingly though, the trader tells me that this colourful cultural showcase is scheduled only later in the afternoon of the second day, by which I would have already returned to Kota Kinabalu for my return flight to Johor Baru.

I find this disappointing and frustrating, since none of the information I read online while planning my visit for theTamu Besar contained any scheduling information apartfrom the venue and dates of the event.

Nevertheless, the sights and sounds of the Tamu Besar are still a wonder to behold, as it is a vibrant and beautiful showcase of the cultural diversity found in the state of Sabah.

AN EYE-OPENER

Although itis a short weekend backpacking escape from the hustle and bustle of Johor Baru city, my two nights spent in the district of Kota Belud has opened my eyes to the natural beauty and the rich cultural heritage available here. And with three daily AirAsia flights from my home state of Johor to Kota Kinabalu, I can now look forward to more adventures and discoveries (or even a return visit to finally see the cowboys of Sabah) that begins with a mere two hours or so journey away.

TRAVEL FILE

HOW TO GET THERE

AirAsia has daily flights from klia2 in Sepang and Senai International Airport in Johor Baru to Kota Kinabalu.

Those flying from Senai International Airport should take the opportunity to enroll and register for AirAsia Fast Airport Clearance Experience System (FACES). As the acronym implies, it is a facial recognition boarding system that offers seamless boarding and faster airport security clearance.

The system is currently only available at Senai Aiport. Also worth checking out is AirAsia self-check service via web or mobile. Web and mobile checkin services are available from 14 days up to an hour before the scheduled time of departure.

AirAsia’s connectivity from Johor Baru now flies to 15 destinations: Bangkok, Jakarta, Surabaya, Ho Chi Minh City, Guangzhou, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi, Kuching, Miri, Sibu, Kota Kinabalu, Tawau, Alor Setar and Ipoh. AirAsia’s connectivity from Sabah now includes 26 destinations, with 20 destinations from Kota Kinabalu, four destinations from Tawau, and two destinations from Sandakan. For more information, visit www.airasia.com.my

Pictures by ZULKIFLY AB LATIF