Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Rungus Road Trip to the Northern Tip of Borneo

Last Sunday we drove from our new apartment in Kota Kinabalu to the Northern Tip of Borneo.  Google maps and online websites said it should take 3 to 3.5 hours.  However, with major road damage and construction underway following this past winter's heavy monsoons, it took us over four hours.  Highlights of that road trip were:

1. The Kota Belud Tamu (market). The market was one of the more colorful that I have seen (supporting all that I had read about it) and reminded me of the morning market that we visited in 1995 2005 in the city of Keng Tiong in the Shan State of Myanmar. Then, as now, it seemed that we were the only tourists at the market. We only bought a couple of food items. I got a small doughnut thing with chicken floss and sambal (chili sauce) inside for 60 sen (US 20 cents).  I gave the guy 1 Ringgit and he gave me 50 sen back, along with a smile.  We also bought a small bag of banana chips that we tasted and loved (not sweet at all) on Mt Kinabalu a couple of days before.  The guy told me they were 2 Ringgit, but when I gave him a 5 Ringgit bill he gave me 4 Ringgit back. (More on this below...)

Mable got this great photo of a lady selling small silver fish at the tamu (above). She is probably a Rungus, which is the dominant ethnic group in the Kudat district of Sabah (which includes Kota Belud and the Northern Tip). They are a branch of the Kadazan-Dusun, which is the largest ethnic group in Sabah at about 18% of the legal population (excluding perhaps a million Filipinos. The Rungus are also the only group in Sabah that traditionally lived in longhouses -- which are very common in neighboring Sarawak. We also visited the lesser known Rungus village of Kampung Tinangol, which specializes in bead work. More interesting, though, were all of the longhouses that people live in still today (photo below), though these had been enhances with satellite dishes. We also visited a longhouse lodge, which gets a lot more writeup on the tourism websites for Sabah than does Kampung Tinangol.

2. At the Northern Tip of Borneo. The second highlight was our geographic destination of the Northern Tip of Borneo. Getting there was more than an adventure as, in addition to the road issues mentioned above, my Garmin GPS took on a road that turned to dirt and then became impassable due to mud. The approach to the tip was lined by a beautiful beach and the tip itself was a well developed park. The northern tip is marked be the rocks (photo below) that point to the island of Palawan in the Philippines. The South China Sea is on the left and the Sulu Sea is on the right. Palawan is so close to this point, yet when I visit there later this month I will need to fly through Hong Kong and spend one night in Manila (bummer)!

We had lunch at a restaurant here on a cliff overlooking the Sulu Sea. I had read that the islands we say in the far distance were part of the Sulu Islands of the Philippines, but looking at a map, I think they were actually still part of Malaysia. The photo below shows the chalets that extend beyond the restaurant area.

3. Buying Roasted Corn. The third highlight of the trip was a short stop we made on the way back. Someone had told me to eat the roasted corn that is sold along the side of the road, so we decided to stop and try some from one of the roadside shops that had clouds of smoke rising from the fire on which the corn was being roasted. I asked the girl how much and she said 5 Ringgit (US$1.70) -- which seemed a like a lot. Walked further down and I asked the next girl who said the same thing. I said 4 Ringgit and she laughed and said OK. She heated up 4 corn husks and gave them to us. Mable gave her 16 Ringgit and she laughed again saying it was only 5 Ringgit -- giving her 11 Ringgit back.

Click on photo for larger view.
What made this such a highlight was the pleasant honesty of the girl, who could have taken our 16 Ringgit without us ever knowing that we paid too much. Note that this came on top of the two experiences of paying less than I was expecting to pay in the Kota Belud Tamu (above), though it was far more dramatic this time.  I had read about the relaxed and friendly nature of the Rungus people, but I had not hear about how amazingly generous and honest they were.  Perhaps all of those character traits go together. 

This last experience, in particular also supports my belief that some of the best memories from travel come from the small and unexpected encounters with people and places. The photo above shows the girl who sold us the corn, as well as our two friends from Taiwan whose visit prompted this trip to the Northern Tip of Borneo.