Monday, March 21, 2016

Curryfrog - In Search of Borneo. Sabah

The incongruity of being on a bus in the middle of Borneo and suddenly hearing Cliff Richard's voice singing "Summer Holiday" as a ringtone on a local guy's mobile phone cannot be overstated.

"Where you from?!"
Again and again, the shout goes out as yet another person sees a couple of white people strolling by.
"Scotland!" We shout back.
"Alex Ferguson!" and a couple of thumbs up is all but a dead cert by way of reply.
Alex Ferguson!
What about John Logie Baird, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Telford or James Watt?
If it's the names of knights of the realm they want to call out, what about Sir Walter Scott or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

It would appear that the only Scottish legate of notable international standing is a guy whose job was to stand on the sidelines and shout at people playing football while they played football against some other people playing football a few years ago.

Does this say anything salient about the state of Scottish and, by association, British influence in the modern world?

The first time you visit a country, you cannot help but compare it with the image, or set of images which have built up over the years in your subconscious. These images have been absorbed throughout your life by what you read, what you see on TV or in magazines and what you have heard from the media or from other people.The tricks that the imagination plays invariably mean that the image(s) you create are much more 'rosy' than the reality.

Once you visit the country yourself, you need to be prepared to absorb the reality and accept that it will not be as you imagine. You have to prepare to be disappointed.

The media images of Borneo are inevitably of wildlife and jungle. 

The immediate reality once you arrive is of lots of people, in cars and lots of buildings. This is the consequence of travelling on a plane, to a city. Cities are cities. They all have hotels, restaurants, taxis and of course, people. They are all pretty similar once you take into account the cultural differences.

With some cities, such as Kuta on Bali, dig as hard as you can and you never get under the surface and find the image you came with. The reality takes over and you realise that the 'Bali' you were sold does not exist. You have been sold a 'dud'. You are disappointed.

With Borneo, however, you only have to scratch the surface to find, with as much excitement as a schoolboy finally discovering how to undo a bra, that the Borneo you imagine, actually really does exist.

What we know as the island of Borneo is not a country in its own right. The North West facing coastline consists of the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, with the Sultanate of Brunei wedged In between them like a small child squashed in between two fat aunties on a bus. The remainder of Borneo, the greater part, belongs to Indonesia.

Sabah was previously known as British North Borneo. That is until a little local difficulty generally referred to as World War 2 intervened, followed by independence and the rest, as they say, is history.

During the Japanese occupation over 2500 mainly Australian troops, with some British and others were forcibly marched from Sandakan some 250 kilometres to Ranau in the North of Sabah. Many soldiers died during the march. Those who didn't die, and made it to the destination at Ranau were then executed by the Japanese just before the Japanese surrender. Just six soldiers of the 2500 survived the massacre by escaping before reaching Ranau.

The route of the march is signposted on the road which now takes the same course. We are here in the coolest time of the year and we cannot tolerate simply sitting in the stifling humidity, in the shade. Being forced to march 250 kilometres under these brutal conditions doesn't bear thinking about.

The memorial to the troops, in Sandakan stands below a hill, perched on top of which is an English Tea House, built in the colonial style, complete with croquet lawn. A counterpoint to the largely Muslim port town below, with its grimy bus station and noisy streets. 

Actually, Sandakan is not an unpleasant town and the local people are on the whole very friendly and inquisitive.

This is an area of Sabah which attracts official warnings of a high potential for kidnappings and piracy. Some insurance companies refuse to insure travellers in and around Sandakan and all points South. The only signs we see alluding to this threat are the few armed police and occasional couple of soldiers on the streets, but the threat is in reality barely perceptible. It certainly is not one we feel.

We agree with each other that any trip to Borneo should be all about jungles and animals, rather than random acts of lunacy so we book a couple of nights in an 'Eco' camp on the River Kinabatangan, hoping to get a proper wild Borneo experience.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Curryfrog - In Search of Borneo. Sabah