Friday, June 23, 2017

The Island Drum: My Discoveries in the Land Below the Wind

There’s more to Sabah, Malaysia than rainforests, orangutans and mountain gods. And Kota Kinabalu is just the tip of the state’s jungle-clad destination iceberg. Like meeting new people, first impressions of a new destination weigh heavily in my initial decision as to whether I like a place or not.

But my first impressions of Kota Kinabalu? I had imagined something completely different. My pre-imagined trip to Kota Kinabalu included dense, steamy jungles, adorable orangutans and a massive, snow-capped mountain. I had imagined sherpas milling about among adventure seeking tourists.

I had imagined the ho hum culinary offerings of a land spoilt by their popularity. I had imagined plenty of kitschy souvenirs for sale alongside unenthusiastic vendors, indifferent to the massive daily arrival of tourists like me.

What was the reality? I found Kota Kinabalu to be a fascinating city which sparkles with community pride.

It became apparent quickly that the Malaysian state of Sabah deserved some serious future exploration, but for an initiation Kota Kinabalu and the surrounding area is a great place to start. But even Kota Kinabalu deserved more than just one week.


The history of Kota Kinabalu is fascinating as well as complicated. Much like the rest of Malaysia, it involves British colonialists, unhappy locals and the horrors of WWII.

Kota Kinabalu, once known as Jesselton, is the state capital of Sabah; the second largest of the 13 states of Malaysia. It wasn’t until August 31st 1963 that North Borneo (as it was previously known) became independent of the British Empire.

Shortly thereafter (newly named) Sabah, was united with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore, to form the Federation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963. It wasn’t until August 1965 that Singapore was encouraged to leave the federation (to do their own thing) and the rest is history. This is all part and parcel for the melting pot of Malaysia and perhaps even more so for Sabah.

Here are a few of my discoveries during a week-long visit to Kota Kinabalu and my first visit to the land below the wind.


The people of Sabah are known as Sabahans. There are 32 recognized ethnic groups in Sabah, with the largest indigenous group being the Kadazan-Dusun people in addition to the Bajau and Murut people. The largest non-indigenous ethnic group are the Chinese. Kota Kinabalu’s charming melting pot of people won me over from the get go.

Although I was with a local guide for many of my excursions, I did have ample opportunity to mix and mingle with locals on my own. There was absolutely no change in the genuine friendliness of everyone who I encountered.

Plus, they are very easy to communicate with! English is widely spoken, in addition to the Sabahans’ own mother tongues, Bahasa Malaysia (the national language) as well as Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.