Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Arriving in KK, we check into a three bedroom apartment overlooking the turquoise and azul waters of the South-China sea. As I push open the sliding doors and step out onto the small verandah my eyes take in the colourful fishing boats bobbing in the bay. Looming in the foreground is Gaya island, its sprawl of wooden shanties on stilts extending far out to sea.
The salty air is refreshing and peps us up. My tummy rumbles, signalling it is time for lunch, we cross the road to a relatively new mall called Oceanus, my dad has recommended a place which serves local fare and we order steaming dishes of wet and dry noodles – local specialties like char kway teow, wan tan ho, mi goreng Mamak style and my mouth begins to water. The obligatory drinks of ice teas and coffees served with condensed milk is also a must when one is home. Nikki indulges in cold milo which Sofia becomes addicted to and Peter goes the traditional teh tarik – which literally means pull tea. Teh tarik is made with a sack of tea which is steeped in days worth of tea leaves which mean when it gets to you it is super strong and delicious and then sweetened with sugar and condensed milk. What sets teh tarik apart from other teas is the process of pouring the tea back and forth between two containers. The further or higher the distance between the ‘pull’ the more aerated the tea becomes, the froth is an important factor to the taste. I found this YouTube clip for those who are interested – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7X7W3lz9zi8. Diving into the plate of steaming noodles I know instantly that I am home again.
For the next ten days, I indulge in an orgy of food that all Malaysians abroad do when coming home again. We have a list of ‘must eat’ and mine includes roti chanai from my favourite Mamak stall close to the city. Mamak is a term which describes Indian Muslim culture and communities in Malaysia, while it may be considered pejorative by some it is nevertheless used in common vernacular. While roti is now commonly found in restaurants in Brisbane, there is still nothing quite like the original taste of this crispy and tasty flatbread served with dhal and chicken or fish curry. Pak Rahman pictured below is one of the originals who has been making roti since he was a young man and adds a special twist at the end clapping the bread between his hands to make it crunchy.
KK town as it is affectionately known is not a particularly attractive city. It was a swinging place to be in the 60s and 70s during the timber boom which saw the greatest concentration of millionaires concentrated in the state but once the forests were exhausted, KK fell dormant for several decades and only re-emerge in the last decade with a rapid mushrooming of malls every few months. The rapid pace at which one opens after the other means that most of the malls are still only partially tenanted, and I wonder whether a small city like KK has enough demand to sustain what seems like an oversupply.
On our third day in KK we wake to grey skies, Peter is restless, unable bear another day at the shopping mall so we head down to Jesselton Point to catch a ferry to one of the islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman national park. We have no idea how often the boats run but as luck would have it we get there just before the next boat departs. The purchase is frantic, words are exchanged at rapid gunfire pace in a mash of Malay and Hakka – in my sleep deprived state the words get muddled in the slush that is my brain. But it registers enough to understand that the boat is leaving now. Literally about to cast off and we make a run for it. With Joaquin bouncing along in the pouch, the stroller crashing through barricades and weaving madly around people and food carts we get to the boat just as the boat pushes off. I almost have to throw Sofia and her stroller onto the boat as we scramble to board. Beads of sweat run down my back as I slump into my seat at the front of the boat. My chest feels tight from the maddened run and I stop to catch my breath.
I strap Sofia and myself into musty smelling life vests and the engine vrooms to life. The breeze slowly picks up as we reverse out of the jetty and pick our way through the other boats jostling to get out to sea. I look out onto the water and am dismayed to see that we are surrounded by floating garbage. Islands of styrofoam, takeaway containers, plastic cutlery, plastic bottles, a child’s abandoned pink slipper – no doubt a dumping ground for the numerous restaurants there are along the seafront but also a product of garbage being thrown into the ocean by the masses who live on Gaya island. I notice a small wooden boat with two men dredging garbage out of the water by hand, it looks like an impossible task, like trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon.
As we make for open water the engine kicks into high gear, cutting across the calm waters of mid-morning it feels refreshing to have the sea breeze in our face. The grey clouds have dissipated and it has turned out to be a perfect hot sunny day. Sofia hangs onto her sunglasses, afraid the winds will whip them off her face, she looks comical crouched into her life vest. Within 20 minutes we arrive at Manukan island, the largest island in the national park. The deep waters are emerald green as we dock, colourful fish dart around frantically as we jump out onto a large wooden jetty. At the end of the jetty, there is a small office where guests are greeted, there is a concierge to check guests into accommodation and a small store which sell overpriced swimwear, souvenirs, and snacks. As we trundle down the beach front, there are chalets and various sorts of accommodation along the walkway. I am genuinely surprised that the walkways are not only paved but that there are ramps everywhere. I am impressed, Manukan has made the effort to make this place wheelchair friendly and in turn stroller friendly.
It is a muggy day and we are keen to get into the water, when we do it is gloriously cool on our hot skins, the first plunge takes our breath away but once we are in it is delicious. Fish swim all around us in the crystal clear waters which delight Sofia and she clings onto my neck as we doggie paddle following schools of silverfish. Further out people are snorkeling, their snorkels cutting through the water like little fins. Bobbing around leisurely I indulge in a spot of people watching behind my sunglasses.
A horde of young Eastern Europeans baking their already dark brown skins on the beach topless, loud families from mainland China learning how to snorkel completely covered in head to toe, being ever so judicious to prevent their white complexions from darkening, and an ageing Chinese tycoon in his 70s sitting in his trunks, eyes glued to his iPad while his 20-something Caucasian girlfriend/mistress frolics in the sea without him. He looks distinctively uncomfortable on the beach as most Chinese are, my people don’t like the outdoors, or sand or sun or insects. The ridiculously expensive watch he wears looks incongruous to the board shorts no doubt picked. But I suppose when you can afford to adorn your wrist with something equivalent to the down payment of a house, who cares what you look like?
The beach itself is not particularly fantastic as cigarette butts litter the areas around the eating areas, benches and unfortunately where we sit on the sand. I wonder what program KK has to ensure that the cleanliness and sanitation of its beaches and marine life seeing it is such a drawcard in its tour packages. Perhaps this is unfair of me as I haven’t been to the other beaches in the marine park are better than this but I had been expecting a more pristine environment. After a few hours, it is another maddened rush to the jetty to head back to KK in the late afternoon, as the boat skims across the ocean like skipping stones I begin to ponder what’s for dinner…