THE COMEBACK KID

Written by root. Posted in FEATURES

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Published on April 28, 2016 with No Comments

With its flair for the great outdoors and brimming with natural charms, Kota Kinabalu remains an alluring escape.

Words ANIS RAMLI
Images TOURISM MALAYSIA

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Mount Kinabalu remains an iconic Sabah landmark.

 

There is no sidestepping the issue of Sabah’s past misfortunes. A devastating earthquake and repeated kidnappings have impacted the state’s tourism, not to mention the emotional wellbeing of the locals on all levels. Hoteliers lament how occupancy rates could be better; local guides appeal for people to just come to Sabah to see how everything else remains the same. As one local wildlife expert, Eric Thien says, “How can we advertise to the world that Sabah is safe?”

It only takes for one to arrive into Kota Kinabalu to see that Sabah needs people to do away with their bad geographical knowledge. The east coast towns of Sabah, considered hot spots of the abductions, are between 300 to 500 kms away. Ranau, the village hardest hit by the earthquake, has slowly come together while its surrounding areas are left untouched.

At Gaya Island Resort, the majestic view of Mount Kinabalu remains visible on a clear day. The only tell tale sign of the year’s past trauma is the rugged brown patchworks temporarily chiselled onto the face of the mountain – scarring left from the innumerable landslides. A honeymooning couple on the resort said they had been fearful initially about their plans to holiday in Sabah, but pushed ahead with their plans especially since the Mount Kinabalu trail reopened.

“It’s been nothing but an adventure,” says Mr Jennet. “Our climb was bittersweet, knowing how much devastation had occurred. But the guides and the people – they are the key to why we’re here. Just their resilience and seeing them go about their lives like usual, it made us realise we made the right decision to come and support them.”

Mesilau Trail, once a popular starting point, is closed indefinitely due to inaccessible paths. Not far from it is HB Residence, a seductive songbird that was left cut off from aid and rescuers after boulders from the mountain destroyed the bridge connecting the area with the town. Says Mr Jennet, “The hotel itself was unscathed, and everywhere we went – talking to the staff, the villagers, the farmers at the highland vegetable farms – everyone had a story to share with one commonality: they wish to see the area prosper with visitors once more.”

The Jennets also visited Desa Dairy Farm, a sprawling 199-hectacre dairy farm that evokes the image of the Swiss Alps in summer. It remains an understated destination favoured by local travellers and home to about 500 Fresian cattle. The farm produces delicious handcrafted cow’s milk cheese, gelato, yoghurt and of course, milk. Here, the view of the scarred mountain is even more visible. Yet, the crisp mountainous air that swirls the area appears to have an uplifting effect – for those who witnessed the disaster and the guests that come to orientate themselves with Kundasang. As one visitor exclaimed, “There’s nothing you can’t right with a bit of gelato!”

“Normalcy” is what visitors can see all around when they travel from Kota Kinabalu to the foothills of Sabah’s famed mountain. The journey takes about two hours – more if you make several pitstops along the way for the roadside vendors who seem unbothered by the fact that its next door neighbour sells the same produce and wares. At one road stop, it’s not rare to find five stalls selling the same breed of mountain rice, packaged in similar fashion – and priced the same! The road is wildly winding, snaking through valleys and mountains with various homestay options peppered along the route. The last pitstop before hikers climb Mount Kinabalu is also thriving once more. Freshly plucked bananas and pineapples harvested from the home garden are found here. There are also wild honey, exotic fruits and other indigenous herbs and plants that are grown in graceful terraces in these parts of the country.

Back in town, many of the local produce find their way to the local markets. Easily accessible from the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu, this sleek hotel in the city centre also showcases Sabah’s diverse culinary across all its food outlets. Breakfasts see exotic smoothies churned out from dragonfruits, papayas and pineapples. In its Avantang Spa, more Borneon gems wind their way into the treatments, such as local ginger and volcanic mud from Pulau Tiga – the island outpost chosen for an episode of Survivor. Across the hotel on Gaya Island, the Jennets are taking their last sunset view before flying back to California – the waters, the rainforest and the mountain. Of their slice of Borneo experience, they said, “There is no doubt about it. Sabah deserves visitors”.

 

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Kota Kinabalu 12x weekly.

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