From the City by the sea to the Countryside by railway | Stories from Kota Kinabalu: Part 1 of 3

“Are you going to cover that Aegis thing?” was a friend’s question when he learned where I was bound for.

He was referring to a controversy where a neighboring country’s business outlet, in an attempt to get more investors, released a video tallying a list of wrongs with the motherland – “inadequate infrastructure, unfriendly climate, lack of security and government support” amongst them, none of which they had perhaps, despite being, for many in the Southern part of this archipelago, a boat ride away.

But more than sharing part of the Sulu Sea, Malaysia and the Philippines share a language, a history of being in and out of each other’s boundaries, a love for sauces in their coconut-infused, piquant food. In other words, they share a culture; a telling proof was when I was recently in Zamboanga, a Malay entry and exit point, with a mishmash of Malay products and influences. How is it that the other could sever itself from that completely?

But no, I wasn’t covering the controversy despite a growing fondness for places with issues lately. Natural disasters. Martial Laws. Sieges. Political dramas. Attempts at recovery. I’ve started veering towards topographies that have had their share of reality, perhaps as a backlash to a formerly sheltered life or perhaps in realization that happiness will always be merely the prologue of epilogue, but never the story.

A breakfast of Roti, lamb curry, beef bacon and colour rolls.

A breakfast of Roti, lamb curry, beef bacon and colour rolls.

The Water’s Front

The first time I saw Malaysia though, it had seemed more like a dream, with the sensation of life on hold. It was past two ‘o clock in the morning and there was a fuzzy collection of lights from the air. The orbs looked like they could’ve just as easily merged with the water that surrounded them and that anytime, as dreams go, they would be gone again. Fading in an out of sleep, I watched them form into a line of lights, signaling our landing.

With a half-filled backpack and camera bag in hand, I walked through the rudiments of immigration seemingly inebriated. There was no bustle associated with an international airport.

“Welcome to Malaysia.” a slit-eyed officer said.

The only bright thing at the arrival area was an Orange convenience store, their version of a 7-Eleven. All the teh tarik, mini doughnut and roti kiosks were closed, covered in black nets.

“Welcome to Malaysia.” our tour guide, who later introduced himself as Bobby, repeated.

“He looks like Kuya Kim.” a companion in the tour bus noticed. I couldn’t spot the similarity. The brain was substituting any face with a bed.

“This is Mr. Bean.” Bobby introduced the bus driver. British humor, I thought, pressing my face to the bus window, only to find out at the end of the trip, after redundantly addressing him as the comedian, that his name was Mr. Ping.

The hotel we would be staying at for the next three days was locked in to the Suria Sabah Mall. A Starbucks was just beside the lobby. To its right, with just a narrow walkway in between, was the sea. Silhouettes of flatboats on the marina, a police boat depot, it seemed, could be seen from my room on the 10th floor. In the near distance was a Canon center, and beside it, brightly-lit in neon green, was a bar called Cock and Bull.

In the morning, I opened the curtains again to find all the things easily missed by half-senses. Across the depot was the ongoing construction of a luxury condominium whose selling point is sure to be that it was close, a kiss away, to the waterfront.

There were boom cranes rising up the cityscape. From the rooftop of the hotel, the waters were already busy with small speed boats carrying passengers to nearby islands.

This is how it will be for the next few days, I realized. In a city as small and dense as Kota Kinabalu, roughly only about 2.7 kilometers from sea to mountain with a whole city in between, the waters would be my backyard and its streets would be the playground.

“Where are those boats going?” I asked an attendant of the hotel’s rooftop bar.

“Manukan Island.” he answered.

“Why Manukan?” I asked, curious to find similarities early on. There was a Manukan in Zamboanga del Norte and another one in Eastern Bohol. He shrugged.

“You from Philippine?” he asked.

Perhaps it was the view from the top or my foreignness but everything about KK, as they called it, seemed new on the surface. Buildings had no grime, all white paint and concrete. Where were the peels, the dripping rainwater?

There is discomfort in the new, because in a place where population is compact and development is fast, the only way to fit in more modernity in is to build over history or over landscape. The hotel itself, as was the connected mall, was barely seven months old, confirmed the attendant. What had come before it?

“You know how we build new hotels when there’s already overwhelming demand? Well, they build hotels here to prepare for demand.” remarked a companion. “That’s the thing about Malaysia. They plan years ahead.” Walking through the new mall later that day seemed to prove him right. Seven months in, the mall was surprisingly unfilled even on a weekend. No demand yet but perhaps with the ASEAN linkup in 2015, there would be soon.

Nevertheless, with my prejudice against cities, I was relieved that we would be heading to places more spacious. After a breakfast of lamb curry, beef bacon and Roti prata, thin pancakes cooked on a hot plate, we headed to the train station for more breakfast, this time with the excitement of motion sickness to pair.

The restored car from the 1900s.

The restored car from the 1900s.

The North Borneo Railway

                Once, in my short stint as an employee, the General Manager of a 5-star hotel, a Swiss who had traveled to 27 countries, and I backtracked through the Industrial Revolution for an annual speech he had to make.

With the advantage of walking through the past and having an encyclopedic memory as bonus, he took me through the evolution of the steam engine, the biggest transportation innovation then that led to the building of whole cities, transporting items to places that formerly didn’t have access, carrying supplies to the desolate.

As changes go, the biggest transportation innovation was quickly replaced by electric locomotives, and in more-technologically advanced parts of the world now, I’ve been told, are Maglevs or trains that travel on magnetic levitation at close to 6oo km/hr.

“The times are changing.” The hotel manager constantly reminded me, and in his business, the only way to survive it is to spot the trend and be an early adapter.

There is certain comfort then that in Sabah, there is still room for the obsolete.

The North Borneo Railway with its Vulcan steam engine came all the way from the United Kingdom. Dedicated to give tourists excursions to the countryside, it was warming up its engines the morning we arrived, the engineer blowing its whistle to call on to passengers.

At the frontline were attendants in their safari hats and knee-high socks giving tourists “passports” that needed to be stamped on in each station from Tanjung Aru to the countryside of Papar. Jazz and bossanova Malay songs were played to set the mood. It was terribly touristy, but we played the part anyway.

There were steel tracks stacked on the side of the station, and while the European and American tourists were patiently waiting in their railcars, the impatient explore the engine, which still ran on wood. The engineers were sitting on the platform in front, one reading a newspaper, the other possibly talking about his own morning news.

“I not come with you, okeh? Allehgic to smoke.” Bobby said, then sat in another car, texting away.

At the front most was a British Pullman carriage where attendants were busily preparing breakfast baskets with Danish pastries and croissants. They positioned themselves readily for the camera, quite used to having their photos taken, while on the other side were their assistants who readied the milk, coffee, tea and lemon water.

The North Borneo Railway used to travel five times a week. But because the obsolete easily break down, constantly stranding passengers in the middle of the route, its trips had to be cut down to two. Still, the charm of the train is really is in its inaccuracy; that in a world obsessed with mechanized efficiency, there is still room for things to fall apart.

At 10:00 AM, the engineer blew the horn and we went back to our designated car, facing each other across the wooden table as breakfast, the second one for the day, was served.


Preparing the breakfast set for the day.

Preparing the breakfast set for the day.

Tanjung Aru to Papar

                “Those attendants have to be really thin, eh?” a companion observed. Servers in their khaki uniforms effortlessly moved despite the tightness of space from car to car, table to table, bringing passengers sugarcane juice, water, postcards, key chains.

Selamat Jalan, Have a good journey, said a sign, entering the city outskirts.

The best part of being in a train, I realized early on, was that it may well represent the very concept of slow travel, a nebulous term from the tourism industry that should’ve been an easy enough idea to grasp, except that it was hard, in today’s pace, to accomplish. Travel slow, and you see more. Travel fast, and you see less.

The aim of the North Borneo Railway, its information sheet said, is to “transport its passengers through time”, back when the very concept of slow travel was absurd, because really, it was the only form of travel.

Moving at about 40 km/hr., the box-type cars on the paved road beside the railway whizzed past by us effortlessly. Children ran up, touching the butt of the train or peeped from their windows, blowing kisses to passengers.

Concrete homes transformed to houses on stilts with colors that signaled that we have left the city – bubblegum pinks, Barney purples, mustard yellows and Ponkan oranges. There were two-tone houses, color blocks of pink and green, orange and blue.

Lok Kawi Bay was just across the road with a view of nearby islands, Gaya and Manukan. It was scenery meant to relax the eyes, green and quite sedate. I tried to absorb it all in silence like the passengers in the other railcars who concentrated their gaze outside. At the corner of my eye was a European absorbed in her thoughts with her face propped on her chin. Our car though met the novelty with merriment, with mobile phones raised to the air in numerous selfies and shrieks of jokes in between booths. This is the Filipino way perhaps.

The voice in the intercom invited passengers to a cultural dance at the gymnasium in Kinarut where there would be a 20-minute stop. A rare treat, he tempted. Drums and chanting could be heard all the way from the platform.

Smiling gods and godesses at Tien Nam Shi Temple.

Smiling gods and godesses at Tien Nam Shi Temple.

But across its tracks was a fire brick Chinese temple. Its gold roof had slithering dragons and surrounding its borders were 16 laughing Buddhas in comical positions. It rained the moment we walked down from the platform. An old man opened his umbrella for his wife as he held on to her, careful not to slip. We walked across the tracks and through the canopies of trees.

Inside, there was a mixed smell of newly-wet musty wood and incense. The walls looked like intricate tattoo designs with portraits of gods and goddesses and their children in tow. Three teenagers, sisters presumably, bowed their heads, praying to smiling goddesses in front of the altar. There were packaged sticks and prayer cards on the mantle. I didn’t know how to handle myself in places of sanctity other than to offer it silence.

The visit would be too short to form any generalizations. No sooner had we entered, the train blew its whistle, calling back its passengers. But in train rides such as these, there are no destinations really, only places that fall in between things.

Papar to Tanjung Aru

A bird swooped in seconds before we entered a 450-meter tunnel. Disconcerted, it swooped back and forth our railcar, its flight surrendering to darkness, until the train reached daylight again.

The train passed through Kawang and its colossal brick factory where construction workers waved endlessly even when suspended on steel beams. It finally reached Papar where passengers were given the time to go around while the engineers turned the train’s engine around.

Curry puffs are a familiar sight in markets, food stations and  groceries.

Curry puffs are a familiar sight in markets, food stations and groceries.

“The local market or ‘tamu’ is a reflection of life in Sabah.” the information sheet said, and I resolved to spend most of the stop there, trying to see what a typical market was in Borneo. Two elderly Muslim men sat under the shade of a tree, idly people watching. A restaurant enticed its customers with colorful flags hanging from their beams. A sprinkling of houses, it seemed, had flags of Malaysia on their gates. It was a week or two after Malaysia Day, celebrated every September 16.

“You want?” a vendor asked, pointing to his selection of fried goods. He handed me a curry puff, an empanada-like pastry with potatoes and meat. Free tasting, he said, then handed me a fried banana. I pointed to several others, asking for their names, and he must have mistaken it as enthusiasm for his culinary skills because he proceeded to offer more. I left before he had the chance to offer one of his drinks, concoctions in bright pink, tangerine and iced chocolate Melo, Milo.

What is striking about Papar’s street food is not the taste but their colors – line cakes in green, pink, purple and white, rice cakes in pastels, cream puffs in ochre and mint.

Saffron, chili, turmeric, ginger and green curry powder are placed in transparent plastic bags stacked neatly in plastic baskets.

“For cooking?” I asked, spotting dried up leaves in the same row as the spices. The lady in a Maggi apron shook her head.

“For eating?” I asked again. No, she grunts.

Finally, amused or annoyed, she put her fingers to her pursed mouth and exclaimed, “Ganja! Ganja!” The teenagers beside her let out guffaws. Unsure whether it was a joke or not, I laughed with them anyway, and proceeded to buy spices to take home.

What is striking also about the market itself are not the items themselves, mostly cheap mass-produced items that came from China, but the multiracial vendors. There was a good mix of Chinese, Indian, Muslim Malay and native Malay. I spent the rest of the time listening to the transactions going around, housewives buying pre-cut vegetables in plastic bags, Mi Goreng and tobacco leaves. In fascination, I had lost track of time, and someone had to fetch me from the market to tell me the train was calling again.

Lunch is placed on tiffin sets that make it easier to eat on a moving train.

Lunch is placed on tiffin sets that make it easier to eat on a moving train.

Eating in a trailcar, even a slow moving one, is a challenge in neatness. Tiffins brought out by attendants clink with every bump on a moving animal, rattling windows and tables as the engineer changes gears.

The tiffin set, a working man’s lunch, I initially assumed, had chicken satay, spiced mackerel, mixed vegetables and biryani rice with cashews. What heightened it as a luxury were the strawberries, grapes and honeydew for dessert.

We sat there eating our tiffin launches, waiting for impending rain. And when finally, it did pour, there is that nagging tingle to give in to the cliché of sipping coffee on a train with the false nostalgia of imbibing writers, artists, philosophers who have taken railways like these before– the conversations they must have had partnered with romance of letting the landscape come to them.

Our own conversations veered towards politics in Sabah, the high income but also the high cost of living there, and the peace that comes with a more stable economy despite having a quixotic mix of religions and ethnicities. Trundle with care on the subject, Bobby reminded us once. In Sabah, he said, it wasn’t a common practice to ask “What is your religion?” but rather “Which district are you from?” The latter question led to the same answer.

Outside, migratory birds swooped down the length of mangroves. With the engine changing its direction, the steam now seeped in through our open windows. Signs in the Lok Kawi Army Camp said “Taking of Photographs Restricted.”

It was a quieter ride back, and despite a conscious effort not to reminisce, it was disquieting to ponder that I will not pass by this landscape, and certainly never in this same state again. I was reminiscing in advance, something motion and the 1900s interior of the car, seemed to encourage. With the pace that KK is progressing, with most of its land reclaiming what it already can from the sea, landscapes such as these will eventually turn into complexes.

“They must’ve had some sort of campaign to let the people along the railcars participate.” my Singaporean companion commented, as children and women once again came out of their houses to wave to passengers.  A Muslim tombstone maker flashed a Peace sign.

Because the train station is so close to the airport, just a few kilometers away, planes were seen flying off as we finally arrived.

“So much of what I saw today was familiar and yet not the same – the usual formula for a dream.”, I read from Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a book I had brought and only read a sprinkling of pages of in the days I was there.

Kota Kinabalu, like any other developing city, seems to be on the threshold of choosing which parts of itself to keep or chuck away, or perhaps, a way to combine the obsolete and new, smoothly enough that its presence, whether it’s a modern hotel or a century-old locomotive, is unquestioned. How to choose between the historic versus the progressive? I wouldn’t know. Who does?

Certainly not someone who came from a place with “inadequate infrastructure, unfriendly climate, lack of security and government support”.

But perhaps whether in the stance of criticism or empathy, both countries are just experiencing the same confusion as the rest of the world is.


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