We booked ourselves for the half-day Sambah River Cruise tour which starts from the Kampung Bunga, Tenghilan jetty, about 40 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu. We had to drive through a local village to get to the jetty giving us a glimpse of what to expect during the tour. We arrived at a huge parking space and a small jetty with some seating space while we waited for the tour to start. In the next few hours, the boat will take us into secluded a water village, explore the life, sights, and sounds of rural living and witness colonies of magical fireflies twinkle in the darkness.

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The tour started at 430pm where we were all given life jackets before hopping into the boat. Our children, 5 and 2 years old (together with our friends and their three children) thoroughly enjoyed the boat ride with the refreshing breeze and occasional splashes into the boat. They roared with laughter every time they got a little wet!

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We arrived at Kampung Sambah, a water village inhabited by the Bajau community. We had a quick pit stop at the jetty for a quick bite of local traditional snacks – goreng pisang (banana fritters) and kuih pinjaram (sweet chewy cake that’s in a distinct green colour).

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This small village of about 200 villagers has only one primary school with an amazing student to teacher ratio of 18:12. We made a beeline to Sekolah Kebangsaan Kampung Sambah after the light refreshments. This small school has a tiny canteen, an English corner, an outdoor play area, a waste segregation shack, a manual water pump that draws water straight from the ground and beautifully decorated school grounds and classrooms. I was amazed at the upkeep of the school and was encouraged by the education opportunity children in this village were given.

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Just outside the school compound, children and youth gathered as they played in the evening cool. There were a group of boys playing football, and another group kicking the sepak takraw ball, and then there were a bunch of younger girls playing chase and cycling around. The atmosphere was one of freedom and simple joy!

We learned that Kampung Sambah is known for udang salai – smoked prawns. This is a local delicacy that is produced mainly in this village where river prawns are smoked for hours until they turn a nice tan brown colour. The taste is distinct and I’m sure will go very well with some sambal (chilli prawn paste) and white rice.

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We headed back to the jetty walking on raised wooded pathways connected to wooden houses. Children peered out from their homes offering friendly waves and bright smiles. Our tour guide pointed out to his house and beamed with pride as he continued to show us around his village.

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We hopped back into our boat just before sundown to a midway jetty where we stopped to have our dinner and tried our hand at fishing. We were each given a plastic ring with a nylon string twirled around it. At the end of the string is a weight and hook where a tiny piece of shrimp is attached. The children enjoyed uncoiling the string into the water and waiting for the gentle tug from the fish nibbling at the shrimp. My son, Seth successfully caught a tiny fish, snapped a photo of his first catch and gently released the fish back into the water.

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If fishing does not entice you, you can simply bask in a hammock and watch the sun come down while enjoying the gentle breeze. We had an early dinner around 6pm, where we helped ourselves to a simple spread of Malaysian favourites – stir-fry vegetables, spicy prawns, fried fish, fried chicken, fresh herb salad, and fruits.

As night fell, each family was given a paper lantern and some markers. We penned some words on the delicate lantern, lit it, waited for it to expand and released it into the sky. It was such a thrill watching the lantern drift into the darkness.

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The magic continued into the night as we hopped back onto the boat to look for fireflies. Our guide used an LED bulb to attract the fireflies and as we neared the colony, the fireflies lit up like a Christmas tree. Fireflies produce light through a chemical reaction (a process called bioluminescence) at the lower part of the abdomen. The beetle although small is not hard to spot especially when it is pitch dark. I’ve seen fireflies in Kuala Selangor (Peninsular Malaysia) but have heard that the numbers have dropped significantly. It’s no surprise as fireflies are a good indicator of a healthy habitat – which means that if we lose natural habitats like this connected mangrove forest, our friendly fireflies will also dwindle. Let’s hope they stick around for long!

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Fun recreational tours like this is an incredible learning getaway. Children can learn about the ecosystem and how human, wildlife and nature are dependant on each other. Here are the details of the tour:

Price: RM80 per adult / RM40 per child (inclusive of dinner)
Note: You will need to drive yourself to the Jetty. If you require transport from KK, there will be additional charges.
Duration: 430 – 830pm (approximately 4 hours)
Website: http://sambah.weebly.com/
FB: https://www.facebook.com/sambahrivercruise
Things to bring: Insect repellant, sunscreen, and water