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The Best of Kota Kinabalu – City Guide

Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming…

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Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming beauty it has to offer. This comprehensive guide is ideal for newbies to KK and families looking for a short vacation.

To read the digital magazine, head over to: http://bit.ly/kk_goingplaces

For the online version of the guide: http://www.goingplacesmagazine.com/story/city-on-the-move

Note: A quick amendment to one of the points of interests at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa. If you’re planning on catching a glimpse of the orang utans, head over to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park instead. The hotel’s Orang Utan Rehabilitation Programme has successfully come to a close and the great apes no longer roam the nature reserve. The 64-acre nature reserve, however, is still a fantastic place to explore the wild!

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River Wild Along Kinabatangan

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river…

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river banks in a hunt to find the herd of Pygmy elephants that were last spotted a day ago grazing at the river banks. Our guide and spotter Jamil knew how much Seth wanted to see elephants and readily agreed to the elephant spotting hunt when we set off from Sukau Rainforest Lodge just before dawn that morning.

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The mist lifted from the face of the river and the riverine forest came to live. Egrets took flight in the air and the colourful stork-billed kingfisher awoke for a catch. The forest echoed a symphony of tunes from the low hum of the cicadas to the chatter of playful macaques. Then, we spotted the majestic hornbill flying overtop before perching on a faraway tree. Truly, this was the best wildlife playground for any three-year old – especially, for Seth who is crazy over animals!

The mighty Kinabatangan river stretches 560kms, starting from the Crocker Range in southwest Sabah and ending at the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan. It is the longest river in Sabah and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. It is perhaps the most sought after destination in Sabah to spot wildlife – more notably the Borneo Big 5; the orang utan, Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, and hornbill.

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The best way to enjoy the river and her wild inhabitants is by boat. Every morning and evening we set out on safari trips in groups no bigger than 10 people. Small vessels with very quiet electric motors were used to explore the river as we snake into narrow waterways and into mangrove forests. We had cameras and binoculars ready at all times.

Our guide and boatman with laser-sharp eyes pointed to a dark speck on the big tree and through the binoculars, we saw a wild orang utan having his morning snack. Another time, our guide steadied the boat and pointed to the glistening eyes of a small crocodile. I caught a glimpse of it before it swiftly disappeared into the water.

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Traveling with a three-year old toddler and a three-month old baby was an adventure on its own. One time while on an evening safari, we felt a light drizzle starting. Within minutes, the drizzle turned into light showers and I found myself hiding under a raincoat with Seth at my side and Enya, my three-month old on my lap hiding from the rain. We waited patiently for the rain to pass and soon after we were rewarded with a scene of swinging proboscis monkeys and long-tail macaques who came out to play after the shower.

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Back at the lodge, we explored the jungle by foot on the 1,500 feet boardwalk in search of insects and small mammals. We waited for the resident orang utans to make an appearance and to our delight, we sighted two different orang utans during our stay. Our meals were served on an al fresco deck overlooking the river. It was also where new friendships were made as we exchanged notes with other guests on the day’s findings.

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In the dark of the night, after dinner, adventurous guests were given the option to go on another safari treat. It was too good to pass and Seth was eager as ever for another wildlife spotting hunt. The gentle motor boat sputtered on the shadowy river and our boatman scanned the jungle with his spotlight. We saw a kingfisher, a green paddy frog and a family of proboscis monkeys retired for the night. Yet, the most spectacular sight was when the boat came to a halt and the jungle stood still. The star-studded skies twinkled above as we trace our fingers across the milky way. I looked down and little Enya was fast asleep, lulled by the peaceful harmony of nature and the gentle rocking of the boat.

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After three days and two nights in this beautiful riverine jungle, we found it hard to say goodbye. Seth turned me as we were just about to leave and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go home. Can I stay?” There was good reason to stay as we did not see the elephants. In my effort to convince him, I told him – we will be back next time and hopefully, we will be able to see the mighty beast.

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Getting to Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Treat yourself to a fine holiday at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Fly into Sandakan airport and you will be transferred to the jetty where you will take a two-hour boat ride to the Kinabatangan River. This boat ride is a prelude to the adventure that awaits you. Wildlife spotting starts the minute you reach the river mouth. You will pass through small village settlements, oil palm plantations, mangrove and palm forests. The sight of proboscis monkeys is almost a guarantee.

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Magic Fingers: Dusun Massage

Sabah, on the magical island of Borneo east of Malaysia’s peninsular is clouded with magnificent experiences such as rainforest escapades, underwater marvels and rich biodiversity. Still, the most intriguing are…

Sabah, on the magical island of Borneo east of Malaysia’s peninsular is clouded with magnificent experiences such as rainforest escapades, underwater marvels and rich biodiversity. Still, the most intriguing are the 39 ethnic indigenous groups that are still thriving and of these, some minority groups are still unknown to the outside world.

The Dusun tribe is largely spread across Sabah, once a hunter gatherer group and many were farmers. The Lotud Dusun group is especially distinct as they were mostly rice farmers from Tuaran, a district blessed with plenty of rain flow for paddy planting. The women from this tribe learned very early on massage techniques to ease back and shoulder pains from hours of strenuous work in the field. These strong, resilient women passed down the unspoken techniques from generation to generation. Today, these hidden secrets make ethnic massages not only magical, but exotic and distinctive from the otherwise run-of-the-mill spas.

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At Jari Jari Spa, I was ushered in through thick wooden carved doors and into a cozy lounge with comfy arm chairs lined on both sides. The soothing sounds of running water formed the centrepiece as gentle flute music played in the background. I had just returned from a trip to Danum Valley and was in need of a massage from hours of travel and trekking. I dozed off as my feet soaked in floral infused water but was gently awakened shortly after by the aroma of decadent coffee. Ocie, my masseur lathered on a thick, almost scrumptious coffee foot scrub and gave me one of the best reflexology experiences focusing on pressure points laced with firm strokes.

The award winning Borneo Dusun Lotud Inan Massage is followed by a 75 minute full body massage as Ocie worked on body, magically releasing the tension on my back and eliminating the knots on my shoulders. You know a good masseur when you experience one because all her movements were intentional, bringing relieve to my tired body. From the distinctive thumb movements to the consistent pressure, from the calming “Inan” oil to the luxurious drapings that kept me warm, the entire experience was seamless.

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What Makes It So Special?

It must be the people I thought. As a spa goer, I have tried numerous spa treatments ranging from mid-range middling centers to world class luxury havens in Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Maldives, Thailand, Australia, Greece and Budapest. Still, the ones that remain a great memory even though the knots have long returned on my shoulders are those that have left an indelible experience in body, mind and soul. And I conclude that it is probably authenticity that makes all the difference.

I later found out that Ocie (pronounced as O-Chee) is a local Dusun lady. She was introduced to the Jari Jari Spa Academy in 2012 by her neighbour and at that time, she was unemployed and was busy mothering seven children on her own. She lived on whatever little savings she had and was pining for a stable job. After her training, she got her first job at Jari Jari Spa but had to move to Kota Kinabalu to earn a living. She tells me that she doesn’t mind as she sees this job as part of her personal development and she now feels secure that her children’s living expenses and school fees are taken care of.

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Stories like Ocie’s are a great testament of empowerment, where women are often left to fend for their families not just to cook, clean and care but to earn a living enough to support the family. Ocie is fortunate to have stumbled on the spa academy, a school started by Datin Jeanette and Jennifer Chan.

The Borneo Massage Rediscovered

As modern day distractions continue to chip away rich traditions and cultures, the challenge of reviving the art of ethnic massage is a real feat. Not only did the dynamic duo, Datin Jeanette Tambakau and Jennifer Chan successfully reintroduced this dying tradition, they through Jari Jari Spa have breathed new life and is retelling the story to the world around at international trade shows and workshops.

Jennifer is from a Dusun descent and Datin Jeanette married a Murud-Dusun man before settling down in Sabah. In mid-2000, they both realized the rising trend in health and wellness but massage centers were unheard of. It was the weary of society where hanky panky activities took place behind closed doors. Venturing into this industry meant having to pioneer the route while clearing the image that have long tarnished it.

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They took the plunge learning from massage therapists in Bali and attending workshops. What was to become the start of a Balinese themed spa center soon took a turn. Datin Jeanette had an ‘aha! moment’ while listening to wellness leaders speak at a conference and realized that authenticity is prime for this business.

After returning from the conference, they both set out to trace the roots of their own tribe, the Dusun people. They visited rural indigenous families, spoke to grandmothers and home makers and watched how they massaged with care and precision. The journey in itself was a discovery of pride, joy and belonging.

They hired four local Dusun ladies to join them and there on Jari Jari Spa was birthed. Today, the signature Borneo massage is on the world chart as Jennifer is a certified, accredited trainer from the Federation of Holistic Therapists Association (FHT) in the United Kingdom. The organization is not only profit making, but is also empowering local Dusun ladies with a specialized skill to gain employment. The Jari Jari Academy has trained masseurs that have gone on to work at internationally acclaimed spas such as YTL’s Spa Village and is continuing to grow within Sabah.

Still the best treasure that Jari Jari Spa has given to the Dusun ladies and community is the value and uniqueness of one’s trade. Each masseuse has her own special way of working on the body and so, in that sense, every massage is unique and every masseur is unique. It is this uniqueness that perpetuates the tradition.

Sabah has many stories to uncover, and it’s not just about her verdant landscapes, azure blue seas or teeming wildlife – but her people, their traditions and culture.

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Coffin Cliff At Danum Valley

Climbing up the trail amidst towering rainforest trees with fig twines and epiphytes snaking on branches forming beautiful stringy sculptures, the dense canopy providing shade from the blazing heat and…

Climbing up the trail amidst towering rainforest trees with fig twines and epiphytes snaking on branches forming beautiful stringy sculptures, the dense canopy providing shade from the blazing heat and the gentle chirping of birds make an ideal jungle hike. My guide, Muhammad Salehuddin Jais, better known as Dean stopped dead in his tracks. He motioned us look up as we caught the sight of rustling leafs as the sun illuminated the red-orangey coat of a male orang utan. He was busy snacking on some young shoots and unperturbed with our presence. Next to us, we saw bushy giant squirrels hopping from one tree to another.

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This is the Danum Valley – 43,800 hectares of endless rainforest dating back 130 million years ago. Ironically, not many, not even Malaysians know about. One of only three virgin forest lands in Sabah, Malaysia, Danum Valley is home to over 300 bird species, 110 mammals, 72 reptiles, 56 amphibians and 57 fish. My second visit here has rendered me speechless (again!) as I marvelled at the serenity and beauty of how the rainforest ecosystem works – untouched of course, nature as is.

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I was on an upward trail to Coffin Cliff, where remains of an ancient burial ground is found and the highlight of this gradual climb. I arrived at an enormous limestone boulder ridden with holes on one of its surfaces and a trail leading around it overlooking the forest. This ancient burial site was discovered some 20 years ago before the only commercial accommodation was built in 1994. Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL) was set up as part of a commitment from the Sabah state government to protect and conserve this forest while promoting it as a nature-based haven for education and research. Although the masses know little about Danum Valley or BRL, the lodge continues to attracts the likes of National Geographic scientists and professors, well-known wildlife researchers, Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge and even Martha Stewart.

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Staring at the hole-ridden limestone wall, I saw planks of broken wood covered with moss on a flat stone surface. I thought nothing of it until Dean pointed out that these were the remains of an ancient coffin. Several meters away from the coffin were some bones and a skeletal jaw with several teeth intact. Indeed, the Sugpan tribe that once traversed this forest considered this elevated ground a sacred place.

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The Sugpan group is a sub-ethnic Dusunic group that are nomadic in nature. They depended on the forest for food and cover and would later trade with Chinese from mainland China along the Segama and Kinabatangan River. Today, the tribe has evolved from their way of life and is intermarrying, but many still hold on to their animistic roots. Today, descendants of the tribe are living along the Kinabatangan River and are known as Orang Sungai.

“It is thought that the higher you bury your loved ones, the closer you are to heaven. The Sugpan people would carry the deceased in coffins made of Belian (ironwood) and they would find holes in limestone caves to lodge the coffins,” Dean explains. This was a baffling story of strength, tenacity and grit.

“Berlian wood is so dense that it doesn’t float in water – it sinks. It is termite free too and is known to be indestructible. I can’t imagine how they brought it up here and even lowered it into the limestone crevices,” Dean adds.

I examined the skeletal remains and Dean tells me that according to carbon samples, the remains were at least 250 years old. “So do you know if this is a male or a female?,” I asked. “This is definitely a male. It is told that within the Sugpan tribe, male hunters would pull out their two front teeth to gain more force and precision when using the blowpipe to hunt. ” Dean explains. “Apparently, the Sugpan ladies find it very masculine when men lose their front teeth,” Dean supressed a laugh as I chuckled at the thought of a tooth-less hunter.

DSC_5932DSC_5922More was promised on this trail. We walked around the boulder and on a narrow trail along the ridge. There lying on the sandy ground were huge blocks of wood, one as a base and the other a cover. The wood was in better condition than the first plank we saw on the limestone platform. Its grains were so defined and its patterns so intricate. Perhaps this chunk of wood was strategically positioned to receive sunlight thereby preventing rotting moss. It also commanded unobstructed views of Danum Valley.

DSC_5972DSC_5962I was told that the coffin was that of the chieftain’s. His family carried his coffin up to the ridge and placed it there together with his blowpipe which is still seen inside the coffin. They later removed his body and sat him on top of the coffin so he can oversee his village below the cliff, where the lodge is.

DSC_5892Suspended coffins are not unusual as people continue to discover and visit hanging coffins in Philippines, China and Indonesia. The coffins in Danum Valley was only discovered some 20 years ago and it proves to show that this natural haven is not just for environmental and wildlife protection, but to preserve a culture and heritage that otherwise would not have been told.

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Shangri-La Tanjung Aru

Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, may be a large sized resort renowned for its impeccable service and beautiful surroundings; however it is what happens behind the…

Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, may be a large sized resort renowned for its impeccable service and beautiful surroundings; however it is what happens behind the scenes that makes this hotel outstanding. The resort has been recognized by Wild Asia as one of the finalists for the 2009 Responsible Tourism Awards because of an array of best practices that have been adopted and applied.

One of the best practices of responsible tourism is “Their participation and Support of the Local Community through a range of philanthropic activities”. They sponsor many schools in the area, including La Salle secondary school, Sabah College, and Seri Mengasih, a school for mentally challenged students. They have adopted 4 students this year and have helped to provide an education for these children. They have raised funds for and donated various items to the schools, such as books, magazines, play grounds, recycle bins and others. The resort has also involved students in environmental activities, such as beach clean ups and recycle buy back centers within the school.

Another responsible tourism best practice worthy of noting is “their strong commitment to local employment and worker’s welfare”. Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa guarantees excellent staff conditions, as well as extensive training in environmental management for all employees. Over 90 percent of staff is from Sabah, and many of them have worked at the resort for over 20 years. It is not uncommon to find two generations of a family working at the hotel.

Finally, Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa is involved in a range of “innovative environmental activities that promote conservation”. They have adopted Zero beach, a public beach located adjacent to their resort property. They have accomplished a dramatic cleaning of the beach area, and try to promote local environmental awareness through education in surrounding schools. The resort has an organized and efficient recycling separation process, as well as composting all organic waste with Bokashi, a microbe enzyme that speeds up the composting process. Recently, the hotel has taken the initiative to involve both local schools and hotel guests in making EM mud balls containing this microbe in order to release into polluted streams. The mud balls slowly dissolve and release microbes into the water stream to help improve water quality. The resort has also taken on the immense uphill battle of helping to clean up the neighboring water village, wrought with layers of rubbish.

Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa understand the importance of being a leading role model in local environmental conservation and social empowerment. They have a long uphill battle presented before them, but are committed to improving the surrounding natural and cultural heritage.

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