That was in 1985 yet, on a brief ghee-whizz-instamatic-blur of a round about town on the way to a six-month Malaysian government fellowship in Kuala Lumpur.
A bustling metropolis, minus the blight of urbanization – read: teeming garbage, slums, graffiti. So is my attestation, the second time around, arriving here on February 22 and staying until the 25th.
Images of the first visit totally obliterated, but for the emerald greenness, the coolness of the place that makes even the most wearied traveler instantly refreshed. Yes, for all the increase in the population of the city – currently standing at 350,000, so we were told, and the requisite housing development that entailed, the forests have been well-preserved. Yes, even the trees lining the expanded highways remained standing so tall and so green.
A nice home for the visit is Gaya Centre Hotel, three-star standard, located between two malls – the upscale Suria Sabah and the Greenhills-type Wisma Merdeka – by the waterfront where the best in Sabah street food – from satay ayam dipped in peanut sauce, to nasi goreng to a variety of grilled fish and prawns, squids and shellfish – abound.
An example of fine dining though – where seafood reaches culinary excellence – is at the floating restaurant Kampung Nelayan or Fisherman’s Village where we partook our first dinner in Kota: peppercorn soft shell crabs, steamed prawns, fried black garupa, plus stewed ostrich meat and local greens fried in garlic. All these over an entertaining cultural show where audience participation is a must. The columnist Ashley Manabat and GNN 44’s Rey Yumang joined a tribal dance. I took the blowpipe challenge and hit a balloon from 20 feet away. Yeah!
Day Two started with an early morning breakfast at Gaya, then off for a two-hour scenic and exhilarating ride through zigzags and hairpin turns to Kinabalu Park, Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site.
As the whole park covers 754 sq. km., we had to content ourselves to just its five-acre botanical garden, where the nascent naturalist, if not the inborn botanist, in anyone comes to the fore right at the garden’s very entrance.
The orchids are not in bloom. The world’s largest flower, the rafflesia, is off blooming season too. But the lovely begonias and colorful berries, and the insectivorous pitcher plants in sizes Gay Rey described as wee, passable and oh-my-god well compensated for the absence.
The gurgling brook that meanders through the garden broken in places by tiny falls between large rocks, the chirping birds, the rush of the wind through the canopy of green, even the falling leaves compose a symphony of serenity most uplifting to the human spirit. Ah, how could one ever have the heart to hurt, to destroy God’s creation and still call himself human?
An hour hence, we arrived at the hot water spring, Poring Panas Air – bamboo-hot-water in Bahasa Malaysia, for the proliferation of bamboo groves in the area.
A twenty-five minute winding climb took us to a canopy walkway, amidst towering Menggaris trees, dubbed as the “King of the Sabah forests.” Up over 40 meters from the ground, a single wood plank to walk on, ropes to hold onto, nettings as protection against side slips, swaying in the wind with 157.8 meters to negotiate. A great thrill there, but definitely not one for the acrophobic. .
Strained calves, bum knees and sore feet find instant cure in the hot sulphuric minerals at the spring, in individual bathtubs and group pools.
The appetite worked up by the physicality of the day’s events, oversated by a hearty dinner – seafoods galore, again – at the Gayang Restaurant right at the bank of a river teeming with mangroves. Ah, transformed was I to an era long vanished – the kailugan, kandalaga, dalpakan and pambaling rivers of my youth in somnolent Sto. Tomas teeming with clumps of bakawan, tuwi, palapat and other mangroves. Ah, what have we done to our rivers? Alas, what have become of us?
A full stomach needed to be worked out. And what better post-prandial jaunt than through the Kota night market.
“A fool is easily parted with his money.” So Ashley half-lamented after paying RM22 (PHP308) for a pair of Oakley sunglasses when I got my own RayBan classic shades for only RM18 (PHP252). Twice the fool went Ashley by buying another pair for RM18 too.
No trip is ever complete for Ashley without so much as a sip at the local Starbucks. So with cups of espressos, we toasted our first full day in Kota Kinabalu.
(To be continued)