Same country, different world

Rare sightings: Foreigners camp out for months along the Kinabatangan River just for a glimpse of the pygmy elephants.

The beauty and simplicity of Kinabatangan remain lost to Malaysians who are caught up in their own political bubble.

MANY Malaysians, especially those from the peninsula, are probably clueless as to where Kinabatangan is.

In fact, were it not for the notoriety of Datuk Bung Moktar Radin, the four-term parliament member for the constituency (which is the size of Pahang), most would never have heard of the place.

His off-colour, sexist and offensive remarks in the Dewan Rakyat are still remembered two decades on.

Tongod – a remote district in Kinabatangan – is bigger than the state of Selangor. Amazingly, Sabah can fit four states into its borders and still have room. That’s the colossal size of the state.

Following a recent visit to Sandakan to suss out the political sentiments ahead of the general election, I made a detour and went to Kinabatangan on National Day.

I’ve learnt that the danger of living in the Klang Valley is that many of us assume the rest of Malaysia shares similar electoral aspirations. That typifies the hazard of living in a political bubble. We form conclusions which eventually develop into wishful thinking, simply by talking to our like-minded peers.

However, the key to winning elections is to secure the votes of the heartland, as attested to in the United States recently, a scenario reflected here, as well.

The opinions of people from New York, Los Angeles and Seattle count for little. While he expected the barbs from urbanites, US president Donald Trump also knew he had rock-solid support from South Carolina, Kansas and Alaska, and those from rural areas. He was right in expecting the votes to arrive.

Back in Sabah, I was summoned by the call of the wild. After meeting political stakeholders in Sandakan, talking and listening to politicians, voters and community leaders in this Cantonese-speaking town, I had to see for myself what the jungles of Kinabatangan were all about.

It took me over two hours, via a bumpy trunk road, from Sandakan, to reach Kampung Bilit – a small river bank village with a population of 200, comprising mostly Orang Sungai (river people).

Coincidentally, Kampung Bilit is Bung Moktar’s village. He grew up there. As a kid, he had to take risky boat rides on the Kinabatangan river to get to school in Sukau, having crocodiles for company along his journey.

The people there have built their lives around the 560km river, about 25km upstream from Sukau and 130km from Sandakan city centre, where they catch freshwater prawns (udang galah) and fish for a living.

The village is obviously a Barisan Nasional stronghold as most of the houses were flying the party banner, along with the Jalur Gemilang and the state flag.

Ecotourism ensures villagers are busy ferrying tourists from the banks of Malaysia’s second longest (Sarawak’s Rajang is the longest) river to various accommodation spots along that stretch of water. During our two nights’ stay at a lodge, my wife and I were the only Malaysians there. The rest were from Europe, the United States, and even South America.

The lodge staff revealed Malaysians hardly come to the place, or to Kinabatangan, for that matter.

I was repeatedly asked why I chose to visit the remote place, where WiFi doesn’t exist, cellphone reception is abysmal and there is no television to while away the time.

However, decked in heavy boots and armed with torchlights, we enjoyed the nightly treks (at 8pm), which took us through the jungle and puddles of mud.

Bedtime was routinely 10pm, and we were up by 5.30am for the morning boat rides to watch the animals.

The excited foreigners, with their mouths agape every time they encountered an animal (be it even a bird or insect), travelled halfway around the world to get to Kinabatangan for the experience.

There’s a simple reason to why I made this journey: as a Malaysian, I felt terribly ashamed that I had never ventured to many parts of my own country.

Kinabatangan is a world-famous wildlife sanctuary, renowned for its unique fauna, including the proboscis monkey, pygmy elephant, freshwater dolphin, hornbill, orang utan and freshwater shark.

The world pretty much congregates in this incredibly well-preserved place to catch a glimpse of these animals. Some foreigners stay for months, only hoping to see the rarely-sighted Asian elephants.

These trips come with a caveat, though – sightings are not guaranteed, a condition tourists readily accept. The only creatures we were not keen on seeing were the mosquitoes and leeches that accompanied us on our jungle treks.

While most of what we saw involved pristine beauty, there were the ugly sides, too. Most villagers appreciate the importance of tourism for their livelihood, but are still stuck in their ways.

Plastic bottles littered the river, their source an insignificant detail. I felt embarrassed because as a Malaysian, I would want these foreigners to form a good impression of our country.

Kinabatangan’s rise to fame surely hasn’t gone unnoticed by the lodge staff. Those who can speak basic English, including the receptionists and guides, have prospered from job opportunities.

However, they understand that for Kinabatangan to continue providing them a living, their villages should remain isolated, underlining the need to preserve the jungle as is.

It’s an amazingly beautiful place. It’s not just the array of animals on parade but, as one report said: “Scattered in the area are limestone outcrops, many with caves that harbour large nesting colonies of swiftlets, as well as endemic limestone-inhabiting flora and fauna. The largest and best-known of these limestone hills is Gomantong.”

Kinabatangan, or Kota Kinabatangan (three other towns in Sabah exist with the Kota prefix – Kota Kinabalu, Kota Belud and Kota Marudu), is hardly a town by Klang Valley standards. The Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet there seems to be the nerve centre for the population, which numbers more than 150,000. Foreigners working on the oil palm plantations also make up the community.

My visit to Kinabatangan has been an eye-opener, and not just from a political perspective.

The parliamentary constituency, created in 1966, has been under the control of the Alliance and Barisan from Day One. Voters are scattered all over the vast area, and sometimes, it takes days of travel to reach them. There are regular reports of people losing their way in the jungles, once even including a ranger.

Given what I saw and heard, the outcome of the general election there is anyone’s guess, though history has a way of repeating itself.

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