Take A Ride On Sabah’s “Cultural Highway”

Written by Jaxon S on January 10th, 2008 in Borneo Travel.

KUDAT (Sabah): “Country Roads”, a song by the late John Denver comes to mind as the car makes a tight swerve along the left curve of a double two-way hillside road up Kampung Kelawat in Kota Belud on the way to Kudat from the state capital.

Going downhill soon after, the road narrowed to a single two-way lane and when it reaches the valley, a whole new landscape suddenly opens up as the road approaches freshly planted paddy fields.

[Hundreds of white egrets hover around a tractor as a padi field in Pandasan, Kota Belud is being prepared for the next planting season]

“Country roads take me home…,” sings Denver in the song but this country road of Sabah will not be taking people to West Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains or Shenandoah river as the song suggests.

It will instead take people on a memorable journey along fast-changing landscapes, passing through districts populated by distinct ethnic groups with their own way of life and culture.

Blue Ridge mountains there were none; there is Mount Kinabalu by the way, Southeast Asia’s highest peak which can be seen looming majestically from afar, blue as it is blue.

Cultural diversity

Going by this road to the North of Sabah, one is also going on a “cultural journey”, similar to the concept of “road tourism” that is thriving elsewhere, such as the Cumberland Cultural Heritage Highway in Kentucky, the United States.

There is also the Silk Road of China where tourists would be able to retrace the age-old routes that pass through ancient landscapes in Central Asia.

Can this road to the North be regarded as Sabah’s cultural highway?

A tourism official said although the concept was still new in Sabah, the route had indeed offered unique cultural experiences for the visitors.

“This route is already a cultural highway, so to speak. Tourists using that route will pass through the districts of various ethnic groups in Sabah… the Lotuds and Bajaus of Tuaran, the Bajaus and Iranuns of Kota Belud, the Dusuns and Tobilungs of Kota Marudu and the Rungus of Matunggong and Kudat,” he said.

Then, there is also the Kimaragangs of Tandek if one were to make a short detour from the main road upon reaching the Langkon intersection, some 120km from Kota Kinabalu.

“It would be quite an experience to be on that route, to know the local people, to drive and stop as many times as possible and go for side trips,” he said.

Bicycle tours

At present, some tourists who are staying at resorts in Tuaran had been exploring the countryside on bicycles.

“They go on a bicycle tours in the kampungs. This should be extended all the way to the North, using four-wheel drive vehicles, then make stops along the way to buy local fruits and products and have positive interactions with the locals,” he suggested.

Besides cultural attractions, some places off the Kota Kinabalu-Kudat road are historical sites, such as Kuala Abai in Kota Belud.

“Sir Hugh Low (a British resident) went there in 1851. That is the place where he set foot on his way to climb the Mt Kinabalu,” he said.

To make such a tourism concept successful, village committees should make some forms of arrangement to accomodate tourist arrivals in their areas, like places for them to rest and participate in local activities.

Equally vital is to have clean facilities along the way, like restrooms and rest-and-recreation areas.

“As it is, we have got all the ingredients to make the idea of road tourism a success. Our people are hospitable, their culture unique, it’s all there. But we need to pay attention to cleanliness and do a bit of organisation,” he said.

Enough to fascinate

The experience may not be as grand as that of the Silk Road, some may argue. But a driver who ferries passenggers almost every day along that route said that he found his passengers fascinated by what they saw along the way.

“There are picturesque landscapes, not to mention the unique experience of seeing rural Sabah interspersed with small towns, roadside villages and rural folks dwellings,” he said.

To make the journey pleasureable, however, tourists need to do some sort of planning so that their trip could coincide with various events in districts along the way.

Not to be missed is perhaps the tamu or open air bazaar where people can buy or see all sorts of village produce.

It is held on Sundays in Tuaran, Kota Belud and Kota Marudu; Wednesdays in Tamparuli and Saturdays in Tanjung Sempang Mengayau, better known as the tip of Borneo in Kudat.

Reaching the northernmost tip of Borneo is itself a thrilling experience as visitors need to negotiate the narrow byway that snakes through coconut plantations and rural orchards.

A sense of isolation will overwhelm almost any visitors upon reaching the promontory of the tip of Borneo overlooking the South China Sea.

Good hotels

Where to put up in the night? There are good hotels in Kudat and Kota Marudu.

While in Kudat, visitors will be able to sample a homestay programme in six Rungus villages near Sikuati which have a total of 50 rooms in 46 houses.

Once in Kudat, they can visit the Rungus longhouse in Bavanggazo, see how gongs are made in Kampung Sumangkap and beadworks in Kampung Tinangol. In Kota Belud, tourists could go on a horse ride by the village alongside the Bajau horsemen, dubbed the “cowboys of the East”.

These are but to name just a few attractions along the road to the North. There will be others waiting to be discovered that could perhaps even impress Denver if only he had the chance to be on that road.

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