Land Below the Wind
Sabah, which is also known as the “Land Below the Wind”, is a great place to visit if you plan to indulge in nature’s delights. With its majestic mountains, undersea wonders, lush rainforests, colourful people and unique cultures, the state is set to woo and win the hearts of many travellers.
Located at the northern tip of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, Sabah shares its western border with Sarawak and its southern one with Indonesia’s Kalimantan. The warm waters of the South China Sea in the west and the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea in the east surround this land of beauty and mystery.
Scattered off the coasts of Sabah are various island paradises. The state, which is approximately the size of the Republic of Ireland (70,282 sq. km.), is the second largest in Malaysia.
The state is an eco-treasure trove just waiting to be explored. Sabah possesses one of the richest underwater ecosystems in the world, making it a premier destination for those who love marine life.
Tropical paradise islands such as Pulau Sipadan, Pulau Layang-Layang, Pulau Kapalai and Pulau Tiga Park (to mention just a few) are fantastic scuba-diving and snorkelling sites. In these waters, the diver will discover many rare and endangered sea creatures such as the hawksbill turtles, giant clams and barracudas.
Sea turtles are found off the waters of Sipadan Island
However, if you are into “muck diving” – observing small and bizarre sea creatures – then rarities such as the mimic octopus, mandarin fish, seahorses and weird sea slugs known as nudibranchs will keep you occupied.
Those who prefer the land to sea will be spoilt for choice with the state’s network of parks. Rivers meander through rainforests at places such as the Crocker Range National Park, Tawau Hills Park, Danum Valley Conservation Area and Pulau Tiga Park. The famous Kinabalu Park was even declared Malaysia’s First World Heritage Site in 2000, a testament to the land’s diversity in plant, animal, insect and bird life.
The rich forest ecosystem is home to an assortment of flora such as the Rafflesia (the largest flower in the world), pitcher plants and ferns as well as fauna such as the proboscis monkey, orangutan and Sumatran rhinoceros.
There’s also the Gua Gomantong, which is inhabited by bats and swiftlets. The swiftlets’ nests are the source of a famous Chinese delicacy, bird’s nest, and so command a good price.
Of course, Sabah is also famous for Gunung Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia. In fact, the three highest mountains in Malaysia are found in this state – Gunung Kinabalu (4,095m), Gunung Trusmadi (2,642m) and Gunung Tambuyukon (2,579m).
Sabah’s rugged beauty is an ideal place for adventurers. There are so many activities to do here ranging from diving and snorkelling to trekking and mountain climbing, and white-water rafting to spelunking.
The latest extreme sport to hit the state is skydiving!
However, the state’s many beaches, islands, parks and highlands are also perfect for those who prefer a relaxing holiday.
The indigenous people of Sabah are friendly and possess rich traditions and cultures. There are over 30 different ethnic groups and more than 80 local dialects in the state. The largest ethnic group is the Kadazandusun, making up one-third of the population.
A group of Murut outside the Kadazandusun Cultural Association complex entrance during Kaamatan celebrations
The Bajau people are Borneo’s seafarers and skilled fishermen. They are also known as rice cultivators and experts in rearing ponies and water buffaloes. The Murut, which means “hill people”, were once feared headhunters and are known for their skills with spears, blowpipes and poison darts.
The Heritage Village located on the Sabah Museum grounds is a good place to visit for an introduction to these ethnic groups’ way of life.
Those who would like to take things a step further and experience life in a longhouse should visit the Rungus tribe (near Kudat) because they have opened up their homes to visitors. Longhouses are typically found in the northern and interior parts of Sabah and each longhouse is divided into apartments for individual families.
It’s little wonder that an assortment of festivals is celebrated, given the ethnic diversity here. The people celebrate through music, dance and food that are uniquely their own. Among the festivals are the Regatta Lepa Semporna (April), Pesta Keamaatan (May), Pesta Rumbia (July), Pesta Kelapa (September) and Pesta Jagung (October).
The Chinese are the largest non-indigenous group and are major contributors to the state’s economic development.
The different types of handicraft in Sabah are not merely pretty trinkets because they reflect the lifestyle of those who made them and therefore provide us with an insight into their history and cultural ethnicity.
The Kadazandusun are known for their woven baskets and musical instruments made from bamboo. The Rungus – a subgroup of the Kadazandusun – are known for their intricate beadwork. The Bajau are experts at weaving bright and colourful tudung saji (food covers) as well as mats; while the Murut are known for their blowpipes, used widely by the tribe for hunting in the jungles.
Sabah’s economy is still largely dependent upon its agricultural and forestry sectors, which produce mainly rubber, timber, palm oil and cocoa.
The growth sectors have been identified as the agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and tourism sectors.
Contribution from the service sector – which includes wholesale and retail, restaurants and hotels, transportation and communication, tourism and related services – is expected to increase.
In the past, Sabah was primarily under Brunei’s rule but it became a separate state because of the activities of Western adventurers in the region, especially in the last quarter of the 19th century.
In 1865, Claude Lee Moses, the American Consul of Brunei, obtained a lease over the greater part of the territory from the Sultan. This lease was passed on to an Austrian baron named Von Overbeck and finally landed in the hands of an English businessman named Alfred Dent.
Dent signed treaties to convert the lease into a cession and in 1881, established the Chartered Company of British North Borneo to manage the acquisition. From then onwards Sabah, which was known as British North Borneo, was placed under British protection and governed by the company until the Japanese Occupation in 1941.
The company gradually obtained odd pieces of territory not originally acquired. Generally, the acquisition went smoothly except for some pockets of resistance, the most serious being the Mat Salleh War (1894-1900) and the Rundum resistance by the Murut in 1915.
After the Japanese Occupation, Sabah became a British Crown Colony when the company surrendered its rights to the British Government.
The state gained its independence from Britain when it agreed to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s proposal and became a part of Malaysia in 1963