Kampung Life on Borneo, Malaysia
We spent four months in a farm in the middle of nowhere enjoying immensely peace, quiet, the lack of internet, our own compost, washing with rainwater, and the local laid-back rhythm of life.
Our base was in the state of Sabah in Kampung Takuli. Although Sabah is part of Malaysia, people want to distinguish themselves from the West Malaysians (peninsular Malaysians). They are proud of their own slowly disappearing tribal cultures and history.
The main native people of Sabah are Kadazans, Dusuns, Bajaus (also known as sea-gypsies), and Muruts. The house where we were staying belongs to Dusun people whose culture became most familiar to us. The Dusun were known to be peaceful farmers who hid to underground holes when head hunters attacked in the old days. Today many of them have left kampung (countryside in Malay) searching for work elsewhere, usually in bigger cities. Our host, Justin Wong, had worked and lived years in Singapore but returned four years ago. Last year he started growing chillies in the farm.
We helped Justin in small tasks such as watering chillies before he got a farm hand from East Timor. After that we were mainly writing and keeping the house habitable. June, July, and August were exceptionally dry for the tropical rainforest area. The longest dry period we witnessed was two weeks and water was really needed—otherwise all the plants had died out. As we were sharing the rain water reserves with plants, there was practically no washing or cleaning during the dry periods. Full days of direct sunlight are too much especially for small seedlings which have to be covered with nets to prevent leaves from burning, they needed the water more than us.
In September the rains started. They can be really heavy but do not necessarily last long. During a rain shower, the metal roof of our house kept such a loud noise that we were not able to hear each other. As the rain water collecting system was leaking in the kitchen, the room got cleaning every time it rained. Luckily it did not rain in our combined lounge and bedroom. It could have been fatal for our electronics.
The actual rainy season should start in November-December and then the nearby village of Beaufort is usually flooded. Locals told us that during some days of the year it is impossible to go out because all the streets are under water. When the heavy rainfall is expected, people horde groceries and stay inside until floods are over. Usually this takes a couple of days. We got a taste of what it is like when we arrived in Beaufort in June. We had to exit the railway station from the backyard walking on the rails as the front yard was covered with water. There were warnings not to step into the water as it carried some diseases. Another problem during the rainy season are mosquitoes and snakes climbing to houses to escape floods. We did not want to experience that first-hand.
While paper factories are raping Brazilian rainforests for paper production, oil companies are converting Borneo rainforests into palm oil plantations. At the same time the climate change is damaging the ecosystem.
Getting There and Around
The public transportation is non-existent in the countryside. Instead, there are private people who drive illegal pirate vans. There are no timetables nor any written information about prices, routes and places of departure so for tourists staying just a short time it is not a viable option—especially because tourists are supposed to take expensive taxis or “charters,” which are pirate vans reserved exclusively for their use. At first pirates refused to transport us, but after seeing us walking in the kampung area they began to recognize and accept us.
Vans proved to work fine. Once a week we walked 11 kilometres to Beaufort early in the morning right after sunrise, visited Internet café, bought groceries for a week, and took the 10 am van back to kampung. There were several drivers, but the word had spread about us so even new drivers always knew where to stop without us telling them directions.
There were no other foreigners in the area so we were quite a sight wherever we went to. People greeted us and the most courageous ones came over to talk. Sabah people are quite shy so most of the time they contented with “Good morning!,” waiving or honking their car horn. We felt a bit like Queen Elisabeth on our morning walks and jogs, and when visiting Beaufort.
Dangers and Annoyances
One of the main challenges of living in the countryside is drinking water. There was a communal water pipe in our house, but it had been broken for quite some time. The local water company had assessed that fixing it would have cost ~1000€—quite an outrageous price considering the local price level. Luckily, Santeri managed to fix the pipe in a few hours awarding us luxurious running water.
Another problem was the quality of water like in many undeveloped areas. Sometimes it was clear having no taste or colour, but within a couple of hours, it could suddenly turn yellowish. Sometimes there was algae which meant that it might have not been potable even after boiling. We had a big stockpile of water containers which we filled whenever water was potable. This way we could tide over the days of muddy contaminated water. The problem of the drinking water is paradoxical as Borneo has many rivers and the yearly rainfall must be among the highest in the world. Still, people suffer from the lack of water or of bad quality.
Electricity is usually badly, even dangerously installed. Power cuts occur once in a while, but during our four-month stay they were very short, usually lasting only a couple of minutes. The longest cut was two hours. We do not even want to think about the amount of problems during the floods both with potable water and electricity.
Compared to West Malaysia, Sabah is more easy-going, friendlier and less arrogant. Definitely worth a visit or even a long stay. If you prefer urban areas to kampung, KK (Kota Kinabalu) is a cute little town with nice green areas and waterfront. The same visa rules apply in Sabah as in West Malaysia. Europeans get three months when entering the state from any foreign country and can make a visa-run quickly, cheaply, and easily to Brunei by bus and boat via Labuan. We had been warned that Borneo is expensive, but we found it as cheap as Italy and Thailand thanks to government price regulation and dirt-cheap fuel prices.