Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Borneo 3 - Rural

Traditional Borneo chow eaten throughout our Sabah Tour

This post will concern itself with the food I had during the Intrepid tour I went on through Sabah. The tour was called Sabah Adventure and got fully booked fairy far in advance... for good reason: because it was awesome! I'll run through what we did/saw/ate chronologically and share some non-food related feedback and photos too. I hope you enjoy the read.

Our tour kicked off from Kota Kinabalu on the West coast of Borneo. After a night in the city, we travelled on to a village homestay about 1-2 hours from the base of Mt Kinabalu. The homestay was located on some farmland and we soon got used to a variety of domesticated animal noises (plus a selection of bug, bird and frog sounds that our host amusingly described to us as 'natural alarm clocks').

Fried sticky rice cakes

Upon arrival, we were provided with coffee, tea and some interesting fried sticky rice snacks that had a red bean filling. The filling wasn't as sweet as Japanese azuki paste. I found this snack too oily but Marc seemed to like it.

Rice milling like a bawse; and no, I'm not a 7 foot giant. Pespective can be deceptive...

That night and the next morning, we were giving a few lessons in the local culture in the form of rice-milling, traditional dancing/drums and rubber tapping. Each member of our tour group participated in the tedious task of rice-milling and we were kindly advised that if we didn't finish, there'd be no rice for supper.

Homestay dinner

As it happens, we did get through it (after a long, long time) and our rice ended up being included in a fantastic homely feast that night. The food was cooked by our host's wife and included chicken curry, fried noodles, veggies, bamboo shoots and fish.

My plate

I thought the chicken curry was fabulous and Marc really liked the bamboo. I'll make a special mention of the small bananas we found in abundance in Borneo (as in, they were served in lots of places, not that we picked them off random trees). I don't eat bananas much in Australia because they are too big but these were a perfect serving size and also had a mild honey flavor.

Not far from our sleeping quarters was a freshwater stream with cool swimming ponds. We hung out there for a bit to unwind; ironically it was the hot and humid up to the ponds that we had to unwind from in the first place. Still lovely though.

 Mixed veggies FTW!

After our time at the village, we bused it on to Kinabalu National Park. Our first meal in that vincinity was had outside the park at a local eatery. Marc and I ordered a bunch of different things but the standouts of that part of the country were the vegetable dishes. All the veggies were super fresh and just tasted really good. I think it was around that point that I started worrying about eating too blindly and started craving more vegetables.

While we were in the park and climbing the mountain, we were offered buffet-style meals that included noodle and rice dishes, curries, veggies, some Western items and lots of fruit. I thought the standards of food were all really high and it was especially impressive at Laban Rata (the resting house at 3270m asl that we stayed one night half way through the climb) considering that all the ingredients were manually carted up.

Loved the clouds spilling over the mountain peaks

The hike up Mount Kinabalu was the overall highlight of the trip for me. As a generally inactive person, I wasn't prepared mentally or physically for how intense the climb would be and am still shocked that I made it to the top. I won't deny that I spent a large portion of the journey spitting profanities in my head but in the end, the effort was well worth it.

Not-so-shabby view from the top. The triangle is actually the shadow of the mountain on the clouds below

The sunrise views from the summit were just breathtaking. I've never seen anything like it. It was almost like being on another planet. We were lucky enough to have mild weather with clear views and compounding with all that was just this unforgettable sense of achievement. It was a bloody hard trek but I'd recommend it for sure.

Once we finished our climb, the group was rewarded with a stay at Poring Hotsprings. As well as the hotsprings themselves, there were walking trails around the place and a treetop canopy walk. Ignoring bodily protests (everyone was sort of limping around and all stairs were met with sighs of 'oh no'), we went through the treetop walk and a hike to a waterfall and some bat caves.

The waterfall was small but tranquil and we sat there for a bit cooling off and enjoying the scenery.

Just one of our meals at Poring complete with soup, veggies and sweet and sour chicken

During our stay at Poring Hotsprings, we mostly just ate at our inn. Marc and I worked through a number of things on their menu (their breakfast cheese toasts were delicious) and drained their supply of Tiger Beer.

From Poring, we set off on a 5hr journey East to the other side of Sabah. We reached a town called Sepilok, famed for its wildlife.

Not dissimilar to a muscular sack of rubber but mighty cute

First we visited the orangutan rehabilitation centre. It was cold and rainy but we spotted lots of macaques and finally, a large orangutan. It nibbled on beans before showing off its neat acrobatic skills.

Dorky probiscus monkeys hanging around. If you see some of my other photos you'd realize they're being unusually graceful here

Here, I saw one of the most intriguing, amusing and yes (I feel a wee bit bad for saying this), ugly creatures I've ever seen: the probiscus monkey, which is endemic to Borneo. We met them at a sanctuary and stood there observing their interactions. It was like watching a slapstick American comedy show. They are just rediculous!

Me with Mr silver leaf. If you put that bean in my mouth, we'd be identical

At the sanctuary, we were also fortunate enough to see a pied oriental hornbill and come in close contact with a couple of silver leaf monkeys.

Sepilok was about 45min from Sandakan, our next destination. This was another big city in Sabah (so I included this in the urban post) and we spent a night there before boating it out to turtle island. That was another amazing experience because the island only allows 50 tourists on at a time so the beaches felt private and secluded. The most unreal part was seeing a giant green turtle lay eggs. They are massive! We also saw the release of a bunch of baby turtles. Those things move like they are on speed.

Banana leaf package of sweet sticky rice and toasted coconut

Once we finished our trip to turtle island, we progressed to the final part of our journey, the MESCOT jungle camp. We were greeted with these cool banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice packages. There was no filling but the exterior of the rice had a crust of sugary toasted coconut. I was hungry after the 5 hour bus ride and devoured 2 of these (which was very filling).

The jungle stay started off well with an activity that's perhaps the most relevant to this blog... a cooking class! There were 4 dishes involved in the cooking class: chicken curry, grilled eggplant, cucumber salad and sweet potato chips.

Local Borneo mamma showing us the ways of chicken curry

I was part of team sweet potato chip and unfortunnately learnt nothing aside from how to peel a potato (which I already knew). Our chips weren't even served at lunch :(. I finished peeling and traversed to other stations and there were much more interesting.

Marc learnt how to cut cucumbers into pretty flowers

I picked up a general recipe for this really amazing chili relish but I haven't tried it at home and I'm not confident in my memory. If I try it out and it's good, I'll definitely post it up.

It was quite rewarding eating the food everyone created. My favorite was the aforementioned chili relish. I could marry it!

Food worth getting my fingers dirty for

We had the minor challenge of eating everything without cutlery (yup, that's the slurpy curry, grainy rice, thinly sliced cucumber salad and mushy eggplant) but it all tasted good enough for it to be worth the messiness and struggles.

5 star luxury jungle hut complete with open-air ventilation and built in mosquito nets

From this point, we had a short boat ride to my least favorite part of the entire holiday. I have nothing against jungles but I'm freaking terrified of insects. I kept my cool for most of the stay (what I can't see can't hurt me) but was forced to confront a lot of MASSIVE millepedes on the jungle night walk and went into panic mode after that. We were staying in... 'interesting' accomodation, interesting being a polite descriptor. We had stilted wooden huts that were open on the sides and little mattresses on the floor. Actually, it wasn't that bad but I kept thinking about bugs crawling all over me so I wrapped myself up in the mosquito net and knocked myself out with a couple of valium.

 A balanced breakfast of sugar donuts, rice noodles and hot chocolate

In the morning, the sun was up and all was dandy. We did a river cruise and returned for breakfast. The breakfast amused me because there were donuts and rice noodles. Now, I know you're probably not meant to eat them together but it just seemed so funny together. One thing I could never get used to is how lots of Asian cultures feature rice or noodles as a normal breakfast item. Even a cup of instant coffee is sometimes too much for me to stomach that early.

After the jungle we made a beeline for Sandakan airport and flew direct back to Kota Kinabalu.

I admit I haven't been to many tours before and definitely nothing like this but I just think so highly of this Sabah Adventure itinery and organization behind it. We got to experience a diverse range of activities, destinations and sights and they all seemed to compliment one another really well. From a food perspective, the tour exposed us to a great range of local cuisine from traditional homestyle cooking to the vast options available in the big cities. The whole tour was a great balance of challenging/exerting mixed with relating and fun. Actually, it was all fun (minus the bugs)!


  1. Loving your Borneo photos and stories.. Intrepid are great! we did intrepid tours in thailand and vietnam. had a homestay in thailand that i will remember forever... now I want to go to Borneo!

  2. Hi Brisbane Devoured...

    I agree the tour was just done so well. I'm doing a G Adventures tour through Northern Thailand in June so hopefully it'll be good too :D. And yes!! Borneo isn't often considered as a popular holiday destination but I had a BALL.