Lahad Datu, Malaysia

March 6 – 7

*This is an unfinished blog post. There are some notes below, but I will fill in the details later. My folder of Mamutik Island, Malaysia pics can be viewed here.


I went to Sabah for the wildlife, so my main goal upon arriving was to find a way to go hiking in the jungle. Maliau Basin, with its untouched primary tropical rainforest, sounded like the most hardcore jungle experience. This area, known as “Sabah’s Lost World” is extremely remote and considered to be one of the world’s greatest areas for biodiversity. There is no known record of humans entering the basin until the early 1980s. Today small numbers of tourists are allowed to visit, but access to the area is limited, you aren’t allowed entry without a guide, and you must undertake a long 4WD journey along dirt paths or be flown in by helicopter. As cool as that sounds, it’s obviously a very expensive ordeal. And because the basin is so time consuming and difficult to access alone, an expensive tour is really the easiest way to go (such as a 5 day, 4 night tour with Borneo Nature Tours for RM3350, among others). A 3-day arduous trek in the basin sounds amazing, but all the accounts I read warn that you must be in absolute top physical condition to even consider undertaking the journey. While I don’t consider myself to be unfit, I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say I’m in “top physical condition.” I would have been willing to give it a try, but really I just couldn’t afford it.

So I decided on the Danum Valley Conservation Area, another difficult to access primary tropical rainforest. Basically there are two ways to get there. Most people stay at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, which is an expensive and luxurious resort in the middle of the jungle. I couldn’t justify staying in a fancy resort on my own, so I opted for the other option: the Danum Valley Field Centre (a rainforest station for scientists and researchers). Their web site doesn’t make it obvious that staying at the center is even possible for tourists, but it does hint at it. I tried calling them, but noone picked up. And I tried emailing my request, but they never replied. So I decided I’d take the 8hr bus trip to Lahad Datu (where their office is) and try to charm the scientists into letting me stay.

Kent drove me to the bus station early in the morning (even though it was the day after his birthday and the first morning in a while that he didn’t have to wake up early for work). He was like a worried mother – packing me some food for the road and making me promise to call him when I got there. Sweet. The bus ride to Lahad Datu was long and I was the only tourist on it. It felt even longer and more annoying because the man in the seat diagonal from mine (who was sitting next to his wife and child), decided it would be appropriate to stare at me during the entire 8 hr journey. Seriously! I was trying to read, but couldn’t focus on my book while seeing him out of the corner of my eye. I eventually turned my back to him and looked out the window. This was the view I saw:

When the bus finally stopped in Lahad Datu, I got a little nervous realizing that I had no clue what I was going to do there. But as always, I ignored all the taxi touts surrounding the bus stop and popped into a restaurant to drink a cup of coffee and regroup. As I walked around the town, everyone was staring at me (some were even snapping sneaky photos with their camera phones)! This was clearly not a tourist destination. But…this is how my luck works. Almost immediately, I spotted two English guys (who seemed to be the only other foreigners in town) sitting at a cafe drinking beers, so I decided to invite myself to their table. They applauded me on my bravery for showing up in Lahad Datu alone and with no plans. It turns out they were going to the Field Center to serve as research assistants for a scientist studying the effect palm oil plantations have on invasive species in the area (well that’s the gist of it anyway). And just as they were saying it wasn’t likely I’d be allowed at the Field Centre as a tourist, two Hawaiian tourists walked by and joined us at the table. They told us that they had just come back from camping at the Field Centre and it was no problem. They also told me that I should be sure to bring groceries (as they didn’t realize there was a fully functional kitchen and ended up having to buy all their meals at the expensive restaurant). Perfect! I followed the research assistants to the office and made arrangements to stay at the Centre. It turned out to be very easy! I didn’t even have to beg or pretend I was working on some sort of scientific study. Their van only makes trips to the Centre Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And since the Monday bus was already full, I had to kill time in Lahad Datu and until Wednesday.

Lahad Datu is not the type of place you’d want to spend a lot of time on purpose. You can tell that almost as soon as you step off the bus. And the only reason you’d ever really need to stop here is if you’re catching a van into the jungle. If a person plans better, they can avoid having to spend days and days here. But since I didn’t plan anything…that’s what I had to do. Luckily, spending a few days in Lahad Datu turned out to be fine. Pretty nice, actually.

After I got my Danum Valley plans all sorted out, I took off in search of a cheap hotel. Lahad Datu is divided into two sections. The upper end of town is where the tour booking offices are, but the lower end of town is where the buses and hotels are. Drivers give rides between the two areas of town for RM3 or RM4 (depending on if you bargain), but it’s only about 1 kilometer and you can also just walk along the road.

Once in the lower part of town, I searched for Tabin Lodge (because it was listed in my guidebook as a cheap place with free luggage storage). I asked people for directions to the place but they kept sending me to the Asia Hotel (an expensive, sterile looking hotel with bellboys who open the door for you). Maybe they thought I had fancy taste, but somehow I kinda doubt it. Eventually I found Tabin Lodge. It was super dirty, but super cheap. I opted for the cheapest room - one with a shared, cold water shower down the hall. Since the air was so muggy, the sheets always felt kinda damp and icky. Definitely a place where I was happy to have my cocoon (travel sheet).

But they had free wifi, a communal burner for cooking, and a super friendly staff…so I thought it was pretty perfect! And I met lots of nice people who were hanging out there and, like me, treating the lobby like an Internet cafe.

I stayed two nights at Tabin Lodge before leaving for Danum Valley. I met Abdul, one of the sweet, quiet staff members from the Phillipines, Maria, one of the smiley housekeepers from Indonesia, and a whole bunch of other Indonesians who were working for an NGO called Borneo Child Aid Society. These guys were teaching Indonesian children living in the nearby palm oil plantations. And they became my good friends while I was there.

We ate at restaurants together and they taught me to love Malaysian food (especially the buffet style places where you can choose a bunch of different things to try).

And we went to the pier to watch the sunset.

So staying in Lahad Datu turned out to be pretty fun after all. I was never really alone very much, as I always had friends to eat and walk around town with. And walking around with me was definitely an amusing experience for my new friends. The first time we walked around together, they were shocked by all the stares I got - said I should probably start waving like royalty or walking like a supermodel. In a way though, I thought it was funny they were surprised (since it kinda felt like the only reason they were hanging out with me was because I was a foreigner and therefore different and interesting).

Anyway, one day I went to the market to buy vegetables and they wanted to accompany me because they said it would be cheaper if they came along. I had one guy on each side of me as we walked through the market, pushing past groups of women and men gawking at me and little kids trying to sell me plastic bags for 1 ringit. My friends were joking that they felt like my bodyguards. I agreed. It was nice to have them around, as I did get hassled a lot  less. I also didn’t have to play the bargaining game, since they did it for me.

Tempeh was an exciting discovery I found at the market! My friends were shocked I knew of it, as apparently it’s a common Indonesian food. I told them about how it can be found at health foods stores and places catering to vegans/vegetarians. And when I told them how much it costs in the US, they laughed. Sounds like Indonesia (with it’s cheap, homemade tempeh) will be one of the next destinations I have to hit up asap.

Anyway, I bought a few tempeh logs and was thrilled!

Another day we walked into the upper part of town to eat. We had just come up a bunch of stairs and were walking through a park. There was a group of about 20 people all staring, pointing at me, and giggling. I think I was so psyched out by all those eyes on me, that I stopped paying attention to where I was walking. I ended up tripping over a gutter and falling flat on my face. My legs got all scraped up and my poor camera (which was in my hand) took a terrible beating. Luckily it wasn’t broken and, well…at least I gave those people something interesting to stare at! I got pretty scraped up though, which was embarrassing. To bad my scrapes and bruises weren’t from doing something interesting. Falling down while walking is a stupid story.

Well, after spending three full days at Tabin Lodge in Lahad Datu, I walked away with about 15 friends. One is from Sulawesi, one is from Sumatra, and the rest are from different cities in Java. And during one of the nights where we all sat in the lobby on our computers, I was made to talk to many other Indonesian people (friends of the friends) on Yahoo Messenger and Skype. Someday soon I plan to make a trip to Indonesia and visit all my friends scattered around the country.


*Just east of Lahad Datu, is the village of Tunku, a notorious 19th century base for Lanun pirates and slave traders.

*Some days I had a better sense of humor about it than others, but all the staring and picture taking definitely got old after a while. I admit - sometimes I also stare at interesting looking people. And sometimes I also like taking pictures of strangers. But usually it is more because I see a pretty picture and less because I want to take a quick snapshot posing with the person. And when I do take pictures, I try to be respectful about it and ask first. I’m in their country and I don’t want to make them feel like objects. That’s why I think it’s so odd that people sneak photos with their camera phones or run up to take a photo with me without even speaking to me. Once I spent 2 hours reading in a cafe in Lahad Datu because I was waiting out the rain. I had noticed the waitresses giggling and pointing at me for quite a while and eventually they gathered up the nerve to ask to take their photo with me. “You know. Just a memory,” they said. “Memory of what?!?” I wanted to shout. “You don’t even know me. You haven’t even said one word to me.” But of course I didn’t say that. I just smiled and posed for my picture. But after I agreed to one photo, everyone in the entire restaurant wanted to take a photo with me. There was practically a line! Then after about 6 or 7 photos, the same people kept getting in the back of the line and coming up for seconds. After that, I kinda lost my temper and said “Ok. Enough. No more photos. Can’t you see I’m trying to read?” I felt bad for being harsh, but I did have my book out and you’d think after I stopped smiling in the last few pictures, they’d get the point that I was done with the photo shoot. They all said “Oh. She’s reading.” Then they pulled up chairs to huddle around me and look over my shoulder. I couldn’t take it anymore, so eventually I left in the rain. If you ever thought it would be fun to be a famous person, I can tell you that it is not!

Leave a Reply