The problem with Pulau Banggi.

Trip Start Oct 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Bonggi Resort

Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Monday, August 9, 2010

Monday, August 9th, 2010  (later that day)

Pulau Banggi was one of the first locations in Malaysia to have an established British trading post, back when it was referred to as Felicia Island. It is the largest island in Malaysia, situated at the northernmost tip of Sabah, just off the Tip of Borneo. With an area of 440 km² the island is slightly bigger than Singapore and is home to about 20,000 people, approximately 1,000 of whom reside in the main town of Karakit. It is largely unaffected by development or commercialism; thick virgin rainforest blankets 70% of its interior and gorgeous, white sand beaches wrap around most of the coastline. At least, that's what the tourist info says.

According to the same literature, Pulau Banggi has something for everyone; from lazing on pristine beaches to wildlife and bird watching, jungle trekking, island hopping, scuba diving, snorkelling and swimming. Apparently, the area around the island has the second largest concentration of coral reefs in Malaysia and provides safe habitats for endangered animals such as turtles and a large, marine, sea-grass grazing relative of the manatee called the dugong.

It sounded fantastic and I wanted to like the place; I really, really did, but within an hour of the ferry docking we were already making plans to leave. We had thanked the captain, grabbed our packs and walked the 5 minutes to the 'Bonggi Resort’ and let me tell you – nowhere, and at no time, has the noun ‘resort’ been used so freely, so misguidedly and so completely inappropriately.

This is what we had read before arriving:

They have basic rooms with fan and shared bathroom, or you can go a step up with air-con and attached bathroom. For the more adventurous, Banggi-style wooden huts are available and those who are both adventurous with no fear of heights can opt for the tree houses that present beautiful views of the sea and surrounding islands.

I had really been hoping to stay in one of those tree houses, but when we arrived we were told we couldn’t. Instead, we were shown into a ground floor room which managed to wholeheartedly undermine our expectations, even though they hadn’t exactly been lofty to begin with. The ‘facilities’ and ‘décor’ consisted of a squat toilet; no hot water; linoleum that rippled across the floor and which had been thumb-tacked to the wall; thin and holed linens; ripped mosquito netting on the windows; towels I’d hesitate to wash my bike with; a cupboard that looked as if it had once been an Ikea knock-off, but which had since lost its veneer (along with its doors and drawers) and an A-C unit that farted warmer air than was outside.

Ordinarily we’ll put up with quite a lot when traveling.

In the past we’ve stayed in places that appeared to have taken their design cues from mediaeval dungeons. It usually doesn’t bother us; anything is tolerable for a day or two if the price and the pay-off, in scenery or local activities, justify it. Besides, I pride myself on not being ‘that guy’; the stereotypical, whining foreigner, who complains about every minor annoyance and expects everything to be ‘just like it is back home’. I’m fully aware of what a budget travel budget buys in terms of accommodation and creature comforts but, that being said, if I was paying extra for A-C - and I was - then I figured it should damn well work. I was left with no alternative, I complained and we were given another room, while the manager stood staring at the defective A-C unit, scratching her head and willing it to fix itself.

The new room wasn’t much better. We pushed the two single beds together in the middle of the room moments before the fully functioning A-C urinated a stream of water onto the floor, below where my pillow had been. A carefully placed plastic scoop (used for ‘flushing’ the toilet) would hopefully prevent the formation of a mini lagoon around the bed. Judging by the state of the room and the questionable cleanliness of the linens, our travel sheet and pillow cases seemed like a sound idea. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that if we were going to be infested by bed bugs anywhere, it would probably be in this doss-house. Still, hoping that the surrounding area would apologize for the room, we wandered over to the stilt village that neighboured the ‘resort’. Although some of the houses were quaint and colourfully painted, the entire area beneath them was carpeted in garbage. Plastic bags, bottles, cans, Styrofoam, food scraps and wrappers were piled high beneath the jetty. Not the greatest invitation to snorkelling and swimming that I had ever seen.

We had read of stunning coral reefs, aqua blue waters and deserted beaches stretching for miles but there was no way to reach them except to hire the wildly overpriced services of the local shyster, who sloped up to us as we were considering our next move. RM 50 ($17 Cdn) per person, per day would buy us transport to the closest beach in his van but we balked at the price. It doesn’t sound like much but it was double what we had spent to visit the Marine National Park in KK. His next suggestion was to drive around the island, which I was all for, but when we asked where we could rent a scooter he grinned and wagged his finger. Of course, he had a solution to our transportation woes.  For RM 150 ($50 Cdn) we could rent his car for the day. We fleetingly considered it, until he informed us that it would be too dangerous for us to drive ourselves and that he would have to be our driver. This benevolence would cost us an additional RM 10 per person plus a further RM10 per person for his guiding services. That put our total at RM190 ($63 Cdn) for a one day rental, essentially doubling our daily expenses. So, our options were to stay in the very tiny port town, where there was absolutely nothing to do (unless you like bathing in a garbage strewn sea), walk everywhere or pay through the nose for the services of a grinning charlatan.

None of the above appealed. Cathy really wasn’t feeling the place and although I was a bit more willing to give it a chance, we quickly reached a consensus; time spent here looking for things to do could be better spent elsewhere doing things that we had already planned to do. We would catch the early morning ferry back to the mainland the next morning. Decision made, and with time to kill, we hung out in the packed-mud garden making small talk with an obnoxiously opinionated French man and his skeletal, grotesquely bedbug bitten wife, before shuffling over to the café on the jetty for dinner. It was the only open-for-business option in town.

We had seen the fishermen weighing their catches earlier in the afternoon and were hoping to at least balance our disappointment so far with some deliciously fresh seafood, but there was no fish, no squid,  no shrimp, in fact no seafood of any description to be had. There wasn’t even any rice. The young girl was apologetic but explained that our only choices were fried noodles with chicken or beef. We glumly ordered the chicken and 20 minutes later, when we were beginning to wonder if our order had been lost, she came back to our table empty handed.

They had run out of chicken.

Give me strength.

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

The mosque started wailing at 4:30 a.m.

I know because I got up to see if it was time to catch the ferry. The sheer volume of noise that place produced would have embarrassed Motorhead into packing up their Marshalls and starting new careers playing Bar Mitzvahs and company picnics. It was deafening and it went on … and on … and on…Although I thought further sleep would be impossible, I wedged my ear plugs into my shell-like lugholes and managed to drift off, only to be startled awake by my dream self yelling that the ferry was leaving. Ten seconds later the alarm went off and scared the hell out of me. From fully recumbent and snoozing, we were packed up and out the door in less than 10 minutes. In all our travels we have never been out of a place quite so fast.

Perhaps in the future Pulau Banggi will have enough basic infrastructure to support a modicum of tourism without selling its, as yet, undeveloped soul. However, until it does, an overpriced slum posing as a resort; garbage strewn waters and no way to get anywhere under your own steam made it, in our opinions, nothing more than a costly and disappointing exercise in captive extortionism.

We arrived at the ferry dock good and early to make sure we had tickets and then went across the street for a breakfast of sweet, desiccated coconut encased in a doughy green wrap, like a vivid soft taco (Kuih Ketayap); a lime hued, jelly like substance shaped like a Cornetto and wrapped in a palm leaf (Kuih Kochi) and a coconut and corn paste inside a corn husk (no idea). The last one looked like something your cat might regurgitate but was sweet, goopy and surprisingly tasty.

The ferry ride was smooth enough and we arrived back in Kudat mid-morning but hungry again; apparently desiccated coconut and palm sugar doesn’t hold you over for very long. We needed to eat before embarking on our return journey to KK and found sustenance in the form of steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup with chillies. It was turning into a very strange breakfast day.

Loitering around the bus station I managed to negotiate a price for a shared van to KK. We had a few minutes of panic when, after loading our packs into the back of the van, it unexpectedly left. I had my money belt, passport, cash and cards on me but still…. It turned out that the driver had gone to pick up his niece who also wanted to go to KK, but I was on edge until he returned. Aside from almost running out of gas in the middle of nowhere, the trip was uneventful but, even though we had negotiated for RM 20 per person, we ended up paying RM 25 each upon arrival. I didn’t really mind though, the driver spoke excellent English (along with Tamil, Hindi and Malay) and we had an interesting chat and a good laugh together along the way. Besides which, he was a very tall ex-cop who I didn’t really feel like pissing off for the sake of RM10 (about $3 Cdn).

After checking into a decent looking hotel, we walked to the port to book our ferry tickets to Brunei Darussalam for the next day. Our major tasks for the day accomplished we decided that we simply had to get our tickets booked from Miri to Mulu and onwards to Kuching, before they disappeared completely. Mulu is a very difficult to access national park, renowned for being home to extensive trails, the largest caves in the world and a 480 m long treetop canopy walk that is supposed to be the longest in the world. There are no roads into the area and flights are limited. Kuching is the capital city of Sarawak and it was from there that we planned to fly back to KK at the end of our trip.

Unfortunately, we’d waited a little too long to book the flight we wanted from Mulu to Kuching and were faced with the option of skipping it altogether or flying in for a visit that would be shorter than originally intended. Whereas we had hoped to spend 2 or 3 days there, now the only flight out was the day after we wanted to arrive. After that, there were no more seats until almost a week later, far too much time to wait.  We chose to fly in early in the morning from Miri (after leaving Brunei) and depart in the late afternoon of the next day for Kuching. It wasn’t ideal but would have to do. We booked both tickets and hoped that it would be enough time to see a cave or two and tremble along the canopy walk. We had now booked all of the internal air travel needed for the rest of our trip, Miri - Mulu, Mulu - Kuching and Kuching - KK. The total cost for both of us was RM622 (about $207 Cdn). I love Asia.

We finished up the day with a completely over the top dinner at a centrally located food court specializing in fresh seafood. We walked, wide eyed into a covered area the size of a soccer field and although we weren’t sure quite how to order, a helpful waitress immediately attended to us and explained the process. Select your fish from the staggering selection of tanks, tell them how you want it cooked and pay by the weight. We selected a Lapia which, I swear, had been eyeballing us

‘Don’t pick me white boy, Whatchoo lookin at? Don’t you dare pick me … OH You SonuvaBITCH!!’

He arrived a few minutes later, slathered in sweet chilli sauce and with his tiny, fishy features frozen in flash fried shock, as though he still couldn’t quite believe his rotten luck. Accompanying him were 15 or 16 shrimp that were anything but shrimpy. These weren’t your ‘shrimp ring with cocktail sauce’ sized offerings. These were the East German, women’s weightlifting squad of edible decapod crustaceans; huge and meaty (but not quite so hairy), as long as my hand from fingertip to wrist. Dish after dish arrived; delicious ferny greens with garlic and hot chillies, pickled mango, peanuts and fried rice. We got stuck in; juice dripped from our chins and hands as we stuffed ourselves on the smorgasbord of delicious food.

Later that evening, after waddling, bloated back to our hotel, we congratulated ourselves on a damn fine meal before collapsing into bed in preparation for the next day’s journey.  

Brunei here we come.
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