In Sabah: Farming, Monkeys and Rice harvest

14 April 2020
In Sabah -tasting the rice wine

Many years ago I had a short trip to Sabah. This is a Malaysian State occupying the northern part of Borneo. We flew into Kota Kinabulu, the capital, with little knowledge about the area.

Most tourists are keen to dive and snorkel in the beautiful waters or climb Mt Kinabulu.

I tried to organise things of great interest to my husband as being a tourist was not to his liking. These are not necessarily what other tourists would look for. As a farmer I knew his interest was more in something to do with the land. Therefore we got advice from a local tour office where they recommended some very appropriate trips and we set off on two days of driving with our own guide driven car to explore the northern tip of Borneo.

Sarje was an educated man, similar age to us, with a background in timber milling and agriculture who was now a tour guide. Perfect!

Hillside farming – hard work

In Sabah – hillsides are farmed intensively

As we travelled up the state of Sabah we stopped at many locations to observe farming operations on hillsides. It showed the incredible stamina of the people of Sabah. There was no modern machinery to help them out.

They had to make a living and feed their family from about 15 acres of allocated land.

Spot the monkey

Towards sunset we took a river safari in a small boat to look for some of the famous proboscis monkeys. They are known as the Playboy Monkey as they seem to have a permanent erection. They come out to the river edge early evening for food and water. We spotted them on the branches and apparently we were very lucky to see so many as it isn’t always that way for tourists especially when looking for them in their natural habitat.

Mount Kinabulu appealed to many

We were in the Mt Kinabulu area but we didn’t have the 3 days required for the walk to the top. Neither did we probably have the fitness. There were hundreds of people already on the trek or preparing to leave the visitor centre. However, we did the walk along the canopy in the rainforest on the ridge of Mt Kinabulu. That was spectacular so can only imagine what the views are like if you do the Mountain climb. Mind you the swinging bridges were rather scary and quite long! Not to my liking.

The Rungus people and their Gongs

Sabah – the gong made by the Rungus people

The highlight though was the visit to the home of the Rungus people. One of the most important musical instruments in Sabah is the gong. It features in many cultural festivities and traditional ceremonies of Rungus and other major ethnic groups of Sabah. The gongs are made at the Kampung Sumangkap Gong Making Factory in Kudat by the Rungus people. Gong making skills are handed down the generations.

Rice Harvest festivities

While we were in the village they are preparing for some Rice Harvest Festival activities. Fortunately, we are invited to stay and join them celebrating the opening of the season’s Rice Wine. Five villages come together for the rice wine celebration. Each village builds their own stage to place their wine vats. Once complete they all march in procession to their stage and stand for photos and singing before the drinking starts in earnest. We tasted one of the first of the season’s wine. It is drunk from a bamboo container and the taste is rather nice. So nice in fact I almost forgot to give the bottle back to the ladies. I didn’t realise I was privileged and offered the first taste so they were eager to get a sip also. Finally a prompt from the guide hurried me up!

Pigs and chickens are sacrificed as part of the ceremony. They are cooked over fires ready for a feast later in the day and the sound of them squealing is a bit disconcerting but the concept of a tasty dinner appeals!

Celebrations continued long into the night

Afterwards, they moved inside for dancing and singing but we were unable to stay for this as we had other places to see. There was only one other tourist couple there to witness this festival. The Rungus people made us all feel very welcome. This was the real thing, not set up as a tourist attraction. We were in the right place at the right time.

Sabah Tea

I would love to return to Sabah and especially Mt Kinabulu where the famous Sabah tea is grown amongst the rain forests. I understand the tea is 100% pesticide free due to the location near the rainforests which insects are attracted to. The tea is very rich in flavour and colouring

For more on Sabah

Pictured below: the Rungus women toasting the harvest; one of the village groups; the Rafflesia – a variety of the biggest flower in the world – found in parts of Sabah.

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