Merge & Al's Excellent Adventures

8 min read

Kota Kinabalu – Home of head-hunters and spirit worshippers

This lovely lady welcomed us into port

There are three countries that make up the island of Borneo. The northwest one-third of the island is Malaysia’s Sabah province. The southeast two-thirds is Indonesia’s Kalimantan province. And the tiny country on the northwest coast and surrounded by Sabah on land is the kingdom of Brueni. The MS Westerdam called on Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah province, in November 2023, so I (Merge) got to spend one very fun-filled day there. I had a lot I wanted to get done in a short time, so I got an early start, joined by two other adventurous fellow passengers. We negotiated an all-day rate with a taxi driver at the port, and we were off!

Our first stop was the Monsopiad Heritage Village, a living museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Monsopiad, a legendary Kadazan warrior and head-hunter. The direct descendants of Monsopiad, his 6th and 7th generations, have built this village on the very land where Monsopiad lived and roamed some three centuries ago. The village offers an in-depth look into the traditional lifestyle, customs, and practices of the largest ethnic entity in Sabah, the Kadazan-Dusun. This was a time when head-hunting and spirit worship was the norm, and the bobohizans (the female high priestesses) of the Kadazan ruled the villages and took care of the health and spiritual well-being of the community. A sign at the front entrance cautions all who visit – “Please note to watch your thoughts and language as it is a spiritual place where ritual ceremonies are still being practiced.”

Our entrance fee included the services of a tour guide, and she started by giving us an overview of the grounds, including a massive monolith that invokes over a dozen legends. Next we visited Siou Do Mohoing, or House of Skulls, where all 42 headhunting “trophies” of Monsopiad hang from the rafters. There are also a variety of other items on display – ceramic jars, padi (unhusked rice) grinders, bamboo items, and the costume of Bobohizan Inai Bianti, direct descendant of Monsopiad and very senior high priestess.

The monolith that invokes legends
Some of the artifacts in the House of Skulls
Just a few of Monosopiad’s 42 skull “trophies”

We then made our way to a hut where we got to look at and taste some of the traditional foods, herbs, and beverages of the Kadazan-Dusun tribe. I tried tuhau (raw wild ginger), serunding tuhau (fried wild ginger), bambangan (wild mango), sambal lengkuas (spicy galangal), lihing (rice wine), talak (distilled liquor), and sikat (herbal alcohol). All interesting, and some very flavourful. But I drew the line at trying butod (sago worms). These fat little worms are alive, and you are supposed to pop them in your mouth and chew them. Apparently, it feels like a capsule when you first bite into it, and then it fills your mouth with a protein fluid that is “as creamy as cod liver oil”! No thanks! I was told that you didn’t have to eat it live, you could also eat it cooked. Fried, it is crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside. I passed again!! And continued on to the next section as quickly as I could!

For a high-protein snack, try these delicious sago worms, live! Nope. No way. No thanks!

I was glad to participate in the next section of the village where they display everyday living practices. I got to use a blowgun with darts to shoot out balloons at a distance of about 30 feet, and was successful both times I tried. Apparently, as a member of the Kadazan-Dusun tribe, I would have been a great hunter. But unfortunately, when it came to cooking the meat, I would have been in trouble. When I tried to use a fire saw – a piece of wood sawed back and forth on a groove of a softer piece of wood, collecting fine wood dust that heats up and ignites – I failed miserably!

I tried this …. and failed miserably! It’s a LOT harder than they make it look!

At the end of our tour, to round out our very interesting visit, we got to sit back and watch several traditional dance performances.

From the Monosopiad Heritage Village, it was just a short drive to our next stop, the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. This 280-acre facility is a nature sanctuary for many species of Sabah’s wildlife that has been assessed as endangered or vulnerable. We were quite fortunate to see several animals up and about in their large natural enclosures – the black hornbill, the binturong (also known as a bear cat), the sun bear, the Malayan tiger, the proboscis monkey, and the Borneo Pygmy elephant – all of which are endangered or vulnerable, and are currently in captive breeding programs at the Park. The only animal on my list of ones I wanted to see that I wasn’t able to spot was the Borneo clouded leopard, also endangered. Still, not bad for a single visit!

Black hornbill
Binturong (also known as bear cat)
Sun bear
A very curious sun bear
Malayan tiger
Proboscis monkey
Check out the schnozzle on this guy!
Borneo pygmy elephant

By this time, we were all ready for lunch, so our taxi driver took us to a restaurant where we could get my favourite food in this part of the world – satay!!  And we also got the most delicious noodles in peanut sauce to accompany them.

Assorted satay with pressed rice cubes and cucumbers
Noodles in peanut sauce

Tummies full, our next stop was Signal Hill, also known as Bukit Bendera, and the highest point in Kota Kinabalu. We were able to view the city panorama, including glimpses of the offshore islands in the South China Sea. In addition to its scenic value, Signal Hill is also a reminder of Kota Kinabalu’s strategic importance as a harbour city. Historically, the hill served as a lookout point, where signals were communicated to incoming ships, hence the name “Signal Hill.”

The panoramic view from atop Signal Hill (Bukit Bendera)

As we drove down Signal Hill, we could see our next destination, Masjid Bandaraya, also known as the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. Not only is it the most iconic religious structure in Kota Kinabalu, its tranquil location on the shores of Likas Bay is stunning. Its blue and white color scheme mirrors the serene waters of the bay. Capable of holding up to 12,000 worshippers, it one of the largest mosques in the city. It is partially surrounded by a human-made lagoon, and at dawn and dusk it appears to float on the water, earning it the nickname “The Floating Mosque”. In order to view the beautiful interior, we had to put on long, loose clothing and a head covering.

Masjid Bandaraya
You can see why it’s known as The Floating Mosque
In our mosque attire, we look quite local!!
An aerial photo at the entrance
The main prayer hall behind me
You can get a sense of its immense size

As we made our way back to the port, our taxi driver made a short detour and took us to Tanjung Aru Beach. This expansive stretch of coastline is famed for its soft, powdery white sand and the crystal-clear azure waters of the South China Sea. The beachfront is lined with casuarina trees, providing natural shade and a setting for picnics and strolls. In fact, when we arrived, there was a bridal shower in progress under tents on the beach.

Tanjung Aru beach
A bridal shower in progress on the beach

We were getting close to all-aboard time on the Westerdam, but the three of us really wanted to stop in at the local market. Calculating carefully, we determined that we could go to the market for 15 minutes, and still get back to the ship with a safe margin of time.

The market is huge
Fried crab, caught this morning
Just about anything you might want!

We managed to cram a lot into our 15 minutes in the market, and then piled back into the taxi for the 10-minute ride to port. But we had not calculated for a cultural event that was taking place in the downtown that evening. A nail-biting 35-minutes later, our taxi sped down the pier to drop us off right at the gangway where the staff were beginning to pack up their tables and tents. Whew!!

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