A Voyage to the Land Below the Wind

A group of 15 students, together with Dr Yeoh Seng Guan and Dr Tan Meng Yoe were headed towards KLIA at the brink of dawn while the rest of the Klang Valley were most likely still snuggly in bed.

On 14 July 2019, a group of 15 students, together with Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, Dr Tan Meng Yoe and myself were headed towards KLIA at the brink of dawn while the rest of the Klang Valley were most likely still snuggly in bed.

We were to embark on what would be a six day trip to Sabah as part of the field trip component for the Malaysian Studies unit. This unit aims to shed light on the socio-cultural, economic and political features of contemporary Malaysia as well as the significant innovations, dilemmas and challenges that currently plague the nation. In preparation for the trip, students attended two weeks of intensive lectures and seminars that covered a range of topics from Malaysia’s position in international politics, to the issues of natural resources and its effect on the environment as well as sexuality rights and feminisms in Malaysia.  The trip to Sabah was to encourage students to connect what they have learnt in the classroom to their experiences of Sabah. These experiences would come searching for some of them faster than they would have expected.

Upon touchdown in Kota Kinabalu, we faced a slight hiccup with immigration for one of our student travellers, getting an insight into Sabah’s immigration policies that we would have been more than happy to do without. Nonetheless, as with most trips of this manner, even the bad experiences carry lessons and became a learning point for the rest of the students. We then squeezed ourselves into two vans and headed for Masada Guesthouse which would be our home for the night.

After check-in, we went on a short walkabout around Kota Kinabalu where we took in the history and culture of the bustling city. Shophouses lined every street, playing host to an interesting juxtaposition of the old against the new. Where there are stores selling traditional Chinese herbs and old barbershops reminiscent of the 1950s, one street away would be a line of hipster cafes serving you açai bowls and specialty brewed coffee with graffiti art plastered on their walls. To get the most out of their short time in Kota Kinabalu, a group of students also treated themselves to a scrumptious feast of local seafood for dinner- a must in Sabah. Little did they know that this would be their last luxurious meal for the next 4 days.

On day 2, we set off to Universiti Malaysia Sabah where we listened to the anthropologist Professor Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan.   Professor Pugh-Kitingan has conducted extensive research on the cultural practices and music of the - Kadazan-Duzun in Sabah. Students learnt much from the 2-hour session.

We then headed towards the studio of Pangrok Sulap, an artist collective using woodcut printmaking to depict some of the socio-political concerns of Sabahans. The students were intrigued by the intricacy of these woodcuts and the energetic disposition of the founders, Rizo Leong and Jerome Manjat.

Next, we visited PACOS Trust, an NGO founded to uplifting indigenous communities in Sabah. From Anne Lasimbang, students learnt more about the many projects of PACOS in the light of New Malaysia.

As students clambered into their respective vans after the session, they savoured the intermittent cellular network connections as we headed to Kampong Kipuovo, where for the next 12 hours, we would have no contact with the outside world. Place a group of millennials amongst nature, with no cellular coverage, and suddenly they have no idea what to do with themselves. Half of the group decided to mingle with the students from Macquarie University interning with PACOS who were also sharing the same dorms, while the other half headed to bed fairly early soon after dinner almost as if to sleep the boredom away. In place of Instagram and Facebook, students found comfort in the few animals (cats and dogs) that roamed the premises, taking turns to name them temporarily.

The following morning’s walkabout around the village was an excuse for some to search for coverage to squeeze out a WhatsApp message or two. Our departure from Kampong Kipuovo was met with a collective sigh of relief as everyone was once again connected to the outside world, and this time on the way to Kundasang War Memorial. En route, given the mountainous terrain, we experienced pockets of piercingly cold winds which survived through the five for Rm1 pisang gorengs we heartily munched on- the best we had in Sabah, and perhaps, anywhere else.

Kundasang War Memorial serves as an everlasting memorial for the Australian and British soldiers who lost their lives during the Second World War. Tucked away on a small hill, this humble homage boasts some of the most picturesque views. Taking in the sights, we then made our way to the base of Mount Kinabalu where students posed for pictures and enjoyed the strong chilly winds. Wrapping up for the day, we headed to Kampong Kiau where we stayed in the dormitory of a local church for the next two nights. Flying cockroaches, centipedes and moths became our entertainment during this time, always extracting shrill screams and excitement amongst our city travellers. However, having the majestic Mount Kinabalu to wake up to every morning made it all the more worth it. While at Kampong Kiau, student learnt about the simplicities of village life and the dependency on agriculture to sustain their local economies. For many students, being at Kampong Kiau was the highlight of their trip.

We then headed back to Kota Kinabalu for our final 2 nights in Sabah where students prepared a few performances for our appreciation dinner dedicated to all the speakers and guides that were with us during the trip. True to tradition, we ended the night with a karaoke session where many of the students’ hidden talents, or lack of, were revealed.

All in all, the field trip was definitely an insightful one for the students and for many, it was only a teaser of what Sabah had to offer, inspiring students to make their way back for internships and travel to continue on their infinite path of learning more about the land below the wind.