The Last Village in North Borneo
By Marco Ferrarese. Photos by Kit Yeng Chan, drone shots by Simon Werren

Sailing on the lesser-trawled eastern fringes of Sabah, a travel writer witnesses how life may change in an incredibly remote place that's slowly opening to tourism.

Borneo from above

The first glimpse of North Borneo's last human settlement came exactly as the sun, a burning purple planet hanging from the colourless sky to my left, went down for his sunset ablutions. The feeble light barely illuminated the line of corrugated metal homes on stilts that clung on that forlorn shore, making them look more menacing than they were. We floated silently, waiting inside our wooden dinghies, as our boatmen rocked them gently against small waves that couldn't decide whether they belonged to the sea, or to the quiet river estuary that lay before us, encased by two viridian walls of thick vegetation.

Indeed, the water around us was a mix of salty and sweet—exactly like the lives of the people who had started gathering on the platforms attached to those rickety homes. They peeked back at us, scratching the skin of the mounting darkness with flaming torches.

This is how we arrived at Kampung Meruap, North Borneo's last village, a place that most don't even know exists. Electric lines never arrived here: generators still buzz silently throughout the night like limbless, mechanical animals that thrive between the piles of plastic and trash lying beneath the village's thirty-odd rickety stilted homes.

But hold on: Kampung Meruap is not another third-world undeveloped nightmare. Quite the opposite, it's a miracle of human resilience: half East Malaysian and half Sulu-Filipino, Kampung Meruap is perched on the Sulu Sea, one of the world's most enigmatic maritime borderlands.

walkways among houses in Borneo

This fluid entity separates Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah from the southeasternmost fringes of the Philippines, where the Islamist Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of southern Mindanao leads into the tiny islets of Jolo and Tawi Tawi. It's a place where Islamist pirates still make their rounds, occasionally shooting those fishermen who dare stray too far. More crucially, the Sulu Sea is a place where the borderlines of modern nation states don't really matter.

Braving Borneo's Badlands

The remote Sulu Islands are sadly known internationally because in early 2013, hordes of marauding local militants pointed their boats towards Sabah, shooting forward like arrows of death to claim back a part of Malaysia that was once a slice of their former Sulu Sultanate. They crashed on the coast near Lahad Datu, attacking and occupying the village of Tanduo only weeks before the 13th Malaysian General Election.

Someone said that the attack was orchestrated to steal the attention from the upcoming political shenanigans in Peninsular Malaysia. Regardless, the Sulu militants had an evil charm about them that really shocked the Malaysian public. The Malays, in particular, believed that black magic witchdoctors had turned the Sulu militants into invincible super warriors—that was the only explanation as to why the Malaysian Army's bullets could barely mow them down.

I remember standing in Kuala Lumpur's once thriving Pudu Raya Bus Terminal—today an empty shell of its glorious past—in February 2013, watching the cardboard walls of an impromptu pop-up exhibit that soared in the midst of the main hallway. It was a grimy, shocking collection of photos from the Lahad Datu standoff. That series of dead bodies in military clothes, abandoned in the jungle, looked pretty much like perfect material for a 1980s horror b-movie. I gaped at people with their eyes gouged out, their throats opened into black pits of blood, mauled as if they had been gnawed by tigers.

Borneo sunset boat ride

Fast forward to the moment I was sitting on that dingy next to my Malaysian wife and Simon Werren, the Swiss chef and tour operator helming the Bike & Tours Bed and Breakfast in Lahad Datu. "If you come, you'll see a piece of Sabah without the tourists and the infrastructure, and we'll have a real untamed wilderness all to ourselves," he had told me a month ago, extending an invitation to join him on this trip.

How could I refuse?

After settling down with his Malaysian wife Itisha in the offbeat town of Lahad Datu, Werren started developing the area's touristic potential. Sungai Kapur is one of his latest untamed discoveries he works on together with Dr. Teo Van Hock, a local Malaysian Chinese affiliated to Sabah's Forestry Department. Their common goal is to introduce sustainable tourism to this remote region and offer alternative sources of income to the local Sulus, who they employ as boatmen, guides, and hosts. In a way, it's a contribution to start changing stereotypes about this very misunderstood ethnic minority.

Without a doubt, Kampung Meruap really needs some help to step out of neverland and offer better prospects to his people. Stuck at the end of an estuary where the river meets the dangerous Sulu Sea, and trawled by wild elephants, crocodiles, orangutans, and jellyfish, it's not a place for the average educated Malaysian who can't get off his cable TV and 4G data smartphone.

The Founding Father of Kampung Meruap

"I came to this wilderness 40 years ago to start a new life," said the village headman, Pak Haji, as he sat on the porch of his wooden house. His face was dented with deep creases and adorned by thick moustaches running down the sides of his cheeks. Small, skinny and wrapped in a sarong and battered t-shirt, after almost half a century, he still overlooks the actions and education of the 40-odd families who chose to live with him at the end of the world.

Pak Haji

A place that, to Pak Haji, was a curse and a blessing: 40 years ago, when the people of Lahad Datu got tired of his gambling and womanizing, they gave him the boot. Pak Haji wandered with one of his former wives until he found this remote beach, where he stopped to lick his wounds.

Working alone, he drove each and every nail and foundation post of his new home, using all the time he needed to focus and regain strength to change the course of his life. For the next four years, it was just himself and his ex-wife, the giant crabs shuttling on the beach, and the silent embrace of the Sulu sea.

But one day, a police boat moored on his beach, and asked Pak Haji to help them spend the night safely. He promptly took them in.

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Read this article online at: The Last Village in North Borneo

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