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November 21, 2009

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Kick back in Sabah, Borneo

WITHIN easy reach of international hubs in Asia, Sabah, Malaysia, is drawing visitors from around the world to savor its natural beauty and tranquility. It's among the lesser-traveled spots in the country.

Sabah is a prefecture on Borneo, the world's third-largest island and it offers mountains, like Mt Kinablu, as well as rainforests and uncrowded beaches on isolated islands. The clear water is ideal for scuba diving and snorkling.

Sabah is a destination for both romance and adventure, Borneo's paradise.

Sunset is breathtaking, offering spectacular views over the South China Sea. The Sunset Bar at the Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa is a popular tourist spot from which to enjoy the setting sun and sip cocktails.

Sabah has come a long way since its days of headhunting.

Formerly known as North Borneo, the prefecture covers 73,600 square kilometers, surrounded by the South China, Sulu and Celebes seas.

Its geographical location puts it just out of the reach of typhoons and US writer Agnes Keith called Sabah "the land below the wind."

Sabah is the most ethnically diverse state in Malaysia, with more than 34 ethnic groups, 50 languages and 90 spoken dialects.

The area has successfully married technological advancement and ecological preservation.

Weekly tamus (open air markets) in rural towns are an explosion of color. They offer locally arts and crafts, home-grown foods, colorful headgear to keep off the equatorial sun, tobacco and betel nut. Buffaloes wander about.

The best time to go is in the early morning when the sun is less intense. That's when the markets come to life and goods are sold at "pre-sale" prices. Bargaining is expected, as it is throughout Sabah, Malaysia and Asia.

Rope suspension bridges are common and a bit tricky. Locals cross them as they balance goods on their heads on the way to market. Getting across takes skill as they sway and bounce when there is traffic.

The main tamu is held once a year in Kota Belud, north of Kota Kinabalu. It features many cultural dances and there are occasional displays by the renowned Bajau horsemen. These colorful spectacles have become rare, except during state festivals.

Sabahans preserve their authentic charm in a Heritage Village at the Sabah State Museum in Kota Kinabalu. It features accurate portrayals of the various ethnic groups' traditional villages and costumes.

Also unique to Sabah is the water village where huts seem to literally float along the shores. Pristine clear blue seawater floors these huts and residents virtually live off the waters.

To preserve distinctive ethnic traditions, May 30-31 have been declared public holidays to commemorate the Harvest Festival, originally celebrated by the Kadazaan/Dusun, the largest ethnic group in Sabah.

Throughout the monthlong festival, many organizations present cultural performances, foods like hinava (preserved fish) and tapai (rice wine). The finale is the Unduk Ngadau, the equivalent of Miss Universe for Sabah.

Among the many villages that celebrate the Harvest Festival, one of the most notable is Kundasang at the foot of majestic Mt Kinabalu. The merrymaking is similar to that elsewhere, but the view of the mountain is breathtaking.

The granite peak rises 4,000 meters, an awesome sight early in the morning when the view from Kundasang is clear. In minutes the mountain can disappear in clouds, however.

Many visitors climb the mountain, while some return every year to scale the peak. The flora and fauna on the mountain is abundant and especially notable are the carnivorous, prey-catching pitcher plants that trap insects in a funnel.

After a climb tourists often try other ecological attractions, such as Poring Hot Springs, where they soak in steaming common pools. The waters are said to have healing powers and are popular with locals.

Kundasang is not the only place in Sabah where temperatures cool down. A new attraction is the old town of Tambunan where visitors can spend the night in tree houses touched by tropical breezes.

No trip to Sabah is complete without visiting the real residents of trees, the orangutan. The endangered species is trained to adapt again to the wild in the Sandakan Rehabilitation Center on the west coast.

Getting an up-close look at one of our closest living relatives is awesome. The center is open to visitors and nature lovers for observation and better understanding of the wildlife.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Park is a government-run marine sanctuary around five islands on the west coast: Manukan, Mamutik, Sulug, Sapi and Gaya islands in the South China Sea.

The islands are home to some of the world's best diving and snorkling reefs. Be prepared for a blast of color from the abundance of fish, corals and other marine life.

Transport to the islands is easy via the marine jetty of the Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa, and by boats along the shores of Kota Kinabalu.

Kota Kinabalu is rich in culture. The Central Market is abuzz with activity and everything from fresh herbs to potted orchids and fruit.

Leaving the market, it's easy to walk to old Kota Kinabalu town along Gaya Street. Many old shops remain, some retaining their original carved or gilded name plates above the door.

There are many other delightful places to visit in Kota Kinabalu city and one day isn't enough.

"Sabah is a one-stop tourism," says Tulip Noorazyze, director of communications at Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa.

"We have it all for the holiday makers, from mountain high to ocean deep, the rainforest, soft adventure sports, culture, shopping, and warm and friendly people to make your holiday one to remember."

The hotel is 10 minutes from the airport, city center and five coral islands, yet it's tranquil.

"It makes an excellent luxurious hub for you to stay in while exploring Sabah," says Noorazyze. "When you leave you feel it is so nice to return to your luxurious home away from home."


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