Hitch-hiking in Borneo leads me to a mystery island

Hitch-hiking definitely divides opinion, even amongst travellers. People usually respond in one of 3 generic ways:
  • You’re crazy… no-one will pick you up and those who do probably want to eat your brains
  • Wooooow, that’s so cool. I’d like to try that sometime
  •  Nice. I hitch-hiked through Europe…. fun isn’t it?!

What surprises me is that even some long term backpackers would only consider hitch-hiking as a last resort and are quick to point out the dangers. I won't be making hitch-hiking the focus of my travels, but Borneo is an expensive place and hitching a ride is a fun way of getting free transport and meeting friendly people at the same time.

I was attempting to hitch-hike from Tuaran, a small town 33km from Kota Kinabalu (capital of the Sabah region) with my destination being Kudat, a town in the north some 190km away. I didn’t really know much about Kudat but it looked pretty cool on a map, so off I went.

Because I started within a town I needed to find the main road. I was fully laden with my backpacks walking along the side of a road when a car stopped and a friendly guy offered to drive me to the junction. His English wasn’t great and he was really confused about what I was trying to do… essentially ask people to drive me to my destination for free. I'm positive he just popped out to buy some milk but he ended up dropping me very close to the next major town, Kota Belud. His parting words were ominous “Don’t trust anyone…. Thieves here.” I thanked him, promised I’d take a bus then found a good spot to hitch my next ride. He turned his car around and went back the way he came, probably to pick up his warm milk. Really nice guy.

I had to wait 10 minutes before my next ride, a lovely couple due to be married in 6 months’ time. They were planning to stop in Kota Belud, about 20kms away from where I stood. I thought there’d be more possibility to get a ride to Kudat from there, so I jumped in. He was a repair engineer and was driving around fixing things, she just appeared to be keeping him company. I couldn’t be sure though, as Ferendly said “Sorry, my English is broken”. I told them my final destination was actually Kudat and with a big smile Ferendly told me that was his home town. The couple spoke amongst themselves in Malay and after 5 minutes he turned round to face me and said “We’re going to Kudat, today is now a vacation.” And with that little nugget of information, I had a ride all the way to Kudat. Sweet.

We parted with smiles all round and had my picture taken with his fiancée. They pointed to the bus station, then off they drove. I didn’t really know what to do next so I walked around and got chatting to 2 locals hiding from the sun, “There’s a nice island 90 minutes away… you should go… the public ferry leaves in 15 minutes”. It was settled… if some random guy tells me it’s a nice island, then it must be. I jumped aboard.

The island of Banggi, Sabah.
After a 40km ride across a choppy sea I made it to Pulau Banggi. I didn’t know anything about the island and in my rush to catch the boat I forgot about the small detail of accommodation. I had taken the last boat of the day and didn’t even know if I could stay here! I asked around and after much laughing (at my expense) I found a homestay. I had to haggle hard to get a price anyway near my budget and we agreed on 30 Ringgit (about £6), which is twice as much as I have been paying anywhere else in Malaysia. It did, however, give me a single room, quite a rarity these days. 

View from my balcony.
I found out once I arrived that this island is mentioned in the Lonely Planet as a place for “travellers who want to fall off the map”, that’s probably why the 4 foreigners who were at the homestay already were a bit surprised to see me.

The homestay.
The homestay was very authentic and the same as most of the other buildings on the island; long wooden structures on stilts stretching out to the sea. Shortly after I arrived on Banggi a storm came in and it was the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with the other guests; 2 lovely couples, one from Spain and the other a hybrid from Oz and the US. They had plans the next day to visit a neighbouring island for snorkelling and it was a pleasure to join them for company and to share the boat costs :-)

On route to an island for snorkelling.
The snorkelling was pretty good… I saw a barracuda, lots of small fishy wishys, nice colourful coral and a sea snake which was pretty cool. While I was under water I felt a massive vibration and a thud in my ear, at first I thought it was a small earthquake but apparently the fishermen sometimes use dynamite here.

Nice place to relax.
The next day my new friends left and I wanted to try and explore some footpaths leading towards an intriguing patch of grass on an otherwise jungle filled island. I saw this area while taking the boat the previous day - it looked like a Hobbit-style hill, a book I’m reading at the minute. I did manage to find it, and it was really nice but I couldn't shake the stories of the numerous snakes and salt-water crocodiles. One of the locals told me he saw a 10 foot python that was as thick as his leg and that crocodiles kills about 5 people a year on a section of the island. Sometimes it's better not to know.

Beautiful hills, just watch out for the snakes.
Each day I’d get excited for the “night market”, situated in a courtyard which opens at 2 and closes before it gets dark, more of an afternoon market then. I would buy a fish for 40pence and 9 samosas for 60pence and have a little feast.

The one restaurant in town. It was leaning into the sea adding an element of danger to your eating experience.
The only downside on the island was the litter, unfortunately the locals aren’t very environmentally conscious and any rubbish goes down the hatch in their stilt-ed houses and straight into the sea! This made Pulau Banggi far from paradise but it was definitely an interesting place to spend a few days. 

Green hills on Banggi.


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