The slums of Kota Kinabalu – Part 2 – bad boys, old men & a caring mother

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ February 24th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Young girl in the slums

Food & life here is very basic, 6 to a room no bigger than most people's bathrooms - this girl is none the wiser (click to enlarge)

Problems in the slums of Kota Kinabalu

The ax man cometh (part 1 of the slums of Kota Kinabalu)

Faced with an ax wielding teenager, three of his friends and an excitable drunk behind me; I stood my ground.  Getting excited or angry does not work in situations like this. I still wasn’t sure whether the teenage leader was mentally unstable, on drugs, both or just trying to improve the rate his testicles produced testosterone.

The three others stood firm as their leader swung his ax at the wooden railing again. His slightly crazed smile looking more enraged all the time.

“You take picture!” he yelled.

The others all did that innocuous V sign with their fingers so many Asian kids do for a photograph.

What choices do you make in a situation like this?

If I took his picture, the leader would have won. I’d have bowed to his ax wielding might. From there I was fair game for any other mischief or demands. I firmly tried to push the boy nearest me by the shoulder in an attempt to walk by.

“Picture, picture!” yelled the leader jumping out and, blocking my path.

He waved the ax in my face and then knelt down and began to hack away on the wooden walkway below. I looked at him as if he was stupid.  He was acting like some demented troll from Lord of the Rings.

I conjured up some simple words that would either make things better or worse. I figured worse, but at least they would buy me some time.

Gago!” which is Filipino for stupid. “You go chop the wood you standing on. You go fall in!”

Why Filipino? There are lots of migrants here from there, and … well, anything was worth a shot at this stage!

Dealing with the unknown element in the slums

The leader unleashed another swing of his ax on the platform below. Only now one of his little cohorts pushed at him and repeated my words. Then another followed suit. The drunk behind me grunted.

I took my opportunity and with authority pushed the remaining boy out of my way as I walked forward with a smile and a wave of dismissal. I had finally got passed them.

However it might have been the wrong choice. I looked ahead for more trouble. It was coming in the form of another gang of youths emerging from a house further down the walkway. If I continued on I’d be sandwiched …  in no man’s land.

Catch 22 in the slum

Again, I stood my ground. Raised my camera up, and took a photograph of an unimpressive house. Buying time, and pretending I was not fazed. I turned back, and walked past the ax wielding teenager whilst pointing back down the walkway. A distraction that I followed up by giving him a cheeky royal wave.

He laughed without a second thought and began babbling in a local dialect. I pointed at the drunk man as he glared at me up ahead. Then, signaled from him to the two groups of teenagers. It meant nothing. But, distracted his inebriated mind long enough for me to continue by without harassment. There was no one up ahead.

Finding friends in the slum at last 

I turned off along the wooden walkway hoping it was not a dead-end, and was able to look back. They were not following. It was over. I looked around for another way to get past them and get to the other side. But, in doing so caught a glimpse of a familiar face. One I was not expecting to see in a Malaysian slum.

Entering into a shop I was surprised to see a refrigerator stocked with cold drinks. I grabbed a coke and went to the bedazzled man beside the cash register.  He was either Indian or Pakistani, I couldn’t tell. So I asked.

“Pakistani,” he said as if it was not my business.

Young girl preparing fish in a slum

A young girl prepares a simple plate of half a fish

I smiled and told him I had been to Pakistan. He nodded blankly. Not a word of English. I began to list off the various cities I had been too. Then finally one I had not. Karachi.

His home town. He smiled.

The Pakistani family living in the slum

Within minutes the whole family was out. The father in a shalwar Kamzee and quite fluent in English. As is customary for a guest, I was offered a meal. And, sat with them for a while. Customers came and went, all coming over to me for an introduction. Plus the odd question about why I was there.

Then, as each customer left. The non-english speaking shop owner either gave me a thumbs up, or down depending on his thoughts on a person.

All but one got a thumbs up. No one else mentioned this. But from my cross-legged position I could just about make out the area the axe wielding teenager was and I wondered if they had seen everything.

Moving deeper into the slums

The shelter from the heat and the rest felt good. I thanked the family and took a new route back into the depths of the slum. I was getting closer to the looming building blocks towering down on the settlement. I wondered how long the slum would be allowed to stay. Or when it was scheduled for demolition.

The slum workers build the expensive housing, then lose their own

The locals were once again full of smiles and waves. I was now passing through an Indonesian area it seemed. I stopped and generated as much simple conversation as I could. But although I was understood in some parts the whole question about the new buildings in the distance remained unanswered.

I thought back to West Africa during a demolition phase in my old neighbourhood. You couldn’t shut people up about it. But here, no one wanted to talk about it.

A different culture dealing with the same problem in a different manner.

A group of young kids caught my eye around another broken down wooden walkway. The main reason was that they were kicking up dust. It was solid ground. I’d made it through.

They were playing a game with small ringet coins. Something like throw the coin to the center of the square to win.

Faces from the past

Children playing in the Slums of Malaysia

It's a place many people grow up in, with no toys, you make do with your surroundings (click to enlarge)

From a small broken down box of a wooden structure a small face appeared. I again recognized the Filipina features. I approached, camera in hand. Then, from below a counter an old grey haired woman rose up. She groaned and winced at the pain from lying on the hard wooden floor.

“Hello Madam,” I said clearly. “Filipino no? I just came from there.”

She turned and smiled. All her questions answered before asking. She was fluent in English and very knowledgeable. I sat and talked with her for an hour. Her mother had arrived in Malaysia and now her son was working there ‘sometimes‘. Her other two children were in Singapore.

We talked about life in Sabah compared to the Philippines. She took life in Sabah to be much better.

“There’s work here. My children have a chance. In the Philippines we can do nothing.”

I listened and did not comment. It was her life not mine, and she explained it very well. Their dwelling was as basic as it got. A small 7×9 wooden box which by day seemed to serve as a meeting place for a bunch of local kids. There was a cooking area and a plastic sack by the corner beside which there was a hole for waste.

At night I imagined the dwelling was home to at least six people. That’s just the way it is.

She too called this place a slum. Her house in The Philippines had been much nicer. But, here, her family could eat and her children stood a better chance; at a better life.

Dinner in the slums of Kota Kinabalu

Children playing a game in a Malaysian Slum

Children playing a simple game by the construction site beside the slum

The old lady began preparing rice, a fish head and a little jar of what I called stink fish. I kind of dipping sauce of vinegar and fish that’s highly prized in the Philippines. It held pride of place on her shelf. And, she explained how it had come all the way from Palawan.

I knew what was happening, so made an excuse to leave. She needed the memory more than this passing traveler. I explained something about my bags waiting in my hotel. She nodded with a smile.

Leaving the slums behind …

Away from the water and the simple wooden houses standing above it,  I was now surrounded by wire fences, cranes, flattened earth and dusty spaces. In a far corner there were locals pulling apart a heap of old wooden planks.

By the main road I turned back to see an orange dirt strip road splitting the towering new concrete structures and freshly painted apartment blocks from the tattered broken houses over the stagnant water.

Above me a plane few by, a memory of the river miners in Nepal flashed through my mind. An internal flight judging by the twin propeller engine. Shuttling tourists from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu.

Rising high by one of the fences was a giant 30 foot poster advertising an architects vision of the new development; soon to replace the slums.

A car roared by as I walked along the highway. The faint scent of summer fresh washing powder meadows drifting away. Now replaced with gas fumes and dry dusty air. Traffic lights blinking; I headed back into the concrete city.

Coming Soon:

Night life in Kota Kinabalu

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42 Great responses to The slums of Kota Kinabalu – Part 2 – bad boys, old men & a caring mother

  1. Ciki says:

    Hi Dave! Loved the way you built up the story.. so now you have new friends again.. how cool. Glad u escaped the axe wielding youth with your head intact.. ! Post his picture, i wanna! LOL

    • Ha, I have his gangs picture alright. But no, I don’t think it’s so good to post their picture. Not my job to get “stupid” teenagers into even more trouble, am sure he’s already being locked up somewhere for something else :)

  2. Marsha says:

    Gorgeous potrait photo of the little girl :)

  3. iamthewitch says:

    You had my heart beating fast at the axe-chopping the wood part! So it’s quite true what they say about Filipinos in the slums I suppose. I definitely wouldn’t dare venture to these areas on my own! But thank goodness you managed to find some new friends in the process of discovery. Bravo! :)

  4. Dicey situation worked out well … Reminds of me time in fix with a gang of angry, Chechen-War veterans surrounding me and giving me grief on the subway in St Petersburg in 2005. Close call, too.

    [ PS: Liking your recent gold/sliver titles, shadowed quotes, etc make-over; very stylish. ]

    the candy trail … nomadic across the planet, since 1988

    • I was just watching a movie the other night about the Chechen war. I really would not like to be in subway with those guys, I think that’s a whole new ball game.

      Cheers for the feedback. Taken a while, such as things are when you try doing them on the road. I’m sure you know what I mean!

  5. Wow, glad you got out of the confrontation with those boys without getting axed! It’s good you stood your ground. I’m not sure I would be that calm and collected…

  6. Jason says:

    A fantastic read Dave, and I enjoyed every word as if I was riding the earlier situation and the house invitations with you. It’s post’s like these that I read travel blogs for. Giving a real insight into the day to day life of the people, and their situations.

    Glad you worked your way out of the slightly tense situation, and no harm was done in either direction. I sometimes kick myself for not documenting my adventures during my early travels to this extent. Shout yourself a couple of stiff drinks when you hit the bars and clubs.

    • Thanks Jason, I appreciate the feedback. I have a stack of journals from Africa I’d love to be online too. But time is the thing. I’ve made it a point to note nearly everything down. Though sometimes it’s too much. As you clearly show on DigiDrift photographs can tell a thousand tales as well!

      Not too sure about those bars and clubs. Trying to locate a Silat (Malaysian, martial art) group. Only come across places filled with more of those teenagers ha!

      • Liv says:

        I’ve always associated silat with West Malaysia. If you find one in Sabah, that would be awesome.

        Your next post should be interesting reading. I’ve never really enjoyed the bars/club scene in Malaysia, but then my idea of a nightlife is a late supper (the spicier the food, the better) in an open-air hawker centre, drinking chilled chrysanthenum tea from a box.

        • I think you are right about Silat being in Western Malaysia. Coming up blank here.

          Ha, no bars or clubs for me. Stuck my nose in, not really my thing I must say.

          Will have to think of something better to do at night, so yes, a night market it is.

  7. Ivy says:

    First picture … what a beautiful little girl, great picture !! :) and great writing, always !

  8. Nicole says:

    Scary! I can’t believe you went deeper into the slums instead of getting out, or were you already so deep, there was no other choice? And then, you show there are good people mixed with the dangerous. The world is complicated, no?

    • Hi Nicole,

      I really wanted to get across to the other side. The place is like a maze of platforms. This particular platform brought me to these guys. So I worked my way around to the other side. I think it’s just my own stubbornness :)

  9. Anna's World says:

    Beautiful ending to this weeks posts. From an intense start, to a uplifting end, along with going back to the city. Really enjoyed, thank you

  10. Mason says:

    A beginning, a middle, and an end. Traits of great writer. I’ve been enjoying your travels, you bring something to the online world that’s sorely lacking – reality.

  11. Bethany says:

    Fascinating story. Great photos as well. You are a great example of what a travel blog can be.

    • Thank Bethany, I am really glad you enjoyed this. And am touched by your words. Made a good start to my day. Thank you!

    • Andreas says:

      I agree with Bethany.
      Always wanted a blog like this, but I failed badly.

      Have been to KK as well, and didn’t go to a slum. But saw some near the 1Borneo shopping mall. Might be the same story as with the building site you mentioned – but the slum / filipino village still stands.

      Where else in Sabah will you travel?

      • This slum was a bus ride away. heading towards the State Mosque. There seem to be quite a few. Another down by the waterfront.

        I will go to Sandakan, and a possibly a few other places off the map. The railway is still not functioning here which is a shame.

  12. hana says:

    That was tense! While reading, I was wondering what I would do if I were in your place. Well, I wouldn’t bring an expensive camera for sure. :)

    I’m glad everything worked out in the end.

  13. Dave,

    This is an excellent story and shows what a walk should be like: interacting with people at every turn. It made me miss traveling in places where the people are IN the streets. Mexico was far too North American in this regard. We may be coming your way in summer.

  14. Grace says:

    I did not realize that a lot of Filipinos live in the slums of Sabah and have a bad reputation to boot. It makes me really sad as a Filipino that our country is not able to offer a better life for it’s citizens. I myself have chosen to work abroad, admittedly, for a number of reasons one of them to earn a better living. I’m glad that you got out of a dicey situation- plus your story gave me a lot of pointers. I was wondering if you have ever thought of carrying anything for self-defense-small weapon or tool? Have you heard of any long term travelers having one?

    • Hey Grace, Yep, Filipinos generally don’t have the best of reputations in Sabah I am afraid. Right across from the main waterfront area in Kota Kinabalu there’s a large island with a water village full of illegal / legal immigrants. It’s not policed, and many locals are scared of the crime rates. That said, I’ve not had any problems with Filipinos here. But, I will admit a few rough types can be found in the dock areas.

      Regarding weapons. I personally, don’t. I have a knife, but more as a tool, and I rarely carry it with me. I have known of a couple of travelers that have carried weapons. But, it rarely works out in their favor. Generally speaking if a mugging happens to a tourist, there’s usually more than one person involved. If you pull a knife on some one, there’s a strong chance you’ll end up in a worse place. Aside from that, you are also in another country with different laws. Using a weapon, even to defend you life, can end up with you being in even more trouble!

  15. Grace says:

    Thanks for the insight. I was in a dicey situation not so long ago and ever since then I’ve had thoughts about getting at least a pepper spray. But you do raise a good point about country laws and also flight laws. It could be more trouble in the long run. I hope you have safe travels ahead!

  16. Rebecca says:

    Phew! Glad it ended well.

    I can’t believe the rubbish in the water – it’s like a piece of land itself. Have you heard of the houses by the water in Lagos, Nigeria doing reclamation using rubbish? Amazing stuff.

    • Yep, when I was in Nigeria I visited the land fills there as they had already started. Hmmm. I think there’s already an almighty problem with several people talking about chemical buildups in about 50 years from the rubbish being used … This is not surprising! Interesting times ahead!

  17. Federico says:

    Good thing you managed to get by this sketchy situation. I’ve had one in El Salvador and another in Belize, and although eventually nothing happened they are not the best part of the trip. Funny how I never considered visiting the slums when in KK!

    • Glad to see you made it through the spam guards :) Yep, I like to explore these place in certain cities and locales only. It depends on who much a think there is a story to uncover or not!

  18. Hi, I came across your blog, found it on Google while I was searching for good places to visit in KK. We are going there this October. First of all, I love your blog. It’s very informative and real.

    Same with Grace, I never thought that Filipinos have such a bad reputation in Malaysia. It’s just sad to read about it.. wishing our government can do something about this problem.. It’s really sad to have read what those stupid young boys have done.. but really can’t blame anyone since they did not have the opportunity to learn and be nurtured the right way.. Now, I feel more lucky that I got the chance to study and be raised well by my parents. We’re not rich but we’re doing good here in the Philippines and I have no plans of going abroad for work.

    I love the Philippines. =) beautiful places.. Lots of good people.. but of course, with some exemptions too.. but i guess all countries do. nice blog you got right here.. now I’m gonna find if you have post from HK. thanks!

  19. Gripping writing. I am really enjoying it, though!

    Glad you made it out alive with your wits about you. I’m not sure what I would have done in that situation (probably wouldn’t have gone purposely to a slum in the first place).

    • I had a similar experience in West Africa, Pakistan, The Philippines, and again in Sandakan, Sabah. So, am a little used to dealing with such situations. Glad you enjoyed reading about it!

  20. I loved reading how you approached these situations. It reminds me of disarming tactics I’ve attempted and let’s me know I must be on the right track. Love how you deflected and disarmed the ax guy’s camera coaxing to giving him a wave later (prob as way to get a sly peek in to see if he was following you!). LOL. Glad you still have your limbs, as well as your camera.

    Next time I’m in your hood, I’ll give you a shout out for a slum day! They rank right up there with ping pong shows. ;-)

    P.S. The trash problem there is insane!

    • Spoken like a true traveler ;) I think you are one of the few who picked up on the deflection tactic!

      No worries, I’m all up for another slum day out. I think they’re a lot safer than ping pong shows ;) Well, at least for me!

  21. Ben says:

    I just read your story and it was amazing. I am only 18, male, and will be going travelling to Sabah soon. I think I am reasonably smart but I would not have been as brave as you in that situation! As an 18 year old and relatively new traveller I think I will try and avoid this situation.

    One thing you have taught me through reading this is that even though the slums (and some people) can be scary, there are also some incredible friendly people there who just want to talk and help you.

    • Ben says:

      I just read this blog again. It is still such a good story. I will be in Borneo in about 3 and a half months from now!