The slums around Kota Kinabalu – Part 1 – Tourists don’t come here

Wooden walkway in Kota Kinabalu's Slum
Not too many people would like to traverse these walkways in the slums of Malaysia (click to enlarge)

Visiting the amazing slums around Kota Kinabalu Sabah, Malaysia

Yes, I find myself once again, attracted too, and visiting slum areas. This time in Sabah, Malaysia. At first glance this pristine tourist town seems devoid of such areas. But, they await just a short bus ride away. And, the story behind them is fascinating.

The non politically correct word of “slum”

My accidental wrong bus route to the state mosque ended up with me catching a glimpse of the suburban cheap housing district in Kota Kinabalu. The type of place the hostel receptionist stares blankly at you when you ask for more information.

A cheap housing area that’s deemed illegal yet ignored until the cheap labor it houses are no longer wanted and is then demolished – AKA Slum

The type of place not in a guidebook and the local tourist office worker panics at the idea of you going to it. Why?

Lot’s of Filipino’s! Very bad. They steal everything you have.”

It seems like the Filipinos are the blame for all things bad in certain areas. Including theft, begging, the occasional kidnapping and anything else to hand. So, what better place to go and see that’s off the guide book path.

Getting to a city slum

Back on the local bus at Api-Api we took off. Turning off down a main road and within a few minutes I saw a new batch of stilt houses. Lot’s of them. I couldn’t resist. At the first stop I jumped out. The conductor looked at me, then back at the diver. Caution in his eyes, they drove off in a hurry.

Enter danger land

Garbage floating in water around slum in Malaysia
The water is filled with garbage here, but strangely there is no bad smell

There was a rickety wooden foot bridge leading from the grassy embankment out on to the equally decrepit walkways that joined the stilt houses together. These were the streets of one hundred plus houses hammered together and standing in misshapen forms over still waters below.

A waft of the seemingly stagnant water filled my nose as planks groaned under my weight. The walkway stretched far ahead and then branched off into a cobweb of angled paths. I knew that I could get lost easily, moreover trapped down a one way walkway. Not something I wanted should the people here really be as bad as they said.

Entering into the Slum

I walked by the first house. A family were out in an open area. Children were having their wet hair brushed, and a bucket of water was being thrown down one of the many spaces in the wood floor into the dark water beneath.

With my camera by my side I smiled and waved. The best thing to do in such a place.

“Where you go?”

I turned back just as a shirtless man in faded shorts quickly walked out from the house. His eyes were small and I tensed a little.

“Just taking a walk around.”

His eyes opened up a little and he pointed down the walkway. “Here, you go here?”

I nodded and walked on.

“No, is bad, danger,” he said putting both hands in and out of his front pockets repeatedly.  “Filipino’s, they live down there. Steal everything. Is bad to go.”

I smiled and thanked him. Then said that I knew this, and spoke Visaya. Not quite a full truth I must admit. I know the basic greetings and how to call myself stupid. But, at least it seemed to calm the man down a little.

Nothing like a surge of adrenaline to wake you up

I walked on. Cautious of where I was stepping as there were many large gaps in the wood walkways below. The water underneath in places was barely visible through the mass of accumulated plastic refuse and garbage. This was not only the home to hundreds, but also the toilet, sewer, washing area and garbage disposal to everyone.

Strangely, once in the housing area, there was only the faintest of toxic smells in the air.

What was more prevalent was the soft fragrance of summer meadow flowers!

Group of boys in a Malaysian slum
Lot's of waves and smiles can be found here

Washing powder … Freshly washed clothes hung all along the main walkway. Even from across the water on other walkways I could see people hanging out their morning clothes and sheets.

Meeting the wonderful people in the slum

“Hello!” greeted a lady from her window.

I waved back with a big smile. And that was that start of a morning filled with ‘hellos’ and  ‘good mornings.’ Plus, a lot of waving.

I now had no fear of this place. It was like many others I have seen. An impoverished place where normal everyday people live. It was probably more safe here, than in down town Kota Kinabalu.

Lives under the tower blocks

Under the gaze of the ever encroaching high-rise apartments and hotels the people in the stilt houses went about their lives like any normal household suburb. Clothes were washed, children were sent off to school and adults who had work all went on their way. But not without giving me a big smile and big welcome first.

“Do you get so many smiles and waves in a suburb in down-town New York these days? How about the rundown London apartment areas?”

A lady was turning some fish drying in the morning sun along the walkway as I made my first choice in turns. There was no point in asking directions. This would show I was lost. A newcomer, someone who could be misled.

Not by this girl. But maybe the friend of a friend of her brother who she will tell in a minute about the man with the camera walking around outside who greeted her.

Making my own way as if I knew the place

And so I took a right. It’s difficult to tell which walkways end up in dead ends. The wooden houses and wooden walkways all seem to blend into an urban camouflage that’s hard to judge. Particularly so when you need to keep your eyes peeled on the ground to avoid putting a foot through a gap.

There was a man playing a guitar across a few walkways. Behind him two middle-aged ladies made a big fuss upon seeing me. I waved, and then they cheered. More faces appeared at windows. More smiles, and some young male frowns.

The key to surviving the “slums” in Kota Kinabalu

I took a left down a particularly bad stretch of walkway. In an open porch to my left were a group of eight or so teenagers. All heads were facing me. I took a photo to my right and continued on ahead. Glancing up I saw a few of the teenagers had bleached hair. Some blond, some orange. Time to exercise caution.

Woman drying fish in a slum in Malaysia
Woman drying fish on the walkways as the fresh smell of drying clothes fill the air

So I waved. Almost immediately three waved back with smiles as I walked by. Then an older man appeared and I waved again. They all followed suit.

Community is the key to safety in a place like this. Everyone looks out for each other. There is no choice. It’s not like the city whereby you can close your door to the world and pretend you are alone and away from it all.

The reality of real life

I looked across the next stretch of water. A woman’s head is just visible in a small cubical. She is showering. The water raining down to the instant drain below. Everything is out in the open here.

Closer still to me is the tell-tale sign of some one relieving themselves within their toilet. Instant access to the sewer below. While next door an old woman rinses out some clothes while three toddlers run around. This is life in slums around Kota Kinabalu.

Pushing deeper into the slums

I walked further into the housing areas. This was a run down area of the slum. Some houses were in a state of half collapse, others already semi submerged into the polluted waters below. A gang of youngsters called out for their photo to be taken from a second floor building. Normally I ignore such pleas as it attracts too many people. I should have listened to myself.

No sooner had I pointed my camera at them when a man with glazed eyes appeared from another building. The glazed eyes of a drunkard. I recognized the facial features. A Filipino.

It seemed I had finally stumbled in to the no go area that even the people of the slum warned me about.

“You give me Ringet.”

Crap. Here we go. “Fine thanks, bye bye now.”

“Photo, photo.”

“One dollar.”

Trying to escape the slum

I walked swiftly on. Then, up ahead, four skinny youths jumped over the railings leading to another rundown semi collapsed house. Torn t-shirts, semi gelled hair, and one bad dye job. I knew the look.

“Photo Mister, take my photo,” came the order from the tallest of the group.

I smiled, and then frowned. “No thanks, just walking.”

Another youth extended his hand to shake mine. My camera was still in it. It was a move I’ve seen the naive make.

A normal reaction is to automatically raise a hand up in a near reflex western action. The camera would then be swiftly removed.

I nodded at him and moved forward.

The tall one moved forward. Then from behind his back, or possibly after being handed it by another, produced a short ax.

He laughed callously, “Take photo, see …” he then swung the ax into a wooden railing beside me. “Give Ringet …”

Behind me the drunk man jumped up and down in excitement.

Now it seemed like the fun was about to begin …

Part 2 is now available here – The slums in Kota Kinabalu & the people living there

Coming soon:

The slums of Kota Kinabalu – Part 2 – The bad times & the good

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44 Replies to “The slums around Kota Kinabalu – Part 1 – Tourists don’t come here”

  1. It’s interesting to see what ethnic group is to blame by a certain culture. Now I know that I should be aware whenever I am in Sabah, since I am a Filipino (good thing my dad is half-Chinese and my mom is half-Spaniard; most people think I am Chinese as a result). On the other hand, in Manila, it’s the Indians that people blame for their problems: even the little kids are made to be scared of the “Bombay”. They are told to behave, otherwise, the Bombay will come and take them away.

    1. Glad you see it happens in more than one country. I’ve not come across many Filipinos being treated badly as tourists. Most people just talk about the illegal workers in a bad fashion. Much like it is for many people around the world.

  2. Wow, this is a cliffhanger! Can’t wait to see what happens with the axe. Since you are writing the story, I’m assuming you survived ;) Seriously, your posts on slums are so interesting. It’s a rare traveler who ventures into a foreign slum without taking an organized tour. What do you think about “slum tours” in cities like Rio and Johannesburg?

    1. Hey Leslie, glad you enjoyed the slum posts. You bring up and interesting point about the “slum tours” in other countries. I’d have to say I’d be against them. Curious of course. Point highlighting a real slum, and then charging tourists to see it seems to grate the wrong way. Even if funds do go to communities within the slum.

      I think there’s a problem with society at large is they turn slums in to profit, or sights, rather than try to improve nationwide employment, eduction etc.

      In Asia and the middle east the slum areas are very different to the west. It’s a lot safer here, than there. I don’t think I’d be so luck walking into a slum area in downtown London as in Kota Kinabalu. It’s a different culture and and different life. And each one breeds different results. Maybe the same is true in Rio and Johannesburg too? What do you think about the “Slum Tours?”

      1. I went on a slum tour in Johannesburg and never want to do it again. While the tour was with a South African company, I wonder how much the locals benefited from the experience, beyond getting a few dollars from the tourists. From a tourist perspective, it was downright awkward. The only purpose of our group being there was to gawk at the village and then hand out money or buy crafts. Everyone swarmed us begging for money, and I’m not comfortable going into a random person’s shack to snap a photo of them feeding their kids. It was beyond uncomfortable!

        1. Oh dear. I thought that many of these SA “slum tours” were run by community projects where the funds get given back to the people. Doing it for profit really is not good at all. I can see why you were uncomfortable.

          What annoys me here is that Cultural Centers are set up to look at how people “used” to live. Again, stilt houses and the like. Yet that’s still how many do live today, although they are not so shiny and well kept. Sadly such places will be demolished when the workers are no longer needed. Then pushed on.

          It’s like looking at two contrasting elements between SA and Sabah. But seem only to be there for the people with money to profit even more from. I don’t see anyone helping people here at all.

  3. Good job. The mark of a real journalist. Take that step that makes you feel uneasy. Then you know you are getting good stuff. Hats off, salute.

  4. You’ve left us on the edge of our seats! I hope you were able to sneak out of the so-called fun. The garbage in the water is really something.

    1. Yep, the garbage is pretty bad alright. These are temporary homes until the construction of apartments are finished. I’m guessing permanent drainage is not an option.

  5. A descriptive and detailed post. I’m on the edge of my seat Dave. I do believe I know the area you are describing as well. From my own experience in these sorts of area’s you have ran into the two biggest problems. The first is people who are intoxicated and the second is groups of youths.

    When you run into people on their own, there never seems to be an issue, but when in a group the testosterone seems to take over. Lets hope you talked them around. Can’t wait for Part 2.

    1. Cheers Jason. Yes, I do agree with you. There is a group or “pack” mentality in many places around the world. But a bunch of people together and watch peer pressure take over. I think there’s a famous saying about – two people together is safe, but add in a third and watch society fall apart –

      Badly paraphrased but bored teen’s and alcohol problem don’t help. Such is the society we live to day. Better education … or even make education available, provide work, and most of these problems will disappear to a large extent. At least that’s what I’ve seen so far. And, unfortunately I don’t see this solution coming any times soon though.

  6. Hope you got out without any heavy issues … (like mugged / stripped / robbed.

    In such places – “bad” parts of town; bars at night – in such situations, I only walk around with my compact camera (never my DSLR) & have my passport and money belt left within my locked backpack in my room, carrying only about $10 – 20 in local currency.

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

    1. Will follow up with another post on this one.

      My biggest problem with leaving stuff behind is that some of the hotels and so on is that they too are not so secure. That old sticky tape on the door trick has had me notice some random door openings lately. But yes, going to some places like land fills would mean leaving everything behind. I fear random needles and razors at this stage. So will usually have a backup person with me (local).

      On this occasion I was by myself. Happens when you get fed up of tours being thrown down your throat every other day if you know what I mean.

  7. Hola.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you this. What about the street dogs in KK? Last time there I made lots of SD friends. Are they evident nowadays. I hope so. Seems as though, as time passes by, I remember the street dogs that I have befriended, but forget the people (except the kids).
    And comparatively speaking, those are pretty “plush” slums.

    1. Bob, sad to say, but no I have not seen many dogs around the streets in Kota Kinabalu. Sure the odd one, but no certainly none around the markets, streets, beach. Out in the suburbs yes. But mainly guard dogs / pets.

      The I saw plenty in Bucharest. And was corners by a pack. After that random one’s in The Philippines. But again most were pets / guards.

    1. I think here it’s mainly the illegal workers that get the bad rap. I know in other areas it’s the same. It’s the same all over the world, and has been for thousands of years. People generally don’t like other people coming to their place and taking jobs etc.

      A radical change in global views would be needed before this ends.

  8. Hi, I’m Mia. I’m from selangor, west malaysia. I recommend you read an article or see the video entitled, “stateless in Sabah”. It’s about the illegal immigrant’s children that are born in Sabah that are not recognised as Malaysians or accepted by their parent’s country either. So, u should say they are ‘stuck’ in between. They are not entitled to education, legal jobs or housing.
    I would like to know about outsiders opinion regarding this. What do u think the Malaysian government should be doing regarding this? Granting them citizenship would be the solution? What if it encourages more illegals to cross over and have their kids born in Sabah?(bcs technically, even migrant workers r ideally not allowed to hv kids during their working tenure in Sabah)
    Love ur stories so far, especially the Iran ones. Keep it up!can’t wait the 2nd part;).xx

    1. Hi Mia, thanks for mentioning those videos, I just got through watching them. Thanks also for your kind words, glad to have you reading along :)

      I’ve been asking a few people about illegal immigrants in Sabah. The general consensus is Filipinos, and then Indonesians are the main immigrant groups.

      As an outsider I can only say I’ve seen the plight of immigrant workers around the world. It’s not just Malaysia that has this problem. However, as you stated there seems to be a rather heartbreaking under story to all this. And that’s to do with the rights of those born in Malaysia of non-Malaysian parents.

      I do not know Malaysian law, nor its constitution well enough to make a professional comment on this. However, if Malaysia does not automatically give citizenship to someone born on it’s land, then illegal immigrants really don’t have any rights.

      That said I am still trying to get to grips with the multicultural aspect of Malaysia. Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Indonesian, and Malay people all seem to make up the population here. How did this come about if not for immigration?

      Perhaps it’s really the economy that dictates illegal immigration being tolerated in Malaysia? Did the constitution change when the Malay population was soon nearly outnumbered by immigrants? I’d really like to know more about the history of immigration in Malaysia to try and garner a better understanding.

      I would also be interested to know if there was any other country out there that has been able to successfully deal with illegal immigrants? As of yet, I struggle to find one to use as an example. I think if could find one, then perhaps looking at it as an example might be a key.

  9. such a cliffhanger… cant wait to read the next… really admire your courage to go to places that a lot of people consider dangerous…

    1. Thanks Flip. I think it’s a case of a “that’s me as a traveler”. Many people like the beach, I like seeking out new places like this! I hear you are on the move very soon as well?

  10. Riveting and enjoyable as always …. please tell me we don’t have to wait until next week!!

    You really do deliver on original writing and travel. Well Done!

  11. This is an incredible post! Provoking and tugs at the heart. It pains me to see visitors or any locals having to be afraid walking around the slums in our own country, but I’m sure it happens everywhere in the world. Your story is real and I have had similar experience (warnings about the Filipino) when I was holiday in Sabah as well. I am very interested to know of what happens with the axe and the drunkard now! :)

    1. It’s a sad state in many countries when people are scared to walk around areas. It’s simply not right. That said, I feel a lot safer here, than walking around places like Barcelona, or Paris. Let alone in rundown areas in London! Now those can be scary, dangerous places!

  12. “Community is the key to safety in a place like this.” From Colombia to Guatemala and Uganda to Sudan, I have found that to be 100% true. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on “observer’s guilt.” Do you feel it is worth visiting a place like this and being able to retell its story to those who are not able to be there with you or do you ever feel voyeuristic in photographing the dire circumstances of someone else’s living? I have felt both myself — both the responsibility to tell the story and the guilt — and would be curious to read more of your thoughts. Thank you for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Hi Roxanne,

      That’s a really interesting question. In truth, no I don’t suffer from “observers guilt”. I feel curious, and a deep need in wanting to know more.

      In my travels I’ve met many good people, and some not so good.

      The sad truth is it’s relatively easy to be kind when you are poor. But, it comes at the cost of being cast out from society. I do try to highlight the good people I see and meet that many others simply never seen in the world today. In this sense, that’s where I get my “rush” from.

      I don’t get twangs of guilt either. I think that’s mainly due to my own search, and predicament. I too generally feel like I am surviving. And, yes, it’s relative and everyone has different levels of what’s hard or not. But, in this sense I don’t often feel guilty about writing, photographing or bring in places like this.

      The only places I have felt guilt, have been in hospitals or whenever I see someone who I can’t communicate well with, yet I want to know their story. In this case, I simply can’t take a photo as I don’t know what their story is. Yet, deep down something keeps pulling at me to try to find out. Which can be very hard when you don’t speak the same language.

      So, I think the answer to your question is, no I don’t feel guilty at observing people, but yes I do when I don’t know what’s wrong. I do hope that made sense?

  13. It broke my heart apart that Filipinos always involve in such a bad taste of story or situation, however, considering of the place that you went to was really a big No-No for foreigners.
    Facing the reality, your situation happens in the squatter areas in the Philippines too. You have an inspiring stories to tell, can’t wait the part 2.

    1. It’s not just Filipinos, there are many in this situation from different parts of the world. I do hope you read the second part. I am hoping it will be out later in the week. It should give a greater outlook!

  14. Kind of mean to leave us hanging like that. LOL Great article! Very engrossing, and I love the different spin you’re showing people.

  15. Really love reading your blog – so different to many of the other travel blogs I read. I find how you travel so interesting – immersing yourself in the local culture and meeting people.

    I’m looking forward to part two… although I’m nervous!! :-)

  16. Your slum tourism could have gotten yourself killed. Do you know how many knife fights and murders there are in the slums in Kota Kinabalu, such as Gaya Island? Such indicents are not even reported in the newspapers, as they involve illegals who never counted in Sabah to begin with.

    If you insist on meeting Pinoy slum dwellers you can encounter many the same people in shopping malls like KK Plaza and Centre Point on a Saturday afternoon, in particular the young men, where they hang out to pass the time with free air condition. There you will have the benefits of more security guards and fewer drunks with axes.

    1. Thank you for your concern, it’s something many tourists should take into account.

      Personally, for me, I felt very secure in this area. Then again, I travel a little differently to most

  17. The current Malaysian Government, Barisan Nasional is offering Permanant Residency (Red IC) to foreigners to get votes. Isn’t that fantastic?

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