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