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 Islands Information

Place: Tenom

By Margaret Deefholts

Some days nothing starts out right. The train drawn up on the Tanjung Aru station platform isn't anything like the one described in my tourist brochure which promised a "nostalgic journey on the historic North Borneo Railway."

My guide, Reynold, shuffles his feet apologetically. "The heritage tour runs only twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays." He explains. "Also," he adds, "that trip ends at Papar, and you wanted to visit the Agricultural Farm in Tenom which is two hours further along the way."

My romantic vision of sipping wine in an elegantly refurbished dining car, while being served a colonial style "tiffin" lunch evaporates. This is just a humdrum commuter train used by local passengers, and as I settle into my seat by a window, it begins to fill up very quickly. A group of women in baju-kurungs, (traditional Malay garb), wearing pretty scarves over their heads, enter like fluttering birds of paradise. They find their seats in the compartment and steal curious glances at me.

The train jerks, shudders and takes off, its engine shrieking a warning as we rattle over suburban level crossings. In less than an hour we are in rural Borneo. I lean out of the window, the humid air playing against my face, and look out at small kampung (village) settlements, their wooden houses perched on stilts, at children waving to us, and dense tropical foliage, interspersed with paddy fields and palm groves. The train settles into a rhythm, swaying as it winds along the track and crosses trestle bridges over rivers coiling like brown ropes through mangrove swamps. We clatter past flowering hibiscus bushes, and flame trees festooned with purple morning glory creepers; white cranes preen themselves on sandbars and buffaloes wallow in mudflats.

As we burrow deeper into the jungle, it becomes obvious that this is the only form of transport for many tiny rural communities, and the train makes several unscheduled stops to pick up or drop off villagers carrying produce or goods to Papar - the main market centre in the area.

I feel a tentative nudge against my shoulder, and turn to find a woman from the group leaning over to offer me a cellophane wrapped candy. The rest of the group wait intently for my reaction. I smile and say, "thank you" - and like dam waters flooding through the gates, the questions sluice over me. "What's your name?" "Which country you are coming from?" "How many childrens do you have?" Only one of the women speaks broken, but understandable English, and she translates my replies.

"You like Malaysian food?" one woman asks. I nod emphatically. "Very good!" I rub my tummy and roll my eyes. This sends everyone into gales of mirth. My questioner opens a bundle near her seat and pulls out a foam tray and a plastic fork. "Nasi Goreng," she says passing this to me. "I cook special!" I protest at depriving someone of their lunch, but they will have none of it. It is delicious - tiny shrimp, tender slivers of chicken, chopped shallots and vegetables in a spicy fried rice. I give my audience the thumbs up sign . The cook beams and moves over to sit next to me while her friend photographs the two of us - me cocking forefinger and thumb in a loop of excellence, while pointing at my companion, she displaying the cleaned-out container for the camera! This signals the start of a photo session. Chattering excitedly everyone in the group takes turns posing along with me.

The train halts at Papar and there is a flurry of arrivals and departures. When we get going again, the train tunnels its way through thick jungle, occasionally breaking through to run alongside the turbulent waters of the Padas river. White water rafting is a popular sport here, and we pause to allow a group of young thrill-seekers to dismount at the head of the rapids.

Another half an hour and the train grinds to a halt. Reynold explains that the trestle bridge ahead is precarious, and repairs are under way, so we pick our way over the rail tracks and clamber up onto another train waiting beyond the bridge. My newly found friends surge ahead to save me a seat in their midst.

I've since found out that they are members of a local secretarial association, and this is an overnight picnic-style sleep-over at a campsite in Tenom. I've also discovered who is married, and if so, how many kids they have (photographs flourished), a wish list of where they'd like to travel (most of them want to experience the big-city lights of Kuala Lumpur) and what sort of music they enjoy.

To demonstrate this last, they burst into a series of folk tunes and the carriage rocks to the rhythm of their clapping, and foot tapping. Malaysians seem to have a natural aptitude for harmony and their impromptu performance would rouse the envy of many international a-capella groups. I, too, clap to the beat, but they are concerned by the fact that I can't join in the choruses. After a huddled discussion, their spokesperson turns to me. "You can sing this one with us, maybe?" At the count of three they break into a spirited rendition of "On Top of Old Smoky"! I laugh, cheer and join in - and everyone looks pleased.

Tenom arrives all too soon, and we say our reluctant goodbyes, exchanging names and e-mail addresses. Some days nothing starts out right...but everything ends wonderfully!

©Margaret Deefholts - Visit Margaret's website


Getting There:

Malaysian Airlines links Kota Kinabalu, (the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the north west coast of Borneo) to Vancouver (via Los Angeles and Taipei), Hongkong, China, Japan, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The airline offers excellent in-flight entertainment facilities, a choice of Malaysian and western cuisine, as well as gracious, attentive service on board their international and domestic flights. For further information contact your travel agent, or visit their web site at

Where to Stay:

Kota Kinabalu boasts a variety of accommodation ranging from budget hotels to five star resorts. At the top of the line, is the Shangri-la Tanjung Aru Resort, set in 25 acres of landscaped tropical gardens fringing the shores of the South China Sea. The Tanjung Aru pampers its guests in luxuriously appointed rooms and suites, all of them with private balconies overlooking either the water, or facing the towering peaks of Mount Kinabalu. Five restaurants and a cocktail bar offer superb Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western cuisine and live evening entertainment. Their facilities include two swimming pools, four tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, leisure centre and health club as well as a private beach. Business travellers have access to secretarial services and internet access at the resort's Business Centre. Drop by their web-site for more information:

The North Borneo Railway Expeditions:

These historic tours run twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and carry guests from Kota Kinabalu (Tanjung Aru Station) to Papar. The trip includes lunch and beverages, a guided tour commentary, luxury seating in vintage cars and souvenir booklets/tickets to commemorate the trip. Groups and charters may book several other tours but these need to be booked well in advance. For details go to

Or contact:

North Borneo Railway
Tanjung Aru Railway Station
Karung Berkunci 2047
88999 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Tel: 6088-263933 Fax: 6088-263933


Wildlife Expeditions Borneo may be contacted in person at their office in the Shangri-la Tanjung Aru Resort. They run full and half day tours in and around Kota Kinabalu and further afield across Borneo with courteous, well informed and experienced guides such as Reynold Miji. For detailed information go to:
Tel : (60) 88-246 000
Fax : (60) 88-231 758
Email :