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Pulau Banggi : Adventurer's haven but an urbanite's nightmare
Published on: Sunday, July 16, 2017

IT was the novelty of visiting the island that drew me to Pulau Banggi for the very first time on July 2, this year.

I had always harboured the intention of going there, and finally, the maiden trip became a reality.

As a Sabahan, I thought I should visit some of the talked about places in Sabah, notably Pulau Banggi which is the first Sabah State Assembly seat designated as N1 Banggi.

After a smooth one-hour-twenty-minute ferry journey across the Marudu Bay, which cost RM20 courtesy of Kudat Ferries Service Sdn Bhd, we arrived at the tiny town of Karakit on Pulau Banggi where we were greeted by a basic and stark jetty thronged by people waiting for their ferry trips to the mainland.

Throughout the length of the jetty, which protrudes into the sea, several food and agricultural stalls lay in wait on one side of the jetty for their customers. Noticeably absent were tour representatives, public transport and car rental companies, which are features of entry points of major tourist destinations.

Suzienah, who is from the island but now works in Kudat, had attended my course on public speaking in Kota Kinabalu recently. Through her, we met Yussof at the jetty, who graciously offered to help us settle in.

Yussof, an affable gentleman, brought us to Sri Maliangin Homestead, which is tucked neatly in a water village located a stone's throw from the jetty. It was a good 10-minute walk, owing to a lack of public transport.

During the walk, I observed that the island is, indeed, beautiful but lacks the necessary infrastructure for it to succeed as a tourist destination. Beautification was limited, and basic facilities were poorly maintained.

Rubbish collection schedule appeared to be off course.

The new Karakit Hotel, which sets one back RM118 per night, appears to be the only attractive building in town, while the Masjid Pulau Banggi stands as a significant landmark.

At RM55 per night, Sri Maliangin Homestead is a basic but comfortable accommodation.

Built over water, one can hear the sloshing of the waves underneath. Kahar, the owner, informed us almost apologetically that the islanders are unwilling to rent out their vehicles as the condition of the roads could wreak havoc on the vehicles.

I also found, to my horror, that the price of petrol on the island is RM6 per litre as its supply from the mainland is haphazard, sorely lacking an established channel.

Prior to setting foot on the island, I had conducted some research about the island.

At 440.7 square kilometres and located north of Sabah, the island claims the honour of being the largest island in Malaysia before Pulau Bruit (Sarawak), Pulau Langkawi (Kedah) and Pulau Pinang (Penang).

It is slightly half the size of Singapore, and about four times the size of Labuan.

However, compared to Pulau Pinang's 800,000 inhabitants, Pulau Banggi is home to only 30,000, comprising the Ubians, Dusun Bonggi, Kegayan, Balabak, Bajau Laut and Suluk.

Unlike the Rungus in neighbouring Kudat, whose cultural presence is entrenched there, not much local culture is observable on the island.

Early morning on the second day of our visit, on our request for a tour, Kahar assigned his nephew Azman to take us on a brief tour of the island. For the RM150 Vigo ride, which lasted for about four hours, we travelled on paved, gravel and dirt roads to traverse villages to reach a unique beach named Pantai Modom, where black sand covers some parts of the white sandy beach.

From the beach, Pulau Balambangan is visible over the horizon. The views in Kg Damaran and Kg Maliyu, where coconut palms stand majestically over quaint villages, are picturesquely scenic. Some bodies of water on and near the island, however, are believed to be crocodile-infested.

How did the island get its name? Banggi in the local lingo is a corruption of "bangkai" or corpse.

According to a local folklore, it was not the practice of the earliest inhabitants of the island to bury their dead.

Instead, they would leave their dead on trees to parch them to the bones which were then collected for burial.

Early visitors to the island would find corpses strung up on trees; hence the name "bangkai."

Nowadays, inhabitants of the island call it Bonggi instead of Banggi which probably still smells of "bangkai."

While I enjoyed the alluring beauty of the island as it unravelled before me, I also noticed much abject poverty on the island.

The dilapidated houses are telling, many of which are constructed with bamboo, sago palm, nibong (Oncosperma fasciculata) and coconut leaves. Of course, there are the ubiquitous blue water tanks next to them, indicating that efficient water supply could still be a far cry.

It does appear as though the economic development on the island has been caught in a time warp, 20 years behind Langkawi and Labuan.

Mt Sinambung towers at 550 metres over the island, which could use some help in terms of upkeeping.

Foremost, the infrastructure on the island needs to be improved to enhance the development of the tourism industry.

There is a dire need to establish long lasting and sustainable economic activities on the fertile island to include vegetable farming and rearing of goats, cattle and chickens.

Currently, most of the supply of these basic products is sourced from the mainland.

Other economic activities which caught my attention were 'kelulut' (stingless bee) honey and bird's nest farming, which can be encouraged further to boost the incomes of the islanders.

My intention was to explore the island for a few days. I shortened my visit owing to the lack of tourist facilities, particularly transportation on the island.

The sight of the basic and stark jetty at Karakit was telling that while the island is beautiful, the lack of economic development will dash whatever ambition a fastidious tourist harbours for the island.

However, for the adventurous tourists, willing to forsake creature comforts, the island is indeed an inviting and expansive playground seldom found elsewhere. - Richard A Gontusan

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