PHOTOS Andrew Chan
The locals prefer rolling their cigarettes with nipah and not rolling paper. They say there are chemicals in the paper,” explains Oswald, our tourguide of the Kadazandusun tribe, the largest ethnic group in Sabah, as I watch a lady who is seated on the ground in front of her wares: rolls of tobacco in packs, raw areca nuts, betel leaves, small tubs of kapur and rolls of dried nipah (palm) leaves.
She lines a square of dried nipah leaf with tobacco and rolls it in between her palms, as if warming her hands, making a rhythmic flapping sound, producing a skinny cigarette, about the diameter of three matchsticks. She hands me the cigarette together with a lighter and motions for me to roll it as she did.
I hesitate and nearly leave the cigarette to unravel before hastily passing it back to her for to re-roll, much to the amusement of passersby at the Tamu Pagi (morning market) Donggongon in the Penampang district in the northwest of Sabah where the majority of the locals are Kadazandusun and Chinese.
As I watch in confusion, as unplanned experiences go, the tobacco seller, with teeth blackened by what she was about to share with me, hands me a fresh slice of areca nut.
She takes a betel leaf and thumbs it with kapur, a chalk paste, before folding it thrice and placing it in between my thumb and the areca nut.
I am deeply concerned about the wellbeing of my teeth—three-and-a-half years of braces in my teenage years is enough to make me appreciate them a little more than usual—so in addition to fear of having stained teeth, I was worried about chipping a molar.
The areca nut, as tough as a jawbreaker, tasted bland with a hint of a sharp aftertaste and crumbled like overly coarse macadamia.
“Don’t swallow the nut or the water. Spit it out later. You still have lots of activities to do after this bah,” says Oswald.
All I could think about was running into the love of my life at the market with red teeth. Checking off the cultural experience-cum-bonding session with the ladies, I unceremoniously spit out the residue of the areca nut and betel leaf combo into a tissue and look into the wad of orange stain in my hand before the organic duo had time to work their light-headedness effect in full swing as we walk through the tamu that runs only from Wednesdays to Fridays with a 6am start.
He leads us past the stalls of gongs—romantics take note, a full set is mandatory as part of dowry if you wish to wed a Kadazandusun girl.
“Very expensive if you want to marry one—even more if they have Unduk Ngadau (beauty pageant) title or have good education,” Oswald says as we walk towards a row of shops and into a Chinese kopitiam, two doors down from a KFC, for a bowl of ngiu chap noodles in a dark broth topped with tender pieces of water buffalo meat, liver, tripe, tendon and meatballs for breakfast.
Plans to make up for lost sleep during the two-and-ahalf-hour drive towards the Ranau district, home to some of Sabah’s most famed eco-attractions including Mount Kinabalu, were thrown out the window the moment we passed the bumpy roads via Tuaran and spilled onto the continuous scenery of rolling hills and mountains. All that was missing: a few dairy cows amongst the occasional clusters of colourful houses in the valleys.
“Just like Dunhill!” one of the bystanders exclaims as I ask about the local tobacco, neatly arranged like a two-tier bank along the back of a truck parked just off the main road at Pekan Nabalu morning market, our first pit stop in Ranau.
The owner sits barefoot on his green stool, dressed in a khaki coloured long-sleeved collared shirt, dark green pants and a cap to match; his regulars hang around for a chat and a smoke.
As well as its tobacco, which sells for just RM5 per bundle, this region is known for its pineapples that amount in piles from stall to stall at the morning market.
A giveaway to an area’s speciality is a giant statue at any given roundabout—perhaps of a traditional headress or fruit to represent the town’s unique selling point.
Towards the end of the market, away from the main road, is the second hand clothes section. An elderly man, with a white moustache and goatee, shuffles in front of the pile of clothes on the ground.
“Two ringgit,” one of the ladies says to the man. He smiles and wraps the waist of the jeans around his neck to measure—a universal old wives’ life hack.
Many vendors are smartly dressed: some in batik sarongs and kebayas, polo shirts and even full makeup.
Barely pulling myself away from the pre-loved treasure trove of the clothing section, I make my way to the fruits and vegetable section, carefully eyeing each vendor’s goods that are rarely repetitive—from wild durians to wild corns.
Slicing the exposed bambangan fruit with a tarnished retractable pen knife on loan from a fruit seller in his sixties, silently hoping I don’t get gangrene or food poisoning, I gingerly cut the fibrous mango, piled onto plastic sheets on the tarred road.
Bambangan is one of the two varieties of local wild mangoes and has a dark skin similar to the texture of a ciku fruit. Taking in its pungent smell, easily confused with the durian, I offer a piece to my colleague for good measure, as the elderly ladies, perhaps in their late seventies or early eighties, perched on the sidewalk watch in amusement at my dismal knife skills.
The friendliness of the locals is consistent and apparent from town to town. I guess it is true what many expatriates say when asked what they like about Sabah: it always comes back to the people, as I learn at yet another market. This time it’s the much awaited Kota Kinabalu fish market by the city centre’s waterfront.
Skipping the hotel breakfast, I don’t remember being as excited about a 5:30am wake-call from my colleague (although, perhaps my enthusiasm didn’t particularly come across at first contact).
As I wolf down the bananas—swiped from the hotel room, of course, I take in the early morning sights in KK town centre: empty trucks, market goers with their baskets and a man selling illegal cigarettes (at RM3 a pack) from a wooden tray which he carries with him while weaving in between the single lane traffic and back to the boot of his car on foot.
Upon reaching the fish market, the temptation to whip out the (phone) cameras and cower behind the lens is there. But just stopping for a moment, I notice the somewhat calmer pace of the market—unlike any markets I’ve seen before (or perhaps I’ve been cooped up in Kuala Lumpur for too long).
At 6:20am on a Friday, there’s no yelling nor loud haggling; just a murmur of activity and jokes between the sellers.
The assistants moving goods are patient—no one shouts at us to get out of the way even though we obviously look like tourists, but rather they wait for us to notice them or say “excuse me” as they drag their large orange cooler boxes.
The scene is not as chaotic nor as cold (towards non-traders or bulk buyers) as I had expected. Instead, nearly every fish monger is friendly, stopping to pose with two thumbs up or a ‘V’ sign and smiling for the camera unprompted, some pulling out hidden goods from boxes beneath the counter, or pointing out unusual seafood such as a boxful of puffer fish at RM1.50 per kilogramme.
The indoor market is small, with only two short rows to cover and approximately 60 stalls, each putting up varying produce. One has a mountainful of basung fish, while the other has a cool dozen or two of tuna, tiger prawns and clams.
Stepping outside to the outdoor fish market area, past the rusty gates, another section of sellers are present. Some of the produce doesn’t look as fresh but some is certainly cheaper—mostly with a difference of RM2 per kilo.
Here the exotic and, for certain species, the illegal are sold: big eye barracudas, rays and baby sharks—present in one or two stalls, and no more.
“The Singapore tourist, they’ll come and buy a lot to take home. KK fish market, a must! Of course bah!” says Oswald.