What? Water Village, Island
Where? Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Ratings: *** See it before it disappears. With the massive crackdown on illegal immigrants beginning in August, most of the illegal village will probably be destroyed.
Lost Ratings **** Visit a part of the city that even the locals stay away from.
Pulau Gaya, the largest of five islands located off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, has always been an integral part of the city. Clearly visible from KK’s jetty, the nearest point of this island is only about 10 minutes away by speedboat. The name of the island is derived from Gayo, the Bajau word for big. But the island itself means different things to different people. To the tourists, it is the location of a resort with rooms above the water, and a place for jungle-trekking. To the locals, it is the source of all the city’s woes. But to the island’s inhabitants, it is their home away from home.
It can be said that Pulau Gaya was the forerunner of Kota Kinabalu. Before the British North Borneo Company even established Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu), they had already started a settlement on the island in 1881 and remained there for 15 years before it was burnt down by the rebel Mat Salleh. It was only after that that the British moved to the mainland opposite. The island was then left to the fishermen who built a small village at the eastern end of the island (the part facing the city). In 1923, Pulau Gaya was declared as a forest reserve, and in 1974, together with the other 4 smaller islands, it was established as Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, Sabah’s second state park. Only a small portion of the island where a few water villages are located is excluded from the boundary of the park.
Recently, I had a chance to see up-close the water villages for myself and to do some jungle-trekking on the island. No one knows for sure how many people actually live in Pulau Gaya, but there are estimates of over 8000 people. Of these, only 2000 are registered voters. Even if you minus out the children, that would still leave a huge majority who are either unregistered voters or more likely, illegal immigrants.
Directly facing Kota Kinabalu is the notorious illegal settlement of Kampung Pondo. In July 2006, a police team went there to look for suspected drug-pushers and the resulting confrontation left three police officers seriously injured and one suspected drug-pusher dead. The locals consider this area to be off-limits. Firearms and smuggled goods have been found stashed away in some houses. Still, it is not fair to paint everyone who lives there as a criminal. Most of them make an honest living as fishermen, trading at the Filipino market or working as boatmen transferring people to the islands, even if they are legally wrong to be in this country. The entire village has actually been destroyed a few times. During Chong Kah Kiat’s tenure as the Chief Minister of Sabah, a huge operation was conducted to get rid of the illegal immigrants and all the houses were dismantled. Within a short period however, the houses have been rebuilt and the village has sprouted like a mushroom again as if nothing ever happened.
Not all the island’s inhabitants are illegals though. To the right of Kampung Pondo is a village populated by local Bajaus and Ubians. The pride and joy of the people here is its secondary school, SMK Pulau Gaya. Established in 1989, the school looks more like a floating water chalet with its brightly-coloured jetty. The school is the mark of the dedication of its teachers and students and shows that with the right attitude and character, anything is possible.
Be careful. While a look at the village from a boat is ok, travellers are advised not to set foot in the illegal settlement.
Getting there: Charter a boat from Jesselton Point Jetty. There are many tour operators. Tours to Gaya Island are available. Do not use the illegal boats.