What is it? Old coffins in a cave
Where is it? Batu Puteh, Kinabatangan, Sabah
Should you go? ** a bit out of the way, but if you are in the area, definitely.
Lost ratings: **** probably gets less than 10 tourists a day.
Located just before Batu Puteh village and the only bridge that crosses Kinabatangan River, Agop Batu Tulug is famous for the wooden coffins that are found in the caves of the 39m-high hill. A beautiful example of these coffins can be found in the Sabah State Museum, but there is no denying the thrill of visiting the actual location where the coffins were found.
The limestone hill is not difficult to find. It stands out prominently from the surrounding countryside. If you are heading towards Lahad Datu, the hill is on the left side of the road. From Kota Kinabalu, it is about 355km. From Kota Kinabatangan, it is only about 40km away. The two caves at the top of the hill that look like eyes are a recognizable feature of Batu Tulug. There are three main caves in Batu Tulug. Two are located near the top of the hill and can be reached via a steep and slippery staircase. Another one is at the foothill.
Agop means “cave” in the local Orang Sungei language, and Tulug means “to sleep” in the Visayan language. I guess what they really meant was “to sleep for a very long time” since the caves were the final resting place for more than a hundred wooden coffins. The coffins were mostly made from Belian wood (Bornean Ironwood) and it shows just how long-lasting Belian wood can be because the coffins were between 200 to 250 years old. No one really knows who the coffins belong to, but it has been theorized that the coffins belonged to early Chinese traders who had traveled up Kinabatangan Rver and settled there. This is because similar coffins were found in China and Vietnam. Intermarriage between the Chinese and locals probably spread this culture throughout the Kinabatangan region. As to why the coffins were dragged all the way up to the caves at the top, the reason given was that the Kinabatangan River gets flooded regularly, and the Chinese believed that if the coffins were buried in flood-prone areas, their spiritual homes would also be flooded. Question is, how did they get it up the hill? Mind you, this was before they built the stairs.
I had trouble enough climbing up the stairs without carrying a coffin on my back. The first cave we reached was Agop Lintanga. Entering the narrow passageway, we came face to face with a few dozen coffins. Some were quite small. Then we continued climbing to the peak of the hill where there was a resting area. Walking down to the other side of the hill was another cave called Agop Sawat. The coffins in this cave were even more beautifully carved than the ones in the earlier cave. One end of the coffin cover is carved into the shape of a buffalo head. The buffalo head is symbolic of bearing burdens of the dead, and easing their passage to the afterlife. Other coffins found elsewhere had animal shapes like crocodiles, snakes and lizards as well. If the cover is shaped like an animal, then the coffin houses the body of a man. If the cover has no particular shape, then the coffin houses the body of a woman.