Drifting downstream: the rivers of Northern Laos

Landlocked Laos may not lie adjacent to any ocean but it more than compensates with a twisting network of rivers that crisscross the country like veins. In the rainy season, the rivers rage with wild rapids. However, visit in the drier season (I was there in March) and you’ll be rewarded with one of the jewels in the crown of Northern Laos: a slow boat trip down the Nam Ou.

From travellers I had met in Vietnam, reports of Laos did not tend to be glowing. ‘Just go for a couple of weeks,’ we were advised, with warnings that it was a bit boring. After 24 hours, we utterly disagreed. I cannot deny that Laos is hands down the most laid back place I have ever visited. Everything happens in slow motion; its languid rivers flow lazily through shallow valleys; even the dogs are more chilled out as they lounge in the shade. But I think that this is a huge part of its charm. Relax into its dreamy vibes and you’ll find yourself spending longer there than you planned.

After an exhausting journey from Vietnam, we spent the night in a guesthouse in Muang Khua which clung precariously to the sides of the riverbank, accessible only over a rickety bridge which was only sketchily nailed together. Our landlady didn’t speak a word of English but shyly smiled and showed us to our rooms. The walls were made from woven bamboo and for the first time felt homely; mosquito nets foamed down from the ceiling onto piles of blankets and from the window we could see the gentle flow of the Nam Ou. For less than £2 for a night, it was not a sore deal. Dinner was slow in coming – we would learn that everything in Laos happens in Laos time – but delicious. It was our first experience of Laos sticky rice, which generally is cooked at breakfast time and eaten with every meal.

Sticky rice is made from a specific opaque rice grain called glutinous rice and has been cultivated throughout South East Asia for over a thousand years. About 85% of all rice in Laos is of this type. It is steamed and comes in little wicker baskets with a top attached with string. Eat it with your hands, rolling it into walnut-sized balls, and dip it into whatever you choose to eat it with. Eat it all the time for every meal. It. Is. Incredible. Stay tuned on the blog for my Ode to Sticky Rice. There is an age-old debate as to whether sticky rice is traditionally Thai or Lao. Having travelled round both, I would argue that it is hands-down Lao. Sticky rice for life.

After a comfortable nights sleep, we were up bright and early for the slow boat at 8 which came at 9.30. Papaya and mango  with Lao coffee for breakfast before heading down to the stone ramp that went down to the river. We handed our backpacks down onto the boat, a long wooden riverboat painted blue with a wooden covering held down by bricks. We climbed aboard. Bags went down one end; people on the other. I folded my waterproof over to make a cushion to sit on and folded up my knees slightly to fit into the width of the boat. When everybody was on, ropes were untied and the woman driving the boat pushed off from the river bank with an oar so that we were slowly free-floating down the river.

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The scenery was beautiful as we drifted downstream. Striking karst hills carpeted in a cloak of emerald greenery flanked the Nam Ou as it wound through flat-bottomed valleys. The sky was a pale forget-me-not blue edged with wispy clouds that clung to the limestone peaks climbing upwards into jagged triangulations. The sun shone serenely through a lazy haze, warm and balmy, while a gentle breeze cooled the skin. There was an occasional spray of water as our vessel surged through rougher parts of the river.

We occasionally stopped the boat to pick people up who were waiting by the sides of the river to get a lift downstream. Sometimes they drew up alongside the boat in smaller thinner canoes, jumping nimbly across to us. After a couple of hours, a few of us desperately needed the toilet so we pulled up alongside a sand bank and disappeared into the trees, the sand burning our feet in the sun. I squatted in a bush next to some pigs who looked faintly appalled and wandered away to snuffle elsewhere. We stopped off at a riverside village called Muang Ngoi Neua, a charming place where I would recommend staying if you have the time. Although we didn’t stay here, we heard really good things about it. We grabbed lunch here and said goodbye to the people we’d met on the crossing from ‘Nam and who we’d chilled with for the last few hours on our gentle journey downstream.

It wasn’t long until we arrived in Nong Kiaw, a slightly larger town than Muang Ngoi Neua, but still a village really as it takes less than 10 minutes to walk through the whole thing. It is surrounded by the same limestone scenery that we saw from the river which we planned to explore some more the next day. Meanwhile the sun was starting to set on the river, its pinkish hue contrasting with the deep greens of the forest reflected in the slowly moving water. We ate dinner alongside the river to the last shafts of rosy sunlight which faded to a darkness punctuated by the flickering flames of the lamps on our table. We tried ‘laap’, a Lao speciality of minced meat fried with chilli, herbs, lime juice and toasted rice, accompanied by sticky rice.

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The next day was spent exploring and getting lost in the surrounding countryside, amongst the karst mountains and caves, not straying far from the road due to unexploded ordinance left in the area from the America/Vietnam War. On the way back to Nong Kiaw, we paid a visit to the Tham Pha Tok caves, which is where villagers hid out during the Second Indochina War as American bombs rained on Laos. For a time, the Luang Prabang government was also based in this cave system. Originally accessible by a rickety bamboo ladder, a new wooden staircase now rises to the cave’s entrance. Take a flashlight as you navigate the chambers of the cavern – there are a few signs about but not an awful lot of information on display. However, it is still interesting being in the caves and imagining what happened here not so long ago.

We walked back a couple of kilometres to town where we had a late lunch of Indian dosa with a Dutch girl we’d made the crossing to Vietnam with, who happened to be walking past. Stomachs full, we decided to walk up Phadeng Peak to the town’s viewpoint. In hindsight, doing it on a full stomach wasn’t the best idea. Although no Fansipan, the trek went steeply uphill in the afternoon heat. I had brought a camera rather than a bottle of water – priorities – so was dehydrated in the almost oppressive heat. We were all dripping with sweat by the time we reached the top but the 360° vista which awaited us at the summit was worth the walk. A pinkish sun wreathed in pale clouds was sinking slowly into the embrace of the jagged limestone hills, the light sparkling and enchanting the long loops of the river. We sat by a rice sack ‘flag’ blowing in the wind as the sun set, deciding to make our way down as the light became cloaked in cloud. It got darker as we made our way down and needed a flashlight to navigate the winding path before we reached the bottom.

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After showering off all our sweat, we went out to go eat more Lao food. I ordered Lao sausage, spiced win lemongrass and chill, which came with sticky rice (of course), greens, fried river weed with sesame seeds and a spicy aubergine dip (‘jeow’). It was washed down with a Beerlao, the national rice beer which comes in huge bottles and is actually really good. We went back to the hostel and cuddled with their kittens before heading to bed. We were reluctantly leaving the riverlands, travelling West to Nam Tha National Park,  the next day. We had actually looked to see whether we could travel there by river for it is possibly the most relaxed form of transport in the world. However, being the dry season, there was no chance and so it was that we changed from boat back to bus for the next leg.

 

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Hanoi

Take a walk with me. Past the street sellers hawking their wares. Past quiet temples hidden in tiny spaces in the maze of the Old Quarter. Watch out for the motorbikes weaving their chaotic way through the narrow streets, little changed in the last few decades, save for tourist amenities. Don’t look at the map – you’ll only increase your chance of being run over. Besides, you’ll swiftly get lost again. I swear we’ve been here before. Anyway. There’s the cathedral, a majestic and fume-blackened reminder of colonial days. And there: steaming beneath the embrace of a banyan tree, a street-side stall churns out banh goinem cua be and banh ran ngot. The English translations (‘pillow cake’ or ‘fried nem’) on the sign above these snacks don’t elucidate these amazing-smelling mysteries. You just have to order and hope. Welcome to Hanoi.

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We arrived from Halong late-afternoon and plunged into the capital’s tumultuous tide of tuktuks, trays of food and touts. We had a Google Map screenshot of where our hostel was and, after almost a month on the road, were quite confident in our navigation of new places. At least for the first half hour. Then again after what we found what we thought was the right street. And again when, after walking in a circle we were sure it was the right street. It was. But no hostel. We swallowed our sweaty pride and asked for help. Our would-be-rescuers stared at our map, at the maps on their own phones, as perplexed as we were that the hostel didn’t seem to exist at all. The sun, and our hopes, had started to set and we were starting to worry about where to go. We tried asking one last person, a guard at a fancy-looking hotel, who didn’t speak such good English. A well-to-do Vietnamese couple from the hotel came over asking if they could help, looked at the name of our hostel, looked at us and at eachother. ‘Your hostel is several kilometres away from here.’ Facepalm. ‘We’re about to go out. We can drive you if you like.’ And they did, in their fancy SUV, brushing off our offer of money and restoring our faith in the people of Vietnam after the madness of Halong Bay. We couldn’t thank them enough (or apologise for getting their leather seats so sweaty) but they just smiled and wished us a good trip. Random acts of kindness, hey. Beautiful people.

The hostel was appalling. The worst in Vietnam and, looking back, of the entire journey. The dorm was filthy, the bathroom was foul, the shower didn’t work, the toilet was broken, the bathroom door didn’t close, let alone lock, there was a hole in my bed…the list goes on (not to mention someone – not me, surprisingly – contracting some sort of disease after having licked a table in the vicinity). Of course, you are free to choose your own destiny but let me give you some advice: don’t stay at The Drift if you are ever in Hanoi. It is $2.50 a night and there is free beer. It is not worth it. Drift some place else, if you catch my drift.

We drifted (I’ll stop now) into the Old Quarter in search of food, after having showered by crouching naked under a cold tap and trying to forget about it by drinking the free beer hoi provided by our establishment. We were tired, hungry and disorientated in the narrow winding streets of old Hanoi. After having done a few laps of what looked like the same streets, we wearily stopped at a stall, barely lit by a streetlight, run by a little old woman ladling out steaming bowls of pho – Vietnamese beef noodle soup. We pulled up little plastic stools as, grinning toothlessly, the lady served up our pho, mixing the noodles with the broth and encouraging us to add the chilli pastes, lime and leaves that she’d placed on a tray next to the soup. We tucked in with gusto, slurping up the broth and clumsily stuffing the noodles in our mouth with plastic chopsticks. It was incredible. We’d had pho many times in Vietnam, but this was the best. It was also where we learnt to eat it properly. The only Western patrons at the stall, we were the subject of much amusement for the local regulars due to our unwieldy way of eating. Chuckling, the elderly gentleman opposite me demonstrated how to eat noodle soup, winding the noodles around the spoon with your chopsticks, then dipping the spoon into the broth so you could eat the two together. After a few attempts, I looked up at him for approval, my mouth full of noodles. Still laughing, he gave me a thumbs up.

We ate lots more street food in Hanoi. Any stall with tempting aromas was basically an excuse to have a meal. We ate banh goi (‘pillow cake’) – like Vietnamese  deep-fried cornish pasties – nem cua be (‘sea crab nem’) – similar to spring rolls but flaky, delicate and stubby – banh trang – the amazing salad-like dish we ate in Ben Tre – bun bo nam bo – stir-fried beef with mango and noodles in a tangy sauce – bun cha – barbequed pork with vermicelli noodles – xoi yen – sticky rice topped with fat and other toppings of your choice. Hanoi’s got it all. We also tried ‘egg coffee’, Vietnamese coffee served with whipped egg whites so that the top of the coffee is almost like a coffee-y marshmallow. Ducking under the eaves of a silk shop, we walked down a tiny corridor and up a rickety staircase to a fairy-light-twinkling balcony overlooking a small garden terrace. Here, we had the BEST egg coffee. Super sweet; super strong.

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We explored the network of tiny streets of the Old Quarter, each street specialising in a different trade, as we learnt when we were trying to find someone to fix my backpack (a broken backpacked backpacker is a sad business). When we found the right street, I bartered with a guy who said he could fix it. He ended up doing so for 45,000VND (at the time, about £1.50). We went to Ngoc Son Temple ‘the temple of the jade mountain’, in the centre of Hoan Kiem lake where I befriended (it’s Facebook official) a groovy Vietnamese lady. According to legend, a golden turtle carried the magical sword of the emperor into the watery depths of the lake where, presumably, it still lies. A mummified descendent of this divine being stares, cross-eyed, from a glass case within the temple. I can’t decide whether it’s hilarious or terrifying.

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We walked around Hoan Kiem lake about a million times during our stay in Hanoi. The first time because we wanted to, a second and third time because we were talking to a Vietnamese student who wanted to practice his English and we didn’t want to be rude, a further time with newly arrived Oscar and numerous other times. The lake was the main thing I used to orientate myself in Hanoi so we kept going back there. Also, it looked beautiful at night, the scarlet bridge arching over to the temple lit up and its reflection glittering in the still, black water.

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Oscar and I headed West of the citadel over the railway line, strolling through Lenin’s park, where a huge statue of Lenin looks out toward Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The monstrous blocks of stone, surrounded by guards stood to attention in pristine white uniform, are in stark contrast to Ho’s wish for a simple burial. We visited Hanoi’s citadel, only discovered recently, rather run-down and filled with seemingly random exhibitions. We wandered deliriously for what seemed like hours through rooms filled with identical-looking bricks. What is the difference between a rectangular and rammed brick? Does anyone know these things? We left half-mad and not sure why we’d entered in the first place.

Hanoi is a city which gleams with golden temples and glasses of beer hoi. Swirling incense mixes with traffic fumes and steam from the food stalls on every corner. Neat rows of foreign embassies stand next to crumbling citadels, eclipsed by new tower blocks. Hanoi is a mix of the old and the new, the revered and the tacky, the sincere and the scams. The beating heart of Vietnam, the ‘river within’, captures the country in a nutshell.

Hué

Hué, the old imperial capital of the Nguyen emperors, sprawls on the banks of the Suong Hung about halfway up Vietnam. Arriving in the city was a bit of a shock to the system after pretty little Hoi An – it is large and looming and rather soulless. But we were not there for the city; we were there for the tombs and temples, the palaces and pagodas on the North side of the river and so it was on bikes that we pedalled our way over the Perfume River to the Imperial Citadel. We nervously joined the flow of traffic over Trang Tien bridge and, miraculously, flowed with it. Nobody signals, everybody honks their horns, but there is a definite rhythm to the traffic in Vietnam as it flows loudly along. It is invigorating being part of it.

We cycled under the blackened old arched outer wall of the citadel and parked our bikes next to a line of bronze cannons. We then wandered over to the Ngo Mon Gateway, the entrance to the Imperial Enclosure, where a huge picture of Ho Chi Minh hangs by multicolured flags, reflected in the surface of the moat. It is impressive, looming above the tourists gawking up at it, a handful of other tourists peering down from its two tiered elaborate roofs. We paid our entrance and entered the citadel. Thai Hoa palace is the first thing you see, where the emperor would have greeted visitors from his gilted golden throne. We crossed to it over a bridge lined with flowers across a pond of bright orange koi. Dragon mosaics curl across the roof, coiled and fierce in blues, reds and greens. You climb the steps and enter and stare in silence at what might possibly be the grandest room you’ve ever been in. Scarlet and gold laquered ironwood columns stand proudly down the room, the walls covered with more scarlet and gold calligraphy, grids of ancient poetry. There are a few translations but the symbols far outnumber these, telling unknown stories that I wish I could understand. The throne that stands, elevated, between the columns, is truly fit for an emperor, huge and gold and intricate. The building has been massively restored and an animation in the next room shows what it would have looked like in its heyday, at the height of the Nguyen dynasty, robed mandarins lining the walkways. It makes you realise how much the buildings have been restored (and makes you wish you could go back in time), especially when you step out the other side of the palace and you see the buildings that haven’t been so lucky.

Hué’s imperial enclosure was a cultural victim of the French and American wars – it was badly damaged to the extent that only 20 of 148 buildings are still standing. Unesco-sponsored restoration, reconstruction and conservation work is still ongoing. In the future, maybe the buildings of the ancient citadel will stand, elaborate and proud, once again. But for now the enclosure is a place of contrasts – grandiose golden palaces stand next to crumbling ruins, ornate arches lead to overgrown gardens and horses hoofs echo in empty courtyards. Saying this, a fair number of structures still stand and the enclosure is big enough that you can get lost, walking through ancient halls feeling like you’ve stepped back in time. It is also large enough to escape the groups of tourists at Thai Hoa palace to peacefully navigate your way through the rubble and royal residences, the only sound a fountain in the distance and your own thoughts, lost in a rich daydream of what this place would have looked like before it was scarred by war. Before we left, we climbed up onto the citadel’s walls to look out over the forbidden city, where the Vietnamese flag rippled in the currents of the wind, bright red against a pale grey sky.

We spent the afternoon getting lost and discovering quiet temples, not a tourist in sight, doors slightly ajar and singing voices carried on a soft breeze to where we stood with our bikes. This was in stark contrast to the bustling market place we visited to buy some fruit. It was crammed with people and sold pretty much everything – bright fruit and veg, fish still flopping, glittering fake jewellery, clothes of all patterns, electronics, stationary, DIY…you name it, they had it. Our final stop was Thien Mu Pagoda, a few kilometres cycling, on a hill which overlooks the Perfume River. It has its roots in legend: long ago, an old woman appeared on the hill and prophecised that a great lord would build a Buddhist pagoda for the country’s prosperity. Of course, upon hearing this, the lord of the day ordered the construction of Thien Mu ‘Heavenly Lady’. Many lords have added to the site since, including an impressive 21m-tall octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen, its seven stories each representing a manushibuddha (Buddha in human form) or step to enlightenment, depending on who you ask. Inside the pagoda, incense swirled and a monk sat quietly chanting and occasionally hitting a bronze gong in meditation.

As we cycled back to the empty sprawling city, it started to rain. It felt almost like we had pedalled through time – from the ancient and spritual to the modern and spiritless. Don’t expect much from the city of Hué itself (apart from its cuisine – fried nem and bun bo hue – if you know where to look) but its rich history and beautiful buildings of the past are certainly something to discover.

Hoi An

It was a beautiful journey that took us from Dalat down to Hoi An, winding down towering emerald mountains and past paddyfields glinting in the sun. After changing buses at Nha Trang we boarded a sleeping bus, the first sleeper bus experience of many and, I’m pleased to say, I did actually sleep. The sun was shining when we arrived in Hoi An and, as we trekked down the street with our heavy bags to find our hostel, I was feeling really good about the place. It’s actually the first city in Vietnam that made an instant good first impression. Silk lanterns hang across the streets in a spectrum of shades and patterns, blowing gently in a coastal breeze. Street food stalls line the sides of the roads, different to those we’d seen before – chewy prawn omlettes and crisp banana pancakes.

Hoi An’s famous tailor shops are everywhere – backed on to the market, on the river, whole streets of tailors shop after tailors shop. This was meant to be one of the top things to do here – to have clothes made – and so this was one of the first things we did so that our garments would be ready by the time we left two days later. We wandered down a street lined with tailor shops, many with apparently five stars on Trip Advisor, and eventually just decided to go into one halfway down the street. It was a great experience, but one with so many possibilities – there are fabrics in every colour and style you could possibly want hanging on the walls and this is without having chosen what clothes you actually want. It’s a bit dangerous – something that could have you buying a whole new wardrobe of clothes tailored just for you (spending several weeks of your budget in the process). I eventually chose a dark green Vietnamese silk to be made into a bomber jacket, the lady in the shop taking all my measurements and telling me to come in the next morning for adjustments. And sure enough, the next morning it was done. I was so impressed – the dressmakers are so incredibly talented; I’d literally shown the lady a photo on Google Images and she’d perfectly reproduced it in the silk. It’s probably the coolest garment I now own – if you’re in Hoi An you must make the tailors a visit.

The tailors of Hoi An are by no means the only thing to do. Hoi An’s old town is a Unesco World Heritage Site and its legacy of temples and teahouses have been well preserved. Walking down the street parallel to the river, through a hum of tourists and food stalls, you’ll come across a temple almost every few steps, incense clouding the air and mountains of offerings placed around statues of Buddha and other deities. The Japanese Covered Bridge arches over the river, looking regal and old, echoing a different time as it ripples in the reflection of the water (Despite Lonely Planet’s assertion that it is free, you have to pay admission to cross the bridge which is crammed with tourists anyway and is much more pleasing to look at from the river, especially by night with multicoloured lanterns shimmering on the water). Walking down the river one afternoon we came across a boat race about to begin. As we stood there, a crowd started to amass on the shores, a mixture of locals and tourists, flags waving and an excited buzz in the air. We chose a team in red and white to support (the nearest to England’s colours) called Cahm An. I have never seen a boat race with so much energy – the rowers rowed so frantically that the boats were practically bouncing along the water. They did an improbable number of laps in the hot afternoon sun – ladies on the sides of the river threw water over the rowers as they leapt past (and at least one person in each boat had to bail out a load of water). Despite a huge amount of support from their newly discovered fanbase, plucky Cahm An bailed the whole race with the boatsman sweating and laughing as they climbed out of the boat (having been lapped by several other teams – they were great fun). Cahm An for life.

The second day we had taken a boat trip to the Cham Islands, the only negative part of our time in Hoi An. From the pictures we’d seen, we were expecting perfect white beaches stretching as far as the eye could see and snorkelling in crystalline aquamarine water. The beach was nice if you walked to the end, which we did, the water a lovely inviting blue. The snorkelling on the other hand was a complete disappointment. The reef that they took us to was almost utterly ruined, the remains of damaged coral haunted by a handful of fish. A group of Asian tourists were standing on the coral in some places which made me so angry that I was glad they’d taken us to a crappy reef so that the complete contempt for nature of the careless groups of tourists was limited only to a very small part of the island (which is meant to be a protected area). Not that we could see much anyway as the masks they gave us looked like they were from an antique collection of useless artefacts and you kept having to stop snorkelling to drain the water out. The food they made us for lunch was some consolation – fish baked with chillies and lemongrass, shellfish, squid with onions and amazing greens with peanuts. The return boat ride from the islands was also nice (not just because we were leaving!), bumping over turquoise waves back to Hoi An. After alighting from the boat, we stopped at the market. Fish flapped in baskets and mopeds tooted as they squeezed between stalls sprawled out across the ground, selling fruit, meat, mysterious piles of edible items and souvenirs as we approached the waterfront. We wandered back along the river as the sun set, the silk lanterns lighting up as the sky changed colour and the evening crept in.


By night, Hoi An’s lanterns light up the streets, a silken rainbow hanging in the darkness. The riverside is packed with people and street vendors – that first night we got cao lau (flat noodles with beansprouts, greens and pork) by the river. The river by night was one of Hoi An’s highlights for me. There is an almost festival-like atmosphere, with old ladies selling paper lanterns you can send floating down the river, sparkling brightly in the darkness like a forest of fluorescent water lilies. The second night (Valentines day actually) my friend Roza and I went to a restaurant called ‘The Chef’ a couple of streets back from the river. It had a rooftop terrace, with trees in pots hung with showers of gently glowing red lanterns, its tables lit by candlelight. Suffice to say, it was very romantic and we had some of the best food we had in Vietnam – fried crispy squid with a passionfruit dip and a zesty banana flower salad, fresh and zingy, with fruit and seafood. All of this with a view of beautiful Hoi An, a map of coloured lights and a sea of sound beneath us. It is a unique place I would love to return to and we urge every traveller we meet to visit Hoi An. Our memories of arguably our favourite place in Vietnam are lit up by rows of silk lanterns and shimmering sunlight on a lazy river.

2. The Land Below the Wind

As mentioned in my previous post, Raleigh works primarily in the state of Sabah. Today I’m going to explore Sabah’s origin and some of its history before going on to some of the projects that Raleigh conducts on the community phase of expeditions – only by understanding the past can we begin to make sense of the present.

Sabah was known by seafarers as ‘the land below the wind’ due to its position south of the typhoon belt. There are a number of etymological theories as to where the word ‘sabah’ comes from. Some have mused that it comes from the Bruneian Malay word for ‘upstream’ whereas others have drawn comparisons to the word ‘sabak‘, which is the name for where palm sugar is extracted. ‘Sabah‘ is also Arabic for sunrise and ‘pisang saba‘ is a type of banana which grows on the coasts of the region. Personally I would love it if Sabah was named after a banana but for now it’s a bit of a mystery.

SO, humans appeared in Sabah, North Borneo, about 20,000-30,000 years ago. Their ancestors are thought to be one of the first groups to migrate from Africa along the continental shelf of the Northern shore of the Indian ocean, now submerged in its watery depths. This was the first of a number of waves of migration to North Borneo, all of which have added to its complicated history (which I am struggling to get my head around slightly so please do correct me if I’m wrong). Ancient kingdoms, such as the Vijayapura and the P’o-ni, thrived and then faded back into the past until the Northern and Eastern parts of Borneo were ceded to the Sultan of Sulu in 1658 (although it seems that there is controversy as to whether Sabah specifically was ceded to the Sultanate). Then in 1761 Britain rocked up and, in it’s classic colonial way, found itself holding the rights to North Borneo by 1881; it became a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1888. Jumping forward half a century, much of Northern Borneo became occupied by Japanese forces during the second world war leading to a number of air strikes by the allied forces, which completely devastated most of North Borneo’s towns and associated infrastructure. It wasn’t until 1963 that North Borneo attained self government, becoming part of Malaysia along with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore. At this point, Sabah’s population exploded, seeing a 400% increase from 1970 to 2010. Around about this time Sabah saw huge amounts of migration, which has lead to social problems as a result of ethnic tensions. Population expansion has also contributed to poverty, due to the poor conditions in which many migrants live, and environmental destruction as more people called for more resources.

Now, although Malaysia is regarded as an ‘upper-middle-income country’, official figures are not reflected in the states of Sabah and Sarawak where almost 20% of the population live in poverty. Rural indigenous communities here lack access to basic infrastructure and services such as roads, electricity, water and sanitation. Over 40% of Sabah’s population do not have access to safe water and sanitation – this is one of Raleigh’s major focuses in Malaysian Borneo. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are the cause of a plethora of health issues; for example diarrhoea kills more children each year than AIDs, malaria and measles put together. Typically, it is children in rural areas collecting water that restricts access to education and social activities. Raleigh’s water and sanitation projects consist of awareness raising and training (critical in ensuring that any infrastructure is used to its maximum potential) in addition to construction projects which allow communities to lead healthier and more sustainable lives. Although local people are likely to be very capable of building and maintaining their own infrastructure, Raleigh volunteers contribute by offering an extra pair of hands and, more importantly, linking the new facilities with positive behaviour changes.

Another major focus for Raleigh in Sabah is community resilience, something that we take for granted. Community resilience is the ability of a community to adapt or return to normality after sudden changes in their situation. For example, here in Britain if there is severe flooding the health service, police, government and other community organisations are expected to react. And as much as we complain about the efficiency of these reactions in this country, they do react, ensuring people are safe, provided with food and shelter and that damaged infrastructure and buildings are repaired. Thus, a return to a normal way of life is relatively quick. However, many rural communities in Sabah lack the ability to do this, exacerbating the damage caused by sudden environmental and economic changes and making the negative effects much longer lasting. Raleigh hopes to help build resilience in Sabah’s rural communities by encouraging the formation of community groups, improving access to health and education services and introducing alternative ways for individuals to make their living.

Like the environmental projects in the previous post, it is Raleigh’s partnership with other organisations which is important if these ventures are to be sustainable. For example, Raleigh has been working with the Partnership of Community Organisations Sabah (PACOS), which strives to empower indigenous communities through improving their resilience to environmental and social change, for over 12 years. Creating change together is critical if positive effects are to be meaningful, long-lasting and far-reaching in the land below the wind.