Visitors to Sabah rarely get the opportunity to experience the local culture and the people that are at the heart of the state’s ethnic diversity. More often than not tourists will rarely step off the well-trodden trail in search of adventure, wildlife and the incredible Bornean forest. In a place located in the south-west of Sabah towards the Kalimantan border is a collection of villages and communities known as Orou Sapulot.

Our friendly hosts enjoying the natural surrounds with us at Vaangkakon

If you are looking for an ‘off the beaten path’ unique experience that encapsulates the heart of the Murut people and the forest of Borneo’s interior then Orou Sapulot is the place to experience. Visiting this unique part of Sabah will take you on a journey discovering stunning forest, exploring cave networks, and climbing the intimidating Batu Punggul (Punggul Rock), an 800 foot limestone pinnacle that towers above the forest below.

The limestone pinnacle of Batu Punggul towering over the forest
Guests trekking past a cave enroute to Batu Punggul

Our journey started from Kota Kinabalu driving up along the Crocker Range and down to the small town of Keningau, the gateway to Sabah’s south-west corner located about two hours from the state’s capital. There are many mini buses that can get you to Keningau leaving from Kota Kinabalu multiple times daily. It is also the last major town before the final destination so if you need any last minute supplies this is the place to get them. Sapulot is about two and a half hours away, the main pick up point is the Green Restaurant along the way. 

Our first night took us to the Romol Guest House on a Murut family’s property, overlooked by their beautiful Murut longhouse which is the centre point of Romol Eco Village. The property has a welcoming feel and the guest house provides comfortable lodging and delicious meals cooked by the lovely ladies of the family. Wild boar and deer are a staple food source for these communities which still embrace subsistence living. In the evening we were invited to drink tapai from the tajau (rice wine fermented in clay pots), which is prepared by the villagers in accordance to their strict customs abiding to all taboo beliefs being passed down from ancestors. A welcoming cultural performance including traditional dances and music instruments commenced and we not only indulged by spectating but we also participated, even though we were nowhere near as impressive as our teachers. Be sure to get involved in the ankle snapping bamboo dance ‘Mogumatip’, a tricky dance that involves stepping between bamboo poles that the hosts bang on the ground and snap together just as you move your feet away. They gradually pick up the pace requiring good coordination and a quick step in order to avoid having your ankles trapped between the bamboo poles.

A traditional Murut dance called Mogumatip

The following morning we ate breakfast and continued our journey to Batu Punggul. This trip starts from the small village of Tataluan not far from the Romol Guest House. A longboat took us upstream along the river into the dense jungle.

Soaking up the natural wonder from a traditional longboat

As we came around a bend in the river, there before us stood the white pinnacle draped in vegetation protruding from the forest canopy. A true limestone marvel.

A view of Batu Punggul from the longboat

Continuing along we soon reached a small beach on the river bank where the boat landed, and from here we walked through the rainforest, birds calling all around us, for about half an hour before we reached a small rest hut at the base of Batu Punggul.

Our guides enjoying the primary forest and not to mention the giant buttress roots
Guests catching their breath before climbing Batu Punggul

To give a little information in regards to what to expect – this rock scramble is very doable though it’s not for the faint hearted! If you have a severe fear of heights and do not have a medium level of fitness this is something you need to take into consideration. Batu Punggul has some near vertical sections that require you to climb up with the assistance of permanent ropes and skilled guides that will tell you exactly where to put your feet every time.

Uncle Robin guided us for the climb up to this view from the summit

The best shoes to climb in are the adidas kampung, see our blog on these must have shoes for the forest here. They provide good grip, have a narrow toe and bend so that your feet can gain better traction on the rock surface. Initially I didn’t think I was going to able to make it but the reassurance of our guides and a healthy dose of confidence ensured that I made it to the top. The views of the surrounding forest were truly spectacular and gave a wonderful bird’s eye perspective of the lush landscape. A sense of accomplishment was indeed an understatement.

Feeling very accomplished by pushing the comfort levels

We returned to Labang Village where we had lunch by the river and continued our journey to Pungiton Camp. As we climbed into the wooden longboats and proceeded up the river a sense of excitement prevailed on the prospect of the unknown. Pungiton Camp is a secluded property that’s encompassed by tropical rainforest and known for the spectacular Tinahas Cave system that is only a short walk through the forest.

Arriving along the river's edge at Pungiton Camp

Upon arriving we stretched our legs and equipped ourselves with cameras and head lamps and continued along the forest trail to the entrance of the cave.

All ready to explore the Tinahas Cave system

We spent a few hours exploring passages as we followed the underground water channels that flowed through the incredible limestone cathedral and were in awe of the ancient formation of stalactites and stalagmites.

Treading along the water channels within the cave network

Stalactites hang from the ceiling of a cave while stalagmites grow from the cave floor, and scattered between the impressive rock formations grew thick tree roots that penetrated any cracks or weak points in the cave ceiling to the ground.

Exploring the ancient limestone cathedral

Wildlife isn’t completely scarce as we saw lots of insects, arachnids, snakes, and large colonies of micro bats flying in and out of the caves, though photography without the right gear is a near impossible exercise in such a dark environment.

Guests enjoying the intricate formations of the stalagmite

To freshen up after exploring the caves we decided to take a swim in the river as it seemed to be the perfect idea to watch the sunset descend down over the vast rainforest. As I sat on the sandy riverbank in the cool fresh water I was awe-inspired by the colourful skies whilst birdsong serenaded this peaceful setting, I soon realised how lucky I was to share this piece of hidden paradise with very few other people. To top off a wonderfully adventurous day, the gripping trail of the aromatic smells from dinner preparation by our lovely hosts was awaiting us as we returned back to camp.

A colourful sunset view from the dining hall in Pungiton Camp
The peaceful river that runs along Pungiton Camp

The excitement that had accumulated throughout the day spared us of all remaining energy and it wasn’t long before we were falling asleep in our stretcher hammocks under a spectacular starry night sky to the sounds of the forest and flowing river. 

Conscientious travelers expect experiences that are sensitive to local communities, the environment, and wildlife, and it is often the smaller-scale projects in remote and rural destinations that can make a direct impact. Sapulot is tucked inland from the coast and is one of Sabah’s best-kept secrets when it comes to discovering villages, nature, adventure activities and culture. Not many venture here, but if you do, it is likely that you won’t see another tourist or traveler, meaning you can truly immerse yourself amongst the warm hospitality of the Murut culture, and have the confidence that your tourism dollar is having a positive direct impact.

A small group of guests walking through the forest to Vangkaakon

A final recommendation to heighten your authentic experience in Sapulot if time allows, would be to venture out to Vangkaakon, which is an hour or so drive from Romol Guest House. A quiet recreational area off the beaten track equipped with unobtrusive wooden platforms and restrooms built nearby a cascading waterfall.

The waterfall flowing down along Vangkaakon

As your lunch is prepared you can swim and rock-jump into the crystal clear plunge pool or explore further up the falls via easy access forest trails. This stunning setting of primary rainforest entwined throughout the rocky landscape offers a world of photo opportunities and new discoveries that won’t leave you disappointed. The simple but comfortable facilities allow for overnight camping at Vangkaakon for those really wanting to immerse themselves in the jungle experience. 

Upon leaving Orou Sapulot I realised that here in this foreign land complete strangers took me in, treated me like their kin, fed me until my heart was content and made me a part of the Murut family. They did this not because I am a tourist paying money to enjoy an experience, but because ultimately this is what is at the heart of Murut culture.

If someone comes to our home we have a duty to provide them with food, rice wine and provide a place to sleep, this is the Murut way of life and this is the experience we not only share with our guests but encompass in our everyday life with our family and surrounding community members for no-one should go without 

Datuk Richard Gunting

The warming grin from Uncle Robin bidding us farewell

Orou Sapulot is one of the few examples of a truly successful community based tourism destination that has trickle down benefits at just about every level of the community. From boat drivers to guides and those that make sure you stay well fed, these employment opportunities provide a genuine sustainable alternative livelihood that helps support a subsistence style of living whilst preserving deep rooted cultural traditions and practices.

Photography by Charles Ryan & Sonny Royal

For further trip details and booking enquiries feel free to have a look on the Sticky Rice Travel website.

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