Coming from the Kinabatangan river and heading for Danum Valley I was stuck in Lahad Datu for 3 days. I had no information on this town and virtual no intention to stay, but it became some sort of eye opener to me. You can imagine my surprise when I soon discovered stories about a military invasion that took place a few month ago and was confronted with a large number of illegal immigrants and refugees. Lahad Datu is definitely not among the safest places I have been to, but nowadays I am glad I was forced to spent so much time here.
Lets start from the beginning. I left the Kinabatangan river by foot at around noon. The sunday market was about to close and I was hoping to hitch a ride. I walked 4 hours in the burning sun before this guy pulled up. His 4 seated pick up was fully loaded with 5 people and a whole bunch of boxes. I thought there would be no way I and my backpack could fit in. Well, I was wrong.
The guys had been selling technical stuff on the sunday market and were heading back to Lahad Datu. The whole group was pretty young and the music was turned up loud. I offered to play some german songs and they went crazy about Deichkind. We could hardly communicate, but from this point the pack was sealed and we spent the rest of the day together. After a short visit to a motocross race we headed to the Tower of Heaven or Menara kayangan, a viewing platform on the nearby mountain. In return for the ride I offered to cover the entrance fee.
It turned out the group was a mixture of friends and brothers. They all were immigrants but I never really found out who was legal and who wasn't. The youngest was about maybe 12 years and already smoking. They lived together in a sheltered space below a house on stilts. It was fun hanging out with them and just in case any of them reads this: I really enjoyed this day! Thank you so much!
The view from the Tower of Heaven is breathtaking. From above everything looks calm and nice. There is no hint of the many struggles going on down below. Lahad Datu is located in the Tawau Division in the east of Sabah, Malaysia. A number of islands are stretching towards the Philippines, making this area a popular destination for illegal immigrants and refugees. Unbelievable but true, in early 2013 a group of about 250 army soldiers under the led of Agbimuddin Kiram, the brother of Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, invaded this territory to clam Sabah back for the Philippines. Under the intervention of the Malaysian Army the riot ended in a blood bath with many people getting killed on both sides.
Lahad Datu itself is a small town without any tourist attraction. To the local people it's a good place to sell their goods and every day farmers and traders are heading into town. The fruit and fish market is simple but everything is fresh and to us Europeans prices are dirt cheap. It became my routine to stock up on fresh fruit every morning. Shortly before I left for Danum Valley, the market was a great place to get a good load of fresh supplies.
The town has a large supermarket and a big variety of different stores offering all kinds of goods and services. Walking around town as a white person you will definitely attract the omnipresent crowds of young children begging for money. At night they turn from begging to selling cigarettes. At that time there are some places you want to avoid. I would have loved to take some more pictures, but I was given warnings by the locals already.
The waterfront is maybe one of the places you want to avoid at night. Not only because of the pollution and bad smell, but far more because of the many illegal Philippines boat people that are occupying this area. The ocean looks like the town doesn't have a waste management at all and I think this is actually not too far off.
The small creek running through Lahad Datu is filled with plastics and waste. It runs straight into the ocean. People are not aware of what they are doing to nature and on top, most of them are occupied with their daily life struggle.
On the left side of the little fisher habour you will find an accumulation of Philippines boat people. Everything they own is attached to the boat and the tiny barge has to sleep a whole family or more. Children are picking things from the waste dump right in front. There are 100.000 estimated Philippine immigrants in this area and the invasion in early 2013 made things far more complicated. Before they have been tolerated, but now voices are rising to fight the so called problem.
What touched me most, were the many children of young age. They are all over the streets, following you. They are begging, shouting and pulling your shirt to get some money, but once they get back to their boat, they behave just like every other kids. Girls are playing with a headless Barbie they found on the garbage dump and boys are making small cars from cans and other waste. With the political background of today things will get more complicated. What a future perspective for such young people.
To me Lahad Datu was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it is definitely not a tourist attraction, but on the other hand I gained so many impressions I will never forget. I am glad I came here, but it might not be the right place for everyone. I am still thinking back of the people I met in a positive way and who knows, maybe I will return one day.