"The Semporna Wonderland" Photo Exhibition by 223 GO! / 5 sept - 30 sept 2009 @ Casual Poet

An Obscure Paradise
Each time I mention Sabah’s Semporna, my friends’ reaction would either be a ‘What?’ or a ‘Wah!’ It takes an hour and a half to drive from Tawau Airport to Semporna. (Just what is so shocking about Semporna?) It may be a small, reputable town, but it often leads me to islands that are surprising, or have been left off the coast.



I ramble to people about the uniqueness of Semporna. Their reaction is typically exclamations of “What? Did you say ‘Semporna?’ What’s that?” Well, a picture tells a thousand words. So in a situation like this, I would silently fish out a few pictures of this wonderful place. Generally, sighs of surprise would ring out after the fifth picture.

For the past half a year, I have been visiting Semporna twice a month on average. So to me, the awe of this place diminishes with each visit. But I also understand my friends’ reaction. The blue sky, white clouds and the villagers in the pictures all seem unreal. To me, even the actual views remain as an impression of a world beyond our world.



On my first trip to Semporna which lasted five days, my friends and I visited different islands every day. Our itinerary then was: to get up at seven, wash up, finish breakfast by eight, and leave for an island.

The islands are scattered. We set out from our beach resort and took an hour or so to get to them on a motor-boat. We went to two islands per day. If we had more time to spare, we would visit a neighbouring kampung before we returned to the resort at dusk. After a shower, we had dinner then went to bed early. The next day, it was the same routine but a different route to other islands. Four days after this ‘adventurer’s itinerary,’ we had stepped onto at least eight islands, some of which are not even found on the local map.

Perhaps you find it difficult to imagine how a place off the coast looks like. Well, I felt the same obscurity before I visited Semporna. But after I did, I was blown away by its sights. They are unbelievable.




The Sea As Their Home

I’ll try to explain what I saw. Dispersed across the vast sea, about 10 families came into my view. (A ‘district’ usually holds less than 20 families.) They had built their homes on the sea, using the rare attap roofs to shelter the young and the old.



For these families, their transport tool was a boat made from a big tree that had been dug almost hollow. The sea folk depended on it to get around and to visit their neighbours. For those without homes, they lived in bigger tree-boats all year round. The stern would be the kitchen; the middle the living and sleeping area. If you are thinking, ‘So the bow would be the balcony?’ then you must be just as optimistic and cheerful as the islanders.



Now, this is a compliment and not sarcasm. If the islanders are not optimistic enough, how will they ever survive such a poor environment? I saw them decorating their ‘houses’ with ‘limited resources’ like old and broken ornaments and colourful bottles they had picked up. These sea folk are also known as ‘sea gypsies’ (a name locals give to sea dwellers with no identities, an inspiration from the ‘forest gypsies’). From their faces, I saw joy as vast as the sea.

For play, they tied a rope under their stilt house and swung on it toward the sea. No restrictions. Just freedom and happiness. The huge net beneath the rope contained their dinner. A family in the middle of the sea. So poor they did not live in a place with an address. Yet so rich as to have seafood everyday, where the fresh catch would be ‘whipped up’ in their stern-kitchens.

To prevent accidents, the sea folk cleverly placed the dangerous cooking equipment, like the stove and kettles of boiled water, on another boat. Besides the basic survival skills, the women I met were also ‘armed’ with beauty secrets. How did they prevent their skin from cracking under the cruel sun? They pounded guava leaves then mixed it with tapioca flour (their staple food) and made face masks of whitening effects.



Waves of Discovery

Every time I write a travel entry, I would remind myself not to use words that exaggerate my meaning. However the Semporna trip did leave me with much delight to exclaim about. Events were so unexpected that I often missed catching the sights with my camera.

It seems a little contradictory then to say that our purpose of visiting Semporna was to take pictures. However, circumstances and purpose often collided. We were attracted to and distracted by the surroundings, and in the end, missed our photography opportunities. Luckily, some of my group mates were more focused on the task. They managed to document everything.

Exactly what had whisked my attention away?

Besides the unique house design, the people, young and old, male and female, all fit into the scenery. They may all be refugees but they had entirely different lifestyles.

Those living in the middle of the sea were still okay, but not so for those living on the island. Those islander refugees had escaped from Philippines in an engine-less boat. One could only imagine how they had paddled over with their hands and feet.

Unfortunately, the tough journey had not made them curb their vice. I saw gambling dens in where everyone in the family gathered to play. Both adults and children were overjoyed in the ‘activity.’ Behind the den was a cemetery. A riotous bunch of people gambling near the solemn cemetery was a considerably rare sight, too?

With a surface area the size of three basketball courts, this is the place they had escaped to, the place that will mark the rest of their lives.



“仙”为人知
每一次当我对朋友说起沙巴州的仙本那,一般只有两种典型的反应:“嗄?哇!!”。这个距离斗湖机场大约1个半小时车程的地方,到底有什么值得大惊小怪的?没有错,仙本那不过只是一个老老实实的小镇。可是,它却能通往那些叫我惊奇的、遗落在岸外无数个精彩的海岛。

我总是一厢情愿,逢人都滔滔不绝地说着仙本那有多么地独特。而人们总是恍若听错,再三向我求证:“嗄?仙本那?那 是 什 么 来 的?”Well, A picture tells a thousand words. 这种时候,什么都无需要多说,只要出示几张照片就可以了。若无意外,一般人在看毕第5张的时候,就会“哇”声四起。

对于近半年来,平均每个月造访仙本那两次的我来说,这个地方的“哇”元素自然是大大地减弱。不过,我却非常明白朋友们的反应。原因是,照片所见的蓝天和白云,还有海上的岛民们,都仿佛不像是真实存在似的。老实说,我也认为那些景观像是“世界以外的世界”。

我记得,第一次造访仙本那的5天4夜行程中,我们将每一个白天都交给不同的岛屿。每天的行程表是这样的:早上7点起床洗刷,8点之前吃过早餐就出发去造访不同的海岛。

那些海岛,分别散落在离我们居住的海上度假村1个小时左右的船程。一天能造访约2个不同的海岛,如果时间还早的话,在回程之前就会兜一个圈到邻近的甘榜。日落左右回到度假村,洗一个澡去吃晚饭,然后早早上床睡觉。隔天,又再重复同样的时间表但造访不同的海岛。4天下来,像是探险家一样的行程带我们去过至少8个的海岛,有些甚至是地图上没有记载的。

在未造访之前,我和你一无法想象岸外的世界到底是什么样子的。在造访之后,我则是大大地惊叹,难以相信眼前的景色。

大海为家

我试着解说:在一望无际的辽阔海洋中,我看见零零落落大约有10数户人家(一个“地区”一般不超过20户)。他们在大海上建立自己的家,用现今罕见的“亚答”制成屋顶,作为一家大小的栖息之地。

另一边厢,中心被挖空的大树桐“独木舟”就是他们的“交通工具”。海民依赖它到处“走动”,造访邻居的时候也需要用到它;这是有“家”的人家。没有家的那些,则将较为大型的“独木舟”(船屋)当作家。是全年365天供他们起居饮食的地方;船尾是厨房,窗中心是客厅兼睡房。“那么船头就是露台咯?”如果这正是你心里想着的问题,我只能说你和当地人一样乐天知命。

说乐知天命是褒不是贬。事实上,在贫乏的海岛上如果没有乐知天命的“优点”,日子大概是不好过的吧。从他们利用最有限的“资源”如破旧的摆设品、捡回来的彩色瓶子等来布置“住家”看来,海民(当地人称没有身份而住在海上的为“海番”,引用自没有身份而住在森林的山番)确实心宽如海。

他们随性地在高脚屋下绑一根麻绳当作秋千,在辽阔的大海中央尽情地荡,没有任何束缚,自在而且快乐。绳子底下还一张大网,那里网着的就是当日的晚餐。家在大海,没有门牌但却有享用不尽的海产。从海里取了新鲜的海产,转身就拿到船尾的“厨房”去料理。

为了避免意外的发生,海民还巧妙地将具危险性的烹调器皿如火、煮好的热水等置在另一艘船上。除了精通基本的求生技巧,海岛上的妇女也具备独家的美容心得。为了对抗残酷的烈阳,她们就将番石榴叶磨碎混合薯粉(也是他们的主要粮食)制成具有美白功效的“防晒面膜”。

大开眼界

习惯上,我会在写游记的时候提醒自己避免用过于夸大的字眼。但是仙本那的旅程确确实实给我许多夸张的惊叹号。因此,也经常会因为穷于应付当时的情况,导致错过拿起相机纪录的时机。

这样说起来有一点矛盾,我们去仙本那的目的原就是为了摄影创作。但是经常遇到事与愿违的情景,常常都会被周遭的一切吸引了目光,而错过按快门的时刻。幸运的是,往往都会有较为专注的团友会得为我们记录一切。我的目光,到底是被什么吸引了呢?

除了那独特的“海上人家”房屋造型,当地的男女老少和这个环境形成一幅相辅相成的景观。岸外的他们(住在海上或岛上的)虽然同样是难民,不过却有不一样的生活方式。

居住在海中央的人们,生活看似OK;但是岛上“居民”的情形就比较糟糕了。他们千辛万苦从菲律宾潜逃而来的交通工具,不过就是无引擎的独木舟,可想而知必须使劲喝奶之力手脚并用划水渡洋。

奈何,尽管经历了苦不堪言的路途,抵达后他们的劣性却丝毫无改。就在下榻的岛上设立赌摊,带着一家大小闹哄哄地围赌,无论是成年男女甚至是小孩都赌得不亦乐乎。可笑的是,此处围着下注的地方后边就是坟场。在坟场前聚赌,也算是罕见的风景图。而跟前的这个,总面积只有大约3个篮球场大小的地方,则是他们逃难到此,即将记录他们下半辈子的人生场景。

---- TEXT by Sai Fong / PHOTOS by 223 GO!


i have known Sai Fong and her little company 223 GO! since last year, when we hosted a couple of their travel talks in the store.

223 GO!, if you don't already know, is a quirky, alternative travel organizer that combines travel with photography (and a big dash of love and laughter -- i added this part myself, because i think this is really what they're about), with destinations that include Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and soon Taiwan and Korea, and itineraries that include cycling overland and gasping collectively at the beauty of the Angkor Wat.

we're very happy to announce that we will be working with 223 GO! on getting our little travelers' club up and running. nothing fancy, just a destination, a group of like-minded people, and off we go....

and one of the destinations that we will be going to (if enough people decide to join us), will be Semporna, the wonderland of crystal clear waters and amazingly blue skies.

solid plans will be announced in awhile :)

end of this month (we will announce the date later), Sai Fong and our friends at 223 GO! will also be dropping by the store to share some stories on Semporna. come and join us, ask questions, marvel at the photographs, and then decide if you want to join us at this little paradise on earth.

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"The Semporna Wonderland" Photo Exhibition by 223 GO!
DATE: 5 sept - 30 sept 2009
VENUE: Casual Poet

> the official 223 GO! website

13 comments:

September 1, 2009 at 9:34 PM k. said...

incredible! I can't wait for this.

September 2, 2009 at 11:46 AM Edric Hsu said...

This is the perfect place for me, the kind of Paradise I'd been searching for! Thanks for the recommendation! ;)

September 3, 2009 at 1:24 AM ginny said...

these pictures look awesome :D

September 3, 2009 at 11:45 AM Cookie Cutter said...

Oh my! I look at the pics and can't stop going "the water! the water!". It's amazingly clear!

September 8, 2009 at 9:59 AM WendyMama said...

Hey I will be going to Semporna this month. After viewed the photos that you took, can't wait to see the great scene with my eyes!

September 10, 2009 at 10:59 PM Anonymous said...

MALAYSIA: Truly ASIA! :)

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