By Goh Yue Yun
Step on the lawn of the Pulau Tiga resort and you are quite likely to encounter mud-covered, mutant-like figures heading for the sea.
You would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled on the set of a movie about a scientist whose experiments had gone horribly wrong. After all, the island off Sabah does have a Hollywood connection. It was the location for the very first season of the popular reality TV show Survivor, which debuted in 2000.
But, really, the unkempt figures would just be resort visitors who had enjoyed a therapeutic mud bath, courtesy of Mother Nature.
Pulau Tiga was formed in 1897 when an earthquake on Mindanao in the southern Philippines caused a volcanic eruption north of Sabah.
More geothermal activity over the next 40 years resulted in an island that is 4.5km long, 1.5km wide and 20.7 sq km in size. The last eruption was in 1941 but mud still oozes from a few vents on the surface of the island.
To get to the island, my companions and I first travelled on the road for two hours from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, to the jetty at Kuala Penyu, a small town. Then it was a 20-minute boat ride to the island.
After checking in and finishing a hearty lunch at the resort, we found ourselves on a 1.2km forest trail that led to a mud pool. The forest in the mid-afternoon was cool and silent, except for the occasional calls of unseen birds.
When I reached the opening in the forest where the giant tub of mud was, some of my companions quickly wallowed happily in it in their swimsuits while others needed a bit of persuasion to get in.
I didn't need much coaxing. Holding the stump of a protruding root, I slid off a slippery bank and lowered myself into the grey, clayey mass. It felt thick, creamy and surprisingly cool.
Being a non-swimmer, I wanted to touch the bottom of the pit but my feet could not find any firm ground. My body was simply suspended in the turbidity.
Slowly, I relaxed and tried to put my feet up. Suddenly I was floating on my back. It was weird... and wonderful. I gazed up at a blue sky framed by the branches of nearby trees and closed my eyes.
According to our guide, the mud is rich in nutrients and has beneficial properties.
Well-heeled folk probably fork out a tidy sum to have a similar treatment in a swanky spa to regain their baby-smooth skin.
Anyway, to complete our treatment, we had to walk back up the trail, covered from head to toe in the primordial slime. We were barefooted - the guide had bundled our sandals in a bag and was already out of sight - and were stepping on thorny branches and stubby roots. Yes, foot reflexology was apparently part of the package. Ouch.
The mud dried as we walked, and this supposedly drew out toxins from the skin. To wash off the caked mud, we went straight into the sea.
The mix of salt water and the earth is said to enhance the curative action. Indeed, my skin did feel smoother when I emerged from the sea.
If rolling in mud is not your idea of a holiday, Pulau Tiga offers other activities.
A stone's throw from the resort is a coral reef for snorkelling. Fins, mask and snorkel can be rented from the resort. The more adventurous can go scuba-diving and try to spot barracudas and sea turtles. Or they can visit the adjacent Pulau Kalampunian Besar, which has a large population of venomous sea snakes, hence its other name, Snake Island. The reptiles can be seen coiled around rocks.
Me? I was happy to just marvel at the glittering shoals of fish gathered in the clear waters below the jetty. They attracted the Pacific reef egrets which ate their fill and rested on the net line surrounding the reef.
At 5.30pm, monitor lizards congregated below the kitchen window at the resort to feed on food scraps thrown out by the staff, while long-tailed macaques muscled in for a share of the meal.
You don't have to catch your food - just get fresh seafood at the night market.
At the forest edge, I observed a pair of megapodes (a chicken-like bird) scratching the earth for worms and other prey.
To protect the diversity of species underwater and on land, Pulau Tiga (meaning Island of Three) and two smaller nearby islands (Snake Island and Sand Spit) were given national park status by the Malaysian government in 1978. This means it is illegal to remove or harm the native plants and animals.
No visit to a tropical island is complete without a drink of fresh coconut juice. A member of the friendly staff climbed a tree in the garden, plucked a few fruits and hacked them open with a parang. The salt-tinged juice was a perfect complement to the gentle sunset that cast a warm glow on the beach before we headed off for dinner.
Back on the mainland, the city of Kota Kinabalu is keeping up with cities in the rest of the world. It has its share of shopping malls, with 1Borneo being the largest retail complex in Borneo. Opened in June this year, the hypermall has 400 shops, including Esprit, Charles and Keith and adidas, over a total floor area close to 1.5 million sq ft.
Over at the Waterfront, a popular dining and entertainment strip overlooking the South China Sea, restaurants offer a variety of cuisines - Indian, Japanese and fusion. And there are the usual watering holes and clubs for those who want to party into the night.
To get a more local flavour of the city, visit the pasar malam, or night market, near the Esplanade. Makeshift stalls offer a wide range of seafood every night from 5 to 11pm. Huge prawns go for RM25 (S$10.48) each and ikan merah for RM35.
My group went to the Fisherman Village restaurant to try the seafood. Our excellent dinner included raw fish with bittergourd, fried softshell crab and steamed prawns. Our party of 10 paid RM35 a person for six dishes.
Early in the morning, the pier near the Esplanade is a hive of activity as fishermen unload the catch from their boats. Some fish are sold at the pier and the rest are packed for delivery to other parts of the country.
At the adjacent market, you might want to stock up on dried fish. A delicious local pretzel-like snack, called kueh cincin (cake of rings), is also a good buy. It is made of rice flour and brown sugar.
And if you haven't had enough of the seafood, you can pick up some at the airport after checking in. The sales staff will pack it nicely to survive the journey home.
Malaysia Airlines flies direct to Kota Kinabalu on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Log on to www.malaysiaairlines.com to check fares and to book, or call 6336-6777.
WHERE TO STAY
A two-day/one-night package at Pulau Tiga Resort costs RM383 (S$160.50) a person. It includes accommodation in a comfortable wooden chalet with attached bathroom and air-conditioning, all meals, mud bath and sea transfers. Log on to pulau-tiga.com or call 6-088-240-584.
5 things to do
Do visit the Sabah Museum, which has a Heritage Village comprising reconstructed traditional houses. You can pop into the various houses and imagine a disappearing way of life.
2 Do go to @mosphere for the sunset and cocktails. It is a revolving restaurant that serves Pacific Rim food on the 18th floor of the Menara Tun Mustapha, the tallest building in Borneo with 32 floors.
3 Do get a traditional Dusun Lotud Inan massage or a coffee foot scrub. At the Jari-Jari spa (tel: 088-272-606, website: www.jarijari.com.my), the one-hour-and-45-minutes massage costs RM230 (S$96.90) while the one-hour foot treatment costs RM98.
4 Do drop by the bustling night and fish markets near the Esplanade.
5 Do try the seafood. It is fresh and reasonably priced.
1 Don't wear anything white for the mud bath unless you want your outfit to change colour.
2 Don't feed the wildlife on Pulau Tiga. It will change their natural behaviour.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 21, 2008.
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