Water dining experience at Sabah’s very own ‘Maldives’
Published on: Sunday, January 12, 2020
By: Anthea Peter



The Floating Coral Bar at high tide. (Photo Courtesy of Sabahtrip.com)
IMAGINE sitting down at lunch, tantalising your taste buds to a fresh seafood meal in the middle of the sea, whilst having your feet partially submerged in water. 

As you savour your meal, you set your eyes upon the vast blue seas that seem to flicker like diamonds; a reflection of the incandescent sunlight beating down on the waters. 

Indeed a lunch with a view, and a spell-binding one at that. Such “water dining” experience is part of what makes this place unique and one-of-a-kind.

At first sight, one would think they are off frolicking on an exotic tropical holiday in the Maldives or the Caribbean. But this underrated gem lies in Sabah itself!

Enter “Floating Coral Bar”, one of Sabah’s newest community-based tourism destinations, unveiled April last year. I was fortunate enough to be part of a media entourage led by Sabah Parks and WWF-Malaysia to discover what the place is all about. 

 

(Lunch menu comprising the catch of the day.)



The “Floating Coral Bar” lies off Pitas waters near the seaside village of Kampung Malubang, between the Sulu Sea and South China Sea, which is also within the vicinity of Tun Mustapha Park, an 898,762.76-hectare marine protected area encompassing about 50 islands and 180,000 villagers. 

Interestingly, instead of sand, you would be walking on a pile of dead fragmented corals which created a natural island-like formation from being washed up by the waves over time.

Supirak Tourism Association Chairman Moktar Amirol who is a stakeholder of its operations, said the formation has, in fact, existed for many years. 

“It has always existed for a very long time, but it was smaller. Eventually, year after year, it grew bigger and longer until it formed this pile of dead corals of up to almost 1km. 

“The potential for it to become smaller is not likely, due to a convergence of the sea currents in the area, similar to Simpang Mengayau. 

“The (washing up) of dead corals are caused by strong waves during certain seasons, and they form when they reach the converged sea currents... it is where they pile up. This is also where the ‘Floating Coral Bar’ got its name from,” he said.

At high tide, the corals which you stand on become totally submerged in water, creating the thrilling sensation of standing right in the middle of the deep sea, somewhat literally.

 

(Stilt huts and the eating area.)



During a low tide, the corals would resurface, giving off the illusion that it is floating on the sea. 

Sabah Parks Director Jamili Nais said the place is currently being run by Archangel Borneo Holidays, a local travel operator. A tourism venture initiative between all stakeholders is currently being carried out to expand business operations. 

“Right now we are working on launching a tourism venture initiative here, and we are pleased to bring the media to this place which is run by Archangel,” he told the entourage.

Archangel Borneo Holidays operator, Victor Tan Vui Kiong, said he was inspired to commercialise the place due to its similarity to the Maldives. 

“From the very beginning when I first got to this place, (I saw) that it is like the Maldives and the Caribbean. We can actually eat in the middle of the sea (water dining experience). 

“I thought, how can the Maldives be that beautiful? I feel that Sabah can also be an attraction just like the Maldives,” he said. 

Our journey to the coral bar started at Kudat Marina Jetty, which is three hours away from Kota Kinabalu. 

It was exciting to embark on a ship for the first time. Getting there took about two hours as the ship, named “Si Buding”, only moved as fast as about 14km per hour. Alternatively, one could take a faster motor boat ride which cuts travel time to 40 minutes. 

 

( Fresh crabs served to guests. )



Sabah Parks and WWF-Malaysia took the initiative to deploy “Si Buding” to beef up control of Tun Mustapha Mark, which also serves as Sabah Park’s mobile office and mothership of its patrol boats whenever an operation takes place, said Sabah Parks Assistant Director Fazrullah Rizally Abdul Razak.

“Si Buding” is 24.5m long, 7.1m wide and accommodates up to 25 passengers at a time. Its name was derived from a local language, which means “shark”. 

Even though getting to the coral bar was quite a wait, the two-hour journey was a therapeutic one with the sound of splashing water and the sight of calming blue hues.

Since we were cruising within the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE), I found it interesting that we had an Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) patrol boat escorting us throughout the journey to keep us safe. 

At one point, the Esscom boat, characterised by its all-black colour, pulled down a nearby boat believed to be of fishermen’s. I speculated that the authorities ran an interrogation as part of their patrolling duties.

The Esscom is always something we hear or read about in the news, but to see it with my own eyes instilled a new sense of appreciation of how the ESSZONE is proactively being kept safe from pirates and militants. 

After much anticipation, we finally arrived. We had to disembark from “Si Buding” and get on a smaller motorboat to get to the jetty, due to the very shallow waters that surround the coral bar.

Since the tide was low the pile of coral fragments visibly presented itself, which stood true to its name.

Once we got to the jetty and made our way to the coral bar, we were immediately greeted by locals who served everyone fresh coconut water. 

“Would you like some coconut water? It’s good for your skin,” said a local. Their warm hospitality was welcoming. 

At the coral bar, there were a few concrete tables and chairs with beach umbrellas set up over it. There were also a few open huts on stilts. Off in a slightly further distance, was a hammock tied to wooden poles and also pagoda swings, reminiscent of the ocean swings in Bali, Indonesia.

There were also two small vacant kayaks on the side of the coral bar, as kayaking is one of the activities that the place offers. Other activities include snorkelling and stand up paddle boarding.

 

(Fragmented dead corals which form the floating coral bar.A windmill where the stakeholders of the Floating Coral bar are written on each blade – Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry, Sabah Tourism Board, Sabah Parks, WWF-Malaysia and Archangel Borneo Holidays.)


The waters were absolutely crystal clear.



The entourage then dispersed throughout the place in a quest for the best spots to capture scenic photographs. Everything was aesthetically-pleasing, which is one of the factors that make the floating coral bar an attractive tourist destination.

It opens from 9am-3pm every day, with a maximum of 70 visitors that are allowed to enter each day for 30 domestic and 40 international travellers. 

The Floating Coral Bar is close to the heart of Kampung Malubang, Pitas. Apt with the rise of community based tourism in Sabah, Archangel Borneo Holidays works closely with the villagers to provide food for visitors.

We were treated to fresh seafood for lunch, believed to be the catch of the day by the Malubang fishermen. The menu comprised of squid in soy sauce, smoked sardines, boiled soft-shell crabs, stir-fried cabbage and steamed rice. 

The crab dish was a notably memorable one, as its meat was sweet and incredibly fresh. I regretted helping myself to only one serving. 

The simplicity of how the food was cooked somehow made me feel connected to the villagers’ modest way of life.

“We get our food supply from the village, we would also hire villagers as workers. Basically, we involve the community’s cooperation. 

“We received great feedback from European tourists who visited recently, they loved our concept of working closely with the village community,” said Victor.

26 village community boats have also been registered to transport visitors to the floating coral bar. 

Earlier, during the coral bar’s inception, Archangel Borneo Holidays had taken proactive action in bringing the village communities to see the place.

“The villagers were able to see the potential for themselves on how the place can be commercialised,” said Moktar, who is also the community’s representative. 

He added there are plans to bring in other village communities aside from Kampung Malubang to be involved in the coral bar’s operations. 

However, since the destination is still new, other villages are yet to be exposed to the economic prospect of it.

“Eventually, we will involve other communities. Right now they are yet to be aware of how this new tourism product can boost their economy. 

“We will do it slowly,” he said, adding that in the future, the village communities can start selling their products such as food, fruits and handicrafts at the coral bar. 

Victor is also planning to start a floating market where the villagers can run their businesses, but more research and planning needs to be done particularly in the aspect of waste management. 

In an in-depth look into how the floating coral bar started, stakeholder representatives Jamili, Fazrullah, Victor and Moktar sat down with the entourage and told us more about its inception.

“When Victor wanted to develop this place, we decided to inform the relevant stakeholders. We realised that this place is within the Tun Mustapha Park gazette.

“We met with Sabah Parks in 2018, where we jointly held a community programme. At the same time we invited Victor to launch the event. This is where the collaboration (between Sabah Parks, Supirak Tourism Association and Archangel Borneo Holidays) started,” Moktar explained. 

He added the stakeholders are committed towards preserving the rights of the village communities, in efforts to prevent the community from being marginalised or discriminated. 

Jamili also highlighted that in Sabah Parks’ management of Tun Mustapha Park, tourism is one of its focus areas. 

“In this collaboration with Victor as a private operator, Moktar as a community representative, they have been exposed and educated (on sustainable tourism practices) not only by Sabah Parks but also WWF-Malaysia.

“Moktar was also brought to Manado, Indonesia to observe how the communities run their tourism operations there. He took what he learned and applied it here, which is why we are seeing this development. 

“Other aspects are being looked into so that we can implement more attractions, particularly at Kampung Malubang, such as a guesthouse for example. I understand it is currently being developed,” he said.

However, Victor said there is an emphasis on marketing research now before taking operational activities further.

Right now we are concentrating on marketing, therefore we are definitely slowing down operations as of now. 

“We need to observe and also do some research for example on what kinds of food would be suitable for Chinese and European guests, which is different,” he said. 

Indeed, a bright economic future lies ahead for the Malubang community with its rising tourism profile, while simultaneously keeping the environment’s integrity intact through sustainable practices with much respect to marine life in Tun Mustapha Park’s conservation area.

The floating coral bar was not only about seeing a beautifully unique place with the novelty of dining in the middle of the sea, but it was also to have a peek into the Malubang community’s maritime living.

Essentially, the floating coral bar offers a very authentic rural experience for visitors yet is also benefits all stakeholders involved with its operations. 

As a city dweller, it opened my eyes to an entirely different world beyond the velvety comfort of urban life. It made me realise there exists completely different routines and stories, all within Sabah itself – a land that truly boasts a myriad of landscapes and diverse cultures.

Truly, we do not need to go far to view a different perspective.





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