For me, there was a Before Sipitang, and there was After Sipitang.
Because Sipitang was the first place I experienced a real diversity of wild fruits I didn’t have a name for and didn’t even know how to look up, should I have had access to the internet. Which I didn’t, because I didn’t have a smart phone. The first year of this blog was written on sticky keys at dingy internet cafes among the pinging of teenagers shooting each other on Dota (if you don’t know what Dota is, be glad.)
Oh, for the innocence and inefficiency of 2012.
What I did know was that in Borneo I was supposed to find a durian with lipstick red flesh, and that Sipitang was supposed to be one of the best places to get it.
I was hooked. That this blog still exists, six years later, may be Sipitang’s fault.
You can’t go much further south in Sabah than Sipitang before you hit the Sarawak border.
It’s a really really small coastal town on the Bay of Brunei — smaller than my hometown of Nowhere Important, Oregon. Probably only 5,000 people live in Sipitang, and probably only one of them, maximum, is a foreigner. And probably very few of the people who visit Sipitang are foreigners, at least from the number of #selfies local vendors wanted when we four foreigners parked our car in front of two side-by-side curry restaurants and wandered across the street to the tamu (outdoor market).
Sipitang was as quiet and cozy and ramshackle as my last visit, consisting of clusters of shops laid out along a mainroad only 600 meters long.
The Seng Kee Tropical Fruit Center, with it’s collection of milk-infused fresh fruit juices (including durian shake) and cups of sweetened corn (no actual fruit) was still there.
So was the Esplanade walk along the river, although it looked shockingly less shiny than in 2012, when it was just a year old. Most of the railings along the waterfront had fallen apart and into the sea.
So was the signboard for Lorong Durian, a street just across from the Central Market (not to be confused with the tamu, they’re distinct).
The market was stuffed with all kinds of my favorite exotic fruits, all the things that back then were brand new to me and I didn’t know the name or how to ask. There were red dalits and orange dalits and teraps and tampois, dabai and dalits and bambangans.
Even the hotel I stayed at last time, the Dhiya Espanad, was still there, with the same air of clean decrepitude.
The biggest difference was me. And oh yeah, my camera.
Sipitang Durian Lover’s Tamu
The Sipitang Tamu, or outdoor market, is open from morning until evening, but is busiest in the late afternoon and evening about 4 or 5 pm.
It’s a scattered collection of stalls, tied together with blue tarps that cast blue shadows over my photographs.
It had moved out of the parking lot since my last visit and now sprawled, bigger and better than my memory, along the main road running through Sipitang.
What I was looking for was the red-fleshed durian, the academically controversial Durio graveolens that lured me in with its bright, lurid colors and promised epicness.
The red-fleshed Durio graveolens is perhaps the most well-known of all the wild durians just because it looks so unreal. It looks photo-shopped. But that’s not why it’s controversial.
It’s quite real.
It just might not be true Durio graveolens.
See, there are 3 colors of Durio graveolens in Borneo: red-fleshed, orange-fleshed, and yellow-fleshed.
The yellow one is most common in Sarawak south of Sibu, but in Sipitang you can buy both the orange and red one and peculiar marbley-swirl ones alongside with the normal white-fleshed Durio zibethinus (the one we are all accustomed to eating in other Asian cities).
You can even get them in pre-prepared packet for as little as 10RM ($2.54 USD).
The funny thing is that red-flesh and orange -flesh Durio graveolens look and taste very different. While the red one is yelow on the outside, the orange one is green. The orange one is often larger. And while the orange one is sweet and nutty and sticky and absolutely delicious, the red one is virtually flavorless.
How disappointing, right?
They’re very different fruits, and behave differently botanically too. I definitely prefer the orange one. But I bought a red one, just for old time’s sake.
It was as thickly creamy as I remembered, like eating unsweetened and unsalted soft cheese. I remembered that first expectant bite, and how we didn’t even finish eating it. Instead, we took it back to our hotel to share with the owner, Wan, who deep-fried it and ate it with rice.
Dabai or Kembayau
Sipitang was also where I first experienced Dabai, also sometimes called Kembiyau by the locals even though Kembiyau is technically a different species. You can tell the difference when you eat them because Dabai has a three-sided seed, while true Kembiyau is round.
Not like the name matters if you can eat these. You have to soak them in hot water for about 10-minutes to soften, and then they’re strangely salty and savoury and creamy all on their own.
I’ve been a fan ever since, and was pleased to see them in Sipitang again.
Terap (Artocarpus odoratissimus)
My memory of that first Sipitang trip was entirely tied up in Terap, the angel-food-cake relative of a jackfruit or a cempedak.
I don’t know how many hours I spent at the market that trip, sitting in a group, folding open the velcro skins of these sweet, buttery smooth and soft, a little juicy, a hint of lemon, but mostly pure powdered sugar. They were a marvel of creation. They were almost the only thing I ate during that first trip.
When everything in the world is constantly changing, it’s comforting when just one thing can stay the same.
Different times, different friends, different me.
But again we sat in a circle watching the vendors watch us, picking at the terap centerpiece. And I remembered.
But this time, there were fruits I either didn’t notice that first go around or didn’t know I should notice. Some were pretty interesting.
Red and Green Pulasan (Nephelium mutabile)
Pulasan is the styrofoamy cousin of rambutan. The outside shell has the consistency of packing peanuts, while the inside has the translucent juiciness and musky sweetness of a muscadine grape. They’re great, and in my opinion, much tastier than a rambutan.
I see the red-purple or almost-black shelled ones fairly frequently. But I almost never see the green one. It’s ripe — it’s sweet and juicy just like the red — but it does have a slightly more acidic flavor. Delicious all the same, but excitingly unusual.
Buah Senkelang (Nephelium cuspidatum)
This one made me stop and demand the name from the vendor, something I couldn’t have done on the last trip. I had no idea what it was. I mean, a rambutan relative obviously — but what?
It has soft curly hairs that stay bright red. They’re much curlier and more flexible than a rambutan, and if you open it up the flesh is really juicy and translucent like a pulasan. It tastes like pulasan too, all grapey, but the flesh sticks tightly to the seed so you can never really chew it.
I didn’t know what it was. This time, I snapped a photo on my phone and uploaded it to the Rare Fruit Facebook Group. Within a few hours I knew it was Nephelium cuspidatum.
Such magic I never dreamed of on my last trip here.
Central Vegetable Market
In addition to the tamu, there is also a central market building just caddy-corner from the stretch of blue-tarped stalls.
It’s a basic morning market, where all the vegetables and spices and dried fish ingredients are sold for cooking. These are all the daily things people need, while the tamu really focuses on fruits.
It was there on my first trip, and I went and looked at it and left after about 30 seconds. There was just green stuff in there.
This time, I stayed and looked. There were things I recognized, and things I didn’t.
I had a chat with one of the vendors about how to cook sweet potato leaves.
And I found a lone stack of orange-fleshed Durio graveolens among the bananas and random little fruits.
Same market. Maybe same stuff. But I saw it differently. That was cool.
Where We Stayed
The last time I visited Sipitang, I was nearly out of money.
Last time, we were at the end of our first Year of Durian — the initial project that launched this blog and my new life in Asia. Soon, we would be going “home” to find jobs. Sipitang was a place where we were trying to stretch our cash through to the end.
The Hotel Dhiya Esplanad (no “e”) was cheap. I don’t remember how much it was then, but today when I returned it cost 60RM ($15 USD) per night for my old room there, a twin with a window and a bathroom outside. It was room #310, if you ever find yourself there.
I was willing to put up with the slightly moldy aroma and faded feeling of the place, but my friends wanted to try out the new hotel.
After looking at the prices, we ended up at the Shangsun Motel just around the block on Lorong Durian.
It’s a brand new hotel next to a coin-operated laundry. It cost 99RM ($25 US) for a very modern, clean twin room with AC. The Wifi router was on, but staff promised us it didn’t work.
This was our room:
None of the hotels in Sipitang are available on Agoda or Booking.com, although there are a few available on Airbnb.
Dhiya Esplanad answers their Facebook messages. Sometimes.
Pantai Merintaman Beach
Because we had a car this trip (I didn’t on the first one), we also visited the beach about 7km outside the city.
It was deserted, the tranquil waves lapping on the soft, fine-grained mud-sand so common in areas with mangroves. The beach was wet, as if the tide had just gone out, and it looked like at high tide the beach would mostly disappear beneath the waves, leaving a small grassy sand dune littered with the requisite plastic bottles.
The beach was still beautiful and, if we’d had time, I would have spent an afternoon wandering up and down the shore with my toes in the cool water.
But my friends wanted to go on, on to the weekend market in Lawas, where I’d been wanting to go for years.
So I said goodbye to Sipitang and my memories of where things started and traveled onward to somewhere new.
The closest big city to Sipitang with an airport is Kota Kinabalu. To get to Sipitang, you have a lot of options:
You can drive. We rented a car through Easybook.com and drove the 2.5 hours south from Kota Kinabalu. The roads are almost clear of traffic and good enough our little Viva had no trouble.
Or you can take a bus. Buses depart Kota Kinabalu for Sipitang regularly until 5pm. You can also book this on Easybook.
You can also take the ferry from Kota Kinabalu via the island of Labuan. Call +60-87-581006 for the latest schedule.