Stateless in Lahad Datu

Walking out of the Lahad Datu bus station just before noon, 4 teenagers sitting on the curb entrance of the station, wearing school uniforms and toting sling bags, jumped up and pestered me with inquisitive what, where, when & why questions. Their sudden approach had me feeling ill at ease. My replies were curt and vague. My grip tightened on my bag and my observations became more acute.


Sex in Lahad Datu: The Pimp and his Hen

I continued my walk, hoping they would lose interest in me. When they found out I had no accommodation and was new to Lahad Datu, they wanted to show me the town and help me find lodging even though I declined graciously. All the while in conversation, they would repeat, “Don’t be afraid.. we just want to show you around.. you can trust us… don’t worry.. we want to help”.

“Yeah, right”, I thought. “Thanks for making me feel even more apprehensive.”

We walked from a busy section to a lonely wide stairwell that led up to a hill. They said it was a ‘shortcut’. My senses went into overdrive. I started to take note of where each one of their positions were around me. I was ready for any attack. It wasn’t easy trying to hold a blank face while assessing the surroundings for danger.

The danger, however, never came. As I reached the final few steps up the hill, I heaved a big sigh of relief internally. There wasn’t any bid to extort or harm me. These young men were genuinely interested in keeping me company.

Lahad Datu Straw Tree-003

At the top of the hill, there was a tree tied with straws. One of my young guides  mentioned it was a sacred tree for good luck (or maybe just vandalism). Just beyond the tree was the Lahad Datu library where teenagers would hide to escape the heat and maybe to meet their friends but definitely not to read books. There isn’t that much you can do in Lahad Datu if you are a student or an unemployed teenager.


With newly restored faith in humanity.. well at least, in this town, I warmed up to my new found friends. I had them show me their favourite place to eat. A food court above the dry market area.


Over bowls of cheap noodle soup, I learnt they were stateless kids because their parents were either of East Timorese (Indonesian) or Tausug/Suluk (Filipino) citizens, living and working in plantations, retail outlets and factories in Sabah without proper work documentation. Regardless of their religious background, these young men got along with each other really well.


Born in Sabah and not being able to register for identity cards, stateless children had to stay out of trouble to avoid the authorities or risk jeopardizing their family’s living conditions. Without Malaysian residence status and never having been registered in their parent’s country of origin, these stateless children had go to private schools since they were ineligible to attend public schools. These well mannered boys were just like any other teenage boys. They listened to pop music, talked about girls, played football,  made silly sexual remarks, and poked fun at each other’s peculiarity. They also had aspirations to be engineers and doctors, and maybe one day explore different continents.


The Young and Dangerous?

Then there is yet another group of stateless people between Lahad Datu and Semporna. The sea gypsies or the Bajau are the boat people who originate from the southern Philippines. They live on their cramped sheltered boats out at sea and on the islands and beaches of Sabah, and south Philippines.


Filthy conditions of Bajau squatters

Going back and forth like aimless nomads fishing, looking for work and living a carefree life, they are very poor, lacking in medical attention, hygiene, and education. Many of the Bajaus, due to their seaborne lifestyle, are very good free divers and this is a well known fact.


Walking on the coastal facing streets of Lahad Datu, I encounter the Bajau kids and mothers who loiter at five foot ways. They past time trying to find some part time work, or look after children from other Bajau families. Most of the time, they will either beg or sell illegal cigarettes. The children are unkempt, dirty and mischievous.  Without discipline and guidance, they are sometimes deemed as a nuisance by the locals.

When was the last time you saw kids having so much fun with an empty box?

When night falls on Lahad Datu, the streets get busier with locals and illegals setting up stalls. The Bajau’s will wander into the inner roads.


Choices, choices, choices


A kid left out to play on her own while her parents work.


She seemed happy


Lahad Datu town, located in Tawau Division, overlooks Darvel Bay. Boats will pass by Timbun Mata Island and other smaller islands before they are faced with the wide open Celebes Sea. Fishing is an important trade here and so is cocoa, palm oil and timber. One of the fun things to do in town is to visit the fish market, next to the dry market. Activity never ceases from the wee hours when fishermen bring in their catch, until late night.






Lahad Datu received world news coverage earlier this year when a supposed claimant, Jamalul Kiram III, to the throne of the Sulu Sultanate wanted to re-assert territorial claims over eastern Sabah based on an ancient contract with the British. A group of armed Filipino men had slipped their way into Lahad Datu shores to carry out the Kiram’s intentions, but their plans were thwarted by the Malaysian army after a one month stand-off at a village called Tanduo. Both the Philippine and Malaysian government and public condemned the perpetrators for creating the problems.


Mr.Pink is a well known figure at the night dry market

Businesses, in particular from the tourism sector, had been affected by the stand-off. International governments had issued travel warnings and prevented many of their citizens from visiting Sabah even though the incident were isolated in a small village. Filipino illegal residents in Sabah were also concerned over the situation as they feared a backlash.



Smokey street dining in the center of town

A haven for naturalists, Lahad Datu is the gateway to Danum Valley Conservation Area, Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and Madai Caves.

madai waterfall
Madai Waterfall. Source: Imran Kadir

The Madai – Baturong Forest Reserve Nature Centre (approximately 8490 acres), located near Kunak and 50 km from Lahad Datu, has been classified as a Class 1 forest reserve which means it is fully protected from logging and any development. It is an excellent place for a cave exploration day trip. Outdoor lovers will delight at the opportunity to familiarize with various aspects of tree species, caves, and the endemic flora and fauna in the area.

Madai Caves
Source: Kirin Oput

There are 2 caves here. Madai Cave is a birds nest cave and you may see birds nest harvesters when you visit. The Baturong Cave has several caverns which contain ancient coffins.

DSC_6551 copy
Good Morning Danum! Source: Pein Lee

Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA), approximately 10,800 acres, is located in the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve. DVCA boasts of being one of the richest conservation areas in the world with a complex ecosystem in a lowland dipterocarp forest teeming with plants, wildlife and insects. There are jungle trails, a 300m long and 27m high canopy walkway, ancient Kadazandusun burial sites, beautiful waterfalls and rivers including Purut 7-tiered pools besides the opportunity to learn from researchers based in the area.

Sunrise in Danum Valley, Borneo

Good Morning Again! Source: Rob and Stephanie Levy

DVCA located is about 80km away from Lahad Datu. Restricted to only logging roads, the journey in will be slow and bumpy. There are 2 accommodations here. The tourist friendly, fancy and expensive Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL), and the other, Danum Valley Field Center (DVFC), which is used by researchers and scientists. If you are not using a tour service, getting into DVCA or DVFC will be limited to once or twice a week, or sometimes never – which is what I found out first hand! There isn’t a fixed schedule for transfers and I couldn’t wait a week for a transfer so my plans to visit Danum had been abruptly canceled.

Danum Valley Field Centre
Source: Philippa1000

From research, while DVFC has sufficient modern facilities for researchers to sleep, eat and conduct their work comfortably, it does not have services and facilities catered for travelers to explore. You would need to check availability and pay for transfers and bed at the Sabah Foundation (Yayasan Sabah) office in located at Block 3, Lot 20, Ground Floor, MDLD 3285, Fajar Center in Lahad Datu (+60 89 881 688).  Unless you have time to wait for transport or prefer to be left alone to wander in DVFC, my suggestion is to plan ahead and use a tour package which puts you in DVFC or BRL.

Hello Frog! Source: Cristen Andrews

With Danum out of reach, I planned a trip to Tabin Wildlife Reserve which is located in 297,762 acres of dipterocarp rainforest, approximately 1.5 hours drive from Lahad Datu. It is home to a variety of endangered wildlife such as the Borneo Pygmy elephant, the Sumatran rhino, Tembadau and exotic birdlife.


Sadly encroaching palm oil plantations have reduced the natural forest conditions here, as a result, the wildlife and the number precious tropical plants  deteriorated. Birdwatching enthusiasts, though, will find Tabin a rewarding location to spot the feathered kind.


Elephant Foot Print amongst other smaller animals

There is only one lodging in the reserve. The Tabin Wildlife Resort provides very comfortable and spacious riverside and hillside accommodation, albeit a little dated in style. I stayed here comfortably for 3 days while going on several guided treks in the jungles where the guide showed us medicinal plants and as well as animal footprints. While there has been many pygmy elephants spotted in Tabin, I was unlucky to see any this time.


Salt licks are one of the best places to spot wildlife. In Tabin, there are several salt springs and mineral rich mud volcanoes. I visited a large mud volcano where there were hundreds of animal footprints as well as their poo. At night, we had a night safari which yielded plenty of nature sounds and small wildlife sightings. Specialised tours with overnight camping can be arranged to hike the numerous trails available in the reserve but due to limited time and participant numbers, I wasn’t able to arrange this.


Leaving the dank tropical rainforests, travellers generally tend to travel down to Tawau and then to Semporna where they board a boat out to Kapalai or Mabul islands for sunbathing and scuba diving in the Celebes Sea. I returned back to Sandakan to catch my flight.


Cozy lodging at Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat

Wanting some quiet time, I stayed a night in Paganakan Dii, a small hill retreat hidden in a palm oil plantation at least 20 minutes drive away from Sandakan town. The place is remote and has little traffic. You would need to walk for at least 40 minutes to get to the main road. It is however nearer in distance to Sepilok where the Rainforest Discovery Centre, the orangutan and Bornean sun bear rehabilitation centers are located at.


Paganakan is not really an eco-lodge although one would mistake it for one when you see its green surroundings, recycled furniture, and wooden structures. The location is ideal for travellers wanting a serene environment to do nothing and be away from the town. Mobile coverage is weak and there is no 3G data coverage. Wifi is available, though, at the lounge area only. It is a great place to get away from the din of parties and noisy traffic to continue writing your soon-to-be famous novel, or jotting down travel memoirs in peace and tranquility. Check out




At the bottom of the hill is a nature park cum petting zoo called Jalil Alip Park. The lush, sprawling and wonderfully manicured grounds and lakes make a great view with many spots for a nice picnic. It was very serene when I was there mid-week. The placed seemed well looked after including the animals in enclosed areas.


“Where is Hook?”


“We’re looking for Hook too!”


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  • CleverMunkey says:

    All I could say is the Sabah government has never been wise by letting in the illegal immigrants, let them stay in Sabah as long as they want and not taking care of the welfare. That’s what happens to their kids. They are the main causes for high crime rate in Sabah cause they don’t have a proper source of income compared to the employers in West Malaysia who actually had to apply to get foreign workers to work for them. I wouldn’t be afraid to walk with a bunch of Bengali or Nepalis here in KL but in Sabah, 1 or 2 illegal immigrants frighten me as a man.

    • cumi says:

      There is truth in the correlation between crime and poverty. Desperation and hunger make people do silly and horrible things. I’ve been warned by some local folks not to walk alone in certain parts of Lahad Datu. The odd thing is that a few of these warnings were from the stateless people themselves.

  • Ler says:

    How should we help these kids? if give them citizenship, some are intelligent enough to violate our laws. Brought up the state land and abuse the native right. If we leave the kids like this, it will become social problems. Are there solutions for those kids? How to travel with peaceful minds when see their situation. Great that you highlight the kids dilemma.

    • cumi says:

      Violation of law happens to both residents and non-residents, i reckon. Of course, illegals in desperation are likelier to conduct more crime.
      There are a few social organizations helping the poor stateless children with education and welfare. I don’t have enough knowledge and expertise to give answers for this social problem but I do believe, in regards to Malaysia, better security measures should be planned, executed and managed by the relevant authorities. Of course, a great reduction of corruption certainly helps.

  • great reporting piece. appreciated your insights and observations…

  • Lynne Gray says:

    Fabulous post – I have learnt so much by reading this. Thank you for taking me there.

  • Pureglutton says:

    Excellent write-up, Cumi!

  • Nico says:

    I am in Lahad Datu right now and was looking if anyone made the same experience like me, and here it is, an article that could be mine. I have been followed by those poor kids and have been thinking about a way to help them, but there will not be an easy answer. I extended my stay and see what I can do…..

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