Lindy Laird travels to the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo.

The plane descends over rainforests that rise up terraced hillsides from a coastal belt.

Distant, blue-toned mountains fold their way into the dense, mysterious interior.

Ribbons of water tumble over rock faces and through narrow chasms and slither along valleys like tea-brown snakes.

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Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, appears beneath us. Beyond the low-rise concrete blocks of this remote Asian city lies Borneo.

We three visitors from New Zealand are in a van with a driver and guide Jenny Tan from tourism company Top Pick.

It will take two hours to get to Poring to view the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, 4100m high Kinabalu. We wend our way up, past small plantations and colourful towns perched on hillsides. Every village market sells fresh local produce, imported commodities and tacky novelties made in China.

The speed limit is 80km/h on the open road, but "open" belies the narrow, winding, two-laned sealed route into Sabah's interior and far north and eastern coasts.

The van's aircon and chilly bin of ice and water bottles insulate us from the blasts of heat when we stop. The sky is pewter-coloured but outside it's 35C, 90 per cent humidity. The clouds part and the revered, spiritual mountain shows herself.

Down the road in Kinabalu National Park's gorgeous botanical gardens, which boast 44 species of native orchids, we find only one flowering. Its perfect white bloom is no bigger than a pinhead.

Also visiting is a group of Australians hung with sophisticated camera gear. They trumpet eagerly at each sighting of a butterfly, flower, perfect arrangement of leaves.

Sabah is a mecca for visiting artists, plant lovers, wildlife and bird watchers, adventurers, foodies, and even military historians. At the town of Ranau, Jenny points out a Japanese World War II prison camp. Six Australian soldiers were incarcerated there, the only men to survive the Death March across Borneo, which started at Sandakan with about 2000 Allied prisoners.

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Interest groups are among target markets for this far part of Malaysia. Sabah's tourism is changing and growing, the reps tell me. For a long time commercial tourism has sought the easy dollar, catering to Asian visitors by the busload. But there is a groundswell toward ecotourism, individual, family and small-group visitors, and there's something for everyone. "Sabah is Malaysia's poorest state but the richest in natural environments, with the most unspoilt environment," they say.

Greater Borneo's reputation has been tarnished by perceptions of deforestation, degraded rivers, erosion, pollution, palm oil and crimes against hardwoods.

Well, yes, there has been that, but mainly on the Indonesian side, the locals insist.

Laws exist to stop traditional farmers hacking down another square metre of rainforest to plant the next crop. After a thousand or more years, small-crop farmers now rotate crops on the same land.

In Sabah and neighbouring Sarawak, which together cover nearly half of the world's third biggest island, education, projects, incentives and fines are all part of a state-funded programme to reduce waste, dispose of it properly, and act sustainably.

What kind of fish is it?

The tourism reps laugh. New Zealanders and Australians always ask that, they say. The locals just eat it.

The whole, grumpy-faced fish in question swims in a little sea of thin sauce on one of several plates turning slowly on the table.

We are at Welcome Seafood Restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, a must-do dining experience, which is full of locals and tourists. Inside there are several dining rooms; outside, tables stretch 50m around each corner of the block.

Other customers traipse in to buy "takeaways" from vats of live prawns, lobsters, crabs and other clawed crawlers, or from chillers full of fish that are whole, filleted or hacked into slabs. Or mountains of seaweed.

The feast of fish dishes, vegetables and rice we share is superb — fresh, saucy, spicy, layers of flavours.

Tell someone you're off to Borneo — in this case, East Malaysia — and they'll mention headhunters.

There are five Sabah ethnic groups, since the 19th century merging with Chinese, Muslim, English, Japanese, Dutch, Indonesian, Filipino — any number of colonisers, invaders, raiders, traders, but people identify with their dominant ancestral roots.

A young woman mixes up a traditional recipe at Mari Mari Cultural Village. Photo / Lindy Laird
A young woman mixes up a traditional recipe at Mari Mari Cultural Village. Photo / Lindy Laird

In the tranquil green interior of the Inanam district, the purpose-built Mari Mari Cultural Village shows off the traditions and longhouse living of those five tribes of farmers, hunters, fishermen, cowboys and headhunters.

We're warned we're in for a huge fright as we approach the headhunter tribe's compound. People do jump when a feather-crowned, daubed headhunter rears up above the palisade and utters a dreadful yell.

Used to the haka, I find myself waiting for the scary bit. But this is a ritual challenge and we are respectful, and honoured.

Once we enter the compound, I find the shaman much scarier. She shakes a twine-tailed stick at us. She's ancient, black robed, hooded, and stands only as high as my chest. Her colourless eyes drill into me, then I'm dismissed as she turns to terrify and bless the next in line. Soon after, I find I'm pretty good with a blowpipe; I almost hit the coconut.

I shriek and squirm as my toes are sucked and nibbled.

I'm standing in the Moroli River where hundreds of black fish are swarming around my feet. I've been told they don't bite, but those are definitely sharp little nibbles, although not skin piercing.

And I swear a whole toe is occasionally in the mouth of one of these little suckers.

After only about 30 seconds, I stumble from the water on to the pebbly bank. Any hard skin on my feet can stay there.

It's another day in Sabah and there is one more must-do before heading back to the luxurious Grandis Hotel on Kota Kinabalu's waterfront. On a narrow, tree-lined road, the driver pulls up beside a hand-painted sign that reads "flowering now".

Our guide pays a young lad at the gate, and we file through bush, across little streams, and come to the extraordinary Rafflesia keithii, one of the world's largest lilies, found only in Borneo.

The single bloom grows like a mushroom on the dark, rich rainforest floor. It is a deep orange and about the size of a small car tyre. Even more than colour and size, Rafflesia are famous for their stench, not dissimilar to rotting flesh, as they decompose after a week-long flowering.

What a day. We'd started in Kota Kinabalu by skimming across the bay to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park in a small boat that wouldn't pass a safety check at home. We'd been promised snorkelling in turquoise waters off a jewel-like tropical island.

At the island's (fenceless) jetty we jostled with hundreds of others off similar boats. We plonked our stuff under a tree next to a football field-sized marquee in which sat hundreds of people, desultorily watching the bathers.

We swam between ropes about 30m off the white sand, palm-lined beach, beyond the bathers. Deeper water where we might see coral was out of bounds this day. Paddling on the surface, staring down at the bare seabed, I eventually saw a tiny yellow and black fish, then a brown one.

Should I explain to our dedicated, hospitable tourism hosts this was not the kind of experience people from Australasia might seek?

But then, I had seen so many wonderful things in only three days in Sabah. What I didn't see were the resorts or eco-stays. Friends had taken their kids to one a few years ago and loved sea-diving and swimming, pools, adventurous day trips, wildlife watching, great market and dining experiences. As I did, they had such pleasure being immersed in a colourful, multi-cultural world full of friendly people.

The night we had dinner at Welcome Seafood, we and the tourism leaders talked of similarities between our island homelands, wildly different though Aotearoa and Borneo are.

We spoke about the challenges of building ecotourism without destroying the natural treasures people came for, and sharing ethnic culture in an authentic way. As much as this is a beautiful, diverse, both new and ancient country, Sabah's greatest wealth and beauty is its people — He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

Hundreds of black fish are swarming around my feet. Photo / Lindy Laird
Hundreds of black fish are swarming around my feet. Photo / Lindy Laird

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Air Asia

flies from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, via Gold Coast, with return fares starting from $520. Sale ends July 8.

ACCOMMODATION
Le Meridien Hotel and Hotel Grandis are based in Sabah.

ONLINE
For information on travel in Malaysia, go to malaysia.travel/en/nz.