Category Archives: Food

Giant Fig Fruit with Big Uses

Wong couple selling fig fruit in Tamu market of Donggongon

Note: This article contains incorrect information. This fruit is not a fig. It’s a fruit under the genus Crescentia (蒲瓜), which is more related to Calabash or bottle gourd. My apology.)

Medicines are bad, herbs are good. This is how most Sabahans view drugs. It’s always a bitter feeling to bring home a lot of colorful candies (pills) from the clinic. Sabahans describe western medicines as a powerful but “toxic” remedy, and you can often hear us say, “It’s too ‘chemical’ and has side effects!”

small fig fruits on tree

Fig fruit is normally very small

That’s why we prefer herbs as it’s more natural and gentle (true in most cases, but not absolutely). In old days, local people have been using plant to heal various type of diseases. Some scientists even say our rainforest is the biggest pharmacy in the world.

monkey picking fig fruit

Fig fruit is a very important food source for wildlife of Borneo

Two months ago, I was intrigued by a photo taken by my friend in tamu (local weekly alfresco market) of Donggongon town. It is a huge fig fruit as big as a cannon ball!

Known as Buah Maja locally, fig tree is everywhere in Sabah. It is so common that Quentin Phillipps, the author of the book Phillipps’ Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and Their Ecology, says in Borneo, you are rarely more than 100 Meters away from a fig. Fig is the fruit of life in rainforest, and it’s an important food source for Borneo wildlife.

Fig fruit for sale

Fig fruit for sale

Though I’ve seen dozens of fig fruit species, most of them are small, I never saw one that is so big. Therefore, I went to the tamu of Donggongon town, which is open in the mornings of every Thursday and Friday. It didn’t take long for me to locate the stall that sold this fig fruit. The seller, Mr. Wong is very friendly and eager to introduce this amazing fruit to me.

I was surprised to learn that this fig fruit is consumed as herb rather than fruit. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Though Sabah doesn’t have apple, this giant-green-apple-looking fig fruit probably can offer the same health benefits.

fig fruit almost as big as a soccer ball

This fig fruit species is almost as big as a soccer ball

According to Mrs Wong, the wife of seller, she discovered this fruit in Lido and paid RM20 for it. At first her husband scold her for paying too much. Due to high Cholesterol level, she used to wake up with a dizzy head in the morning. After she drank the juice of this fruit, miracle happened. This discomfort vanished.

Therefore, her husband also becomes an advocate of this fig fruit. He plants and sells the fruits and juice. Based on what I found online, figs are high in fiber and a good source of magnesium, manganese, calcium, copper and potassium (which helps lower blood pressure), as well as vitamins, especially K and B6.

Other alleged benefits include detoxification and the ability to cure asthma, hemorrhoid, thyroiditis, minor kidney problem, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, constipation, fever, cough, etc. (I would strongly recommend you to see a doctor if you are sick). Anyway, the nutrition composition may vary among different fig species. Not all figs are edible.

Fig tree with big fruits

Fig tree with low hanging big fruits

The good thing is – herb is relatively safe to experiment for people who are looking for alternative treatment for ailments and hard-to-cure diseases. This fig juice can be taken as a traditional tonic too.

Mr. Wong sells the fig fruit for RM5-10 each. You can boil its pulp with water for 3 hours until the juice turns dark. If you are too busy to do this, you can buy the juice from him for only RM3 per bottle (which is boiled with other herbs too). You can drink the juice like water. However, it’s not an instant fix that can heal everything overnight, so you need to try it for some time.

Mr. Wong sells fig fruit juice for RM3 per bottle (500ml)

Mr. Wong sells fig fruit juice for RM3 per bottle (500ml)

If you want to plant this fig, the seedling is sold for RM20. It takes 3 years to mature, and it fruits throughout the year, so you will have so many fruits that you can even sell or share with others.

Seedling of fig tree

Seedling of fig tree

Everyone wants to be healthy. Selling multivitamin supplement makes nutraceutical firms laugh all the way to the bank. The fact is – these synthetic and unnatural forms of vitamin can’t be used by the body in the same way as natural versions, and it could do more harm than good, according to the Organic Consumers Association.

Fig fruit herb juice for sale

Fig fruit herb juice for sale

Most man-made vitamins are simply a waste of money. I used to take heavy daily dose of Vitamin C for months, but it did nothing more than turning my urine into yellow. After I get real Vitamin C by eating fruits, I see positive changes in less than a week. Some might argue that I should pay higher price to get Vitamin pills of better quality. Well, why not spending that money to buy real and natural food?

The expensive solution is not always the best solution. Pharmaceutical companies and some doctors love clients to buy medicines, so they can make profit. Therefore, they like to label folk prescription with the magic phrase “not scientifically proven”, rather than saying “I don’t know because our institution is too poor to fund a research. But I can’t say that it might work because I won’t make any money. Besides, I’m so afraid that you would sue me if anything doesn’t go well.”

Fig fruit (Buah Maja)

Fig fruit is known as Buah Maja in Malay language

For example, Tongkat Ali could be a great alternative to the expensive blue “V” pill and needs no doctor recommendation. Soursop is an excellent agent to fight cancer better than radiotherapy, which is infamous for its nasty side effects.

Ok, back to the fig fruit. I’m a very curious person, so I can’t stop without looking what is inside this big fruit. I bought one home to dissect it in the kitchen.

This fruit has very hard and smooth skin, so be careful with your knife. For my mom, it’s an easy task to cut it into half. The skin is thin and hard, like an eggshell.

white flesh of fig fruit

The flesh of this fig fruit is sweet and sour, with weird taste like medicine.

I can smell a very fresh and fruity aroma when it is open. The flesh is marshy and soft, with scattered brown seeds. I tasted its pulp. It’s sweet with a bit of sour that smells like herb. Frankly it isn’t yummy, which is logic, because things with medical properties never taste great.

marshy flesh of fig fruit

The flesh of fig fruit is marshy

This fig is just one of the treasures in Borneo. We should read the story below:
The U.S. National Cancer Institute funded a 1987 plant collection expedition on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian State of Sarawak. Among the samples obtained were those from the tree Calophyllum lanigerum var austrocoriaceum, an incredibly rare species. When extracts of this plant were discovered to show good antiviral activity toward the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), researchers returned to the site of the original collection to find that the tree was gone, cut down for firewood or building purposes. (Source: Rainforest Trust News)

fig fruit cut into half

The flesh of fig fruit has very pleasing fresh aroma

You see. A precious plant that might hold the key to cure AIDS was used as firewood or building materials! We really need to carry out more studies to uncover more secret formula in our plant to battle illness.

Photos taken in Donggongon, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

You might also like:

Sunsuron Homestay in Tambunan, the Valley of Bamboo

cultural performance of Sunsuron Homestay

Tourism is defined [1] as “…the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment…” Oh yea, travelling should be an extraordinary experience. If we go sightseeing like a typical tourist, everyone would see the same thing and go home telling the same story. Probably the only interaction between most tourists and the locals is waving hands to each other to and from a tourist bus.

Group photo with Tambunan Valley in the background

Group photo with Tambunan Valley in the background

Therefore, instead of staying in a hotel that looks no different to other hotels in your hometown, you may consider homestay. In hotel you are just a guest, in homestay you are a friend. Don’t just leave your footprint on a foreign land, leave a wonderful memory between you and the local people.

Sumazau dance by Dusun Tambunan people

Sumazau dance by Dusun Tambunan youth

Last month I decided to live like a local in homestay of Kampung Sunsuron (“Kampung” is Village in Malay word) in Tambunan, a remote town 80 Kilometers away from Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital city of Sabah. The mountainous landscape, cooling climate and scenic greenery earns Tambunan the nickname Switzerland of the East.

Sunsuron Village & Homestay

Tambunan is on a highland with average altitude of 750 Meters, so it is refreshing and can be quite chilling at night. Besides, it’s a land uninvaded by McDonald’s and Starbucks, where you can appreciate more authentic cultural experience and village lifestyle.

One of the houses of Sunsuron Homestay

One of the houses of Sunsuron Homestay

More than 130 years ago, the Sunsuron area was uninhabited, because it was a hot zone of headhunting and tribe wars. In 1885, British North Borneo Chartered Company established police base in Sunsuron to end the unrest.

Bamboo trees and shrubs in Tambunan

Bamboo is everywhere in Tambunan, and this is not by accident.

Thanks to Taliban and the bygone British colonial government, Tambunan is also known as the Valley of Bamboo. When peace was restored in 1930s, flourishing agriculture and development created huge demand for bamboo, which caused over-harvesting and led to more shortage of bamboo.

Guests enjoying the traditional dance performance

Welcoming traditional dance for the guests of homestay

Therefore, OKK Taliban, the first Native Chief of Tambunan, worked with Peter Lupang Tingkalus from Tambunan Forestry Department, to implement a policy requiring everyone to plant ten bamboo for every bamboo cut [2]. This worked so well that thriving bamboo has became an icon of Tambunan.

Welcoming gong by villagers

Welcoming gong by villagers

The name Sunsuron is the slip of the tongue over time from the Kadazan Dusun word “Sunsuyon”, which means bridge. There was a bamboo bridge for the villagers to cross the Sunsuron River at that time. The host of our homestay is Mr. Peter Gatulik and his wife. Peter is a retired police officer and his children had grown up and live somewhere else, leaving some empty rooms that he is happy to offer to traveller who wants a home away from hometown.

Gastronomic Adventure

Homestay in Sabah means more than cheap accommodation. You live like part of their family. It’s not a hotel where you can find bellboy or your favorite sweet-and-sour food.

traditional food as dinner

“We have everything except pizza and muffin. Please make yourself at home.”

You eat what they eat. No salad but tuhau; No salmon but basung; No red wine but lihing. None of our exotic food tastes like chicken. Enjoy the acquired taste!

Traditional appetizer (from left): Serunding Tuhau, Tuhau and Bambangan

Traditional appetizer (from left): Serunding Tuhau, Tuhau and Bambangan

In Sabah culture, food is important for building friendship, so your host will make sure that you are well-fed. For traditional appetizers, you would be given hinava (fish slices marinated in lime juice), tuhau (a type of wild ginger) and bambangan (pickled mango-like fruit).

Feast on local food

Feast on local food

Hinava is a “safe choice”. For first timers, tuhau can either taste like stink bug or food from heaven to them. No matter what, Tambunan is famous for Tuhau, so at least take a bite, or you can try Serunding (Deep-fried) Tuhau, a less potent version of tuhau.

Meat soup with banana trunks

Broth with wild banana stems (umbut pisang)

You are lucky if it is the season for getting Borot (a type of small freshwater fish) and Birid (horn shell) from local river. Both are delicacy only available in rural area. Our traditional dish could be a bit of culture shock to you, but just be open-minded. You don’t travel a long way to Sabah just to eat hotel food right.

Linopot: rice and food wrapped in tarap leaf

Linopot: rice and food wrapped in leaf

Just for fun, they also serve linopot, which is rice wrapped in big leaf. In the past, farmers and hunters brought linopot with them to the field and used the leaf as a plate.

Steamed Tilapia fishes

Steamed Tilapia fishes

Tambunan is an agricultural district, so the meals of homestay usually comprise fresh and organic vegetables from local plantation. You would find that almost every house in village has a mini-farm and fish pond besides garden.

Lihing (left) and Tapai (right), rice wines of Sabah

Lihing (left) and Tapai (right) are rice wines of Sabah

The villagers are very friendly, so it’s quite likely you would be offered a couple of drink. You may love the idea of warming up your body with locally brewed liquor in the cool evening, or you can politely decline if you don’t drink, no problem at all.

Beer and banana fritters

Beer and banana fritters as our breakfast lol

Normally beer and wine are not included in homestay unless you request. Anyway, you would be invited to wedding or festival celebrations if there is any nearby, so be prepared.

Turtle Rocks

Village is an excellent source of folk stories about strange things, but I was surprised that there is a weird “treasure” in the front yard of my host. Interestingly enough, it’s a rock, not gold or gem.

A pair of turtle rocks that look like carapace

A pair of “turtle” rocks that look like carapace. It’s Ms Bibiana beside them.

More than two decades ago, Peter was on duty and patrolled around Pamol, Sandakan. A contractor was digging the ground to build a house near to a river, and pair of strange rocks were unearthed. Peter found the rocks very beautiful because they looked like the carapace of a turtle. Since nobody wanted them, he took them back home and left them at the staircase.

The turtle rock is quite heavy

The turtle rock is quite heavy

The amazing rocks generated a lot of curiosity and the news spread. The rocks were even featured in Mystic magazine. Then a Chinese from Peninsular Malaysia offered RM30,000 (≈USD$7,300) to buy the turtle rocks. Even though the offer was irresistible, Peter cherished such serendipity and decided to keep them.

Turtle Rocks

The value of these rocks is almost worth a car!

Before leaving, this buyer was kind to advise Peter that it’s more auspicious to place these rocks near the water. Probably this has something to do with Feng Shui, as tortoise or turtle is a sign of longevity and water symbolizes wealth.

Bottom of the Turtle Rock

Bottom of the Turtle Rock

Therefore, Peter put these rocks at the fish pond in his front yard. OMG I can’t believe he just leaves the RM30,000 rocks laying around like that. The whole village knows about these rocks, but for 20 years nobody steals them. Btw, Peter also welcomes anyone to study these rocks and tell him why they are so special.

Anyway, Bibiana, the daughter of Peter showed me more unbelievable things in Kampung Sunsuron, when we toured around the village later.

House of Skulls

In the past, the people of Sunsuron practised head-hunting to defend their territory. The skull was kept as a war trophy which locals believe was endowed with supernatural power and would protect the owner. Some said whenever their enemies approached their village, these skulls would shout to warn the people.

Checking out the House of Skulls

Checking out the House of Skulls

Most of the 35 skulls were the followers of Mat Salleh and collected during his last battle with British at Tambunan plain in 1900. These skulls were used to be hanged or placed in a wooden hut that didn’t last and always required repair, so a concrete head house was built, next to Spiritu Tobitua Church and a burial ground, in June 1959 by Y.N. Gampin to house the skulls.

Head House next to Spiritu Tobitua Church of Kampung Sunsuron

The Head House is next to Spiritu Tobitua Church of Kampung Sunsuron

The locals call this head house Sunsuron Guritom. Guritom means black people in Kadazan Dusun language, because Mat Salleh’s followers had darker skin than Sunsuron people. One of the skulls belong to Sambatangan, the most-wanted hero of the enemy, whose head is said as big as a bucket. The head house is still standing today (GPS Location: 5.742147, 116.377498, see Location Map or Street View), but the skulls are gone (a local says some of them are buried under the head house) because somebody stole them for use in black or white magic.

photo next to head house of skulls

The plan of head house is almost square (about 1 Meter in width and height), and the roof is in the form of pyramid, with an apex surmounted with a concrete image of a skull.

According to a research [3], at least half of the skulls were female, the majority being either young or very old, while some 10 percent of the remainder are adolescent boys.

An old skull belongs to a headhunter (now kept by Sabah Museum)

An old skull belongs to a headhunter (now kept by Sabah Museum)

In early days, you must ask head-house keeper to take you to visit the head house. If you go alone you must pay 2 dollars sogit (fine) to the village. People who disturb the skull would become sick, insane, or worst, die.

Inscription on the Head House of Kampung Sunsuron

Inscription on the Head House

The elder villagers would tell you that the village used to perform ritual to feed and appease these skulls annually. Villagers were required to contribute some money to share the cost of buying food such as buffalo. If the ritual was postponed, people would hear the noise of chattering teeth from the skulls, it was freaking scary when there was no lamppost at night that time. However, villagers were too poor to feed them, so the last ritual was performed in 1970s, with Bobolian (native priest) declared to the skulls that there would be no more feeding.

Watu Tinuridung the Bulletproof Stone

Just a stone’s throw away from the Head House is the historical Watu Tinuridung Stone (GPS Location: 5.742725, 116.378539. See Location Map). According to oral tradition of Kampung Sunsuron, this stone was found in late 19th century, the time Mat Salleh revolted against the British ruling.

Watu Tinuridung stone was used as bullet shield by the rebels in old days

This menhir is 2.13 Meters high with an average thickness of 23 cm.

In 1898, Mat Salleh agreed to ceasefire (Palatan Peace Pact) with British North Borneo and stayed in Tambunan. However, Mat Salleh was hostile to Kampung Sunsuron, and he raided the village. Mat Salleh was more well-equipped with weapons such as cannon, so Kampung Sunsuron was asking for help from British government.

Watu Tinuridung stone

This Watu Tinuridung stone was part of a 40-Meter circular defensive site. I found no bullet mark on the stone though.

The men of Sunsuron also prepared to defend themselves by digging a circular hollowed-out area, which has a circumference of 40 Meters, and used the earth to erect ramparts around it [4]. The excavated area was deep enough to hide standing men behind the wall. While digging they saw this large and flat stone and thought it’s an excellent shield for firearm. They erected the stone to make it stood.

Mat Salleh was killed by the British in 1900

Mat Salleh was defeated by the British force in 1900 with the help of Sunsuron warriors (Actually he was shot by a Maxim machine gun)

In local dialect, the action of erecting something is called monuridung hence this stone was named Tinuridung. Then two priestesses (bobolian) performed a ceremony to invite the spirit to reside in this stone as a guardian to keep the village away from any sickness and harm.

A car shields itself from sunlight with Watu Tinuridung stone

A car uses Watu Tinuridung stone as a shield to sunlight haha

Until today, some villagers believe a friendly spirit is still living inside Watu Tinuridung. Probably for this reason they don’t remove the stone, and it also becomes a memorial to commemorate the brave Sunsuron warriors who perished in the war.

Traditional Tambunan House

There is a traditional Tambunan house beside Watu Tinuridung Stone (GPS Location: 5.742818, 116.378591. See Location Map). This house was a real residence but now vacant after it was gazetted by Sabah Museum as a heritage house.

A traditional Tambunan house in Sunsuron Village

A traditional Tambunan house in Sunsuron Village

The bamboo house is raised on hardwood stilts, sometimes large river stones are used instead. Though the window is small, the translucent quality of bamboo allows enough light to get inside the house.

Photo behind the Tambunan traditional house

The double pitched roof made entirely of interlocking bamboo shingles is the main characteristic of Tambunan bamboo house [5]

The beauty of this house is it was first constructed without using any nail. The wood, bamboo and poles are lashed together with rattan strips. However, after the ongoing maintenance, some nails are added to the structure.

Explore inside the Tambunan house

Sirang is main part of the house, where residents eat and entertain the guests

This is a 100% wooden house, and most of the floor and wall are made of bamboo. There were many taboos in house building. For example, bamboo should not be taken during the time of full moon, and it’s bad luck to orientate the house entrance to the path of the setting sun, which is associated with death.

Chamber for young girls

The top is where the girls sleep, or is used as a storeroom (dumpang)

For safety reason, young girls overnight in an attic (Linimput), a small platform built above the house’s main cross-lintel, and parents would remove the ladder that accesses their room. The rattan knots that bind the wood together are already an art. I wonder how many people can tie these knots nowadays.

Wood and poles bind by rattan ropes

Wood tied by rattan. Note how they join two poles together in photo at the left.

Sunsuron is awesome huh? Currently, there are 18 families participated in Sunsuron Homestay (Muslim host available). The standard rate of accommodation (with 2 meals) in homestay is RM85 per day (≈US$21/day). You can request your host to organize more activities (additional fees applied) such as visiting Mahua Waterfall, Mt. Trus Madi, Mt. Wakid, Batu Gong Rock and Rafflesia Information Center, biking, birding, fishing and hiking.

The following is the contact of Sunsuron Homestay. You are advised to book the tour earlier instead of walking in:
Facebook: ValleyOfSwitzerland
Sunsuron Homestay’s Coordinator: Ms Bibiana P. Gatulik (Cellphone: +60 14-6792148)


  1. Definition by World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)
  2. Source: Bamboo Planting in Tambunan, by Rahim Sulaiman
  3. For further reading: Head-hunting and the Magang Ceremony in Sabah, by Peter R. Phelan, published by Natural History Publications (Borneo), ISBN-13: 978-9839638158
  4. See Traditional stone and wood monuments of Sabah, by Peter R. Phelan, ISBN-13: 978-9839722031
  5. More Info: The Tambunan Bamboo House in Local and national History, by Richard Nelson Sokial, Vol 23 – The Sabah Society Journal – (2006)

Photos taken in Tambunan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

You might also like: