What’s your revenge travel plan for the new year? If you just want to relax and don’t want crowded destinations on a tight schedule, Tenom would fit your travel style. You can fully control your pace and live like a local there. And you won’t be short of interesting places and nice food to explore. If you don’t feel like doing anything, you can just sip a cup of Tenom coffee and read some books in this peaceful town.
Tenom is a small town with a main street that cuts through the town centre, and everything you need is within walking distance. The town is surrounded by rolling hills and sits on a plain nurtured by Padas and Pagalan Rivers.
Located about 185 Metres above sea level in Sabah’s interior, the temperature in Tenom is refreshing, the foggy hills in the morning and dusk are a common sight. Murut (52%), Kadazandusun (12%) and Chinese (8%) make up the majority of the population in Tenom.
3 Special Things about Tenom
Though seen as a low-profile destination and lacking personality, Tenom is very unique actually.
1. Coffee Town
Tenom has been planting coffee for over 100 years, and Tenom Coffee is one of most well-known products of Sabah. The big three local coffee makers are Yit Foh (益和), Fatt Choi (发财), and Tong Fah (东桦). Public can learn the coffee processing at the factories of Yit Foh and Fatt Choi.
Or you can enjoy the coffee at their parks. Most coffee planted in Tenom is of Robusta breed, which has a distinctive earthy aroma, a taste that is strong and bold, with a lingering aftertaste, and more kick in caffeine.
2. Fruit Capital of Sabah
The name “Tenom” is probably coming from the Malay word Tanam (means planting) being mispronounced by the British, the ex-ruler of North Borneo (now Sabah). The soil of Tenom is fertile and turns this district into an orchard base.
Every tropical fruit seems to grow well in Tenom. The most famous fruits of Tenom are Pomelo and Avocado. Many are sold out even before they reach the market in the city. During the fruiting months, tarap, durian, langsat, melon, pineapple and various seasonal fruits will spoil fruit lovers.
3. Swiftlet City
Swiftlet City (燕城) is another nickname of Tenom. Go for cover when dusk approaches Tenom town. Around 6:30pm, flock after flock of birds, most of them are glossy swiftlet, Asian glossy starling and barn swallow (migrant from North Asia), will swarm Tenom town. The only thing you can hear is their chirping echoed loudly.
The birds congregate and spend a night on the trees and electrical wires. Whoever parks their cars under the tree or wire will find their cars covered in bird droppings the next day.
Places to Go and Things to Do
The following is a summary of activities and attractions to experience in Tenom. Please note most of them charge an entry or ticket fee, or require booking.
Tenom is the last terminal station of Sabah train service, the only railway in Borneo. The popular Malaysian movie Ola Bola featured the train ride to Tenom in the opening scene, with mesmerising views of the majestic Padas River and gorges along the journey.
However, if you plan to travel around Tenom district, I strongly advise you to bring your own car. Besides, the train service from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom is disrupted occasionally. You can follow the Facebook of Sabah State Railway for update and latest schedule.
White Water Rafting
Personally I rate the 9-Kilometre Grade IV white water rafting in Padas River as the most exciting activity for adrenaline junkies. Your challenge is to paddle through rapids with nasty nicknames such as Cobra and Washing Machine. In the rainy season, the waves are so rough that the raft is like fighting against the Tsunami. This tour package would include a train ride.
Sabah Agriculture Park (Taman Pertanian Sabah)
Want to see over 20 collections of flowers, fruits, and crops from Borneo and tropical zones of America, Asia and Africa? This mega garden is a suitable outdoor classroom for family and school groups to learn about plants. Read more…
Murut Cultural Centre (Pusat Kebudayaan Sabah)
Tenom is the unofficial HQ of Murut people, the headhunters of Borneo in the past. Murut Cultural Centre, which is also the largest ironwood building of Borneo, is where the Murut heritage and artifacts are exhibited, for example, the burial jar and headhunter sword.
Shopping in Local Markets
The quickest way to learn the culture and lifestyle of the locals is by looking at their markets.
1. Tenom Central Market
You can buy almost everything at Tenom Central Market (Pasar Tenom), to list a few, fruits & vegetables, snacks, seafood, meats, coffee powder, clothing. On the top floor is a food court divided into halal and non-halal sections. I always go there for my favourite meatball & spring roll breakfast.
2. Tamu Market
Tamu is an open-air native market that opens weekly or biweekly in the countryside. It was started as a barter trading site for farmers, fishermen, hunters and traders in the old days, so they could exchange goods. After hundreds of years, tamu is still around but more modern merchandise such as homemade bakery, electric appliances and clothing are available. The tamu of Tenom is open in the morning (6am to 12pm) every Wednesday and Sunday. By the way, cash only please.
Tenom always has a nostalgic vibe because of the old trees around. Local folks like to sit in the shade of big raintrees in the field next to the train station. The trees were planted about 100 years ago by the British.
Another cool tree is a 40-feet hollow tree (Holo Binai Tree) in Kampung Binai, about 2 KM away from Tenom town. The tree survived a lightning bolt but its core is emptied by burning. Watch out for hornet nests in the tree hole.
You can visit Yit Foh Coffee Park or Fatt Choi Coffee Cabin to sample some coffee and learn about coffee making. Both operators offer accommodation at their sites too. Fatt Choi Coffee Cabin is on a hill and provides a panoramic view of Tenom, wonderful as a sunrise and sunset viewpoint.
Padas Farmstay employs a variety of environmental-friendly methods to make farming more sustainable and organic. They show you how crops and livestocks thrive better under green practices.
Yong Farmstay (杨家村)
An old farm site with a mini museum that shows the traditional lifestyle of Chinese Hakka farmers in the past. Riding an ATV is also another fun activity at Yong Farmstay.
Other Places of Interest
You also can explore the following places in Tenom district.
- Pammos View Recreational Park: a riverside park for swimming, BBQ and camping
- Antanom Museum: exhibition on the history of the greatest Murut warrior, Ontoros Antanom
- Rundum Highlands: homestay at the original and historical site of Tenom town
- Marais Centre: homestay to experience village life and Murut culture
- Lumuyu Rock Carving: a 1,000-year-old rock carving by 6 brothers for their deceased youngest brother
Most Chinese in Tenom are Hakka, the descendants of immigrants from Guangdong, China. Besides opening up new farmland, they also introduced some traditional food to Sabah. Some recommended dishes to try in Tenom are:
- Corn-fed Chicken: one of the most yummy chicken in Sabah
- Meatballs & Spring Roll: made of fresh pork, go well with any food
- Tenom Fried Noodle: aromatic wok-fried noodle rich in gravy
- Steamed Pork Belly with Taro: fulfilling and rich in flavors
You can see the full food list in What to Eat in Tenom.
Some decent accommodations are available in Tenom. I stayed in Sakot Hotel, which is affordable and can be booked via AirBnB. Yit Foh Coffee Park and Fatt Choi Coffee Cabin also offer rooms or chalets to guests. For a family trip at a scenic location, Naluyan Jungle Lodge and Tenom Valley are nice choices.
Need more travel advice from the locals when you are in Tenom town? You can drop by the Tourism Information Centre (Phone: +60 87-733508, +60 11- 51109687) in Tenom Coffee Valley, which is near the train station. The Go Tenom website has a lot of useful information too.