Surrounded by stretches of cocoa and oil palm plantations, Lahad Datu is a small remote town located at the eastern part of Sabah, Malaysia. There are over 100,000 people living in this area with majority of Malay, Chinese and other ethnic groups. However, in early 2013, Lahad Datu became a site of standoffs between Malaysian security forces and suspected members of a known rebel group. Subsequently, it has become a-place-to-avoid mentioned in many travel websites and labelled as ‘a dangerous place to go’ in many people’s minds.
In December 2015, when I told my friends and family that I’m visiting this city for a friend’s wedding, I received comments like ‘Are you crazy?’, ‘It’s dangerous!’, ‘For the air fare that you’re paying, you can actually travel to Bangkok twice.’ and many more. After my 3 days 2 nights stay, it has changed my perception towards this place. Special thanks to a friend, Lok Lim, who has shared some interesting stories about the culture of this small commercial town and photos of its surrounding.
1) Everyone speaks fluent Bahasa Malaysia
Let’s be honest, not all of us speaks fluent Bahasa Malaysia although we learn this from young. But in Lahad Datu, doesn’t matter if you are Malay, Chinese, Indian, or any Ethic groups, EVERYONE speaks 100% fluent Malay language. It was pretty impressive!
2) Most Preferred Vehicles - Four-Wheel Drives and Trucks
Most of the vehicles you can find in Lahad Datu are Four-Wheel Drives and trucks because majority of the population work in the industrial or plantation areas which filled with bad-condition roads. Hence, they need these heavy-duty vehicles to ‘Naik Kem’, a Lahad Datuan told me that it is a Malay verb that means going into oil palm plantation or construction sites.
3) Be specific when you order your drinks
When you thought you are so familiar with the kopitiam beverage terms since you’re a true blue Malaysian, you are wrong! In Lahad Datu, the waiter/ waitresses will not understand if you only mention ‘Kopi panas’ or ‘Kopi ais’. You will need to be specific by adding ‘what-do-you-want’ after your kopi such as -O for without milk, -Nai for condensed milk, -C for evaporated milk, -Gao for double shot, and -Kosong for black coffee. Then you tell them whether you want it panas or peng (cold).
4) Noodles for breakfast
While Malaysians in the west eat bread, Nasi Lemak, and Roti Canai for breakfast, noodles are Lahad Datuan’s daily breakfast. The local coffee shops serve variety types of noodles such as yellow noodles, vermicelli, and rice noodle that cooks in different styles for breakfast.
5) Cool places to hang out with friends
Lahad Datu is not a dead town. There are a few options for youngsters to hang out with friends to chit chat over food and drinks. Some restaurant chains like Secret Recipe, Pizza Hut, and KFC are also available here.
6) A place for Flora and Fauna Conservation
Lahad Datu has several tourist attractions including Tabin Wildlife Reservation, Borneo Rainforest Lodge as well as Danum Valley Conservation Area. These award-wining tourist areas feature extensive diversity of tropical flora and fauna as well as over hundreds of wildlife animals. It is definitely a heaven for naturalists.
7) Cost of living is equivalent to Kuala Lumpur
Lahad Datu was being said as one of the most expensive cities in the country. One semi-detached house might cost close to RM1mil; a bowl of dried noodle is currently priced at RM7.00; a Mee Goreng Mamak costs RM4.00 in Lahad Datu. Unbelievable, isn’t it? Many people said that there are a lot of low-profile millionaires living in this town, on the other hand, with the rising cost of living that is pressuring the people, we can also find an increasing number of homeless people here.
8) One of the Smallest Airports in Malaysia
The airport looks like a size of a train station. It is located at the central of Lahad Datu. Usually the locals will not follow the rules of checking in 2 hours before departure, they will only do so when they hear the sound of plane landing as it only takes 5 to 10 mins to arrive at the airport for those who live in the nearby neighbourhood.
9) Air fare to Lahad Datu is crazy expensive!
There is only one airline operating the route to and from Lahad Datu. MasWings offers 4-5 trips per day between Lahad Datu and Kota Kinabalu. Not sure if this is the pricing strategy of being a monopoly, MasWings charges approximately RM400 per return flight for a 55 mins journey. Don’t forget to drink the fruit juices when they are served because you can never find any other juices that are as expensive as what MasWings offers.
10) A congested town on Fridays
Friday is the day when double parking becomes legal around the mosques. Lahad Datu’s largest mosque is located near the harbour. On every Friday afternoon, you will see chaos on those roads leading towards the mosque. Other non-Muslims will also take this opportunity to ‘blend’ into the Friday prayers culture where you can see their cars are parked all over the place.