Be a travel pioneer: discover the hidden parts of Borneo

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As a Lonely Planet author, I thought I worked hard to find some of the most tucked-away, wonderful experiences on the planet, but there are people who do me one better in this regard.

Take the Brit I met in Kudat, in northwest Sabah, Borneo.

We sat on a porch drinking 3 Amigos beer from Vietnam. It was watery, semi-sour stuff, but it was cold.

'So what brought you here?' I asked.

'I used to be merchant marine.'

Related article: Bag-snatchers of Borneo

'So what do you do now?'

'I’m an underwater treasure hunter.'

I’d love to see that on a business card. A business card that said 'underwater treasure hunter' would probably beat up all the other business cards in my Rolodex and then take the cutest cards out to dinner.

That’s what this guy does, though, out on the tip of Borneo; he sails his hand-built sailing ship between the South China and Sulu Seas and dives off islands like Pulau Banggi and Balambangan looking for the remains of British East India vessels, Japanese World War II-era fighter planes and other nautical relics of the human migration that has, since men could sail boats, moved across the Borneo coast.

His job isn’t cool just because he gets to introduce himself as an underwater treasure hunter. Kudat, where he has set up shop, is gorgeous. A gnarled fist of deep green jungle, rust red soil, impenetrable mangrove forests and off-white beaches the shade of sour milk, all pinched by water that comes in that astonishing range of blues you only get in the tropics, Kudat is a quiet town primarily inhabited by a smiling mix of Malays, Chinese and indigenous Rungus.

The attitude seems to tick and tock between friendly and laid back. I am romanticising the place a bit – it is also one of the poorest parts of Malaysia – but there is a syrupy languor to life here, and I see how someone could end up staying around for months, or years.

In fact, I was surprised more travellers weren’t around. In my time in Kudat I saw a total of five travellers, including myself. Locals considered this a high number of visitors, which shocked me. With a cheap motorbike a wanderer could easily come here and find sandy beaches that are utterly traveller-free; consistent surfing curls; a local population that is more than happy to practise its English and show you around.

A complaint often levelled against Lonely Planet is that it encourages herd traveling and can 'ruin' untouched destinations, yet Kudat gets decent coverage in our current editions.

In this part of the world at least, I got the sense that the relationship between travel crowds and guidebooks may be overemphasised. In Sabah, most travellers were shooting to cover a triangle that included Mt Kinabalu, the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and the diving islands of Sipandan, with a wildlife-spotting river cruise usually thrown in the mix. These are all great destinations and activities. But places like Kudat are mysteriously ignored, perhaps because the presence of other travellers on the well-grooved Southeast Asian trail becomes a comforting presence that is difficult to ignore.

In my time researching Sabah, almost every destination I visited had the promise of Kudat and the same low numbers of visitors. So get out to these spots. Be the travel pioneer. It’s not as adventurous as being an underwater treasure hunter, but it may be equally rewarding.

Adam Karlin authored Lonely Planet’s guide to Miami & the Keys.