Walk the planks
'I think you've seen nothing of Semporna,' says Joseph Yapp Yuk-tong, proprietor of the Floating Restaurant. I've dropped in after a six-hour exploration of Kampung Air, the biggest water village in the area surrounding the town of Semporna.
'Wait,' he says, walking away then returning with some photographs. They show clusters of spindly, box-shaped, thatched stilt-houses built over the sea and the Bajau people who live in them.
'Are they around here?' I ask.
'I'll take you there tomorrow.'
'That means I'll have to change all my travel plans.'
Semporna is in the far southeast of the Malaysian state of Sabah, which constitutes the northern part of the island of Borneo. It was founded as a trading post in 1887 by the British North Borneo Chartered Company, whose agenda was to tax the thriving local trade in turtle eggs, sea cucumbers, dried fish, birds' nests, shark fins and pearls.
The region, which is close to the Sulu Islands of the Philippines, was once a haven for pirates and slave traders, and for the boat-dwelling nomads - the Bajau Laut - who were suspected by the company of plying both these industries. A sizeable fleet of Bajau lepas (house-boats) used to be moored seasonally in Semporna's harbour but, with the gradual abandoning of the seafaring lifestyle, the lepas have all but disappeared. In their place is a network of kampung air - or 'water villages' - such as the aforementioned, and descriptively named, one, almost all of which are connected by rickety, raised wooden walkways.
Everyone who ventures along the plank-walks encounters the hospitality of these people. In my case it's an invitation for coffee from the Amang family and a tour of their huge and well-furnished home, as well as the honour of witnessing a marriage celebration at the Boneh family's two-storey house. This is a spectacular event complete with a traditional dance performed to the rhythm of drums, cymbals and xylophones.
The domain of the Bajau Laut stretches out from Kampung Air towards three islets known collectively as Pu' Bangau-Bangau. It is here that Yapp wants to take me, to the village of Kampung Bangau-Bangau and, even farther afield, to Kampung Halo.
What sets Bangau-Bangau apart from nearby villages is the vibrant life and colour along the kilometre-long walkway that leads to and from it and the islets. The 'path' is lined with shops and stalls. However, the farther along it you venture, the fewer the stalls - and planks.
By the time I reach the first of the Bangau-Bangau islets I am hopping (and hoping) from one spindly cross-strut to the next.
Semporna's Bajau Laut have buried their dead on one of these islets for centuries. The graves are now Muslim, in line with the conversion to Islam that most of the sea folk have undergone. To the land-dwelling Tausug-speaking peoples of the Sulu Islands, the sea folk were once outcasts - pagans with no status or home. For more than 1,000 years, the lot of the Bajau was to roam the seas.
The gypsies journeyed far, exploring an area of more than 10.2 million square kilometres and touching many shores: Palawan to the north, Mindanao to the east and, to the south, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, even Timor and Flores.
But the lives of the Bajau have changed. Drawn into Semporna's cash economy, they are increasingly sedentary. About 140,000 live in stilt kampung, from which they have access to a hospital and mosques.
A primary school is on another of the Pu' Bangau-Bangau islets. While visiting, I inadvertently distract the children from their lessons. The islet's outbound plank-walk feels too bouncy for my weight so I crawl, accompanied by a shrill chorus of children's laughter.
About 100 metres from the shore of the cemetery islet is Kampung Halo, the subject of Yapp's photographs. It comprises two clusters of thatched stilt houses and is home to recently arrived refugees fleeing political unrest in the Sulus and hard economic times. It is the only kampung not accessible by the walkways and Yapp informs me I may be its first foreigner visitor.
As we approach by boat, Kampung Halo's isolation is evident. There are no electric cables and no attachments to the land. I certainly feel like the first outsider to have stepped onto its shaky plank-walks.
The children pile out of their homes, looking confused and apprehensive. When reassured, they run amok, showing how deftly they can negotiate the spindly boards. There is nowhere I can aim my camera without them being in the frame. They seem to treat every house as their own, running in then peering at me from the windows and doors. Women sit on landings shredding tapioca and cleaning fish. A small stall sells cooking oil and sweets. The huts seem exceptionally crude: a small box for possessions, a cooking hearth and woven mats are the only furnishings.
The villagers are clearly happy I have come and want me to stay. Unfortunately, I have a plane to catch. How can I tell them that? As I take my leave, some adults join the children to see me off: 20 gleaming faces and 20 robust sets of lungs.
'Hey, go tell the world we're here!' they scream.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Malaysia Airlines flies daily from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau. Semporna is a 40-minute drive from Tawau; taxis, minibuses and rental cars are available.