KAMPUNG BUAYAN (Sabah): Packing to visit Kampung Buayan this time was easier: there was no need to bring leech repellent or thick hiking socks. We were going to travel in style in a 4WD all the way into this once-remote village.
There never used to be a road to Kampung Buayan, about two hours southwest of the Sabah capital of Kota Kinabalu.
The people here only had a jungle track made by their forefathers to link the nine villages here to the nearest town of Penampang. Called the Salt Trail, this track had been used for over a hundred years by the people to get to the market to sell their produce and buy daily items like salt.
But a government-funded earth road arrived in November. We didn't need to reprise our four-hour walk of a year ago through the jungles, over hills and across rivers. There would be no leeches crawling into our shoes, and no risk of falling on slippery rocks over the rivers.
Kampung Buayan is slowly joining the world beyond its ring of mountains. Electricity still comes from solar or generators, but there is intermittent telephone and Internet reception if the phone is hung in a certain position.
Its isolation had allowed this village by the Papar river to remain pristine and serene, but it also made life difficult.
On my last trip there, I met a barefooted 10-year-old girl who walked with us. She had just recovered from dengue after weeks in the hospital. The government's helicopter service flew her out but she was going home on her own.
Even with the new road, the Salt Trail is not altogether abandoned. Julius, a farmer who grew up there, thinks nothing of carrying 12kg gas tanks on his back on the slippery path home. Some children as young as five still walk in the jungles from 6.30 am to get to school in Kampung Buayan. Anway, by 13, the children are separated from their parents to go to school in the town.
The teachers, who teach the 38 children in the primary school, also trek in and out of the village every weekend. Rubber sheets and other produce are floated on a raft down the river to a collection point.
But with the new road, goods can be transported easily, albeit for a fee.
The village's kindergarten teacher Irene was happy that her 20-year-old daughter need not walk home with her luggage after finishing her nursing school in the city.
"She arrived all the way here in a car," she told us with a beam as her daughter entered the house.
The road was a blessing to us as well when one of our party fell ill.
We had planned to stay in Kampung Buayan for three days but on the second day, Lano developed severe abdominal pain. There is no doctor in the village. We managed to call for a car which took a few hours to reach us on the bumpy earth track. In two hours, we were back in the bright lights of Kota Kinabalu.
But the school teacher Mona, who has been here three years, had mixed feelings. "It doesn't feel like Buayan anymore," she said.
On the weekends, it becomes quiet as many people head out for the city lights. The jungle trail is also no longer as well-maintained as it's no more in daily use for most people.
Life will change soon in this little village.