The Ethereal Mermen of Borneo

Far from the pygmy elephants and orangutans, everyday life in Borneo bustles as it plays out in the communities living beyond the island's lush interior. Picking her way along rickety wooden piers and down bustling boardwalks, one photographer captures the textures of a coastal town

When the photographer Emily Garthwaite and I headed to Borneo's Sabah state in search of adventure, we expected to find it only in the country's ancient rainforests and the legendary wildlife that thrives there. While we did indeed experience the thrill of encountering pygmy elephants, saltwater crocodiles and of course, the famed orangutan in the wild (pick up a copy of The Adventure Issue to read more), the snapshots of everyday life glimpsed when journeying along the coast added another texture to our travels.

On the rickety wooden piers of Sim Sim Water Village, one of the few remaining "floating villages" that string the water's edge in the city of Sandakan, we bump into women bustling down the boardwalks wearing bright headscarves, skirts and parasols to shade them from the heavy heat. Crayola-coloured fishing boats hang from posts, bowls of silver fish shine like discarded razor blades and children in Disney-print pyjamas run alongside us - ducking into one of the rainbow houses, we catch a boy stretched out on the peeling linoleum floors, napping away from the midday heat.

In Sandakan's fish market a group of cheeky teenage boys pose like pirates atop their boat, surrounded by plastic baskets full of their catch and winking and yelling above the din of the traders. Later we spot a busy dock on the roadside and delicately pick our way across missing boards towards a boat loaded with jeering men, who quickly settle down when confronted with a camera. One boy lazes in a makeshift hammock-slash-fishing-net like some kind of ethereal merman, as men strip the fish of their scales around him.

@emilygarthwaite |

This article was first published in 2018. It was updated 4 November 2022.

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