The Ethereal Mermen of Borneo

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

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

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

@emilygarthwaite |

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

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