Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo

The flight from Johor to KK was uneventful though the scenery as we descended on the northeastern coast of Borneo was quite spectacular. We’d booked a two bedroom apartment out of town via Booking.com for around 160 MYR per night, what we’d saved on not staying in town would be used to rent a car since the taxis here were very expensive.

A lot of online research was done before the trip and we’d decided not to book any package tours as they too were vastly over-priced; we were quoted US$320 for a 6 hour fishing trip to local islands, visiting orangutans at Sepilok? Prepare to pay upwards of $450 for a family of four, they had an ‘Old Borneo’ steam train journey which looked interesting … but not at $120 per head. And the killer was the Mount Kinabalu climb, a two day expedition for the four of us would have hit us for well over a thousand dollars.

So the hire car it was then and the open road to find our own adventures …

Down town Kota Kinabalu is pretty much like any other Malaysian city; plenty of fast food and shopping malls … oh, and a big marlin. We visited an eco-conservation education centre called Green Connection in the town which offered a unique experience to get up close with some of Borneo’s aquatic wildlife and reptiles.

It was time to get into the wild for real so we drove east towards the Crocker National Park and mountain range and Borneo proper. The urban roads soon gave way to mountain twisties yielding a spectacular new vista around every corner. It is a 2-3 hour drive from KK to the Mount Kinabalu National Park further north through some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen.

We were around 1,850 meters above sea level when we got to the foot of the mountain and it was pleasantly cool up here. Made it to the base camp where the climbers set off for the 8km trek to the summit – it is very regulated and foreigners cannot go without an expensive guide. There is also accommodation half way up the mountain but you’ll be paying a premium to stay in a crusty old dorm. If it was a solo trip I would have done the climb but with four of us it was just not practical, we still had a lot to fit in.

As we ventured deeper into Borneo things got more feral, rustic little villages clinging precariously to the site of the mountains, kids herding goats across the roads, fruit markets selling strawberries, sweet potatoes, and all manner of colder climate produce were setup along the roadside, and a more churches started to appear – it reminded me very much of Berastagi in North Sumatra.

Running low on gas now we stopped at a village called Kundasang which was a bizarre looking place with houses that seemed to have been simply dropped from the sky and scattered across the hillside. No gas station in sight and we only found it hidden away after asking a few locals – funnily enough though there was a KFC here in a shed in the village square, with pork off the menu they do like their fried chicken!

Back in Kota Kinabalu we went to the touristy night market on the waterfront. The seafood looked amazing so we had to try some and opted for a Parrotfish which I’d dived with before but never tasted. Expecting Asian market prices I didn’t bother to check them before we ordered which was a bad idea … we were stung 270 MYR for a couple of fish and a plate of veg. At these rates all of Sabah’s fishermen should be driving Benzes!

Today we were heading south, towards Sarawak, to a wildlife park. As mentioned earlier a chance of seeing some of these creatures in the wild would have cost thousands of dollars, without even a guarantee of an appearance. Many of the animals such as the pygmy elephants, orangutans, and birds of paradise, are indigenous only to Borneo.

We’d been on the road for about a week now and realised that we hadn’t been to the beach yet. There wasn’t much urgency to this considering we live on one but a quick look on Tripadvisor told me there was a local beach famed for its sunsets so we jumped in the car (stopping at the Chinese minimart in Cyber City 2 for a couple of tinnies), and headed over there as the shadows elongated in the late afternoon sun.

One of the very few and rare ‘free’ things to do in Sabah was a dancing fountain in Perdana Park (though you did have to pay to park there), which provided some good photo opportunities by playing around with shutter speeds.

We decided to take a look at the ‘wetlands bird sanctuary’ on our last day in Sabah. This turned out to be a major disappointment – 50 MYR to get in to what essentially was a broken down walkway through a plastic infested mangrove swamp where you could spot the odd Egret if lucky (there are more in my back garden!).

It was time to get on another plane and leave Kota Kinabalu. To be honest I was looking forward to moving on, Sabah was not what I had expected, my mental image of Borneo was one of wild jungles, raging rivers and waterfalls, tribal villages, and epic mountain ranges. This can all be found in Kalimantan though, the Indonesian part of the island. Kota Kinabalu is a pricey tourist city marketed primarily at the Chinese, we saw very few westerners during our visit – it is definitely not somewhere to travel on a budget.