Malaysian Borneo and that mountain

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July 8th 2009
Published: July 10th 2009
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Malaysian Borneo

Reflections on time spent away

So, 9th July, and I’ve been travelling five months exactly; what can I say about this milestone other than I’ve definitely grown into it? Checking in to a new room, packing, unpacking, repacking has developed into a natural rhythm. Seeing new things, meeting strangers, making friends of strangers, shy aloofness has turned into open friendliness and the heat I’m utterly used to now. I could do this travel out of bag lark for a long time I think and I’m thinking of other travel destinations already - Africa, India, more of Burma perhaps?

I never thought I’d think it (seems too bleedin’ obvious for a start) but the 9-5 job, house, Fridays evenings down the pub - there is an alternative to that. Don’t worry - I have no desire to become exotic-ised - a scuba diving “master” for example who seem to take a thoroughly unique experience on a paradise island and killing it being a job. I’m thinking of teaching English maybe, and maybe in a country that deserves a bit of help, probably Cambodia or Burma. I’ll keep you posted on plans for pausing my life and reality of a 9-5 job (with mortgage).

The other thing I can definitely say after six months of travel - and wait for the profundity of this: my bag is stupidly heavy. AJ has been taking the piss out of me because he lives out of a large backpack which he can carry everywhere with him and onto planes too. However, h seems to be doing his laundry every 3 days and I’m sick of his 3 t-shirts - get a new wardrobe AJ! Additionally, he’s here in SE Asia for 2 months - whereas I’m here 6 months and I’ve always been going onwards to an Australian winter and I don’t intend on buying new winter things when I have them already.

Getting a bit lairy in KL

So, I’ve previously written about how Malaysians I’ve met so far have been super friendly and nice - of course as soon as I wrote this I met some people who deserve a slap. At the bus station in Kuala Lumpur AJ and I tried to book a bus ticket to Singapore, a six hour journey but the only problem being there are about 50 counters from different bus companies, oh and it’s chaotic. So, we walked around, getting accosted by “wide boys” who asked you where you were going etc. It didn’t help that AJ has a real aversion to these approaches whereas I am more often than not cheery about it (they’re doing their job after all and well if I actually go with one).

So whilst we check out some counters for buses to see what they have to offer, AJ is expending energy “being” pissed off - side stepping them and muttering insults as he goes. I think I know what I’m doing because I bought a ticket for Melaka a few days earlier. But AJ gets a bit cranky because they’re all very similar (which is why they have hawkers approaching you!) and he thinks checking out different companies is pointless. Anyway, I’m busy asking questions along the lines of, do you have TVs on the bus, snacks/drinks, is it double-decker etc. We’re getting vague replies of course and I have to see through that in order to make a decision about who we go with, not that it really matters AJ thinks. I disagree as there are better bus companies - you just have to avoid the bs; and to be honest this search is not a matter of life or death - I regard it as all part of the experience of travel and of this particular culture.

What’s complicating this further is the fact I’m a native English speaker, and I am able to communicate myself more clearly with people who speak English but maybe as a second language, or not very well, whereas my Dutch friend is not a native speaker and cannot do the above. So, AJ is asking questions that they do not understand or he is unable to understand, and getting answers that are not clear - frustration all round. So, I'm getting tired of this and I take the lead. One counter is being jovial and I’m being jovial back about what they actually offer, but AJ takes a flippant comment from them as an insult and petulantly walks off! Thanks AJ! He’s embarrassed himself and me because I pointlessly reassure them we’ll be back, but one punk shouts at me not to come back!

This is a red flag to Murtagh boy of course, so I holler back that he’s rude and that they were “not nice Malaysians” - simple language for a simple person of course. He then angrily follows me around for a bit, forgetting he has a job to do, or maybe this is his work? The young men in this place all seem to be gossiping, lounging or pissing about half the time. Anyway, first arse hole of Malaysia at the arse hole that is KL bus station.

AJ is convinced all the counters are the same, I have an internal certitude that this is not the case, and of course I find an upmarket bus counter what sells us a ticket for a bus with big reclining seats and a TV on each seat, plus it’s only 10 Malaysian Ringgit more than all the others (about 1.50 GDP). We book that and get the hell out of there.

Singapore (briefly)

We stay with “Chris” again that night, go back to his place, but AJ has his suspicions that the guy is gay, is holding some kind of gay couch surfing residence and is immediately pretty cagey around him. I have to admit, watching Desperate Housewives together both in our boxer shorts felt “weird”. Regardless, he’s my host for KL, been very gracious towards me and so should the big man. We get a lift into KL the next morning, listening to KL English language radio (they even have a prank call feature called ‘Gotcha!’, but it’s, well, shit).

“Chris” takes me to breakfast nearby to his work but AJ insists he needs some ”European” food, so on his own he get's his “European food” at Euro food central - Starbucks. Thought that was a bit rude towards someone who just put you up last night AJ.

Anyway, we say our goodbyes without Mr Europe and have breakfast of roti chennai - gracious host is our "Chris" but when I get to Starbucks AJ isn't there - so I head onto to the bus station alone. Bad news: the bus company at the counterr says our nice TV on seat bus is not in service because it’s broken down and I'm left thinking whether there ever was a bus. However, I did get my 10 Ringgit back, but more problems AJ isn’t there with 15 minutes to go, so I’m a bit irritable. On my way to the bus platform I bump into him, hard to miss a 6ft 3inches tall
The Ascent: Mount KinabaluThe Ascent: Mount KinabaluThe Ascent: Mount Kinabalu

4,000 metres to go!
Dutchman - and I'm a bit peeved but he insists he was at the counter and that I needn’t have worried. However, he later admits that he’d gone to the wrong counter of course. Are you sensing strains in this relationship? 😊

Anway, more bs- we can’t find our bus at the platform and after a while asking people and useless bus drivers, AJ goes back to the right counter and we are given another bus platform and a later departure time, an hour later in fact. The journey was uneventful, apart from getting to the border of Singapore, and having to change buses a few times and it taking about an hour to get in. Singapore’s Customs even opened up and searched both our bags, where they found AJ’s laser torch (super powerful btw) but he fended them off with a “disco” torch.

By the time we get out of Singapore border control we are running short of time to get to Changi airport in time for check in. So, we had to jump into a taxi to the airport that cost us about 8 GDP each.

Sabah and Malaysian Borneo

We get to the airport in time and of course the flight has been delayed by about 15 minutes. Singapore already seems like a well organized place and the budget terminal of the airport is spotlessly clean and modern.

The flight with Tiger Airways is fine and we arrive in Kota Kinabalu (formerly known as Jessleton when it was British North Borneo) at about 10:30pm. We get a taxi to the Step In hostel in town and crash at a mixed dormitory. That’s where Karen from Alberta is too and we get chatting about lots of things, turns out her family are Dutch too. She leaves the next day but leaves me a note listing her email address for Face book.

Arranging a meeting with Mount Kinabalu

First things first, climbing the mountain is the easy part, getting accommodation and the rest is the challenge. Here’s the deal, Mount Kinabalu at over 4,000 meters (13,200 feet) is the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The two day ascent with one night on the mountain involves paying a lot of money; you have to obtain an expensive park permit, mountain guide, insurance, and accommodation, which are all over priced. To complicate things, and what actually puts you off, is the fact that there is limited accommodation up there in that there mountain and it’s monopolized by one company, Sutera Sanctuary Lodges. The limited accommodation is also booked months in advance, and we’d already checked with them.

We knew all of this before hand and decided to forego the trip to the mountain, thinking instead of arranging a trip to the second highest mountain in Malaysia. However, the urge to climb it (it’s even on the Sabah state flag) was too much once we arrived in Sabah and we vacantly asked our hostel about it. The lady there told us to go to the Sutera office at 3.30 pm and see if there are any cancellations for accommodation. When we got to the office, phone calls were made and an anxious wait ensued. There was good news and AJ was pretty ecstatic, although I was more bathetic because there was so much hassle attached to climbing a bloody mountain. We were however, very lucky because so many people must have given up on the idea and we met backpackers in the hostel whose hopes were dashed.

Chasing sunsets

That afternoon we went back to the hostel and crashed asleep in the dormitory. I woke up a while later and rushed to get to the waterfront. According to the Lonely Planet, because KK faces west out into the South China Sea it received these terrific sunsets unlike anywhere else in the world. So up I hurriedly made my way towards the waterfront, hoping all the while that I hadn’t missed the spectacle. AJ was was busy trying to find whatever he was trying to find from his one little bag and then lock it up again.

The only opening to the waterfront I could see was through the market that was set up. So, I made my way through this busy event and perched myself behind someone’s market stall. AJ turned up about five minutes later and we both witnessed a magnificent sunset that lasted about 45 minutes - and this practically happens every evening!

The market is very large, with lots of fresh fish on display as well as lots of smoke from food stalls. We walked around and chose various cooked food from different stalls then sat down at a table (sort of a beer hall atmosphere) with some rice, grilled chicken (with what turned out to be the fatty hind legs of chicken) as well as some corn on the cob. All very atmospheric it has to be said, and despite the chicken legs this was one of the best markets I’ve visited in south east Asia. Of some satisfaction was the fact that I later read that the Lonely Planet Guide shared that same opinion! 

Hark! Ye old Mountain of Kinabalu

Get this, the mountain is pretty sacred to the indigenous peoples (orang utans) of Borneo, they believe the spirits of their ancestors live up there. The mountain also appears, much like Angkor Wat does in Cambodia, on the Sabah state flag, so that tells you the cultural importance the mountain has for the locals. I didn’t disagree, what it lacks in iconic shape it makes up with it s claim to being very high, and very high for a large area surrounding it.

So, this is what happened next. We get up early and walk to the local minivan stops in KK. There we pick up said minivan to to take us to the National Park of Kinabalu. We stuff ourselves inside the minivan and
The morning ascent: Day 2The morning ascent: Day 2The morning ascent: Day 2

Yep, 3.30 am start
two hours later through some scenic mountainous views (you’d hope, right) we get to the entrance of the park and are let out. Proceed ball ache.

When we get to the park office, we are told to fill out some forms by smiley women in uniform from Sutera Lodge, who address you with polite “sirs” etcetera and who confirm our accommodation booking. However, when we are sent over to the actual park office for the compulsory guide, insurance and permit, they tell us that they have run out of permits for the day. You can imagine my look of disbelief, how can you run out of mountain permits into the park when we’ve booked our accommodation to stay in the park, without which you cannot climb the mountain. Where is our reserved permit? All gone apparently, and we are told to wait. And we wait and wait. AJ goes and has some lunch, so we’re running out of time to climb the mountain on day one and I decide to let rip.

Full blast I angrily scolded the system and the park for this embarrassment of a system and how disgraceful it was that such a high profile tourist site was managed so badly, spoiling our trip. I think I seriously scared some of the staff, and thank God AJ wasn’t there because I think he might have stopped me mid-flow and the desired effect might not have been reached. I then go for my lunch and come back to a smiling AJ. What’s happened? Everything is okay, says laconic AJ in his laconic Dutch way.

The accommodation manager is now escorting us to a park lodge where we will stay free of charge for the night, in addition to dinner. The room we are placed in has two bathrooms, a veranda, wood floors, cable TV and a 4 star bedroom on a second floor. It is the best accommodation either of us have stayed in south east Asia. We are very happy chappies. Then it rains, a lot, and very hard, we are then feeling pretty lucky.

The Mountain we look up to

The next morning we get up nice and bright and early. Get to the park office and AJ sorts out the paperwork and monies. We then get in a taxi (15 Ringgit - 2.50 GBP) to take us the first 1800 metres along the road to another park entrance. There, with our female and taciturn and shy female guide we ascended the mountain. I immediately took to the narrow boulder and rock trail and started climbing at a pace that left Mr AJ behind quite early on. Our guide was merely there to help us or advise us but she didn’t guide and we follow, the path was obvious and clear and we didn’t need a compass let alone a guide.

The ascent had bursts of rain along it, and it was pretty strenuous trying to climb with a back pack, a waterproof jacket and the air is thinning with every meter. Most of the time I was looking down at where I was placing my feet onto slippery paths and rocks; But when I did look up, I had to take a moment’s pause to appreciate the natural surroundings of trees, foliage, and birdsong as well as the fact that I was in Borneo. I passed plenty of people coming back down the mountain and also people on their way up, clearly a popular activity on people’s holidays.

As part of the accommodation we were provided with a packed lunch to take up with us. This was okay until after the boiled eggs I did notice my stomach giving me certain alarm bells. On the way up it rained some more, past the 2,500 meter stage it was harder to breath and it was also hot under all that weight and clothing. The last section up some steep stones I had a definite sense that my bowels were going to give out. I was rushing up the last bit of the hike to the accommodation building, found the toilets (occupied) and with a queue outside. I had to go up some delineating path and hope nobody found me. A nice (?) ending to the day, checked in, got to the dorm, had a shower and then chilled out in the cafeteria area, waiting for AJ and his guide.

Half way mountain blues

As I was checking out the chilly sunset views from the balcony of the hostel AJ turned up with his guide. Unfortunately, I knew straight away that he was not in good shape and he retired to the dormitory. Altitude sickness had taken a hold quite early on the ascent and now he had a splitting headache along with a strong desire to be sick. I thought to myself that it’ll be his fault for being so tall! We both just caught up on some sleep in the late afternoon, I ate some dinner from the buffet and returned upstairs.

He moaned a lot in his sleep and really wasn’t in good shape and thus slightly worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the ascent to the top later on in the wee hours. I say slightly worried because ultimately, I was going to do the mountain regardless of his state and I would expect him to think likewise. Anyway, I asked at the reception about remedies and she suggested hot water and lots of it, so I went and fetched some for him and within an hour or so he was feeling significantly better.

Meanwhile, a Danish foursome had been put into our room after they had been scammed into buying tickets for accommodation that didn’t exist. They ended up paying double and triple for sleeping on the floor as well as others downstairs. Someone was clearly selling permits to people who didn’t have accommodation booked and they got the worst of it.


am walk anyone?
Despite a poor night’s sleep I was surprisingly chipper at 2.00am time in the morning, maybe because I knew I didn’t have to catch a plane or go to work.
Torches at the ready and layered up with jumpers and shirts and jackets (most of which were not needed until the end) we set off up the mountain on a trail. It took a lot longer than the first stage the previous day and you had to concentrate a lot more on where you put your feet. There were many ropes along the way for steep sections and there were some fantastic scenes of a diagonal trail of head lights climbing up the mountain ahead of us into the distance. The star show of course was impressive as too was the clouds over other hills and mountains and the lights of the town below.

When I got to the top I was somewhat surprised by the abrupt ending, I was expecting it to be tougher or to get tougher before the end. Instead I had about 7 or 8 people in front of me clambering up rocks and stones to a metal sign declaring the height of the mountain. It was pretty perilous stuff because you could quite easily fall or get a foot stuck between rocks and all the while people wanted to get their pictures taken with the sign. It was still dark but ambers of dawn was reaching us from the cloudy sky, a blueish gas lit colour at 5.45am.

I hung around for a good hour on the top, taking photos, watching the sunrise change colour and waiting for AJ to arrive. The pictures speak for themselves on this one, but you could clearly see KK and the top of Borneo like an island that it is.

The descent down to the accommodation lodge was just great views of the surrounding mountains and hills, reminding me of the Alps. We both had a snooze for a couple of hours in our beds whilst a lot of people started their descent. By the time we got ready to move it at around 10 am, it was raining heavily and so we stayed put along with quite a few other people. It didn’t stop and didn’t look like stopping so I made a decision to put the jacket on and just walk down, the likelihood being that the weather would change as you descended down the mountain.

It didn’t, it rained and rained and then rained harder still all the way down the mountain. I headed off at my own pace again and just kept going without the guide or AJ. I developed Achilles tendonitis half way down at the 2.5 hour stage and that was pretty uncomfortable. By the end of the descent it was chucking it down and my shorts were soaking wet, but I managed to go past quite a few people on the way down so that kept my morale up. The descent felt much longer than the way up for whatever reason.

One last memory I have of the mountain, is sitting in the lunch hall eating from the buffet and a white girl entering and just collapsing on the floor weeping. Completely drained by the experience physically and emotionally I felt sympathy, it was not an easy descent by any means and the constant rain started to bug me after a while too, I’m glad it ended when it did. I guess this may have affected us both in some way…

Anyway, AJ turned up some time later, maybe an hour? We decided to go back to KK and we ended up having our first ever spat since we’d been travelling together over a month before. Worse was our bus to KK actually failed to stop at the restaurant on the roadside, so we ended up having to arrange a taxi with some Johor boys. Costing us about 40 Ringgit each it didn’t take us very long to get back to KK and in fact allowed us to quietly reflection on the day’s achievements.

Additional photos below
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12th July 2009

Great Pics

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