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Published: January 10th 2014
The Tip of Borneo
The trees on the horizon are the northernmost tip of Borneo, almost the Philippines.
Considering that ten years ago Borneo was the only place in the world on my list of places I never wanted to go, I was surprised to find myself back there for a second visit. Spending New Year's Day there put me in Borneo in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Lesson learned: anything is possible.
What brought me back was the promise of friends to travel with. So, for the second time, I ignored the dire warnings in the book Shooting the Boh and flew to the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. This vacation was very different from last year’s trip. I had more than twice as much time and was traveling with friends from Boise. I didn’t take as many pictures and didn’t once make time to write in my journal, but I laughed a lot, enjoyed traveling with my friends and ate some amazing food. It was a fantastic star kind of vacation.
This blog entry will be mostly about the travel logistics for people traveling in Sabah. One thing I found very helpful was buying a local SIM card for my phone. It cost about $10 USD for the card and
Kudat to Kota Kinabalu
On the road back to KK we stopped at a rest area for a bathroom break and found this very helpful map of Sabah.
enough credit to last me the whole two weeks. I never had to buy more credit despite all the calls I made.
My trip started out with a couple days to myself and I took a shuttle from Kota Kinabalu to Tommy’s Place, up at the northern tip of Borneo. There are lots of private cars being used as pirate cabs going between KK and the town of Kudat, so if you can arrange to be picked up in Kudat, you don’t need to pay the 100 or 120 ringgit that official shuttles or taxis charge to drive from KK.
Tommy’s Place is on a beautiful beach on the west-facing coast of the tip. There is also a surf shop and a couple other places that rent bungalows along the same beach. The place was almost deserted and although there was usually somebody else on the beach, I never saw more than a few people. The waves looked like a lot of fun and I saw a few people surfing, but I spent most of my time walking the beach, searching through tide pools and snorkeling. Low tide was in the morning that week and after breakfast it
In the late afternoon a mother brought her four month old baby to the feeding platform. The park ranger told us that the mother was 24 and that the male with her was 27. The monkeys in the background are pig-tailed macaques.
was fun to poke through the tide pools, looking at sea stars, crabs and little fish. I didn’t venture out far with the snorkel, but the northern part of the beach is protected by a bit of reef and the waves were calm enough for me to swim comfortably without fins. The current swept me back towards the beach, rather than out to sea. There were lots of kinds of coral, most very brightly colored, and lots of beautifully colorful fish.
The next stage of the trip was back to Kota Kinabalu to pick up my friend Jess. I got a ride into Kudat and then went to the pirate cab station where you can get a ride to KK for 25 ringgit. I paid extra because my backpack took up a whole seat in the car and I wanted to be driven all the way across KK down to the southern part of town where the airport is. That put me up to 40 ringgit, but it was well worth it. It was a fast ride in a comfortable car with good music straight to my hotel. Plus I got to sit up front. The scenery along the
This is the stick insect that tried to trip me in the Rainforest Discovery Center. Watching it slowed me down enough that I was sitting still and being quiet when two red leaf monkeys went through the trees just above me.
coast there is beautiful.
Jess and I stayed at the Casuarina Hotel, where I stayed last year, because it’s right next to the airport, has a free airport shuttle and we had a flight the next morning over to Sandakan. It was my first internal flight in Borneo and I have to say it was much easier than the bus. Flights are subsidized by the government, so they’re also cheap. If it weren’t for the evil carbon footprint and hassle of buying tickets in advance, I would have flown more often. Even Kudat has an airport.
Flying over to Sandakan I was shocked to see that the entire island interior was palm oil plantations. I had heard about the destruction of the rain forest and how plantations are destroying the biological diversity and habitat of Borneo, forcing out animals like orangutans. I knew a lot about this from visiting last year. I just hadn’t seen it from the air. It was devastating. The rows of oil palms went on as far as I could see, the whole way across the island. I kept waiting for it to end, and when I finally saw a scrap of natural forest
Here is the international language for: put trash in the garbage can, do not yell, if you fall on the stairs you will swear like a sailor, and stay on the path.
I realized that it was the Rainforest Discovery Centre, which I visited last year. I could see the canopy walkways from the air. It was disheartening that the only “natural” jungle I saw on the flight was basically a park.
But it was Christmas Eve and I was on vacation with friends, so I didn’t let it get to me. Jess and I met up with Erica and Nick, who had just spent three weeks traveling in Thailand. We had agreed to meet at the Sea View hostel in Sandakan, but since their plane was late they just waited for us at the airport. Rather than take a taxi we walked outside, through the parking lot to the main road. The airport is almost a dead end. All cars and busses go into Sandakan, so it’s hard to go the wrong way. The busses look like vans and charge two ringgit to get to town.
The Sea View was nice for a backpackers’ place and had a great location right across from the central market. We ate in the market several times, and I loved being able to walk across the street for fresh fruit. I haven’t seen
The Kinabatangan River
All along the Kinabatangan there are little tributaries and lakes that shelter more wildlife than the main river. The water was so high that our boat could get into places that are normally muddy swamps.
mangoes for months in Bangladesh, but the ones at the Sandakan market were delicious. I also got to try my first sour sop, which is delicious, although also an unexpected texture and shape. It’s called cœur de boeuf in French and most of them were about the size and shape of a cow’s heart, except that they’re green on the outside.
We didn’t do much in Sandakan besides eat, rest from the flights and plan the first leg of the journey. The first goal was Sepilok, the orangutan rehabilitation center that I visited last year. There are busses directly from Sandakan’s bus station downtown out to Sepilok at 9am, 11:30, 2pm and 5pm. The same bus picks up at Sepilok and goes into Sandakan at 6:30am, 10:30am, 12:30pm and 4pm. We never took this bus, so I don’t know the price, but I doubt it would be much over 20 ringgit or so. We just missed the 2pm, so we took one of the busses headed out to villages. Busses are named by how many miles from town they go, although most of them go out far enough to drop tourists at the Sepilok junction at mile 14. From
In the evenings we saw lots of families of proboscis monkeys settling in for the night in the highest branches of the tallest trees. They were easy to spot from a distance because they like trees with little foliage and their long tails give them away.
the junction you can be picked up by a hotel, if you’ve arranged it ahead of time. You can also hitch or walk. It’s not too far, unless it’s raining.
We were the last to board the bus and therefore were left standing in the aisle, with our packs blocking everybody in. Just after we left town a group of five Mormon missionaries boarded. They were easy to recognize with the white shirts, ties and name badges proclaiming them elders. It being Christmas, they gave us a bag of cookies and wished us Merry Christmas when they got off the bus a couple miles down the road.
That night we tried out a new place I hadn’t stayed at last year, Paganakan Dii, which picked us up at the mile 14 junction, had good food, beautiful chalets and a fun name that sounds like Pagan Candy, but was too far from Sepilok to walk. The prices were reasonable and I liked everything about it except the necessity to rely on the shuttle to get to and from Sepilok. While there, we looked through information books about river cruises on the Kinabatangan. Last year I visited the Kinabatangan River
Long Tailed Macaque
These monkeys were not as shy as the proboscis and there were a lot more of them too. We even had some come through camp in the mornings. Rosti said they were friends with the two cats that hung out at the lodge.
by staying at Mescot, which I loved. Unfortunately, they were closed for the holidays, so we called around to some other companies and settled on Sunshine Tours. We booked a three day/ two night package for the four of us. After one night at Paganakan Dii we moved down to the B&B that I stayed at last year. It’s an easy five minute walk from the Rainforest Discovery Center and a ten to fifteen minute walk from Sepilok.
The main attraction at Sepilok is the feeding time for the orangutans at an observation platform. Since we had already missed the morning feeding, we spent our first day at the Rainforest Discovery Center. I hadn’t forgotten how hot and humid the jungle is, but it still exhausted me. It was hard to move. Luckily, I was more interested in sitting still and watching birds than hiking. The walkways and towers are a good way to get up in the canopy and see into the tops of trees. As with animals all over the world, they really started coming out in the evening. In the afternoon I saw two red leaf monkeys in the trees above the orchid garden. They were
The birds on the river were amazing and I loved the kingfishers. The water was so muddy I wondered how they could be fishing. Then I read that they usually eat frogs and lizards and snakes.
just passing through and were the only monkeys I saw all day. As dusk set in lots of black squirrels and many species of birds came out and were easy to spot from the observation towers. The most unique thing I saw all day was a stick insect the size of my forearm. It was walking across a path and I actually tripped over it. I watched it for a while, concerned that I might have hurt it, but it seemed fine and eventually walked off.
The Sepilok B&B is a comfortable and spacious place, with nice rooms and verandahs. There are no other buildings nearby, so it’s quiet and feels like you’re in the forest. The food selection is limited, but good. Some of the dishes were a bit bland, but chili sauce is always available. The real highlight for us was two litters of kittens about two months old. The mothers kept them in a pile behind the reception desk and sometimes they all climbed into a basket to sleep and look adorable.
The second day we went to see the famed orangutans for the 10am feeding time. I saw fewer orangutans than last year, but
Nick not only made friends with the kittens at the B&B, he also tamed the Kinabatangan camp cats that hung out with macaques.
this time there were other species of monkeys in the nearby trees. They waited until the Sepilok employees had left the feeding area and then zipped in to steal food and dart off into the trees to eat the bunch of bananas or papaya or whatever they had managed to steal. As much as I enjoy watching monkeys, I had mixed feelings about seeing the orangutans seemingly harassed. Sepilok is an open area, so none of the orangutans or monkeys are fenced in – or fenced out. Animals released into the wild at Sepilok might stay their whole lives near the feeding areas, coming in often, or they might never return.
The next day we had arranged with Sunshine Tours to pick us up around noon and take us to a lodge on the Kinabatangan River near the village of Bilit. They were late picking us up, but the drive was only an hour long and when we arrived they honored the price we had seen listed for 340 ringgit per person. For that price, we got a four person dorm room for two nights, transportation to and from Bilit, six river cruises in a small boat, five meals,
This is what we found on the island across the bay from Sandakan. It was picturesque in a rainy, abandoned sort of way. Everybody must have been at work in Sandakan because it felt deserted.
a forest night walk and unlimited tea and coffee.
Last year the amount of wildlife on the Kinabatangan astounded me and I was not disappointed in the least this year. Here’s a list of the highlights of some of the wildlife we saw: 2 adult orangutans (the same afternoon, but on different sides of the river), many families of long tailed macaques, almost as many harem groups of proboscis monkeys, a few pig-tailed macaques, 2 silver langars, many Oriental pied hornbills, black hornbills, wrinkled hornbills, rhinoceros hornbills, bushy-crested hornbills, several large monitor lizards, a crocodile, a few mangrove cat snakes, a reticulated python, a tortoise, purple herons, night herons, buffy fish owls, storm’s storks, crested serpent eagles, lesser fish eagles, stork-billed kingfishers, black-capped kingfishers, blue-throated bee eaters, lots of egrets, tailor birds, pittas and bats and more. It was wonderful.
Talking with Rosti, our river guide and the guy who ran the lodge, we got more information about the tourist companies operating along the Kinabatangan. According to Rosti, over 90% of companies are Chinese owned, which is a new phenomenon in the past decade or so. Before, most were run by US or UK owners. The Chinese tend
We ate the fish being turned as a post-lunch snack, followed by mangoes, rambutans and a sour sop. It just wouldn't do to go to our New Year's Eve dinner too hungry.
to give more control to the local managers, but handle the profits differently than previous owners. He said that Mescot, being a village cooperative, was one of the few places that is not Chinese owned.
After our Kinabatangan adventure was over, we were shuttled back into Sandakan and returned to the Sea View. We had two nights there, which really means only one full day to explore the town before Nick had to go back to Thailand and Erica, Jess and I went over to the west coast to get some beach time.
We went immediately to the central market across from the Sea View to eat from the food stalls upstairs. There are a dozen or more stalls with various buffets around long rows of picnic tables. It was very cheap, four to seven ringgit depending on what you picked out to go on the bowl of rice. There were plenty of vegetarian options and I liked everything I tried. We ate there several times before and after the Kinabatangan trip, and were very well fed each time. Plus, on the way downstairs we were presented with the opportunity to buy mangoes, sour sop and all sorts
I just love the color of the water around Palau Mantanani - almost as much as I love my travel buddies!
of interesting things. One experiment that ended badly was buying a smoky-smelling, leaf-wrapped brick. We had guessed tobacco, but it turned out to be a brick of unprocessed sugar, a kind of solidified molasses. I tried nibbling on it, and it tasted good, but the smell put me off.
We didn’t follow the Lonely Planet’s list of things to do in Sandakan, but wandered the streets, exploring shops, eating amazing food, watching people watch us and generally enjoying being in a small city that you really can’t get lost in. Our one foray out of town was a morning ferry ride to an island across the harbor, in search of a beach. For 2 ringgit (4 round trip) we found out that the island is covered with trash, that the homes are all built on stilts, and that there is nothing to eat there. It was an authentic stilt village, but not one that sold lunch. Back in town we ate a full meal at the amazing Habib’s Curry House (which I am sure undercharged us), bought a whole fish grilled in the street for 5 ringgit, then went to the BaLin restaurant on the roof of the Nak
Mantanani and Kinabalu
From the beach on Palau Mantanani we could see Mount Kinabalu in the mornings, before it was covered with afternoon clouds and storms. The outline of the mountain reminds me of the boa constrictor that ate an elephant at the beginning of the book The Little Prince.
Hotel for New Year’s Eve and downed a pizza each. We did not start 2014 hungry.
The next morning we had to send Nick off, then went to the bus station for the 45 ringgit bus ride back to Kota Kinabalu. It was a nice, new bus by my standards and I slept well on the first half of the trip. In KK we got a room at the Bunibon Lodge, which I would have picked just for the name. Erica & Jess found that they had the best deal on a triple room. It was clean and the wifi was fast, but the breakfast was pathetic white bread and hardboiled eggs. The next morning we walked the five minute trek to the bus station to get the first minibus/van to Kota Belud. Arriving half an hour early we were offered a taxi ride for fifteen ringgit each, which was very reasonable considering that the bus would have cost ten and been much slower. The catch we didn’t realize is that our fare only took us to the town of Kota Belud, not out to the jetty on the coast where we intended to catch a boat out to
Erica and I brought mangoes from Sandakan over to Mantanani, correctly guessing that they would not be available on the island.
the island of Mantanani. We paid the taxi driver an extra 40 ringgit to take us out to the jetty.
The boat ride out to the island was the roughest ride I’ve ever taken on a speed boat. The seas were stormy with huge rollers that we hit head-on pretty hard. At least it wasn’t the sideways rolling kind of seas that bring on seasickness. Out on the island we were dropped off at the Mari Mari Backpackers’ Lodge, which gave us a lemon drink, ostensibly to help us recover from the boat ride.
There were some misunderstandings with our reservation, but it all worked out eventually. The boat ride (round-trip) and first night’s lodging was rolled into one fee, with additional nights and meals added on separately. That first night cost us 245 ringgit each and the next night was 65. We stayed in a dorm since the silt cabins were 140 per person. The island only has electricity 6pm, to 6am, which is when it’s dark and the only time you would need lights. As with the Sepilok B&B, the food was limited, but good. The prices were reasonable for a beach resort on an island
The beach was beautiful, but when it got hot we had to retreat to the shade of the trees. Fortunately, the island had lots of great options for sitting in the shade.
an hour from the coast and it was a beautiful place.
I went out snorkeling twice and saw lots of beautiful corals and fish. The water was clear and the perfect temperature. We didn’t bother with dive skins or have any need for wetsuits. Besides an impressive variety of coral and fish, on the first snorkel trip I saw a stingray and on the second I saw a moral eel. I am sure if we had been there to dive we would have seen a lot more, but I had come on this trip to spend time with friends, and neither Erica nor Jess were interested in diving.
For my last night of vacation Erica took me into Kota Kinabalu. We took the boat ride back and were offered a 65 ringgit bus ride into KK, but decided to see what we could get on our own. The seas were calmer and we had plenty of energy when we got to the mainland. A short walk from the jetty brought us to the main road where the first car stopped for us and offered to take us into town. We gave him five ringgit to take us to
Kota Kinabalu Street Market
Everything can be found for sale in KK, including a set of gongs like the ones that Erica and Nick played in Bilit, on the Kinabatangan.
the bus station. From there we got a pirate cab for 15 ringgit each, which took us right back to the Bunibon. We got to ride in cars with locals, give our money to people who needed it and it still cost considerably less than a company bus ride with tourists.
Erica suggested that the KK night market on the harbor would be a fun way to spend the evening, so we left our backpacks and went to explore the market. The side streets near the port are crammed with stalls selling clothing and jewelry, and the food is right on the walkway along the water. We tried wandering a bit to look at things, but the first fish stall we came to had giant tuna steaks that we just couldn’t pass up. The vendor weighed the one we picked out on a scale before she grilled it: it was a half-kilo of amazing deliciousness for only 12 ringgit.
Giddy from such a fantastic dinner we wandered around buying pineapple, honeydew, sesame dumplings with peanut sauce in the middle, steamed rice and coconut wrapped in banana leaves and other food that we could barely eat because we were
KK Night Market
I learned that parrot fish are just as colorful dead as alive. However, I didn't think to ask what they taste like.
already so full. I did not leave Malaysia hungry. It was a food extravaganza with lots of laughter from start to finish.
Places mentioned in this blog:
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