Hello folks! I hope you’re all enjoying a great season this March – and for all of you starting to make college decisions, I wish you the best of luck in finding what place is home for you (and I hope it’s USC – Id love to welcome you to the Trojan family!)
Selamat datang ke Borneo! (Welcome to Borneo! in Malay)
This last week we had the amazing opportunity to visit Borneo, Malaysia, which is located on the tip of an island region of Malaysia called Sabah that is across the sea south of Singapore. Borneo is home to Mt. Kinabalu, one of the highest peaks in Southeast Asia at over 4000 meters. There is an extraordinary amount of biodiversity in this region, which in contrast to the rest of Malaysia with a Muslim majority, Sabah is home to a huge Christian population. There are plenty of outdoor activities – everything from coastal games to climbing. Malaysia, like its neighbors, has emerged from a history of socioeconomic turbulence after colonial occupation. Sabah is quite different from the other regions of Malaysia in that it pulls mostly an outdoorsy tourist base seeking to explore the natural wonders of the region. Mount Kinabalu is one of the most popular hiking destinations, and can be scaled by the average walker in just two or three days depending on the independent fitness level. Read on to learn more about our Borneo adventure!
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu on the coast of Borneo after a relatively quick flight across the ocean quite late in the evening. We were fortunate to make last bus from the airport to our hostel, called the Borneo Backpackers. We were welcome onto the shuttle bus by a very friendly elderly driver, and enjoyed a great bus ride through the nightlife of the city. Upon arriving at our hostel, however, right after the bus had driven away, I had the terrible realization that my phone had fallen off my lap onto the bus seat where it was currently driving into the unknown. In panic, we headed straight back to the airport to see if the bus had stationed there, only to discover the buses would be running the following morning from a bus stop near our hostel, so we headed back to the bus stop to check only to be told the buses would not arrive until morning. We then went back to the hostel to drop our things and headed out to get dinner on a street corner restaurant, which was one of the only places still serving people after 10 pm. We had some great Malaysian cuisine, and met a very sweet young lady working there. She was extremely shy, and after she had brought us our plates, I told her she had a really beautiful smile (which she did) – and immediately lit up and she didn’t stop smiling the whole time we were there. It was so neat to see kind encouragement make such a difference in a small way. We then headed back to our hostel for a long wait until morning fretting about the great phone catastrophe.
In the morning we woke bright and early to head to the bus stop. The first driver, to our relief, called Mohammad Ali, our driver from the previous night, who confirmed he would drop the phone off in a couple hours. It was a huge blessing, and so cool to see such amazing integrity in a complete stranger. After getting the phone, we hopped on a bus heading to Kinabalu National Park. We arrived midmorning to see if we could organize cheap hostel accommodation at the mountain midpoint, Laban Rata, so we could start the hike that day. It has been accurately described that the prices to hike this mountain are as high as the mountain itself. To hike, one must purchase a park entry permit, a climbing permit, a climbing guide, climbing insurance, and accommodation in Laban Rata (the halfway point). Unfortunately, the government has given exclusive accommodation rights to a single company, Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, for all housing in Laban Rata, which is the mandatory rest stop at the halfway point before the summit of Mount Kinabalu. They charge an arm and a leg – the cheapest room for one night is over $200 USD. There is a cheaper hostel, but is only for Malaysians unless there cancellations the day of, and since this was not the case, we were stuck with the overpriced Sutera lodges as our only option. Knowing we would be pressed for time on the descent and feeling the limitations of a college budget, we decided against summiting the mountain.
Fortunately, Kinabalu National Park is an amazing place to hike around the mountain’s base, so we spent the day instead exploring the park. We hiked all around the park, following several neat trails through kilometers of forest. We visited the Botanic Gardens, filled with tons of local flora, and took the Silau-Silau trail, the Bukit Tupal trail, the Bukit Burung Trail, and the Kiau View Trail, which took us all around the park base. It was a fairly tiring hike, and we loved getting to see the amazing greenery, plus several species of creepy-crawlies including a small orange snake that climbed up my leg at one point when I stopped for two long. Our stay overnight at the Kinabalu National park base was at Kinabalu Mountain Lodges, a hostel nestled way back against the mountains in the trees, guarded by buses crawling with dozens of spiders whose bodies alone are bigger than a quarter. Here the hostel beds were lofted above one another in cubbies like a beehive, and we got to enjoy the company of backpackers from around the world. That night, we discovered why Sabah is known as the land of moths. Hundreds of moths of all sizes and colors ranging from the size of a corn kernel to the size of a melon flooded the patio around the lights. Some were fuzzy and some were patterned and others were fluorescent. They were everywhere around the showers and couches and floor. We were even visited by some giant black flying buzzing beetles the size of a clementine that scared the living daylights out of various backpackers whom they landed on.
Once back in Kota Kinabalu, we enjoyed the sunset over the pier and walked around the city, which is an interesting mix of tourists and locals. We then went to a movie, which was recommended by fellow backpackers because it was so cheap, and then enjoyed a traditional Chinese meal in a street corner restaurant. Our last morning in Borneo, we woke up and visited the Sunday Street Market, which contained over a hundred stalls of trinkets and clothing and foods and even cats and dogs (some of which cost less than $6 USD!). It was neat to see how this market catered perhaps more to the locals, who were doing their regular shopping. We then had a nice brunch breakfast before heading back to the airport.
My analysis of Borneo is that it is a nice place to be and a great place to visit, though I don’t know how much it reflects the overall socioeconomic character of Malaysia as a whole. The parts of Kota Kinabalu we saw were mostly clean and organized, with evidence of a lot of business activity. Kinabalu National Park reflected the demands of the people who climbed it, boasting a – tourist system that served locals as well as foreigners. The park was – and well maintained, with the biodiversity remaining well protected. The people we met were generally really kind, and in the National Park every adult we passed on the road whether on motorbike or in a car honked and waved (we were unable to decide whether or not this was patronizing or friendly as many also laughed). The integrity of our shuttle driver was impeccable. We did not see any glaring signs of poverty, and the region’s economy seemed to be flourishing. Considering we only visited the tourist sector, however, it is hard to know if this is the reality or only the reality we were allowed to see. Nonetheless, Borneo was a wonderful adventure and one we highly recommend – the only important thing to note is that if you plan to summit, give yourself a few days so you can wait around for a hostel opening, and plan to fork out some money. We also recommend trying to book Mountain Torq for the descent, which is the first and best via ferrata in Southeast Asia – it looks awesome, and is definitely on our for the future!
We came, we saw, and we almost conquered Mount Kinabalu… but no matter, we got to see an amazing place and we got a great adventure out of it! If you would like to hike Borneo and be fiscally conservative, here is some advice:
- Take the 5 RM shuttle bus from the airport to Kota Kinabalu (just don’t forget your phone!)
- Stay at the Borneo Backpackers Hostel for RM 30 per night for a dorm bed, but don’t eat here because its more expensive
- Eat at the street corner places where you can get full plate for between 6 and 8 RM
- Take the bus the next morning early (at 7 am) from Kota Kinabalu National Park for 25 RM at the Pedang Merdeka Bus Terminal (which looks like a big parking lot and is walking distance from the backpacker hostel)
- When you get to the Park Base, you’ll need to pay… its 15 RM for the park entry fee, 100 RM for climber’s insurance, 200 RM for a climber’s permit (these are unavoidable, sorry!)
- You have three choices for lodging in Laban Rata at the halfway point… you can stay at Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (the most expensive, it will cost you at least 781 RM which is scandalous) OR you can try for a bed in the Malaysian Lemaing Hostel, OR you can book with Mountain Torq for the via ferrata descent package
- If you do Sutera, best of luck, your wallet will feel lighter at the end…
- If you do Lemaing Hostel, you’ll need to come each morning to ask if they have room… your chances are better on early weekdays than closer to the weekend… you might have to come back a few times to wait for a cancellation to come up! You can also email or call Sabah Park within one week of your visit to try and book a bed there, but if they get annoyed they’ll hang up with you so watch out! It will cost about 200 RM for this accommodation
- If you do Mountain Torq, it will cost you about 1000 RM, BUT you get to do the via ferrata which is insanely cool and the highest in the world – you also get lodging included and meals! I would have done this had they had room – you need to book in advance unless you get there early in the morning and are lucky enough to find an opening!
- You will also need to pay for a guide for 230 RM for two people unless you do Mountain Torq which includes the guide
- If you choose to just stay around Mount Kinabalu Park instead of sumitting, stay at the Mount Kinabalu Mountain Lodge (which is kind of tricky to find) where a dorm bed is 30 RM. They have decent food (all vegetarian) – just watch out for a million moths, giant spiders, and cute cats that jump on you at night.
I hope you all have a stellar day – and enjoy the rest of March 🙂 And in honor of Mount Kinabalu, here is a fun quote about climbing to offer some daily inspiration!
“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”
—- Andy RooneyMeet Madelina