Two weeks in Borneo (Sabah, Malaysia) - Part 2

March 24, 2015

Recently I shared with you some stories and pictures of Borneo, including some idyllic turquoise water and white sandy beaches. There won't be any of these dreamy, spectacular paradise-looking views this time around, but to be honest, I've saved two of my favourite places for this week. One of the main reasons we wanted to go to Borneo was for the wildlife. Sure, the beaches were a nice addition, but we wanted to hike in the jungle, and go down the river, looking for creatures in their natural habitat. We definitely got what we wished for. The beauty of these two places was harder to capture on camera though. It was more in the way that the light was shining through the trees and foliage. In the misty, mysteriously silent cruises down the river, getting so close to the animals without seeming to disturb them. It was a wonderful experience, which I'll try to share with you today, after weeks of trying to sort through too many pictures.

Mount Kinabalu 

From Kota Kinabalu we headed to Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in the Malay Archipelago. The park is known for its peak ascension, popular amongst Malaysians as well as international travellers, and its 1,200 different species of orchids, including the world's smallest orchid. Lodging within the park is managed by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges and is on the pricier side, but there are also many options available just outside of the park. Because we were there for Chinese New Year, we really wanted to book accommodation in advance, which proved to be a little harder than anticipated. We ended up booking within the park, and had the pleasant surprise of being upgraded upon arrival (which according to reviews, seems to happen quite a lot). We stayed in nice cabins facing the mountain, so we could enjoy the view of the peak while sipping coffee in the morning, and sunset on the horizon in the evening. Everyday that we were there, the sky was clear in the morning and the evening, but the peak hid behind the clouds for the majority of the day. We took most of our meals right across the street from the park, at Restoran Panataran, which offered decent food at much lower prices than the restaurants within the park, and with much faster service. One morning, we made the mistake of ordering breakfast in the park, and we unknowingly sat down for a 2hrs, 5-course breakfast experience, which was rather strange.

Hiking trails

Hiking to the top is a very popular activity, with a limited number of expensive permits available. We were a little late figuring out our plans and happened to visit during Chinese New Year, a rather busy time, so we decided to hike around the base and up to the Timpohon Gate only, and skip the summit. We hiked for a solid 5hrs up to the power station and around the base, exploring most trails, and I loved it. All the different shades of green, the light filtering through the leaves, the river running its course. It was lovely. Graham developed this slightly strange obsession with "flower selfies," where he would take a picture of himself with the flowers. This evolved to including adopting a facial expression to mimic the flower, providing him with great memories, and us with great amusement.

Botanical Garden

One thing we wish we would have done differently is to visit the botanical garden, located within the park, first. We saved it for the end of the day, and wished we had learned more about all the plants and different species of orchids before hiking, as we probably missed a lot along the way. Our guide was great, and we enjoyed his impressive demonstration of the Kerosene plant which spits out small jets of flammable liquid. We saw many different kinds of orchids, including the smallest in the world, as well as seeing the super cool pitcher plants.

Night walk

We decided to hire our guide again to do a night walk, and met up in the pitch black jungle, where we walked slowly and quietly, carefully moving our flashlights to find cool bugs, frogs, and a tarantula. Our friend Neysa was absolutely amazing at finding little creatures, and even saw a rare spotted leopard, who unfortunately quickly ran away!

Poring Hot Springs

On our last full day we headed out to Poring Hot Springs, near Ranau, which was alright. It was way too hot to enjoy the hot springs, which were also crowded with families, but the canopy walk over suspension bridges was fun, and we enjoyed cooling down at the waterfalls as well as visiting the butterfly garden. My favourite part though was finding a rafflesia in bloom near the park. Rafflesias are the world largest flowers, which can measure up to 1m in diameter. They are found exclusively in Southeast Asia, and bloom irregularly and for only short periods of time (2 to 7 days). They are a parasitic flowering plant, with no stem, leaves or roots. We were a little worried about the smell as they are often described as a "corpse flower", but on blooming day 1, our 85cm flower didn't really exude any scent.

Kinabatangan River 

This is the part of the trip that I was most excited about, and I wasn't disappointed. We stayed at the Kinabatangan Jungle Camp (KJC) near the small village of Bilit. We booked a 3 nights, 5 river cruises stay, which included pick up from our hostel in Sandakan. When we decided to change our plans and continue towards Semporna from there, they made sure to reserve us spots on the bus and drive us to the bus stop in time, which made everything very easy. The rooms were simple but clean, and the food was plentiful and delicious, but the meals were quite spread out, so bringing snacks might be a wise decision. The days typically went something like this: 6:30am cruise (2hrs), breakfast, perhaps a jungle walk (1hr), lunch, 4:30pm cruise, dinner, perhaps followed by a night cruise. It's a pretty slow pace, and there isn't that much to do at the camp in between meals and cruises. I didn't really mind, since I got a little sick on the way there. I was quite pleased to sit in the open air area and read peacefully for a few hours everyday, but depending on your expectations or temperament, you might find that annoying or boring. Our guide was very sweet but still in training, so we learned some, but often heard the same few facts being repeated a few times. We were able to observe some wildlife right at the camp, including many monitor lizards (up to 6 foot long), a few families of bearded pigs, a gibbon who visited twice, and an adult orang-utan, up high in the trees. Our friend Neysa also got a visit from a gecko, who went down her back, along her leg and tried to get up her pants. She is way more calm than I am, and so she laughed, while I would have been screaming and jumping and maybe cursing.

Afternoon cruises

Our first cruise was the afternoon we arrived, and we did two more during our stay. Unfortunately, we didn't see any pigmy elephants, which were on my bucket list, but we saw everything else I was hoping for, plus the craziest looking birds, which I had no idea existed. We saw tons of long-tail and pig tail macaques, who contrarily to those found in the rest of Southeast Asia, seem to have no desire to attack or steal from you, making them a lot more fun to look at. We saw some silver leaf and proboscis monkeys, and Graham developed some sort of fascination for the ungainly, weird looking creatures. We watched them jump in between trees, and witnessed a few near misses. We found a few snakes, reticulated python and blank-and-yellow mangrove snake, typically curled up in the trees. My favourite of all was probably the hornbills, these birds with the most ridiculous bill, and we saw a few different ones: the oriental pied and the rhinoceros. There were also many herons, hens, eagles and ospreys.

Morning cruises

We went on two morning cruises, and they were both completely different. The first one was my favourite. It was a very grey, misty morning, extremely quiet. The light was beautiful and everything felt particularly mysterious and exciting. We found some more birds and proboscis monkeys, and watched the sun slowly burn through the clouds. The second morning was brighter and clearer, and we continued to explore different parts of the river.

Night cruise

We decided to add a night cruise to our first full day, and it was pretty fun. When the flashlights were off, it was the darkest I've ever seen, and we saw a few fireflies. We found a lot of kingfishers, which are the cutest, most colourful birds. We were able to get a lot closer to them at night, but mostly because we found them sleeping on a branch, woke them up with the flashlight, and then blinded them with the light, so they couldn't go anywhere. I felt pretty bad for them. I learned that snakes are even scarier in the dark, with their creepy eyes lit up. Another guide found a baby crocodile, and we were looking at the tiny little thing when it stared making surprisingly cute panic squeaks, and I felt like a huge asshole.

The second night, we decided to skip the night cruise, and when we got back to camp, we were invited to join a lively group of Hungarian travellers, who shared with us some homemade, 50% traditional alcohol (I forgot the name after the second generous shooter). They brought it from home, in their checked luggage, poured into large water bottles. Apparently, everyone drinks some before dinner, and we got to sample an apricot and a plum version. It was quite good, but pretty strong, especially on an empty stomach. I slept very well that night.

Afternoon jungle walk

I'm not gonna lie, this was not something I would have repeated. I was pretty excited for it, and insisted on getting leech socks in KK so we would be prepared for multiple, long exciting walks. Graham is the only one who found a leech (I'm not complaining), but mostly, we saw a few spiders, some more stick insects, and more mosquitos then I ever thought possible, despite me spraying the 100% Deet like my life depended on it. Graham's take home message was "I don't want to live in the jungle." I agree.

General travel information

If we'd had more time...

We wish we'd had a few more days to explore the deserted beaches around Kudat, which we heard are absolutely lovely, and to explore the Danum Valley and its wildlife sightings. And that's just in Sabah. We heard great things about Sarawak, Brunei, the Gunung Mulu National Park. Guess we'll have to go back someday! For the amount of time we had, (13 days), I think we did pretty well, by covering a lot without feeling too rushed.

Day 1: Kota Kinabalu
Day 2-4: Mount Kinabalu
Day 5-6: Sandakan and Sepilok
Day 7-9: Kinabatangan River
Day 10-11: Semporna
Day 12-13: Kota Kinabalu


We quickly realized that there are a lot of low-end budget options, many high-end hotels, and very little in the middle. Although we would have loved to stay at Le Meridien in KK, the price tag associated wasn't quite what we had in mind. You may have noticed that we travel a fair bit, which I'm very grateful for, and to accomplish that we often opt for lower-end accommodations. They are much nicer than when I was first backpacking at the age of 18, and we typically avoid the dorm situation. But shared bathrooms do happen, and once in a while we may be inclined to check for bed bugs before sitting down on the bed. Sometimes we do. The vast majority of times, we are greeted by extremely friendly and helpful staff, clean rooms and facilities, and enjoy decent breakfast. We also benefit from the recommendations of fellow travellers, often leading to good restaurants or unexpected sightings. It's not for everyone, but it works for us. When we decide to splurge on a 4 star hotel, we're extra appreciative. Given this, I don't have a lot of recommendations for places to stay. Nowhere was bad, but nowhere was amazing either.


We debated between renting a car and taking buses/taxis, and opted for the latter, which probably worked out for the best. We didn't have to worry about parking or paying for the car on days where we wouldn't have used it, and taxis were easy to hire if we wanted to go somewhere that the bus didn't cover. There really isn't much to see or do in between most major towns, since so much of the territory is covered by palm oil plantations. Buses seem to leave whenever they are full, as opposed to on schedule, which results in them often being early.


Chinese influence is pretty strong on Malaysian cuisine, which unfortunately isn't my favourite. We had some good meals, but mostly a lot of OK ones. Vegetarian options were pretty easy to find, but definitely limiting.


We felt very safe almost everywhere. It was a refreshing change, from the rest of Southeast Asia, to realize that when people talked to you at the bus station, they were genuinely just trying to see where you were going to point you in the right direction. Another pleasant surprise was that taxi drivers never tried to change the price of the ride, even when you asked to stop at the store for a beer run. 

The question of safety becomes a little more prevalent when it comes to southeast Sabah, with the tourist kidnappings and other attacks that have happened in the past, and even recently. There is a territory dispute between Sabah and the Philippines, or rather some more radical groups in the Philippines, and I'm by no means an expert on the subject. The islands off Semporna have military presence, given the proximity to the Philippines and the past attacks, and it can be a little unnerving to see these soldiers, carrying some serious guns, while your hangout out on the beach. Many of them look bored, and are on their smartphone though, so hopefully it's an indicator of a low threat. There are a lot of frictions with the locals and the sea gypsies, as some have been found to spy for the Philippines, while being there on the assumption that they were illegal immigrants, just trying to better their lives. Again, I'm not expert. But it seems to me that we hear of more horror stories from Mexico than I've been able to find on Sabah.

Overall, it should be no surprise to you to hear that I highly recommend travelling to Sabah, and probably sooner rather than later, as the wildlife's habitat is constantly endangered by the expansion of the palm oil plantations. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.