Going to Borneo – Kota Kinabalu

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is shared by three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The island is famous for its jungles and wildlife, especially orangutans. Of the three countries, we would only be going to Malaysian Borneo and Brunei as Indonesian Borneo is much harder to travel around. It’s less developed and although it is meant to have great rainforests promising incredible orangutan encounters, the cost of getting places there when the transport links aren’t good and English not being widely spoken means it’s just not in our budget.

Malaysian Borneo is split into two states, Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah’s capital is Kota Kinabalu and Sarawak’s capital is Kuching. We’d be visiting them both with a number of jungles and national parks in between. Borneo is also famous for its scuba diving and we had originally wanted to go diving here on islands such as Sipadan and Mabul but the UK’s Foreign Office has advised against any type of travel to the area because of the high risk of terrorist kidnapping so, with a heavy heart, we decided against spending time there. We later met a number of people who had gone to the islands and had a good time but had men with machine guns guarding their boat as they dived plus Sipadan, the main diving spot, wasn’t in our budget so we were content with our choice to leave that for a future trip.

On Tuesday 5th June 2018 we flew from Kota Bharu to Kota Kinabalu. Our flight was originally at 1pm but was delayed by an hour and a half so we didn’t get into Kota Kinabalu until after 5pm. We had breakfast at our resort on the Perhentian Islands and then got the boat and taxi back to the airport which was when we found out about our delay. It’s only a little airport but the WiFi was good and we managed to get basic stuff to eat before our flight so although the delay wasn’t ideal, we managed. In Kota Kinabalu we were staying at a hostel called Akinabalu Youth Hostel. The hostel was alright and the WiFi, although only in the communal area, was good so that was a plus. We had got in a lot later than we expected and had eaten at Kota Kinabalu airport so we just spent that evening planning the next few days.

The most frustrating thing we had found, already, about our time in Borneo is trying to organise transport and find up to date information. It’s been a surprise to see how different things are from mainland Malaysia as we were able to book all buses online whereas here the bus companies only have a phone number whilst timetables online can be hard to find and, even when you call they often don’t answer the phone. Alas, we are always able to make it work but it had led to more waiting in bus terminals, some more expensive journeys than planned and lots more hours trying to work out what we would be doing.

On Wednesday 6th June, our first full day in Kota Kinabalu, we got up late and went out to see the city. There wasn’t an awful lot to see in the city but we had a nice day anyway and that worked for us really as we were still quite tired from all of the travelling. We started by going to the Atkinson Clock Tower. This was right outside our hostel and we could actually see it from the hostel window. It is the oldest standing structure in Kota Kinabalu and was completed in 1905. The clock was built in memory of a young man called Frances George Atkinson who died of malaria when he was just 28 who was the first district officer for an area called Jesselton which is where the clock tower is built. Frances’ mother presented the two faced clock to the town as a tribute to the memory of her son and they later decided to build a clock tower to house it.

We then headed down to the waterfront which took us a while to find the picturesque promenade that we’d read about over the commercial fishing and cargo harbour we first came across. Once we found it we were able to walk along the wooden boardwalk that hangs out over the water and has a number of bars and restaurants that get very busy in the evening. We came here during the day and it was very quiet with pretty much no one around. We walked the length of the boardwalk which led further into the city, past a golf course and some shopping centres.

It was very hot and so we stopped at a Starbucks which gave us a much needed rest and cool off. Places like Starbucks and McDonalds are a godsend for getting a cold drink and escaping into some air conditioning and we have used them many times for that purpose. Something about having a day exploring a city that doesn’t have too much to do is you’re able to sit and relax a bit without feeling bad that you’re not sightseeing which, when you’re travelling as much as we are, is really nice.

The Sabah State Mosque was another stop for our day exploring Kota Kinabalu. This is the largest mosque in the state of Sabah and can house up to 5000 worshippers at one time. It’s enormous but we could only look at it from the outside as during Ramadan the Mosque is closed to tourists.

That evening we returned to the waterfront to enjoy what had been described as some of the best sunsets in Borneo. The waterfront was very busy compared to having the place to ourselves earlier that day. We found a spot that was nearby the bars so we could enjoy the live music being played inside and the sunset didn’t disappoint! It was a great way to end our day and the colours in the sky were fantastic. We were able to see the sun fully disappear behind the horizon which was really nice and the sun also went really red which we don’t often get to see. After having a few countries which had been too cloudy for decent sunsets it was nice to have a good one again.

For the rest of our time in Kota Kinabalu we went on day trips. The first of these was to the Kinabalu National Park to get a look at Mount Kinabalu which is the namesake of the city and also features on the state flag. It’s the highest mountain in Malaysia and in Borneo and is protected by its presence in the national park. The national park is where people go to climb Mount Kinabalu which is a two day hike to the top but is quite expensive at a couple hundred dollars (at least) so it wasn’t remotely in our budget! We got a mini bus from the city which was going to Renau and left at 8:40am. Around an hour into the journey we got our first glimpse of Mount Kinabalu. It towers over the other mountains and was generally just massive at a height of 4095 metres. At 10:30am, the bus dropped us off at the entrance to the national park and we had to pay 20 ringgit (MYR) (£3.70) to enter.

By the time we arrived, the mountain was hidden behind clouds. We watched it for a while to see if the clouds would clear but they were staying put so we started on our walks for the day. We had wanted to do a walk that would take us to a viewpoint of Mount Kinabalu but there had been a land slide a week or so before we were there closing a number of the walks in the park. We decided to do two walks: the Silau-Silau trail and the Kiau View trail which were really just through lots of jungle. We spent most of our day trying not to step in thick mud and puddles or walk through spiderwebs so we sometimes forgot to actually look around at the jungle at all! We saw the occasional butterfly but aside from that didn’t see anything but lots of trees. The second walk we did, Kiau View, promised nice views along the route but we didn’t see out onto the mountain ranges at all and I don’t know how anyone would through such dense jungle. We aren’t into flora so much and are more interested in seeing wildlife so maybe these walks are more rewarding for other people who would appreciate the plant life a bit more.

As we walked back to the visitors centre we were able to catch another glimpse of the mountain as clouds drifted past. We went to sit at the viewing platform which is opposite the visitor centre to wait for breaks in the cloud to see the colossal mountain. We were lucky and got the odd glimpse but never saw it fully clear whilst we sat here.

We waited for a bus to go back into the city and a man hailed us down and gave us a ride for 25MYR (£4.70) so not a lot more than it would cost to wait for the bus. The only annoying thing about our journey back was that we passed the mountain and it was clear of all clouds. If we had waited and not left the national park perhaps another half an hour we would have been able to see it properly in all its glory so that was a shame. We did drive past the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque which was good to get to see as it was too far for us to travel to on our own. This is sometimes referred to as the floating mosque as it sits on the waters edge of Likas Bay which is part of the South China Sea.

Just like the night before, we headed to the riverfront to watch the sunset which was as nice as the day before. It was nice to get to watch sunsets again and the riverfront was ideally suited for them in Kota Kinabalu.

On Friday 8th June we got up at 6:30am to go to the Tip of Borneo for the day. We missed the first shared taxi that was going there as it only had space for one person and we didn’t know when the next one would be going as they only do the journey once they’re full. It’s a long way to the Tip of Borneo and so we didn’t think it was worth still going as it didn’t look like the taxi was going to fill up and they said it was returning around 3pm so that wouldn’t leave us much time. Instead we headed back to the hostel and later on visited Manukan Island which is around a 10 minute boat ride from the riverfront in Kota Kinabalu. Manukan Island is one of five or six islands that are part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park which is Malaysia’s first marine park and so is meant to have some nice reefs as it’s protected. These islands give you a bit of beach time whilst still being near the city. The boat ticket was 30MYR for a return including the marine park conservation fee and, had we decided to do to the islands earlier, there were also island hopping tickets so that you could visit a few of the islands in one day. We didn’t go until the afternoon and would be getting brought back on the last boat which was at 4pm. It was a bit cloudy but still nice and warm and the clouds did clear for a bit during the day. We didn’t mind this weather as it meant our suncream stayed on better and we didn’t have to worry so much about burning. Manukan Island didn’t have as much of a beach as I imagined and the part we ended up settling on, to the left of the jetty, was definitely the nicest bit of the island. When we first arrived this bit seemed to have been closed off for some wedding photo shoots but they were done soon after we arrived which meant we were able to find a good spot on the quiet beach. People can stay on Manukan Island but I don’t know why you’d bother considering it’s so close to the mainland and so you could save loads by just going there on day trips as well as then having more choice to visit the other islands or stay in the city if the weather was bad. After the stress of the morning with trying to the get to the Tip of Borneo, the day turned out to be a really nice one and we enjoyed our time relaxing on the beach.

That night we went to the food market that set itself up outside of our hostel each evening. The market mainly sold ready cooked food but it was so cheap and so we were able to get ourselves a feast. We both bought murtabak (an Asian stuffed pancake), some noodles and then Niall bought a battered sausage and I got cheese potato wedges. We also both got enormous cups of Milo which is a brand of chocolate milk. The Milo and our food were really good and everything cost us 12MYR in total (£2.30)… we were stuffed by the time we’d eaten it all.

The next morning we were up early to try once again to get to the Tip of Borneo. We were able to get seats in the shared taxi which is a mini van and by 7:30am we were on our way. The Tip of Borneo is the northern most point in Borneo and is meant to have a beautiful coastline. It’s around a three hour drive away which is mad to think that we were going for the day but we have gotten so used to long journeys now that it doesn’t even phase us anymore. By 11am we had arrived in Kudat which is the town that’s nearest to the Tip. The driver of the mini van told us they would be here to take us back to Kota Kinabalu at 5pm after they asked what time we wanted to leave. This was fantastic as it gave us plenty of time to enjoy the beaches and coastline. The journey had cost us 30MYR each (£5.70).

From Kudat we found a taxi driver, who was called Peter, who took us up to the Tip which was around 40 minutes away. For 100 MYR (£19) we took us to the Tip as picked us up again at the end. This day was turning out very expensive but when we had googled it that had been the price people had said the taxis were and I guess we were in their territory here as there was no alternative way to get up there aside from a very long walk!

The coastline at the Tip of Borneo was stunning. It looked like some of the scenes we saw in Australia and had deep turquoise seas with white tipped waves and an empty beach. At the tip there is a large globe with a world map on marking that you’ve reached the most northern point of Borneo. This was a place explored by adventurers, attacked by pirates and has many shipwrecks due to the rough and rocky seas. The wind was strong and the waves were big and it’s meant to be quite a good place to go surfing if you’re good enough. The Tip of Borneo is also where the South China Sea meets the Sulu Sea and there is a sign marking this crossing on the rocks by the shore.

We headed onto the beach which only had two other people on it and walked the full length of it enjoying the peace and sound of the waves. It was a nice beach lined with fern trees so it looks morelike the beaches in Australasia than South East Asia. Near to the other end of the beach there is a restaurant and guesthouse called Tip Top Restaurant and we got a drink and ice cream here before going to the end of the beach where it was shallower and calmer to swim in the sea. We were the only ones on the beach for most of the day until some surfers came down to enjoy the waves. It was generally just a really nice day together on our own private beach. I couldn’t have asked for better.

Our taxi driver, Peter, took us back to Kudat ready for the shared taxi back to Kota Kinabalu. We waited and waited and the taxi was nowhere to be found. We realised that they must have found passengers earlier to fill their bus and so headed back earlier, leaving us stranded. We had been screwed over and were now stuck with no option but to get a very expensive private taxi or be stuck in Kudat over night which would also cost us a fortune. In the end we had to pay a taxi 220 MYR (£40) to take us back when a bus would have cost us a total of 60 MYR! It put a dampener on the day as we were stressed and gutted to have had to spend so much. It also meant that we may as well have hired a private taxi for the entire day as we had been quoted 400MYR (£76) for the day which was pretty much what we ended up spending. We didn’t get back until after 9pm and so just went to Burger King for tea as nearly everywhere near to our hostel was closed.

If we ignore our return journey we had the best day at the Tip of Borneo and so that’s the bit I’m focusing on. It was annoying to have to spend the money but it’s not the end of the world and can’t be helped now it happened. The beach was beautiful and we had a great time together without anyone else around and that’s the bit we won’t forget, not the taxi ride home!

Kota Kinabalu was a slow start to our time in Borneo but ended up being quite good. It took us a while to get into the swing of things which led to lots of frustrated planning and waiting around but, overall, we did some fun stuff.

Malaysian Borneo is very different to mainland Malaysia which we hadn’t really expected so booking buses and getting up to date information as well as finding good food was all a bit more of a challenge. The rest of our time in Borneo would be a lot more heavily focussed on wildlife which was the reason we came to Borneo and we were looking forward to what was to come next!

Sending love x

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