Kinabalu: The One That Got Away

Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), like much of Borneo, surprised us with its modernity. It’s a remarkably developed city for one I’d not heard of before, exemplified by the hospital (and that is something for which we were immensely grateful). We actually even saw commercials on television for the hospital we stayed at, and another promoting Malaysia as a destination for medical tourism.  Lest you get the wrong impression, it still feels and smells like a seafront developing nation city in many parts, too.

The city of KK was supposed to be a short stopover for us in transit to and from Mount Kinabalu (at Kinabalu National Park). We spent our first night in town doing little, as we were to get on the road for our big hike. We did little more than hit up the 7-11 for water and other supplies.

The drive out to Kinabalu National Park takes about two hours, and I was pleased to discover that there are kitschy roadside attractions in Malaysia, just like back home. We stopped for the obligatory photo ops at the Upside Down House, well worth the 5 MYR entrance fee (for the outside and bathroom parts only, it’s 18 MYR for the whole shebang) if you ask me. Highly recommended for those with kids and those kids at heart. As you get closer to the mountain the roads of course get windier, but we were still blown away by how modern and developed everything was.  And by the glorious views of the mountain for much of the drive.

As most of you know by now, we were unable to climb the mountain, due to a pesky interruption thanks to meningitis (you can read about the ordeal here if this is news to you). We have high hopes to come back another time though. We were mentally prepared (as prepared as you can be) to conquer this massive peak, the highest in Borneo and one of the highest in Southeast Asia.

It is a serious hike that usually entails ascending from ~6,150’ to a mountain lodge at ~10,800’, spending the night there and waking around 2 am in hopes of watching the sunrise from the peak at ~13,500’.  The upper portion of the trail is very steep and requires climbers hold on to a rope.  Less than a month ago, a German girl tragically died after falling from the summit.

The first documented ascent of the mountain was in 1851 by Hugh Low, a British colonial administrator.  The locals found the mountain a frightening place and believed the summit was home to the spirits of their ancestors.  That is why every climbing party used to sacrifice a chicken at the peak.  This is no longer necessary as an annual ceremony now fulfills this requirement for all of us.  A couple other interesting facts: there is an annual race to the top and back, last year the top three men were Kenyan (obviously) and the winner finished in less than 2.5 hours (!!!!); and the mountain has the world’s highest via ferrata, called Mountain Torq.

While we can’t vouch for the accommodation mid-way up the mountain or the view at the top (yet), it looks like a stunning hike and one we very much look forward to conquering in the future, meningitis free.

Liwagu Suites, one of the hotels near the start of the hike, was great. We received service so wonderful we felt like celebrities. The pre-hike day lunch was so absurd in portion sizes and quality that we ache longingly to know what it must taste like post-hike. The staff were exceedingly accommodating, and especially when I was in need of medical care.

::teh tarik::
::teh tarik::

Upstairs at Liwagu there is an educational display with preserved bugs and animals from the area. Borneo sure does have some creepy crawlers, and I’m pretty glad we missed out on seeing those. Silver lining! 😉  We did see some very cool moths (and butterflies?) after dark.

We returned to KK after our stay at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria to continue recuperating before heading off to the Philippines, and this time Jenni was able to join Alan at the impressive market on the waterfront, as well as check out a handful of restaurants around town. While the food was good, beware the rats. We saw what was quite possibly the world’s largest rat at that market, and mid-dinner at a popular Indian restaurant we saw a honker of a rat come scurrying out from under a neighboring table.

Practical Info

KK is the capital and largest city in the state of Sabah.  It is quite developed with large buildings, shopping malls and of course world-class medical facilities!  And traffic.  Lots of it at rush hour, which seems to take place in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon.  I am amazed at how much development is taking place here.  There are new high rise residential towers going up and major construction much of the way out towards Rasa Ria…think industrial parks and malls and towers.  Some sort of rapid transit system is probably on its way.

It doesn’t seem like there are so many tourist attractions in the city, but if you visit Sabah (which has the greatest share of Malaysian Borneo’s top attractions) you will most likely come through here.  There are several offshore islands (per Wiki: “Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park comprises a group of 5 islands located between 3 to 8 km off Kota Kinabalu”) you can visit for a day or overnight.  On a street one block off the water and just north of Le Meridien, there is a nightly market with costume jewelry, sunglasses, apparel, etc.

In terms of Mount Kinabalu, everything was arranged by our tour company but here is how I think it works.  You can do it as a day hike, but there are only four (?) permits available per day for this.  I think all hikers need to hire a local guide.  You could also drive up to the park in the morning, hike up to the mountain lodge (Laban Rata) for the night and summit and return the next day.  But I think they try to discourage this so the concessionaire can make more money??  So it seems the most widely available option is to drive up to the park, spend the night at one of the properties near park headquarters, have breakfast around there and then hike up to Laban Rata, have a buffet dinner there, wake around 2 am when you can get some toast and coffee etc. before the summit attempt, watch the sunrise on the summit, hike back down to Laban Rata for a full breakfast, and finally descend back to park headquarters.

Many people visit the park with no intention of climbing the mountain.  The air is much cooler and there is abundant flora and fauna.  I think it’s very rare to see most of the fauna that lives in the park, but birding is popular.  There are many easy walking trails around the park headquarters and a botanical garden with limited hours.

Our arrangements were to include all our meals from arrival at the park through lunch after descending the mountain.  I’m not sure if this is standard.  There are some little stores at the park selling drinks and snacks and clothing you might need (rain coat, gloves, hat, head lamps, walking poles, etc.).

Note that you probably want good gloves because much of the top requires holding on to a rope, and it might be wet and will be cold.  So the under gloves we packed might not have been sufficient, but fortunately the hotel gave us a bag with thicker gloves and other items.  I would recommend bringing some form of water purification.  There are conflicting reports on the safety of drinking the water available on the mountain trail, but I don’t drink untreated mountain water in the US and I wouldn’t do it here.  Also, you need to show your passport for the hike.

We did not get a chance to do any of this, but near the park there are places you might be able to see the rafflesia (the world’s biggest flower, it can be a meter in diameter and weigh 12kg), and the self-explanatory Poring Hot Springs.

Transportation: There is an international airport (Air Asia flies here) with connections to several destinations.  There are three direct flights each week to Palawan in the Philippines.  The drive to Kinabalu National Park takes about two hours.

Accommodation: Our first night in KK we stayed at the Promenade Hotel.  We were upgraded to a suite that was quite nice.  The hotel does not get great reviews and the breakfast buffet did feel a touch dingy, but the location is good and we didn’t really see enough to judge.  We had planned to stay at the Jesselton but it was full.

Our night before being admitted to the hospital and then the nights after Rasa Ria we stayed at Le Meridien.  The first time we had a big room with full ocean view which was very nice as we could see the offshore islands and watch the sunset.  The second time we had a smaller room and partial ocean view, still quite nice.  There is a nice pool and gym.  The WiFi leaves a lot to be desired, though we complained so they actually put a router in our room and that helped a lot.  Hey, we need good bandwidth to file our reports from the road!

Both hotels we stayed at are on the waterfront, and this seems like a good place to be.  I’d probably choose Le Meridien’s location from what I’ve seen as it’s straight across from a great market (more on this below) and I think closer to the waterfront development with bars and restaurants popular among expats.  There is a Hyatt on the waterfront a few blocks north that might be a slightly more peaceful location.

For Mount Kinabalu, we stayed at Liwagu Suites, which is part of Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.  I think they hold the concession from the park so they operate multiple properties near park headquarters plus the main mountain lodge.  Our suite at Liwagu was very spacious and quite nice, with a living area downstairs plus sleeping loft with additional half bath.  Less expensive accommodation is available, including more hostel-like quarters.

The lodge on the mountain is called Laban Rata.  I believe there are a few private rooms that are hard to book so chances are you’ll stay in the dorm.  They have everything you need for sleeping so no need to bring a sleeping bag.

I don’t know much about it, but there is also a place called Mesilau Nature Resort.  I think this is in a slightly different area than the other base lodges and you begin the hike on a different trail before joining up with the main trail well below Laban Rata.

Food and Drinks: There is a lot of seafood and Indian food in KK.  And probably near anything you might want given how large and modern the city is.  The market across from Le Meridien has a section with Malaysian rice and noodle dishes plus endless purveyors of grilled chicken and “you point, we cook” seafood.  I tried chicken ass.  It wasn’t that much better than it sounds.  But this market is vibrant and fun and smoky.  And when I was there alone the night we returned from the mountain, this little kid walked by and rubbed my red arm hair.  Then he whispered to his friend, pointed at me, and came back and did it again.

Just down the waterfront is a collection of bars and restaurants.  We had delicious pizzas at Gusto (30-35 MYR each) and tasty north Indian cuisine at Kohinoor (entrees 20-30 MYR, I requested my butter chicken spicy and it sure was).  There is an Aussie place, a hot dog place, Starbucks, plenty of Guinness around, etc.  Our driver said Bed nightclub is popular among expats.  Lunch at Malaysian chain Secret Recipe was fairly inexpensive and fine.

Coffee and kaya toast at Borneo 1945 Museum Kopitiam (at Borneo Backpackers hostel) was pretty good.  It seems to be a bit of a traveler/backpacker hangout spot and has free WiFi.

February 25 – March 3 and March 7-11, 2014

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