Heather Hapeta lives in Aotearoa-New Zealand: real travel, real adventures, real stories, real photos. Recent destinations Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan and Hong Kong – now NZ destinations due to COVID travel restrictions
If you have not travelled in Asia, both Sabah and Sarawak are easy introductions to the area. As many of you will know, Malaysia is my favourite Asian country – my recent travels have confirmed it! KK and Kuching are great places to start.
On my trip in July-August I stayed at the Hilton ( read about it here) while on other travels to KK I’ve stayed at what my friend named as ‘CCC’s’ – cheap, cheerful and comfortable’s.
One of the must-do in any Asian city is visiting the market, and yes, I do have meals in them!
Here are a few pictures to whet your appetite for travel in Malaysian Borneo – which is a fabulous, ideally placed ‘stop-over destination” to break your trip between hemispheres.,
Search on KK, Kota Kinabalu, or Sabah – in this blog – to see other pieces I’ve written about this delightful part of the world.
Flying into KK or Kota Kinabalu as its officially called, we, my friend Judy and I were picked up by Ben who was to be our guide – many thanks to Sabah Tourism Boardfor helping host us for 3 days and organising my itinerary. Ben was an ideal, and professional guide, and of course our driver, Wilfred (who incidentally, we find out, grows vanilla) was a safe and considerate driver.
First stop the was the Sabah State Museum, where we walked through the heritage village, in and out of many traditional houses and watched women making jewellery and arts and crafts. Inside the museum we enjoyed, in particular, costumes of years gone by and a photographic exhibition. We also made a note to ourselves to read more by Agnes Keith whose first book about ‘North Borneo’ as it was then, has become a tagline for Sabah – Land Below the Wind while another of her books, Three Came Home inspired a film of the same name.
Great photographic exhibit
Kota Kinabalu State Museum
Checking into the Hilton Kota Kinabalu, that evening we had early dinner with Jeremy, the marketing manager from the Hilton: he didn’t need to do any ‘marketing’ as the hotel and the Rooftop Poolside Bar and Grill spoke for itself. I had an Angus beef steak which was thick, tender and cooked perfectly, exactly as I’d requested – rare. Judy had salmon and said it too was faultless.
While up there we met the chef as well as the cooks and wait staff. Breakfast was in the Urban Kitchen on the ground floor and, as always, although I loved the wide variety of global food, I particularly enjoy being able to have Asian dishes for breakfast. The Urban Kitchen has an international buffet every night as well as having a special menu – for instance, Monday Malaysian, and Saturday Local Seafood Market. The Rooftop also specialises in the local seafood.
The Hilton Kota Kinabalu – really central, and which accommodated us for three nights in luxury – has been open since mid-March 2017 and, going by our experience, it’s living up to the names international reputation. Its spacious, luxurious rooms are all you could wish for – including in my room, a large rain or ‘deluge’ shower and big TV. It also had many power points and USB plugs, essential for travellers, and the bedside lights were fantastic – often one of the worst features in hotel rooms!
I also loved the welcoming lobby with its huge chandelier and especially the variety of little seating areas and magazines. Off the lobby was a quiet and well stocked library which impressed me.
The Hilton staff were impeccable. I asked one of the wait staff ‘why are the Hilton staff so friendly?’ He responded. ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s just typical Malay, ma’am’. It’s true the Malay are friendly and helpful, but the staff here seem to really enjoy their various roles. Of course, Sabah, with the highest number of tourists in Malaysia, is not called ‘friendly state’ by accident.
This is about the third Hilton I’ve stayed at – it certainly was the best, by a long shot – and this, as followers of my blogs will know, is truthful and is exactly how I’d have written this had I not been hosted.
While in Kinabalu National Park, (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo) I’m not sure if our guide said “look up there” or I just noticed and photographed the pretty canopy outline then later heard about ‘canopy shyness’. I just know the narrow yet clear gaps between the tree crowns is attractive.
Canopy, or crown, shyness is, I now know after research, is a phenomenon in which some tree species make sure they do not touch each other: forming canopies with channel-like gaps. It’s most common among the same species.
This growth has been discussed in scientific literature since the 1920s and many hypotheses have been put forward as to crown shyness being an adaptive behaviour. Research suggests that it maybe stops the spread of leaf-eating insect larvae, and, or, also possible physical explanations such as light shading sensing by adjacent plants.
A Malaysian scholar, Francis S.P. Ng, studied (1977) the Malay camphor tree and suggested that the growing tips were sensitive to light levels so stopped growing when near other foliage due to the induced shade.
However, apparently, the most likely theory is that the trees simply do not want to hurt themselves in windy areas!
I wonder – I just know the gaps between the trees provided me with a couple of striking photos.
It’s only one week until I leave on my next big adventure to Mongolia and Malaysian Borneo! (and the mainland too) I have written a short blog about Mongolia, (see here) a country I’ve never been to, and I plan on posting a photo a day on my kiwi travel writer Instagram and Facebook pages – so #follow me. My blogs will follow once I return to New Zealand after my 5 weeks exploring.
While I have been to many parts of Malaysian Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak) and I’m looking forward to revisiting the Rainforest World Music Festival and Bako National Park, I also expect to discover new things in Kuching – including the fishing village of Kampong Buntal – and which is very close to where I’m staying at Damai Beach Resort during the festival. So, watch this space!
I’m of course hoping to see orangutans, proboscis monkeys, wild pigs, and possibly a crocodile or two. My must-eat food list is too long – and once again I’m hopeful my bathroom scales do not show a huge upward number when I return home. Malaysia has such wonderful food and Malaysians are all foodies, and who will always entice you to try this and that and yet another thing.
I’m spending about five days in Penang, which is considered the food capital of Malaysia, and as it’s been a long time since I was there I’m wondering if some of my favourite places will still exist. Feel free to give me advice about your favourites in the comments at the end of this blog.
In Sabah, the northern region of Malaysian Borneo, I will be snorkelling in new areas -Mabul island, and also Gaya island where I will visit the Marine eco-research Centre. Another new place will be the Sabah Tea garden after a short hike and Kinabalu Park – one of Malaysia’s world heritage sites.
Check out blogs I have already written about Malaysia (use the search button on this blog site) and make sure you follow me for five weeks of daily photos – as many of you will know, Malaysia is my favourite Asian country – and who knows, Mongolia – which is a blank canvas for me – could end up on my favourites list too.
Damai Beach Resort beside the Sarawak Cultural Village and the RWMF
Are you thinking about travel in areas that have had various forms of trouble or terrorism recently? If so I offer this quote from one of my books, subtitled Can this travel writer be green? See here on Amazon
“It’s providing this familiar food and experiences which Rooksana Hossenally talks about in the Huff Post article, Sustainable Tourism: barking up the wrong tree ‘In wanting to adapt themselves completely to the lay western tourist, but as the recession bites and trends change, the countries are slowly losing their visitors who prefer to go somewhere that offers better quality holidays comprised of a more authentic experience at a destination closer to home. But already ruined by the Parador model, it is too late to overturn these countries’ initial short-sightedness. When money is lacking, why pay significantly more to travel halfway across the world when exactly the same infrastructure and weather is available a two-hour flight away?’
I agree, it’s the differences most people travel for, and although hotels need to provide for the person who is unwell and needs, or wants, familiar food, it should be a tiny part of the menu. Tourists who want the same services everywhere will always go to the closest place, the fashionable destination, the place with the best bang for their buck.
As soon as trouble breaks out (dengue fever, quake, tsunami, or civil unrest) it’s the tourists who cancel their bookings, and the travellers, looking for the differences, the culture and the food of another place, who continue with their travel plans. It’s their differences that all countries need to cultivate and celebrate. Uniqueness attracts real travellers and provides the steady tourist dollar. Activities like the Batang Ai treetop walk nature walk, and our quirky guide, could not be replicated.”
So, would I travel to London, UK; or France right now? Of course I would and so would all other travellers -the chances of being affected by such events are small, and the chance of being killed – even smaller. I guess I’m a traveller not a tourist – what would you do travel or change your destination?
Nevertheless, I’m not going to London, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or France – as, in 3 weeks I’m off to Mongolia, for 10 days, and after that down to Malaysian Borneo, (Sabah & Sarawak) then over to Penang on Malaysia’s Peninsula. After that who knows! Of course am always open to suggestions or invitations. :):):)
Taking a break, vacation or holiday – whatever you may call it – in the opposite hemisphere to your home can be an advantage when packing. Out-of-season sorting can also be a pain. For me it’s a mix of both.
Living in an apartment, and with too many clothes, means twice a year I either store, or unpack, my winter or summer clothes. The disadvantage of this is that in our New Zealand winter it’s those thicker clothes that are hanging in my wardrobe (or closet as Americans call them) and I’m needing some summer clothes for travelling in the northern hemisphere – in their summer.
I’m in the middle of this process now, and as I begin to put some light clothes aside, now that it’s mid-autumn, (fall) I’m also considering what I need for 5 weeks of travel in Mongolia and Malaysia – Penang, Sabah, KL, and Sarawak.
This means a shelf in my wardrobe for possibles and/or essentials and, at the end of one railing, coat hangers of the same – possibles, probable, or definite. The advantage for this sorting – about 3 months before my travels – is that, when the time comes to pack my bag, I have fewer options to consider. And, as it will be close to travelling time it will be easier to make quick decisions and of course, not overpack.
On the shelf, along with ‘must take’ items like aqua shoes, swimming gear and sarong, will be a list that I can add to as I think of things. Once again it means my packing will be considered, rather than rushed, and therefore lighter, rather than heavier. As I have said in other blogs about packing, take anything out that has been put in your bag for ‘just in case’.
As always, my travels will be a mix of conditions. Business meetings, a rainforest music festival, Mongolia’s National festival, hiking in national parks, snorkelling at a resort and, exploring city streets and restaurants: my clothes need to be suitable for a range of activities. They also need to be, for me, easily washable in my room. I also expect my check in luggage – on my outward journey – to be 15kgs (about 33lb) or under.
My carry-on bag will have my electronic gear, and e-reader and eye mask, travel docs etc for on the plane, and a few items in case of an unexpected stopover, or for me in this case, a 13-hour layover in Beijing.
So, while Wellington airport is closed because of fog, on this dull day I’m sorting summer clothes for winter travel. Just checked the calendar – it’s exactly 13 weeks today that I fly out, and most of my gear is sorted!
With leech socks, and provided gumboots by the Tabin Wildlife Resort, Sabah, I visit the amazing Lipad mud volcanoes which are changing constantly with their burping and bubbling. Yet again on this trip to Malaysian Borneo I go out of my comfort zone and climb the Wildlife Department’s observation tower which is about 20 metres high. I would have loved to have spent more time up there, but another small group of came and were not respectful about keeping quiet – of course no animals or birds will visit with them in the area so we, my guide and I, don’t stay as long as we had expected.
It seems the local wildlife love the minerals they get in this mud volcano: it’s a 3 to 12 metre mound of mud and clay that has been forced up through other sediments. I’m told the mud is formed when volcanic gasses dissolve in the hot ground water and interact with the igneous rocks a few metres below the surface. A reminder that Borneo is on the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire I suspect.
This sticky mixture dries to a solid, crumbly, mud while a more liquidly-mobile mud of the highly saline mud slowly oozes up; it acts as a mineral salt-lick for many animals, including birds – the only creatures to visit while we were there. My guide also shows me different footprints in the mud, mainly mouse deer, pigs and some elephant prints which are easy to spot.
Evidently the pH level here is quite alkaline (averaging 8.0) which means few plants grow in the immediate area. I rub some onto my face: ‘No, no.’ says Palin, ‘just use the very fresh new mud. There might be urine in that older area.’ Oh well.
Walking back along the muddy 6 or 7 hundred metre Mud Volcano Trail we see more pygmy elephant footprints and manure but they’re not fresh. We also hear a frog, a male Bornean tree-hole frog that exploits the acoustic properties of cavities in tree trunks or vines. The tiny creature uses the partially water-filled holes to increase its voice and chance of finding a mate. He then uses the watery hole as a safe egg hatchery.
As dusk falls we walk back towards the resort; a good time hear the evening bird song, and I also ask about a funny noise I hear in my chalet-type unit. ‘It sounds like a puppy learning to bark’ I say, ‘it’s not like other geckos I’ve heard but suspect it is one.’ My assumptions are correct – it is the ‘barking gecko’. I’m also sure it’s one of the many creatures carved on the beautiful totem-like poles around the dining room and reception.
The two nights and three days go way too fast at the Tabin Wildlife Resort and I’m out on day and night safaris on open trucks as well as walking ones with my guide, Palin, who tells me he was named by a British friend of his family.
Arriving back in time for dinner it’s then onto the first of my two night trips. Driving down the road that separates the palm oil plantations and the native bush we see, or rather our eagle-eyed guides see things for us. With one on the back of the vehicle and other in the cab with the driver, they point out many owls, the Palm Civets, and the Leopard Cat – all obviously finding plenty to eat. So much for oil plantations being sterile.
A huge group of about 80 piglets run down the road in front of us briefly before running back into the forest: it seems they often form these herds which are called a ‘sounder’ of pigs – a term given to a group of wild pigs.
Not happy with my photos from the first night safari I leave my camera behind on the second day: breaking the number one rule for all photographers to always keep your camera close – more will be revealed in next week’s post!
PS: I never even saw a leech in my eight-weeks in Malaysian Borneo! 🙂
Kota Kinabalu city, Sabah, Malaysia, is built mostly on reclaimed land and overlooks the South China Sea. It was almost leveled as part of the Borneo Campaign by Allied forces during 1945 with bombings day and night for over six months leaving only three buildings standing. The war in North Borneo ended with the official surrender of the Japanese 37th Army in September 1945.
Tucked into the hillside and unable to be bombed is the Clock Tower, beside Australia Place, site of old timber Chinese shops in Jesselton, as KK was called then, and where the Australian Liberation Army camped when they landed in 1945. I stayed in one of these old buildings, above a coffee shop called Museum Kopitiam that serves a good cup of coffee and makes traditional ANZAC biscuits (Australia New Zealand Army Corps). Both Australia and New Zealand claim to have been the first to make these sweet oat biscuits for their soldiers and many myths and legends have grown up around them.
More history I didn’t know about, perhaps as no New Zealanders were in involved, was the Sandakan Death Marches – a series of forced marches in Borneo from Sandakan to Ranau. I learn more when I attended the annual (15th August 2013) Sandakan Memorial day event to remember the fallen heroes of the Australian and British prisoners-of-war who had endured the notorious Death Marches.
I also learn in 1942 and 1943, Australian and British POWs, captured by Japan during the Battle of Singapore in 1942 were shipped to North Borneo to build a military airstrip and their own prisoner-of-war camps at Sandakan. As on the well-known Burma Death Railway, prisoners were forced to work, were often beaten and got very little food or medical attention. By the end of the war only five Australians, and one British soldiers survived, all of whom had escaped. It’s widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during the Second World War and many Australians attend this emotional day and follow ‘in the footsteps of heroes.’
The War Memorial and Gardens of Remembrance were built at Kundasang, Sabah in 1962 to commemorate those who had died in what seems to be a forgotten chapter of history. Local people, who also suffered or died, were remembered and thanked for their support to the prisoner and escapees. The Australian High Commissioner said ‘This debt can never be repaid. Thank you from a grateful nation.’
The British High Commissioner said he was here to pay respects to the bravery of the 641 Brits who had died. That it was a reminder of the ‘brutal story of man’s inhumanity to man’ .
Although it’s advertised as basic accommodation I stayed in one of their excellent villas, on the rise behind the restaurant and the simpler rooms. The food too is unassuming which is exactly what’s needed at the beach, and they are proud of their eco-credentials which concentrate especially on water conservation and energy reduction.
Tommy says they’re hoping others can see what we are doing and copy it for their homes, resorts or business. In addition to having chlorine-free water, which uses lots of energy to transport it there, they have reduced their water energy waste down to zero by using rainwater collected in two huge tanks.
One disadvantage this small resort has is its position on the long curved beach: the wind and current deposit rubbish right on the beach in front of their accommodation. This is the same wind that encouraged Tommy to build the units as he’s a keen windsurfer and he has them, surfboards and canoes for hire.
I tell the desk staff that I will help with a beach clean-up if they arrange one and the next morning they are waiting for me with bags and rakes ready. Although proud of a certificate for cleaning the beach that’s on the wall, and their eco-practices, it seems they rarely find time to clean the beach. We remove about 4 large bags of food wrappers, kids’ lollipop sticks, plastic, straws, butter containers and lids and the ever-present water bottles we leave behind. Rubbish removal can be difficult in small, remote places and I suggest weekly clean-ups like this are needed as guests always see the trash but don’t see the water savings.
Twice I take the 10-mins walk to the Tip of Borneo, the draw card of the area, enjoying the birds and monitor lizards on the way. A snake slides off the warm pathway as I walk back and I return to the spot three or four times to see if I could photograph it, with no luck – a monitor lizard proves more photogenic.
The tip has a beautiful globe, and a huge flagpole, as well as the stunning scenery here at the true top of this huge island. The British gave this area the romantic name of ‘The Parting of the Pirate Ways’, however I didn’t see any pirates as I sat and watched the swirling tides of the South China Sea collide with the Sulu Sea. This wave action has created a dramatic headland carved into the stone cliffs and it’s a great spot to just relax in the sun.
I found Tommy’s Place is a great place to chill for a few days – others used it as a base to explore more of the area.