Back to Borneo – Kota Kinabalu

We return to Borneo after nearly 20 years.

We last visited this Borneo some 19 years ago to attend a friend’s “naming ceremony” at his wife’s family longhouse in Bario in the Kelabit highlands. A memorable occasion with some 1000 people attending ans something we will never forget. After the ceremony we headed off to climb Mount Kinabalu. After we reached the peak at 4200 metres above sea level at dawn we were approached film crew who asked if they could film us walking along the ridge. We agreed and thought no more of it. Several years later As we sat in an airport somewhere in Malaysia we were watching a Malaysia Tourism promotional video. Imagine our surprise when we saw ourselves ourselves on TV!

We plan to explore parts of Borneo we had not seen before as well as revisiting a few places we had briefly skipped through. Arriving in Kota Kinabalu we really didn’t remember much of the city, probably because last time we were staying in a 5 star resort out by the beach, this time we are in somewhere much more basic right in town. It is a nice place to stay for a few days, easy to get around, great food and safe – or so we thought! We read in the papers a few days later that on the day we arrived the town was “in lock down” due to some gang related shootings. Can’t say we even noticed!

Quayside in Kinabalu
Quayside in Kinabalu


It was nice to get back to some “normal” Malay/Indian/Chinese food after the delicious but, somewhat unusual fare of Korea. Being right by the sea, fish and seafood feature highly on the menus and we take maximum advantage of this! Fish head curry is a favourite of the locals and is much tastier than the name implies. In the markets, salmon heads are more expensive than fillets. Back home they can’t give them away??? We are staying just yards from the seafront where the night-market, also known the Filipino market sets, up every night. The variety of fish and seafood on offer is staggering and it really doesn’t get any fresher than this. You choose your fish or seafood and it is prepared by the cooks in any way you can think of (and some you can’t) . We visited several times and tried White Snapper, Red Snapper, Squid, Giant Prawns – barbecued in banana leaves, grilled, steamed, with sambal, soy, ginger, chilli or all of the above. You name it, they can do it.. Some of the best fish and seafood we have encountered anywhere in the world.


If you are into lobster, this is the place. Some giant specimens of over 4 kg. at a fraction of the price we would pay at home but still expensive by Malaysian standards. Also, there are some enormous prawns and a bargain $4 a kilo ( a kilo would give you 2 or 3 prawns)

Mount Kinabalu

Climbing the mountain has become a very expensive proposition since the Sutera Company bought the monopoly for all activities on the mountain. When we climbed it all those years ago, we just turned up, hired a guide and off we went. It took two days and one night staying in a grotty shelter half way up. Cost? Maybe 100 Ringitt. Now there are luxury chalets all over the place and some really expensive restaurants. It now costs 1500 Ringitt ($420 US) to make the summit ascent. A great experience for sure, but a lot of money for sore feet and incredibly stiff legs! We still have those tee shirts (and certificates) and didn’t feel the need for more!

We got a taxi to the bus station  for the two hour ride to Kinabalu. The bus dropped us off at the entrance to the park from where it was a short walk to our home for the next two nights in J Residence, a basic, but clean and comfortable guest house in a convenient location right across the road from the park entrance with great views out over the valley. The restaurant opposite the park entrance seemed popular with the mountain guides so we ate there and found they served very good food at around a fifth of the cost of the places inside the park!

As we were not climbing the mountain we decided to enjoy the trails and scenery around the base of the mountain. Lots to choose from so we picked up a photocopy map from the Park HQ and set off on a couple of walks through the rainforest.

Kiau View and Pandanus Trail

We started off by following the map and signposts. The map was virtually useless and the signposts disappeared after a short time,  but we managed to find our way. Up and back down a big hill, how difficult can it be? The walk took around three hours through surprisingly unspoilt rainforest, it is a beautiful walk lots to see (including a metre long snake!!).


Silau Silau and Mempening Trails

On our second day we set off early for a hike up to a higher point in the park with some great views from some look-out points along the way.

The views from the ridge walk along the top were really superb but sadly the weather got a little worse and it started raining. On the way back down the clouds rolled in as we walked along the “Power Station Road” and it was like being back in England, cold, damp and foggy!


It was only a flying visit to the mountain so on our final morning we walked to the bus stop for the ride back to Kota Kinabalu. As we waited for the bus an elderly Malaysian man drove past in his car and then backed up and offered us a lift for the same price as the bus. No sign of the bus so we jumped in and off we set. I asked how long it would take and, thinking about it for a few moments he replied 12 o’clock.

For the next two hours we experienced one of the most hair raising drives I have known! He was clearly going to meet his ETA come what may. As he drove along like a madman he told us that he was 79 years old, had 7 children and had forgotten how many grandchildren. He owned a chain of shops but was still working because he didn’t trust his kids to run the business properly! He was on his way to get a flight to KL for a family get together. A really nice guy and we chatted on a wide variety of subjects, from land prices to family but his driving was just terrifying. The road to KK is along winding mountain roads where it is difficult to over-take anywhere, but he managed it. Blind bends, brows of hills, trucks coming the other way – no problem he would just go for it anyway. He rarely glanced in the direction he was driving! Whenever Carolyn, who was in the rear seat, spoke, being the gentleman he was, he would turn around to face her, regardless of whether he was overtaking or not. In the end I whispered to Carolyn to not to ask him anymore questions!

Needless to say we did arrive ok and minutes before his deadline. We thanked him profusely, paid him his 40 Ringitts and off he went to the airport whilst we, more than a little relieved, checked into our hotel.

A few weeks after we left Mount Kinabalu we heard the tragic news of the earthquake that had hit the mountain and killed 13 people. Having stood on the peak of that mountain we could appreciate only too well how terrifying it must have been for anyone there at the time. Our thoughts and sympathy go out to those affected by this tragedy.

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