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Malaysian Borneo!

MALAYSIA | Thursday, 4 March 2010 | Views [3194] | Comments [1]

Sabah, Malaysian Borneo is definitely my favorite place so far in my last 3+ months of travel. Seriously. This place is just so unbelievably incredible in so many ways, that I’m humbled and blessed on a daily basis to be here. I’ve experienced so many acts of generosity and kindness and had such a great time here, I’m already planning my return! Malaysia is one of my favorite places overall because it is modern, clean, friendly, and easy to get around, yet, its still exotic, foreign, and multicultural, with spectacular natural beauty that’s teeming with wildlife. But the local people are what make this place so truly special.

First of all, the locals in Sabah are so nice and genuinely friendly, its great to just hang out here and talk with them. Its not just that I’ve met a few cool people, but just about EVERYONE I met has been so lovely and hospitable, from the bus driver to the couch surfers, to the hostel staff to the tour driver to Sukau… Most people speak really great, or perfect English so I’ve had some really good in depth conversations, which is one of my favorite things about traveling.

I know I could be going out every day and doing tours and excursions and all of that, but I like just hanging out and exploring on my own. I’m back in the type of place where people say “hello” when I walk past just because… they know I’m foreign, and they are being friendly. They’re not selling anything, just greeting me. Especially the little kids like to wave and say, “hello!!!”

I’ll divide this blog by places I’ve been to, and write about the experiences that made me feel the way I do about this place:

Kota Kinabalu- The “Big” city…

One of the biggest highlights of this place was meeting a girl named Jaci through Couchsurfing. She lives with her dad and brother, so rather than inviting people to come stay with her, she makes it a point to show visitors a really great time. One night, she met up with me, Emily, Jerry and their friend Greg, and took us out to a Chinese restaurant, and ordered a feast for us to try. Another Couchsurfer, who coincidentally was the dive instructor on the boat we went on earlier that day joined us for dinner after we got to restaurant. We already had our feast laid out on the table and Tiger beers in hand, when she just calmly said, I can’t eat here, because I’m Muslim, and they serve pork. She was really cool about it… I think we were more uncomfortable than her with the situation! After dinner, we all went out to Tajung Aru Beach, where we dropped by the hostel I stayed at for my first 2 nights and hung out with the staff and guests. They were ok with me coming back, and bringing 5 friends! They gave us a warm welcome, and none of the “no non-guests allowed” schpiel most hostels have. After that, we went for a walk on the beach and hit up the local food market for some snacks.

Another highlight for me in KK was joining Jaci for a trip to a beach in front of a really nice resort just outside of the city. We snuck in, and took over 2 comfy beach chairs with big fluffy cushions, and ordered ice creams on the beach, which were delivered to our chairs. They even had these plastic chairs you could sit in the ocean on, and let the waves wash over you. VERY relaxing! Jaci also took me out to dinner for Korean food at a nice restaurant, and then to a movie at the local mall. I was the only Westerner at both places, but it wasn’t uncomfortable, like at some places where you just feel like a whale in the rainforest. It was completely non eventful as far as people staring and laughing, which sometimes happens when a Westerner travels in small towns. Another night, we went out dancing, and had fun playing pool and just hanging out and talking. Jaci was so overly generous about her time, and car, and whenever I tried to buy her drinks, food or even a movie ticket, she kept insisting I was her guest in Malaysia and that I just have a good time! She truly is one in a million. Such a beautiful person that I really enjoyed hanging out with and getting to know.

I really enjoyed talking story with the folks at the Borneo Beach House hostel and learned so much more about Malaysia. The boys there were my intro when I first got to Borneo, and great ambassadors who literally took hours to talk with me and help me plan what stuff to see and do here. The hostel is also really nice with a huge hang out area, with a pool table and nice kitchen, tv, and free wifi. The room is pretty basic, but I snagged a bed right under a fan so it was ok. That was when I got smart the second night and switched to the top bunk. Night one I woke up in a hot sweat!

I hung out at another hostel for about an hour when I went to ask what the pricing was. The guy who worked there was really nice and invited me to sit and chat for a while. When I returned about a week later, he greeted me with, “Heeeey Carrie, how have you been? It’s so nice to see you again, are you going to come stay with us???“ He remembered my name after several days, so I was pretty impressed. We had great conversations and many laughs, including hearing about what its like for a Malaysian guy to work as an African drag queen in a gay nightclub in KL. I learned that if the Muslim police catch a cross dresser, they charge them money for being a “public disgrace”! Crazy…

I'm finding everything easy to do and get around here. Everyone speaks really good English and the streets are easy to navigate. There’s pretty decent and cheap public buses and ferries to take you around. And people are really helpful when it comes to giving directions. The muslim laws are strict so its really safe and the people are very honest. None of the raising prices and cheaping out on change! For example, I tried to get the cell phone I bought in Australia unlocked here. The guy at the cell phone shack tried for 2 hours to figure it out. Then, I asked if I could give him some money for his time and he wouldn't accept it. Most places would ask for money for their time whether they got the job done or not!

One night in KK, I played tour guide to a huge group of USA Navy guys I met, whose ship was docked for a few days, so I hung out with them at the Waterfront restaurant and bar area (the hip yet pricey place to hang out in KK). After a few drinks, they wanted to “go get some burgers” so I made fun of them for being so American, and told them they should try the local food and showed them what to order at a local curry restaurant (they were scared!). They liked the food I recommended so much, they paid for my food and gave me 50 ringgit to take a cab back to my hostel!

I met another guy who grew up working on a palm plantation. He was outcast because he is ½ Caucasian and ½ Malaysian, and partially Muslim through his mom’s second marriage. The government forced him to change his name to a Muslim name when he was 9 years old and tried hard to persuade him to change his religion, as well (but they can’t force it) then took him away from his family (both his mom and real dad) when he was 12, because his mother divorced the Muslim guy. He lived and worked on his own since he was 15 and studied and went to school at the same time. Paying international student fees (even though his mom is Malaysian) which are higher than local fees. Crazy, but yet really interesting, because its so different from America.

I went to get a 1 hour massage and a pedicure for $17. I treated myself after all the hiking and bus riding the past few days. The massage was a proper one, by a trained professional, on a real massage table, with clean towels and sheets in a tranquil air conditioned studio with aromatic oil- 1 hour was only $10 US! When I compare it to Thailand, where cheap massages start at $6 (the good ones start around $15), where they lead you to a scary dim hovel, make you lay on the floor on a thin dirty futon mat, and they twist your body around with no massage oil, talk and laugh about you the entire time to the other masseurs in the room, then demand a huge tip after 50 minutes or so (God only knows how it goes for men who get massages there!)… Malaysia massages are definitely better value!



On the way to Sandakan, which is a 6 hour bus ride from KK, I had a funny experience. I heard that if I wanted to go visit Kinabalu Park (a World Heritage Site, and one of the most spectacular parks I’ve ever been to) I should get off in a town called Ranau. There was supposed to be plenty of hostels there. So, I got off in this creepy little town named Ranua in the middle of the day in the blazing hot sun and proceeded to walk all over with my bags looking for these hostels I’d heard so much about. There was nothing there! Except for weird old men hanging around outside staring at me. I met 3 school girls and asked them where to find a hostel/ backpackers place. They literally led me to a place that they thought I meant, but it was a grim and scary little brothel looking place! It turned out there was no places to stay in Ranau. I should have gotten off the bus in Kundasang. Dammit!! So I hurried back to the bus stop to get one of the last busses to Sandakan (the whole time I thought I’d get stuck in Ranau overnight!) The 3 schoolgirls led me back to the bus stop, which was really nice of them.

After my Ranau Texas Chainsaw Massacre town experience, I had a another experience on the bus. Since I got on so late in the trip (¼ way into it), there were no seats. So I sat on the floor. 5 minutes after I got on, the police pulled the bus over and marched down the aisle asking to see everyone’s papers. They were looking for illegal immigrants, and didn’t say anything to me, but it was weird all the same. Crouching on the floor of a bus and showing a cop my passport. After the police inspection, the driver’s assistant came to me and told me to come up front. He insisted on giving me his seat, and he sat on the floor-- for 2 hours! The bus driver gave me his personal cold can of coffee, since he could see how hot I was from my walk around Ranau. So nice of both of them! Then, I insisted on switching places with the assistant, so he could sit for a while, and I spent 1 more hour on the floor of the bus until a seat opened up. So I got a seat for the last hour of the trip.

When I arrived in Sandakan, I spent a night at Sandakan Harbour B&B, a hostel right on the waterfront for $6 a night inc. breakfast. I got my own room even though I asked for a dorm, because each room has only 2 beds in it. One minute after going to my room, I tried to adjust the fan and ended up pulling the fan off the wall, which dragged down and broke a mirror! There were shards of glass everywhere, and I was so embarrassed and also paranoid I’d get charged some outrageous amount of money for it (like in Thailand, where every room has an itemized overpriced list of money you have to pay if anything breaks, such as $50 for a remote control, or $500 for the TV). The woman at the hostel’s response was, “Just collect your things, and you can change rooms. Don’t worry about the broken mirror, we’ll clean it up- just don’t cut yourself, and go get something to eat and take care of myself after the long journey.” Sooo nice!

Kinabatangan River Cruise in Sukau

Just when I thought Sabah cound’t get any more country than Sandakan, I went to spend 3 days in Sukau, a town down a country road that runs along a big river. I stayed in a nature lodge named “Sukau Greenview“. They took us out for several boat trips a day to go look at the wildlife in nature, no bars or fences. We saw so many monkeys, including the really rare wild orangutan, crocodiles!, snakes!, huge monitor lizards, birds (beautiful tropical ones with great colors), butterflies galore, otters, and moths and crazy bugs. It was really nice. The guesthouse was run by really nice Muslims who were so over the top helpful to us. I got breakfast, lunch and dinner for 3 days, my own room for 2 nights, guided hikes and transport and many many boat trips included in my river adventure for $100 US. It was really relaxing to be in the jungle, with no TV and only my book for entertainment. The second night, a fun couple of guys- Bart from Holland, and Nigel from Canada came to stay at the Greenview. We had a good laugh, and I crashed their night cruise, which turned into a booze cruise, with a stop along the river to buy local rice wine! If you ever meet a Dutch guy named Bart, hang out with him… I’ve met 2 in my life so far, and both were a riot! I ended up getting a ride with them back to Kinabalu Park on the way back to KK, which beat the long bus journey. 4 hours from Sukau to Kundasang flew by!

The woman who drove us from Sandakan to the nature lodge and back invited me to stay with her and her family in their home, so I accepted, and stayed with them for 1 night. They lived in a really basic house on stilts in the water, with 8 people in a 3 bedroom house! 5 kids, 2 parents and the mother in law. The parents gave up their bed for me, but I had to sleep next to their 12 year old daughter, lol. Most people would have cringed when they saw the bathroom... a hole in the wooden floorboards that went directly out to the ocean below!!! At night, one of Annie’s daughter’s painted henna on my hand and foot. My finger nails are STAINED bright orange now! What an adventure. The Rohani’s even took me to go meet the husband's brother and wife. When I arrived, they had coffee and cookies waiting for me. So nice of them! Two little girls stopped by the house to ask if they could take a picture with me! The family also kept insisting on paying for our meals and treating me to stuff. I had to force them to let me buy them breakfast the next day. They were so amazingly generous and kind to me. They are building a nature lodge so hopefully it'll be running next time I come to visit. I helped Annie with her business plan, which felt really good, because if they can get their own business up and running they can stop making 4 trips a day picking up/ dropping off tourists that take 2.5 hours each. That’s what I went to school for- to help entrepreneurs with their businesses. It felt really good to be able to use some of my education to help a wonderful woman start her own business.

Kundasang/ Kinabalu Park

The final place I went to was Kinabalu Park, which is a World Heritage Site, and an amazing forest, full of plants, animals and stunning butterflies. Some as big as my outstretched palm! The trail system was clearly marked, so it helped me feel confident enough to go hiking around on my own. The trails are marked with signs every few hundred feet, and the signs include the distance of the trail and some even have time estimates of how long it’ll take to hike it, which I appreciated since I have no clue how far 1000 meters are.

In the park, I hiked up to a lookout point and was enjoying the view by myself, when a huge rainbow appeared right in front of me. The 2 days I spent in the park were one of the highlights of my time in Sabah. The first day, I arrived at the park at 4 pm, and it was raining. I jokingly asked the ranger at the entrance if they offer a “rainy day discount”. His response was to sell me a reduced ticket for people under 18! That was really nice of him. The next day, when returned, he remembered me and asked if still had my ticket stub, and he stamped it for me and let me in for free. I paid extra to see the Botanical Garden and the Conservation Center, but neither were worth it. The garden was really small, and I saw more interesting things on the trails. The conservation center was a sad little pseudo-museum with wretched scrappy taxidermied animals that live in the area. The wall was covered in overly scientific and boring articles about butterfly phylums, ants and other crap. Oh well, the rest of the park more than made up for it! I even got a rare glimpse of Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in SE Asia. It’s usually covered in clouds. I’m glad I saw it, because I was thinking about trying to climb it, but it looks intimidating! Maybe next time I’m in Sabah.

A return visit here is a definite. I really could have easily spent a month here in Sabah alone. My next stop is Sri Lanka but I’m thinking about coming back to Malaysia and traveling around the West side of the country. We’ll see what happens next…


Tags: beachouse hostel, borneo, hostel, kinabatangan river, kota kinabalu, nature, sabah, sandakan



Hey missy_carrie_gee,

We really like your story and decided to feature it this week on the WorldNomads Adventures homepage so that others can enjoy it too.

Happy Travels!
World Nomads

  World Nomads Mar 22, 2010 4:02 PM



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