Sabah is an example of reality exceeding expectation. Prior to arriving, I was a little hesitant. Kuching was great. Mulu was even better. We were due for a letdown eventually, right? Plus, due to the fact that we were flying in and out, we were committed to 5 days. Five days? In a place I wasn’t terrible excited for? I needn’t have worried. It’s Borneo, man.
Sabah. Some background first, no? Sabah is the northernmost state of Malaysian Borneo. If you remember back to our post on Kuching, you’ll remember Malaysian Borneo is comprised of two states – Sarawak and Sabah. Kota Kinabalu is the largest city in Sabah and the largest city in Borneo. For most people, Kota Kinabalu (from here on, I’m going by the colloquial name ‘KK’) is THE city in Borneo. Example as follows:
Us: “Yeah, we’re thinking about going to Borneo.”
Other person: “Oh! You’re going to KK right? [Insert recommendation for KK or Borneo.]”
One other important thing to know about Sabah – there are some areas that are, what’s a good way to phrase this, not as safe as we would like. Specifically, the eastern/southeastern coast has had a handful of incidents in the past few years (see: kidnappings). Supposedly, the eastern coast of Borneo has some of the best diving in the world. Since neither Danielle or I had a strong desire to go diving (best in the world or not), we figured we could skip this area and not feel like we were missing out on anything.
Based on conversations with several locals, the problem on the eastern/southeastern coast is spillover violence and seedy characters from the Philippines. If you look at a map, East Borneo is within spitting distance of some of the islands of the Philippines (kind of like a tropical Russia-to-Alaska situation). Most of the Philippines are safe, but the Sulu Archipelago (the southernmost grouping of islands) isn’t. In fact, the US Department of State has an active travel warning to this area. In other words, don’t go there. Or, more accurately – go there if you want, but don’t say we didn’t warn you. The tourism board in Sabah is well aware of the travel advisories being issued for their neighbor and have stepped up their security measures as well as responding directly to the concerns of the US, Australia, and other countries by saying (and I’m paraphrasing here): There are worse places! It’s really not that bad!
Our thoughts? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I know what you are thinking, “Such bold thoughts, Sam. You are a true travel visionary.” First of all, thank you. I’m flattered. Sam the visionary has a nice ring to it. And second, per usual, the US Department of State warnings are going to be overly cautious (because they are being issued for the lowest common denominator) and the Sabah tourism board opinions are going to be overly positive – “4 out of 5 people made it out alive! 80%! We might not be an A, but a B isn’t bad!” (For the record, I made that statistic up.) So meeting in the middle.. There are seedy folks in eastern Sabah, but more than likely every thing would work out just fine if you went there.
Ok. So. Back to our trip. What did we do? Well, like I mentioned above we had five days in Sabah. We ended up renting a motorbike and doing a small road trip to the following destinations
- Kota Kinabalu
- Mount Kinabalu
- Tip of Borneo
Kota Kinabalu. I described this above. Cool town.
Mount Kinabalu. This is THE activity in Sabah. Quite a few folks come to Sabah just to climb Mount Kinabalu. We strongly considered giving it a try, but there were several factors working against us:
- It is expensive. It was going to cost us $200/USD per person for a 2D/1N package. You have to hire a guide.
- No one-day options. This area experienced a pretty large earthquake last year which, unfortunately, damaged a part of the route up Mount Kinabalu and killed several hikers. Prior to this the park offered a one-day climbing option, but after the earthquake, this is no longer offered. Danielle and I thought the two-day option would be a little slow for our tastes.
- Timing. At the time of this decision we were leaving for the Nepal portion of our trip within a couple of days. So did we want to pay a lot of money to hike a small mountain (by Nepal standards) or should we just wait a few more days and hike amongst the biggest mountains in the world? We chose the latter.
Despite not hiking it, we enjoyed seeing the mountain. It is gorgeous. It reminded me a lot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in that the mountain is so much larger than anything else close to it. Kinabalu is a 13,000 foot mountain and all of the mountains around it are 9,000 feet or lower. It dominates the skyline.
Tip of Borneo. The Tip of Borneo is, prepare to be surprised, located at the northeastern tip of Borneo. It is also a joke waiting to happen. At the tip there are a series of beautiful beaches with a few guesthouses, bungalows, and the like. I was shocked by the lack of development. It felt like a town that in 20 years we’ll be saying, ‘You should have seen this place 20 years ago! Nothing was here!”
Overall, I highly recommend renting a motorbike and checking out some of the sights of Sabah. My only regret is not seeing more. I think two or three weeks would be advisable (maybe doing a big loop like this guy). There is so much to see!
Masada Backpackers. In KK. We stayed in a private room. AC worked great. Internet was hit or miss. One nice thing, they had a washing machine you could use for free.
Mount Kinabalu Lodge. This place was wonderful. It had great views of the mountains and valleys surrounding Mount Kinabalu (no views of Kinabalu itself), a fantastic front porch, and good food. If we had more time, I would have liked to stay here for several nights. Great vibe. Also, the bugs here were incredible. They have sliding glass doors opening onto the front porch and at night they turn the lights on the porch on which attracts tons of bugs. And when I say bugs, I mean enormous bugs. Moths the size of your hand. Beetles as big as a candy bar. Just huge bugs. There was a group of guys there who were REALLY into bugs. So they would go out, catch bugs, and then come back inside to show them to the rest of us (and take pictures of them with fancy cameras). Danielle, who typically is not a bug person, even enjoyed it.
Tampat Do Aman. There aren’t many places to stay at the Tip of Borneo (see: not much development). We ended up staying in a longhouse at Tampat Do Aman. No frills – mosquito net, fan, musty bed, thatch roof. It is a short drive away from the beach, which wasn’t a problem for us, but could be an issue if you take public transit.
Hiking (Mount Kinabalu). Although we didn’t hike the mountain, the national park still had quite a few trails for hiking. We picked one and went. It was a nice little hike. Nothing crazy. I don’t think you could spend more than a day or two in the national park unless you were attempting the mountain itself.
Surfing (Tip of Borneo). This was just me. Danielle waited on the beach and watched (and got attacked by sandflies). The main beach at the Tip of Borneo was the first place we’ve been in SE Asia with much in the way of surfing. I’ve been wanting to learn to surf for a few years now, so I took advantage of the opportunity. I walked along the beach and found a local who offered lessons (50 ringgit, or 12 USD, for a board and an hour lesson). Since it was late, I was only able to take an hour lesson. I was terrible at it, but had fun!
Motorbiking (everywhere). We rented the motorbike from GoGo Sabah. Easy. Fair price. Good people. I definitely would recommend. The speedometer on the bike didn’t work, but you can’t win ‘em all.
Run at Tun Fuad Stephens Park. It is an awesome park a bit away from city center. We rode there on the motorbike. The ABC (see below) is in the main food court area. There aren’t signs, but if you sit down and ask for it, they’ll bring some right over. Tip – don’t follow Google Maps marker for ‘Tun Fuad Stephens Park’. We did and it took us to a random industrial park. Type in ‘Water World Theme Park’ instead. Strava data HERE.
ABC Special. We found the BEST ABC Special of our trip in Tun Fuad Stephens Park (the same place we ran). If you don’t remember what ABC Special is, please revisit the description in our Penang post (HERE). The evolution of our love (or is it lust?) for ABC Special can best be described by the plot line of She’s All That, a late 90’s teen romantic comedy. Not familiar? No worries, I’ll go through the plot and how it relates to our situation.
She’s All That: Guy meets girl. Girl is a nerd (see: unpopular). Guy is a jock (see: popular). Guy is not impressed.
ABC Special is All That: We arrive in Malaysia and see ABC Special on the menu. We are not impressed.
She’s All That: Guy’s friends make a bet whereby guy has to ask girl to prom (always prom).
ABC Special is All That: We receive a recommendation to try ABC Special from a reliable source.
She’s All That: Popular guy asks unpopular girl to prom. At first, there is no chemistry.
ABC Special is All That: We try ABC special. At first, there is no chemistry (though I’ll brag that I was more impressed than Danielle).
She’s All That: Unpopular girl starts to win popular boy over with her quirkiness.
ABC Special is All That: We try ABC Special a few more times and it starts to win us over with its quirkiness. So much so, we start to critique the preparation at various restaurants (“What?! No beans or corn? How can you call this ABC Special?”)
She’s All That: Unpopular girl finds out about the bet (OH THE DRAMA!)
ABC Special is All That: No similarities here. ABC Special remains an inanimate object. If it were human, however, I expect it would see past our shortcomings and love us for who we are inside. Or it would throw itself in our face. Win-win really.
She’s All That: Unpopular girl forgives the popular boy (not sure why, he really was a jerk) and also ends up being gorgeous (after she get’s a ‘makeover’). They become boyfriend and girlfriend.
ABC Special is All That: We become unnaturally obsessed with ABC Special (no makeover required). In fact, we drive 20 minutes through crazy traffic to ‘the best place in town’ on two separate occasions just to have a bowl.
More time! Tip of Borneo, Mount Kinabalu, all of Sabah. I want more time!
Motorbike. Great way to see the area.
Tun Fuad Stephens Park. Double whammy. First, it is a great place to run. Second, their ABC Special is extraordinary.
Diesel fiasco. See ‘More’ below.
Sandflies. See ‘More’ below.
Awesome locals. On our way to and from the Tip of Borneo, we stopped at Sun Bee restaurant, a roadside restaurant about halfway between Kudat and Kota Kinabalu. The first time we went we just wandered in. We were definitely the only tourists. As we were leaving, the owner made a point to come by to make sure we liked our food and to implore us, in her limited English, to, “come back tomorrow!” So the next day we decided to stop by again, and she was super happy to see us. She made us some of her ‘special sauce’ to go with our food, called Danielle a “sexy, beautiful lady” and me a “handsome boy man.” She was adorable. Not going to lie, though, I think Danielle won the compliment contest.
I’m an idiot. Motorcycles require gasoline. Motorcycles do not require diesel. Can you see where this is going? We stopped for gas at a Petronas station in Kudat. There were two handles at the pump – one was black and one was green. Without looking at the labels, I grabbed the black handle and started filling up the tank on my motorbike. When it was almost full I looked at the label and realized it was diesel. OH SH*T. Side bar – Have I gone crazy, or are the diesel handles in the States colored while normal gasoline handles are black? I could have sworn this was the case. Damn you Malaysia! End side bar.
A quick Google search reinforced the fact that I was in trouble. Fortunately, I didn’t start the bike, but pushed it over the side and started asking the attendants if they had anything I could use to drain my tank. All of the attendants were young women and they spent most of their time laughing at me, though they did make some token efforts to ask other customers if they could help the distressed white man who put diesel into his motorbike.
Eventually, an incredibly nice young man came to the rescue. I turned off the fuel pump and prepared to drain it when he came over and miraculously produced a portion of hose from somewhere else on my bike. From there, we were able to drain 2 liters of diesel out of my bike into the water bottles turned gasoline storage bottles I had on hand. After it was all done, I asked the attendants what I should do with the 2 liters of diesel and gasoline mixture I had in the bottles. Their response – ‘you can have them.’ Geez, how thoughtful. We ended up taking them to a motorcycle repair shop a few blocks away. They were confused, who can blame them, but they took them off of our hands.
Gas Stations. We had a tough time finding gas stations on our drive, probably because we couldn’t recognize them. We stopped at the Petronas station in Kudat (it looked like the gas stations we are used to in the US) but every other stop was either at a roadside stand or a gas station somebody was running out of their house. Tip – if you are planning on doing a trip around Sabah, bring AT LEAST one spare liter bottle with you for gasoline. Preferably two. That way you can fill those up when you are able to find a gas station. Big time stress reliever.
Palm oil plantations. Sabah was, at one time, completed covered by jungle. In the 80s and 90s, however, large portions of the jungle were cut down to make room for palm oil plantations. Now, many of the smaller communities in Sabah rely on palm oil for their livelihoods – growing, harvesting, transporting, and other ancillary services. The environmental issues associated with palm oil would require an entire blog post, so I’m not going to get into that here but it was interesting to see all of the plantations. So many palm oil trees! If you are interested in learning more about palm oil, here is an interesting slideshow showing how it’s grown, harvested, etc.
Sandflies. Sandflies are nasty insects and now a mortal enemy of Danielle. A few days after our road trip, Danielle noticed that she had quite a few bites on her legs. It was weird, because we didn’t remember anywhere that we seemed to be getting bitten. Per Danielle, the bites itched far more than mosquito bites. Although she didn’t scratch them much, they soon turned into huge ugly welts that lasted for a few weeks. A few nights she couldn’t sleep because they itched so badly. Apparently, these bugs hang out at beaches, so she must have gotten bitten while I was surfing. Be thankful for mosquitos, these nasty bugs are far worse.