7 Days in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

August 5-11, 2016

Kota Kinabalu

The City

Kota Kinabalu is the main city in the Bornean state of Sabah.  Despite its smaller population in comparison to Kuching, Kota Kinabalu is a much livelier city.  Its numerous malls are jam-packed, streets are lined with warungs as well as western-style eateries, and the city is teaming with daily and nightly markets.  I even saw a Rolex store.  When I thought of Borneo I conjured up thoughts of remote wilderness. The city Kota Kinabalu is not what I had in mind.  But the city, located on the coast, is large and modern with much of the action concentrated along the main street, Ocean Street.

Our Hostel Room

We stayed at a hostel situated in a prime location on Gaya Street.  The first floor was a coffee shop while the entire upstairs was one giant room with 25+ pod style beds.  With no common area we had to get creative when it came time to change.  There was a small cubby to lock our belongings, but it was on the ground and hard to access.  The twin-sized beds, which were stacked 3 high, had privacy curtains.  There was a small alleyway that cut through the maze of beds.  There were only 2 bathrooms and 1 working shower.  The room was shockingly quiet, compared to many other hostels, except for our second night when a group of drunk Brits came stumbling back at 3 in the morning.

Our Hostel Room in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo

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Food Market

Each night we walked around the city and made sure to stop at the food market on the pier. Stalls sold whole and cut fruits and vegetables along with all types of meats and seafood.  The first night I bought grilled Squid with a size of some type of exotic seaweed.  The squid was perfect but the seaweed grossed me out a little.  The liquid-filled pods exploded in my mouth each time I chewed.  After a couple attempts I gave up left it on my plate.

I bought grilled whole chicken wings for 1.50rm ($0.38) each.  For 1rm ($0.25) we bought bags of sour mango and guava slices and doused them in plum powder.  One night we bought a tray of fresh durian to try.  We’ve eaten durian in many forms (candies, chocolates, pastries) but we hadn’t yet tried them in their raw form.  We sampled them the next morning and thought the taste to be quite good.  It was a very complex flavor that resembled a rich nutty-caramel taste.  Neither of really enjoyed the texture too much though.  I can see why they are referred to as the “King of Fruit”.

Durian, The "King of Fruit", in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

A woman cuts a jackfruit in a market in Kota Kinabalu. (click to view)

A Very Popular Chinese Food Stall in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo (click to view)

SCUBA Diving

I spent one day diving off the coast of a nearby island.  It had been my first diving experience since getting my Open Water Diving certification in Bali last month.  Bali really did ruin me- the diving here was nothing compared to the Liberty Wreck of Bali’s east coast.  If I had known in advance that I was coming to Borneo I would have signed up for a multiple-day dive down in Sipaden, the worlds best dive site.  Either way, for only 225rm ($68) it was cheap and I still saw scorpion fish, clown fish, puffers, stingrays, cuttlefish, jellyfish, and moray eels.  I’m hoping to have more luck diving in Ko Tao

Sunday Market

We walked out of our hostel early to beat the heat, and the crowd, and were instantly immersed in the commotion of the Sunday Market.  Food, trinkets, pets, plants, you name it. We walked around for an hour taking in all the tastes and smells.  We laughed at the ridiculous Chinese remedies being sold and salivated to the smells of coconut and palm sugar wrapped in moist pandan pancakes.

We chatted with an elderly man for 30 minutes about our travels and impressions of his culture.  He relayed us an ancient Confucius saying, 'traveling 1 mile is worth more than reading 100 books'—I couldn’t agree more.  We offered him some of our durian but he kindly declined, commenting that the taste would stay with him all day.  It was interesting that he used the word taste because I think he meant ‘smell’.

Cultural Observations Through the Eyes of Scott

Through traveling, I Scott, have become hyper-aware of the differences among cultures.  One element that possibly troubles me the most is the disparity between the genders.  Men and women hold different roles in many cultures but here in Malaysia, as well as in Indonesia, the disparity is so great that no amount of cultural relativism can overcome it. Sadly it appears that a women's intellect is secondary to her reproduction value and completion of domestic chores. 

Men express themselves by dressing in all types of clothing yet women cover themselves up and keep their heads down. It’s frustrating to see married men acting freely and saying what they please; when the image of a married woman doing anything by herself, like getting a latte at Starbucks, is a rare occurrence. In this part of the world a person’s gender determines their life more so than any of that person’s abilities or aspirations.

When I was SCUBA diving a young friendly Malaysian couple was in our group.  When I addressed the girl with a few questions the man turned his back towards the girl and spoke for her. The woman kept quiet and held her gaze to the ground. She kept her head covered while diving, which seems rather obstructive and unsafe. Later, after our first dive and no thanks to the rough waters, the girl had gotten sick and was vomiting over the side of the boat.  I went to the guy and said, “you know your girlfriend is throwing up”.  He said, “Yeah, she’s sick”.  He provided no comfort and continued to play with his smartphone.  Later he said that he was not going for the second dive—he stayed his wife on the shore.  I later found out that it wasn’t a gesture of kindness, instead he sat on the shore with her because he wouldn’t allow the girl to be by herself. He had trouble understanding why I would let my girlfriend walk around town alone while I was SCUBA diving. He kept asking if she had friends that she was with.  I told him no, she is capable and able to do what she pleases, without my permission.  He didn’t understand and didn't like the sound of it.  I later found out that the couple had been married for a year. From what I have observed, many relationships seem devoid of emotion and are instead perfunctory unions with a lack of respect and equality.  

I’m sure by now many of you know my strong distaste for archaic rituals, so I’ll stop here... 

Dolphin Statue Near the Waterfront in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Sepilok

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From Kota Kinabalu, our next stop was Sepilok. We slept most of the 6-hour bus ride. The bus was direct from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. Sepilok is such a small town that there are no direct buses there, you have to ask the bus driver to drop you off on the street when you pass Sepilok, We were hastily dropped off on the side of the road in Sepilok, joined by a French family who had also been on the bus. Sepilok hardly looked like a town, it was adorably quaint, bordering the forest with a few lodges scattered on one street leading to two the wild life conservation centers, the main attractions. From where we left the bus it was a mile walk to our surprisingly modern dorm room.  We had clean bunks, power, and even an air-conditioning unit.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Our lodge was only a kilometer walk to both the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. We spent our first afternoon visiting the Orangutans. Borneo is one of two places (Sumatra being the other) where Orangutans still exist in the wild, though they're on the list of critically endangered species.  

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre rescues orphaned, injured and displaced orangutans and trains them to survive in the wild. We visited during feeding time to make sure we caught a glimpse of the orangutans. Feeding time is at 10am and 3pm, though the 10am session can be really crowded with people arriving via tour bus. We went to the later feeding time and before even reaching the feeding platform we saw an orangutan only several feet away from the walking path. It was amazing to observe them outside the context of a zoo, where they can climb and swing freely in the vast and open forested grounds of the center. From so close we could see just how people-like they are. We saw some baby orangutans feeding in the nursery and adult orangutans feasting on fruit in a different area of the rehabilitation center.  

Young Orangutans in Sepilok, Borneo (click to view)

click here for a video of the adult Orangutan

Sun Bear Conservation Center

We headed out to see the Sun Bears early the second morning to try to beat the mid-afternoon heat which is made worse by the extreme humidity. The Sun Bear Conservation Center was an unexpected surprise. Neither of us knew much about these cute bears before coming to the center. We learned that Sun Bears are the smallest species of bears as well as the most arboreal of all bear species. Their numbers are decreasing rapidly because of deforestation, hunting and the pet trade. The ones that are kept as pets are often forced into small cages and mistreated by their owners. 

The center was quiet and peaceful when we arrived. We were able to walk the grounds and saw many monkeys goofing around in the trees. And we saw several adorable sun bears looking for food, playing around, and ripping bark off of trees with their huge claws and strong teeth. Some of them had climbed their way pretty high into some of the trees. 

Monkeys in Sepilok, Borneo, Malaysia (click to view)

Reflections on Malaysian Borneo

While in Borneo we were able to see some incredible wildlife and caves, but Borneo did not live up to our expectations. The big cities are not unique, many of the activities are expensive (like the Iban long house homestays and hiking Mt. Kinabalu), and flying is the only way to really get around if you're going far distances. It's worth going for the wildlife, but book in advance. 

Birds of Paradise Flowers in Borneo, Malaysia

Our Route Through Borneo