We were up at 7am and kitted out with snorkelling gear before boarding the speedboat which would take us out to the island of Mabul in the Semporna Archipelago. Neil had made the mistake of ordering a coffee “to go” which had been served to him in a tied up plastic bag (such as you might be handed a goldfish at a fun fair) with a straw.
Mabul is the accommodation hub for the marine park and pretty much where all the boats, snorkelers and scuba divers begin and end each day. It’s a beautiful place, although the weather wasn’t really suitable for an island paradise, being about an hour from the mainland with a few other islands, such as Sipadan – the most famous, around 25 minutes away by speedboat.
Over the course of the day we were taken to three separate dive sites; ‘Stingray City’ (where there were no stingray), ‘Lobster Wall’ (where there were no lobsters) and another place, which I’ve forgotten the name of but I’m sure the same rule applies, all of which were a short ride from the island and on the edge of the reef.
Dive 1 was difficult. Everyone was finding their feet (or flippers), particularly Miriam who didn’t realise that she wouldn’t be able to breathe through her nose, and we didn’t really get into the swing of diving down the 3 or 4 metres to see the coral and its inhabitants a bit more closely until dive 2. We did, however, see plenty of life down there. A few turtles and some other odd creatures too.
After a short break back on the island, we got back on the boat for the second dive. This one mainly consisted of the instructor finding a 50m fishing net caught in the coral (which was indiscriminately catching small fish, big fish, a turtle and even me at one point). He started rolling it up and saving fish and turtles (I had to save myself) until he realised that the owner of the net was nearby (and potentially heavily armed!) and hurried us all back to the boat before someone got themselves harpooned.
The final dive, which Emily and Miriam decided to skip due to the parting clouds and potential for a suntan back at Mabul, was incredible. We saw alligator fish, sea snakes, turtles (one of which must have been about 4ft from beak to tail), stingray, manta ray… All sorts!! Neil and I took great pleasure in rubbing this in as much as possible when we saw the girls again.
When back on dry land, the girls decided that they would go up to Kinabatangan for a river cruise (where they would see Pigmy Elephants), Neil decided to stay in Semporna for an extra day to do a fun dive the next day, and I decided to take a 10 hour bus journey north-west to Kota Kinabalu.
I arrived in Kota Kinabalu (or KK) at about 5:30am dazed and disorientated, despite a reasonably good nights sleep on the coach. After a 15 minute wonder, I resorted to takin a taxi to my hostel rather than trying to be a proper traveller and walk / hitchhike / use public transport. It was a old on really as I discovered some time later that the bus station is actually about 19km from KK!
I spent the day generally realising, once again, that being in a foreign city on your own is not the most fulfilling of experiences.
I did achieve one thing though – I booked my climb up Mount Kinabalu (4095.2m above sea level) and bought some supplies; some ‘structured’ sport socks, “Power Bars” (chocolate peanut butter, vanilla crisp and banana flavour) and a head torch for the predawn summit climb on Tuesday morning. The next day, I got the minibus up to Kinabalu National Park.
You start the climb at around 8 or 9 in the morning, when you are paired up with a mountain guide. As I was on my own, I managed to group up with a couple of girls from Melbourne (Jules and Shannon) who were starting at the same time as me. Our guide was called Geoffrey (or so we thought until the next day when we realised his name was actually Jepri) and he had been climbing the mountain twice a week for 20 years – over 2000 times!! He had started out as a porter, carrying supplies up to Laban Rata, the rest house at 3300m.
As there is no other infrastructure there, i.e. no roads, cable cars, etc) all the supplies for the rest house must be carried up by hand. These guys can carry up to 50kg up the mountain and back down again in the space of 1 day, day after day after day. As a tourist, you take the absolute minimum when you climb the mountain – a small back pack with a bit of food, some warm clothes for the top and a bottle of water – and you wear either running shoes or mountain boots. While climbing (sweating, aching, swearing, wondering why on earth you would put ourself through such pain) these guys pass you by, almost running up the mountain, carrying 40kg on a board on their backs with a strap round their forehead to support it and, generally wearing flip flops or Crocs. It really puts your own struggle to shame!
We finally reached Laban Rata after a 5 or 6 hour climb (the world record for climbing and descending the entire mountain being 2 hours and 37 minutes) in time for dinner before sunset. We were very lucky as the mountain had been shrouded in clouds for weeks, right up until about midday on the day we climbed. By 5:30 we had a great view all the way down to the coast and a big group of us settled on the balcony to watch the sunset. Among us, my two Aussie cling buddies, four Dutch people that I had got the minibus from KK with, a Kiwi couple and Christo, my Estonian room mate, who kept everyone laughing throughout.
The sunset was incredible (someone mentioned the line from Forest Gump “sometimes the sunset was so beautiful you colder tell where the earth and ends and the sky began”, but that definitely wasn’t me) and was punctuated by a sharp drop in temperature as soon as it disappeared over the horizon.
Bed time, ready for our 2am wake up call to watch the same star rise reappear over the opposite horizon.
2am came much quicker than planned, and after only 3 hours of decent sleep. The next three and a half hours are a blur, but they involved being cold, eating breakfast, still being cold, climbing the mountain, warming up, climbing further, being out of breath, not being able to climb fast enough to stay warm, getting to the top, freezing half to death.
When I reached the top, I was on my own and it was pitch black all around. I cold see millions of stars, being so far from the light pollution of the M25. By the time the sun came up, the peak was packed with maybe 50 people and the mountain we had all climbed slowly came into focus. “Moonscape” is the only word I can think to describe what that looked like.
Jepri ushered us down from the peak at about 7:30 and we started our descent. The easy bit, right? WRONG! My left knee is in pieces! I have no idea how many steps there are up that mountain, but coming back down them was agony. The only thing that made it any better was the smugness I felt watching the other poor souls on their way up, two of which were doing the entire climb and descent in 1 day! Nightmare!
We finally reach the bottom, after much complaining and had a rather lacking buffet lunch as a reward. Not the heroes welcome I was hoping for! Although, I suppose when up to 60,000 people climb the thing each year, our heroism is somewhat diluted.
The rest of the day consisted of me truly getting into the mindset of being a traveller and not having a job. I lounged, slept, showered, read, ate, lounged, chatted, lounged, read and slept, and I didn’t rush any of them, for the first time since I came away! I might be finally getting the hang of this!
The next day, some fellow hostel mates and mountain climbers and I (one of which was the girl we saw attempting to climb the mountain in one day, which she did, somehow) took a trip 45 minutes down the road to the opposite side of the National Park to the Poring (meaning “Bamboo” in the local language) Hot Springs, who’s sulphurous waters are supposed to heal aching muscles. It was grea to soak in a hot bath (as opposed to the clod showers I’m becoming used to) but I didn’t really notice any miraculous healing unfortunately!
The end of my trip to Borneo has come. I would never have come here if it weren’t for Miriam and Emily, but it was definitely worth it (despite the gaping hole in my bank account!) – so I’m very grateful to them for that. It’s been a great adventure and quite off the beaten travellers track which is nice! I am now on a plane to Jakarta, to catch a flight to Bali, where I will sit on the beach for a week and try to spend as little money as possible to make up for Borneo.
I’m almost a third of the way through my time in South East Asia now and I feel like there’s so much left to do in comparison with what I have achieved so far. I need to learn to surf, to scuba dive and to stop being such a wimp when it comes to street food and hawker stalls before I get to India!
Bring on Indonesia.
We arrived in Sandakan, Borneo on Tuesday morning after a 3 hour Malaysian Airlines flight from KL. All three of us slept through the entire flight, waking only for the anchovy and prawn curry for breakfast. From the airport, we took the RM2 bus from the Airport bus stop, which is nowhere near the airport, to the Sandakan town bus stop, which is nowhere near Sandakan town.
The girls had booked a room at a hostel in Harbour Square which took us a while to find but is luckily nothing like the rest of the town, where rubbish seems to be piled high. The hostel was even nicer than Harbour Square itself. It’s huge, with big clean beds and hot showers, and even windows in the bedrooms. Luxury!
As soon as we got there, we set about trying to work out what we would be doing for the next 7 days, before the girls return flight to KL. The possibilities are Sepilok Orang-Utan Sanctuary, an overnight trip to Turtle Islands, a jungle cruise on Kinabatangan river, snorkelling in the Semporna archipelago or climbing Mount Kinabalu, the second highest peak in South East Asia. We decide that the priorities are Orang-Utans and turtles, and we know all about Sepilok, so we set off (with our new friend, Neil) for the Turtle Islands jetty for some more information.
Turns out that Turtle Islands is expensive and without much guarantee of seeing any turtles, whilst our various Lonely Planet guides tell us that turtles are common in the Semporna archipelago (or the Tun Sakaran Marine Park) and we just need dorm room beds and some snorkelling gear for that. We decide to go for Semporna and book up 4 beds in a hostel on the waterfront called Scuba Junkie, despite the fact that none of us can Scuba dive (yet), and try to work out how we get there. A 5 hour bus ride from Sandakan Long-Distance Bus Terminal (even further away from Sandakan than Sandakan town bus stop) it seems.
That evening, it started raining. Really raining. Much heavier than I have ever seen English rain, I would think. But of course it’s warm, not depressing like in England.
The next day we (incl. Neil) were off to see the Orang-Utans of Sepilok, alongside 4 coach loads of British pensioners 2 weeks into a South East Asian cruise. After a brief chat from an English guy working for Orang-Utan Appeal UK, you get to watch a 23 minute video presented by one of the guys who used to be on Newsround (disappointingly, not Lezo) about the work they do at Sepilok, i.e. rehabilitating kidnapped, orphaned and injured Orang-Utans back into the wild, a process that takes up to 10 years and costs between RM5000 – 8000 (£1000 – 1700) per year. You are then taken through to a viewing area about 15m from the first feeding platform for the Orang-Utans 10am breakfast. It was still raining at this point.
We were warned that there’s no guarantee that you will see any, and if you do it may just be 1 or 2, but we must have been very lucky. We probably saw up to 7 or 8 different Orang-Utans, as well as maybe 10 or 15 baby and adult Macaque monkeys. It was pretty incredible, but it was still raining.
Following that we made our way down, in the rain, to a rainforest visitors centre type thing that had a few trails mapped out. We set off and quickly discovered that most were concreted or gravel, so not particularly authentic. Miriam decided that we had to go and see the Sepilok Giant, a huge tree in the centre of the mapped out area and about half way along a 4-5 km trail. We almost missed it at first (probably because of the rain) but the trail to the Giant was a little turn off the main path that descended down the side of a hill off into the rainforest. We clambered over trees, roots, mud, streams and all got leaches climbing up our legs in the process until, through the rain, we saw the Sepilok Giant. It was pretty awesome. Definitely the biggest tree I’ve ever seen. We all had some photos (that didn’t come out very well, because of the rain), stood there in awestruck wonder for a while and continued along the path. (Shortly afterwards we came across an even bigger tree that must have been the actual Sepilok Giant, but we were so bored of trees (and the rain) by that point that it was difficult to get excited again.)
PICTURE TO FOLLOW
We made our way back to the visitors centre, via a canopy walkway, rope bridge and lots more rain, and jumped in a taxi (that definitely wasn’t a taxi, but just a guy with a car who wanted to make RM40) back to Sandakan town, in the rain. Once back in the hostel, just as the rain decided to stop, we each had a shower to dry off.
Tomorrow we get the 5 hour bus journey to Semporna for snorkelling in the archipelago, apparently one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. It’s a shame I haven’t learnt to dive yet but it’s going to be so much cheaper when I’m back in peninsular Malaysia or Thailand that it’s not worth doing yet.
An hour on the ferry back to Lumut, and a 4 hour bus ride back to KL completed my west coast triangle and concluded my first week of travelling. After a slow start, being jet lagged and alone in KL the first time around, I arrive back with a bit more of a spring in my step!
I’ve been told that Corbin, Jake and Mitch have a spare bed in their quad room that they aren’t paying for so I try to find their place. I found it, but the guy in reception told me they weren’t staying there. I trudge off again to try to find the place that Miriam and Emily are staying, the Matahari Lodge, and find it, and them, quite quickly.
My reunion with Miriam was beautiful. It wouldn’t be long until we were drunk together again like the good old days! (There you go, I said something nice about you!)
First job was to book our flights to Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, which we found for £40 each with Malaysian Airlines on Tuesday at 8:15am – an early start that morning then! And then we set out to eat in Chinatown. We found quite a popular place, each ordered something different and struggled with varying degrees of success with the chopsticks.
We then made our way to the hostel that I thought the guys were staying in, and discovered Jake at the roof bar. We had a beer then and then went off to find some cheaper beers in Chinatown.
Drinking is a comparatively expensive pastime here. As it is a Muslim country and the locals don’t drink it, it is heavily taxed. You can get a huge meal for RM6 and then pay RM8 for a small beer. Very odd! It will be interesting to see what the prices are like in Langkawi, which is a duty free island.
We found some 330ml Chang beers for RM3.90, the cheapest beers I’ve seen so far by a long way, and bought a few each and brought them back to our hostel. We sat on our balcony on the 3rd floor and drank them. Corbin and Mitch soon arrived and Mitch and I headed back out for more beers.
We were soon all pretty drunk and decided it was time for us to exchange some British and North American culture. Mitch showed me how to ‘shotgun’ a can of beer, and I showed him how to ‘strawpedo’ a bottle. Culture over.
I woke up, disorientated, at 11:30 in a room without windows, ate lots of toast and set out for the Batu Caves on the bus.
The Batu Caves are about 13km from KL and full of monkeys. It’s a Hindu shrine that includes the world’s largest statue of Lord Murugan and more steps than anyone else in the history of the world has climbed, or 272 to be precise. We were told that, on 27 January, the place will be flooded with about 500,000 Hindus who will go there to worship and were shown some pretty gruesome pictures of guys with hooks in their backs. Not too sure what that was about.
Now back at the hostel, mentally preparing ourselves for an early rise tomorrow to catch our flight and listening to a huge thunderstorm and torrential downpour outside, which is all quite exciting… Well, Emily’s excited anyway!
Waking up refreshed from our day on the beach, we decided it was about time we discovered the rest of the island. Whilst most people rent motorbikes to get around the mountainous island roads, we decided that it was best to cycle, as our mums would be very upset if they found out we’d been silly enough to drive a motorbike whilst travelling! So, we rented these cool Malaysian bicycles, on which you can’t even see the pedals… Boy, was it hard work up those steep roads in such a hot climate. (Honest, mum!!)
We set off clockwise round the island and it took us about an hour to get all the way round, without stopping for much. Once we’d gone around once and we got the hang of it, we got a bit more adventurous, stopping more often to investigate down dirt tracks and up other roads.
One of the highlights for me was a tiny fishing village called Teluk Nibong (Lot 1051), as a painted tyre at its entrance told us. It was right on a small secluded beach and the houses were either concrete block or just corrugated metal. There didn’t seem to be anyone there so we wondered down and took some photos.
There is also a Dutch fort, as the Dutch occupied the island for a period in the 17th century before it was recaptured by the Malays. 40 years ago, the Malays reconstructed the fort as a heritage site. The fort is now a tourist attraction with the obligatory gift shop.
Also, we queued up for 4 hours and paid an obscene amount of money for a picture with the Historical Rock, but it was worth it for such an iconic cultural feature.
Tomorrow, I head back to KL to see Miriam, then to Borneo, where it hopefully will have stopped raining, for snorkelling, orang-utans and mountains. Either way, I’ve now seen the Historical Rock so it doesn’t really matter anymore.
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Next destination – Pulau Pangkor
I have loved the Cameron Highlands and would have liked to stay there longer, but I’m meeting my good friend Miriam in KL on Sunday and would like to get an island in before I meet her. The east coast is a no go at the moment as it is rainy season and, according to most people I have spoken to, it is really, really wet and will be for a while. There are a number of islands on the west coast but the closest of those is Pangkor.
I was up early to get the bus at 11am from Tanah Rata bus station, when Tomas the Argentinian (who you should definitely know by now) decided he would be coming with me. Very pleased to have some companionship along the way, we set off towards the station; me with my 65L backpack (quite small in comparison to some) and Tomas with his back pack containing a spare t-shirt, some underwear and his passport.
After a quick stop in the post office, we bought the RM20 ticket for the 2 hour journey north-west to Ipoh and boarded the comfortable, air-conditioned bus. Once in Ipoh, after a quick stop for food, we bought the RM7 ticket for the 2 hour journey south-west to Lumut and boarded the dirty, sweaty tin can.
Once in Lumut, we had a 45 minute ferry to Pangkor Town and a 10 minute ride in a pink minibus (the only taxi service on the island) to Teluk Nipah, where all the backpacker accommodation is. We had a bit of a search for somewhere to stay but finally found a couple of beds in the Nazri Nipah Camp in a 5 bed dorm, a great little hostel close to the beach with a nice communal area with lots of benches and hammocks (one of which I am writing this from now!)
Pulau Pangkor (which I am sure will be renamed ‘Pulau Manchester United’ at some point in the future) is exactly what I was expecting. Fishing boats everywhere, beaches which are practically on the edge of the jungle and nothing but sand, sea and trees all around. Very picturesque. We have two beaches nearby; the small Teluk Nipah beach a 2-3 minute walk from the hostel and the much bigger and more beautiful Coral Beach (the coral being conspicuous by its absence) which includes a psychedelic Hindu temple at the end with human sized Donald Duck and Danger Mouse at the entrance. The Manchester United influence is everywhere. You can get a Man Utd burger from a man with a Man Utd t-shirt, all the 13 year olds driving scooters have Man Utd hats on, the pink minibuses are adorned with Man Utd stickers and the hostel has Man Utd flags hanging on the walls.
After checking into our camp the sun was fading and was already obscured by the nearby private resort island, so we hurried down to the beach to shake off the last of our hangovers before it got dark. The sea is beautiful; nice and warm, like a bath at some points, and not too salty. After a quick dip we went on search of a beer.
It was about 6:30pm and Teluk Nipah was dead. Most shops and restaurants seemed closed or empty. We asked in a few places if they did beer and we were given confused stares.
“Oh God! We’ve come to an island that doesn’t serve alcohol! When’s the next ferry back to the mainland!?”
It turns out that none of the restaurants sell alcohol, but there is a Pasar Mini supermarket that sells a few different beers at slightly inflated prices and the restaurants allow you to take beer in. We started out with a large bottle of Tiger each and went to a nearby seafood restaurant for prawns, squid, mixed vegetables and rice. The seafood here is beautiful and all freshly caught, reminiscent of recent trip to Spain with Amy and family.
We sat down on the end of a table already occupied by some Canadians sporting some lovely oozy wounds on their arms and legs. Turns out they had rented a scooter that day and taken a fall on the first corner they attempted due to going far too fast (their original explanation of being attacked by a monkey causing them to fall off the bike was quickly dismissed). Maybe we won’t be getting scooters tomorrow then!
Once we finished our food we grabbed another couple of beers from the supermarket, this time the 12.5% Marten’s Premium Belgian lager (you have to use your cash efficiently whilst travelling – more units for your money!) and sat on the beach with the Canadians. We were soon joined by Ed and Katie, a British couple from London we had met on the ferry (Ed is a London-based surveyor – the second Brit I meet and he does the same job in the same city as me; what are the chances!?) and we all got some more 12.5% beers. Soon we were all pretty drunk and swimming in the sea.
Tomas and I made our way back to the hostel (taking some lovely photos of the two of us on Tomas’ iPod on the way back) leaving our flip flops on the beach, as we discovered in the morning. Once back at the hostel, it seemed that a number of others had been drinking the 12.5% lager too and we all decided to get up at 8am to go on a jungle trek!
PICTURE TO FOLLOW
We woke up at 11:30am and went to lie on the beach for the day. What was that about a jungle trek? We lounged about, reading and snoozing in hammocks. I had run out of money so had to hitchhike to Pangkor Town to get some cash out from the islands only ATM and buy some replacement flip flops, we also swam out to a jetty off Coral Beach and sat there burning for half an hour, but that concluded the day’s efforts.
We are going to do some more discovering tomorrow, probably by bicycle, to see the islands temples and Dutch fortress and to find some other beaches and maybe blag our way into a private luxury resort beach. After that, Tomas will head north to Penang and I will head south back to KL to meet Miriam before we fly to Borneo.
Exciting times ahead, but maybe a little more relaxing on a beach in a hammock first.
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