Let’s back up a minute. Where are we and what am I actually talking about? After Cambodia, Todd and I decided to jump over to the island of Borneo, specifically the Malaysian province of Sabah. When I think of Borneo, my mind conjures up images of the movie South Pacific; wild, untamed jungle in the middle of the Pacific. Turns out this picture isn’t too far off. But where is Borneo/Sabah? Like most places we visit, I had to google the location to see where in the world we actually were. Turns out, Borneo is southwest of the Philippines and north of Indonesia.
Now, the next question becomes why this place? Here is the magic of travel. Sometimes you meet people that speak so highly and/or enthusiastically about a place that you can’t help but get excited about it as well. And that is what happened here. After we decided to pass on visiting Laos due to political instability, one coup d'état in a lifetime is enough. We were contemplating visiting Malaysia, but had yet to figure out exactly what that looked like. Fast forward to a day in Cambodia visiting Angor Watt where we met a lovely woman from Spain named Anna. We connected immediately. She was deep into her research on Sabah and her enthusiasm rubbed off. Before we knew it, we booked tickets to the largest city in the region, Kota Kinabalu, (it’s embarrassing how long it took me to dial in how to actually pronounce it) and began planning out our Borneo adventure.
Although Sabah is part of Malaysia, we had to go through customs upon entering, but we also passed through customs and immigration in Kuala Lumpur. While Todd and I have traveled extensively, we often joke that we are the worst at crossing borders. When we reached Kuala Lumpur, we passed through customs and had to exit the international terminal to reach our connecting domestic flight. This meant we exited into what felt like a mall. Not only was it bizarre there was very little signage. Eventually we found a sign that indicated the domestic terminal was on the the 3rd floor. Along the way, we took a pit stop at the bathroom. At least that was well labeled and included a very cute cartoon about bathroom etiquette. They even had well marked male and female pray rooms. Did I mention that Malaysia is very Muslim? Let’s mark that as the first big surprise that hit us about being in Malaysia.
After finally figuring out where to go and our small pit stop, we attempted to enter the domestic terminal. Nope. A small snafu with our ticket meant a trip back to the ticket counter to get our boarding passes reprinted only then were we allowed to pass through to our gate. Although our flight was technically domestic we had to pass through immigration all over again upon arrival in Kota Kinabalu. We even got a stamp. Wait? What? Why? So many questions and we still don’t actually have any answers. Also, the amount of anti-human trafficking signs was a bit unsettling.
Enter number two big thing we didn’t realize about Malaysia. As we approached the airport taxi, Todd went to get in the back seat and realized that he was behind the driver. Yep, we had no idea they drove on the left side of the road. At this point I could only shake my head and laugh. We were clearly unprepared to be in Sabah. I made a mental note to actually read our guide book in the morning. We had clearly missed some key points.
Now to why we picked Sabah… virgin rainforest, one of the best dive sites in the world, sun bears, orangutans, pygmy elephants, jungle cruises, mountain summits and trekking. We had landed on adventure island with nothing planned but all the hope of a great time. In true planning perfection, we arrived on a Sunday, so we weren’t going to get anything booked no matter how hard we tried. Everything was closed. It was frustrating to say the least.
Kota Kinabalu, aka KK, isn’t the most entertaining of cities. The fish market is a definite highlight, awesome for both dinner as well as watching the daily catch arrive. But during the day, there aren’t a ton of sights to occupy your time. Except the mall of course. It was bumping. Plus we were frantically trying to book tours to summit Mt. Kinabalu, dive in Sipidan, trek in the virgin Milau Rainforest, and boat the Kinabatangan River. None of which were easily coming to fruition. And the later of which I still can’t pronounce.
I love a good fish market. During the day, boats clog the small port as they bring in the days fresh catch. I always love watching a fish market come alive. The locals were definitely not accustomed to two westerners, especially one being a woman, walking through the market. I immediately put my shawl over my shoulders but this did little to discourage the obvious stares. Stares or not, the fish market was fun to walk around. Mixed between the fishing boats were tiny taxi boats, packed with folks from the neighboring islands. Trash floated on the surface and the combination of fish and sewage was palpable. That underlying smell would be one we would come to know well during our time in Sabah.
At night, tables of fish on ice line the front of each eatery: snapper, lobsters, squid, prawns, various fish I didn’t recognize and even shark. Touts for each eatery try to lure you into their spot. You have to pick a location that looks good and just go for it. Once you pick your restaurant, you choose your fish and then you choose the preparation. The gentleman tried to sell us a HUGE fish. After some negotiation, we opted for a smaller snapper, one half grilled with oil and garlic the other prepared in a traditional Malaysian sauce. It was delicious! I highly recommend. And don’t shy away from the huge fish. We both had regrets when our little fish was picked clean. Turns out we could have eaten more.
After arriving on a Sunday and extending our time in KK three days in a row we were finally able to get travel plans mapped out. Unfortunately, that did not include hiking Mt. Kinabalu. Apparently we needed to book that much more in advance. We had exhausted the cities activities with our trips to the fish market, the local market, a couple visits to the mall as we tried to find microphones for a new project and nights watching the sunset over the harbor. I was ready to move on. Although in hindsight I would consider KK to be clean and modern. I would miss this and the fancy expat grocery store over the next week or so as we explored the rest of Sabah.
Our first stop was to Tawau. Which was an 11 hour bus ride from KK for $15 or a 40min flight for $30. We chose option ‘B’, the flight. These are the joys of being older and having a little more money when traveling.
Tawau was meh, but its murals were impressive. It was the pick up point for our diving trip so there we traveled. Again, in hindsight, it wasn’t as awful as I thought at the time. The constant smell of sewage and rubbish was strong. The garbage piled in the street was actually slightly organized and the amount of begging woman and children was low. World War II was unkind to Sabah. Many of the cities including Tawau were leveled at the end of the war. The architecture lacks inspiration as every building is a non remarkable concrete structure generally not more than 3 stories high. Canals run through the city. Their stench is strong.
While we splurged on a flight to Tawau, we felt that paying $6 for a hotel room with a window was too much. I mean, WTF were we thinking? Our room was a concrete, windowless box. All we could hear was our neighbor coughing violently all night. It was acutely concerning. The room was weird, dark and claustrophobic. Sometimes I wonder how we make these decisions. The highlight of Tawau was a cute cafe Todd found called ZamZam (next to the KFC, yes, they are everywhere) that had good coffee and decent breakfast. It was an oasis.
We decided that we may be acting like snobs by judging Tawau so harshly, so we decided to walk to the bay and check out the view. Nope, we aren’t snobs. The walk alone unveiled even deeper poverty then we originally saw. The boardwalk was accompanied by wretched smells of sewage, multiple rodent sightings, signs of extreme poverty and a depressing amount of trash dancing in the waves. We sat and took it all in, trying to find bright spots amongst the rubbish, but quickly decided to move on and grab a beer. We needed a reprieve from this place. Back to that fact that Sabah is very Muslim country and we were in now outside the ‘big city of KK,’ beer is hard to find, so we had our eyes peeled for a Chinese restaurant or a potential hotel bar. Funny that Chinese restaurants become the calling card for establishments that serve booze. After searching for a very long time and on the verge of giving up, I finally spotted a sign for Tiger beer. Yes! We sat in our plastic chairs and indulged in a beer or two before heading to dinner. One night in town was plenty.
Next stop, an old oil rig off the coast of Mabul in the Celebs Sea. Time to dive the famed Sipidan.