I took the road less travelled by…

…and it was a bit shit.

To elaborate.

I bid the Philies farewell and landed in Kota Kinabalu on the Malaysian side of Borneo. The island of Borneo is divided into several sections which belong to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei respectively. The Malaysian section is then sub-divided again into the broad regions of Sabah, to the East, and Sarawak, to the West.

I landed in the capital of Sabah, an old stronghold of the British Colonial days. A British company took over in 1881 to exploit Borneo’s wealth of natural resources, especially timber, tobacco and rubber. According to proponents, “the company established a foundation for economic growth in North Borneo by restoring peace to a land where piracy and tribal feuds had grown rampant. It abolished slavery and set up a transport, health and education system for the people.” Then they shipped in Chinese manpower to supplement the indigenous workforce of less than 100,000 people – not enough for the donkey work they had planned. It technically became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888 but practically was still administered by the economic concern.

“The British, they didn’t rip us off,” one elderly man told me. He offered a lift in bus-barren Sabah one day and turned out to be an oil plantation manager. Probably in his late 70s with onset Parkinsons, he told me that he still remembered the days before the end of colonisation, and fondly too. His father had been the headmaster of a school and was a stickler for good English grammar amongst his pupils, evident in this gent’s perfect spoken English. “You gave us a good education system, schools, transport, healthcare, administration – everything we needed. We had it in our hands, and we thrrrew it away.”

Anyway, modern KK is a pleasant city with lots of diversions. I spent just over a week kicking around, checking out the spangly new library, fish market, hawker stalls, graffiti, pools, viewpoints and shops.

Gaya Street, backpacker central, at sunset. Also the location of the Sunday market. Where I nearly came home with a Beagle puppy.

Sunset from Signal Observatory

I...spy...ink! From the window of the new library at Suria Sabah, a glimpse of a street artwork.

And on closer inspection...

Stencil gem

The Filipino market on the waterfront is a particularly nice place to hang out at the evening. As in many temperate cities, the promenade tends to be a popular place in the evenings for families, friends and couples to walk, play and eat. As a result, a semi-permanent market has grown up here, a patchwork of awnings under which you find a cluster of street restaurants selling delicious, freshly-cooked seafood. You come, you pick your fish, you weigh your fish, you tell them how you want it cooked, you sit, you wait, you eat your fish. £4 will get you a veritable feast.

Seaside promenade

Fishies, ready for dishies

Lobster bugs

How would you like that?

The dining room

Little sister was in Sabah for a few years working as a dive master, and her former bosses are still here. I linked up with them a couple of times and witnessed a chink of the expat scene. Very nice it is too, with a mix of people from all over the world. Better still, they really seem to make an effort to integrate. Inter-marriage between nationalities and cultures is common; foreigners feature in the local soaps speaking fluent Malay. When expats settle, they settle for the long-term. Through them, I went along to the opening of the latest art exhibition – this time promoting Indonesian talent – at the funky El Centro bar.

After a week, I was ready for more Sabah highlights, which according to the tourist literature include Mount Kinabalu, Sipadan, Kinabantangan river (for wildlife spotting including pygmy elephants for the lucky), Sepilok orangutan sanctuary and more.

I’m lucky enough to have been to Sipadan before so I checked that off the list. It’s still one of the most supreme havens for aquatic life in the world so if you haven’t been – go. You can see rays, turtles, sharks, corals and a gazillion fish just by turning your head. It’s under threat from the standard environmental threats posed by humans everywhere, but particularly growing Chinese wealth and their penchant for grinding up bits of animals in their food and medicine. A staggering 40 MILLION sharks are killed each year for their fins, just so people can indulge their love of shark-fin soup. What’s wrong with the rest of it too?

Luckily, those in the region realise the value of the underwater ecosystem (many of them make their living from it) and so staunch preservation campaigns are in place, almost everywhere you look. It’s refreshing to see in a place that has known more than its fair share of dynamite fishing in the past.

So, knocked Sipadan off the list and heard that the orangutan experience is slightly more authentic elsewhere so discounted Sepilok too. Kinabantangan was a 6 hour bus ride each way so I binned that off too. When looking for information about where to go in Sabah, the only activities available seemed to be organised tours. What’s more, these tours average at about £40 a day, three or four times the Asian norm. ‘No’, thought I. ‘I despise trailing around in a tour group; there must be another way.’

There isn’t, as I was to learn.

I set off for Kinabalu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (for all that means, two-a-penny as they are), popular climbing mountain and half the height of Everest. A Climbathon is hosted in October every year where competitors try to scale and descend the path in the quickest time possible. Current record is held by a Spaniard with a time of 2hours 38minutes, but he had an Italian hot on his heels who came in just 40 seconds later.

There’s a Via Ferrata at the top, touted as Asia’s highest. But it’s a poxy 2A, essentially a walk while clipped on to a wire, so I rejected it as a reason to try harder for a permit.

Climbing the beast generally involves staying overnight at the hostel and climbing the last 3 hours in the wee small hours of the morning to arrive at sunrise. It could easily be done in one day in my opinion, granted a long day, but the weather tends to close in in the afternoons meaning that morning is best for clear skies and good snaps. Permits are required and numbers are limited to 200 a day. It costs a giddying 550ringitt (over £100) to get the permit and stay one night. There is always a waiting list and park authorities recommend that you book your climbing permit a few months in advance. Five years ago it cost 180ringitt – market forces in motion.

Needless to say, I didn’t have a permit when I rocked up one morning but you are allowed to climb up to the halfway point at Liang Liang on a day pass. The path is basically a stone staircase and, though relentless and sweaty, not particularly challenging. We managed to get to the 4km halfway point and back down in three easy hours.

The cloud forest was beautiful, with moss-covered trees, orchids and loads of pretty succulent plants to look at but, well, I’ve been spoilt in my adventures and I believe I have seen better mountains and less crowded paths.

Kinabalu Valley

Cloud forest

'Dance or I will shoot'

I had taken one look at the map and seen it sprinkled liberally with national parks and towns with odd names. ‘There MUST be other cool stuff to see off the beaten tourist trail?’ I whinged. I decided to forswear the tours and beat my own path. The Crocker range of hills has been designated a national park and runs parallel to the coast, more or less, with KK. Kinabalu stands just up at the top, Tenom at the bottom; there are a number of little towns ringing the park and a train track running from Tenom back up to KK. This, I decided was my adventure.

Coming down from the mountain, I tried to catch a bus to nearby Ranau in search of digs for the night on the way to Poring hot springs. I stood in the drizzling rain for over an hour. Buses came, buses went. None stopped. I should have recognised the signs.

“Are you still here?” bellowed one tour coach driver after an hour. “Just hitch! The local people are very helpful.”

Sure enough, after failing to catch a ride on the near non-existent public transport, I flagged a lift to Ranau with two Celcom (the national mobile network) workers on a tour to check network strength within minutes. Success! Also managed to find a hostel with minimal fuss, despite the scaremongers declaring that it was half-term so everything would be fully booked. It came complete with a friendly hostel manager browsing hardcore lesbian porn at the front desk. He told me that he was employed by the government. Everyone seems to be employed by the government but many moonlight on the side as hostel managers, bus drivers and restaurant owners. What the government strategy behind giving everyone a bit-part is, I know not.

“You can take the bus from outside the bank,” he told me. “Five ringitt.”

You can’t take the bus from outside the bank. All the bus drivers insisted that there was no service to Poring but that I could take a charter bus for ten times the price. <Sigh>. ‘The villagers don’t ever come to town?’ I asked. After some wrangling, we settled on twice the going rate. Tourist tax.

I was underwhelmed by the hot springs – though they were very hot. Malaysia has dictated that they are best enjoyed as a series of concrete bathtubs set into the floor. You run your weird bath, you soak, splash around…that’s it. Other attractions are co-located, including an orchid garden, canopy walk, small swimming pool and slide complex but, meh. Not that impressed. Good for soaking mountain-weary legs but that’s all I got to say about that.

Emboldened by the hitchhiking encouragement the day before, I hitched a lift back into Ranau and jumped a bus to Keningau, recommended to me by a Malaysian friend. It’s a fairly big market town but has little in the way of attractions.

No, I thought best to press on to Tenom. It is the last station on Borneo’s only stretch of train-track, established by the Brits to get the tobacco crops out more easily and still used today for passenger services. It stands at the foot of the tantalising Crocker Hills, in the heart of coffee country and is the traditional home of the Murut tribe, the last one to ban headhunting. It has a Murut cultural centre, agricultural museum, orchid garden and whitewater rafting within 10km. You’d think it would be *ripe* for tourism, no?

You’d be wrong.

There isn’t very much in Tenom at all, less still information and dream on if you want a hostel. The best you can dig up in the way of accommodation is a crumbling, damp, crappy B&B. You can look at the beautiful hills but “no one goes there!” I was told when I asked about hiking in them. The only way? A private tour. Arranged from KK. I felt like Tantalus himself.

Tenom, and a glimpse of the Crocker Hills.

There isn't much in Tenom but it does have this pretty statue celebrating a Murut hero who stood against the Brits, I believe.

I spent a boring night wandering around Tenom’s limited sights, watching footie practice on the square, supping the locally-grown coffee and watching ‘The Expendables’ (shocking film) in a cafe with my friend Mohammed. Friend in the sense that he wanted me to pay his mate a lot of money to drive me around in his car for the day. I’d asked him for information to see if I could find an ‘in’ to the Murut culture or a hike in the hills. He came back offering a drive to a coffee farm and the agricultural centre.

The following morning I figured that I might as well at least *try* to see some Murut action so I duly trudged off to the bus stop for the 10km journey to the ‘cultural centre’, a tourist honeytrap with a massive fake long-house and a small museum. Getting there involved the standard ‘there are no buses, you’ll have to charter the minivan’ fiasco but I arrived with relatively little fuss.

It’s not the authentic experience of a smokey, rickety old long-house, men in loin-cloths and heavily tattooed women that most tourists hanker after. However, there were no other tourists there when I showed up so I was at my leisure to peruse information about the significance of different carvings on the longhouse pillars (you can carve patterns that mean, for example, you’ve had a failed affair, so people don’t ask awkward questions. Sweet!), marriage rituals, burial practices and Murut party times. Turns out they all like to drink and smoke.

I had just wandered in unaccosted to one end of the longhouse but at the other end was a drumming sound. A bloke approached asking me what I was doing and I thought I was about to be kicked out. He turned out to be the co-ordinator of a cultural dance and music workshop going on that weekend to improve the local kids’ dancing and musical prowess ahead of April’s festival. I was invited to sit and chat about Indonesian house maids and acting in Malaysian soaps over a coffee with the lecturers before the youngsters put on a dance demo, just for me. Delight! Then, horror of horrors, it was my turn.

They chose to introduce me to the dance that is a bit like playground skipping. Two people sit on the floor facing each other holding the opposite ends of long sticks. They smack these poles together in time to the music and the dancers must move their feet to place them between the sticks at appropriate times. I suppose a bit like that game where you spread your hand on a table and stab in the space between your fingers with a knife at increasing speed.

Like your first aerobics class, I was all over the shop, to the amusement of the class. But I didn’t lose a foot so all’s well that ends well.

Supian (the co-ordinator) needed to run some errands in town so offered to drop me back. Not before he showed me into the show longhouse though. This is used for the dancing competitions and features a special jumping section in the middle. A what? Well, a square hole is cut into the wooden floor of the long-house. Beneath this hole, long pieces of bamboo – the length of the building – are laid. A piece of rattan the same size as the hole is placed over the bamboo sticks. Hey presto! A natural trampoline.

The aim of the game during competitions is to see who can touch the highest marker on the ceiling above.  I reckon these were 2-3m above the ground. Good game.

Dance show

Team dance


Since we were in town, Supian and his pal Arnold introduced me to another Malaysian mainstay – the lottery. For some reason there are shops absolutely everywhere under about five different companies. Malays love a bit of a gamble and prizes can be several million ringitt for a wager of one or two. I didn’t win.

Next. The train. Oh, how I love a train. This one was particularly special as it’s the only one on Borneo. It’s just been started up again and essentially runs in two stages, from Tenom to Beaufort, across the jungle, and then from Beaufort to KK. There are two services a day from Tenom; I went for the Satruday afternoon one along with half of the town, or at least that’s how it felt when all of us waiting on the platform squeezed into the two dishevelled carriages that arrived. Hell, one was a luggage car adapted for passengers with the addition of a bench. There is no air conditioning other than open windows. It costs 2.85ringitt. Utterly brilliant.

Station master stand-off with the train

North Borneo railway. All aboard.

For several hours, the train snakes slowly along the side of the river with the white waters off to one side and dense jungle and the odd station off to the other. It’s stunning. The locals aren’t backwards by any stretch but they obviously don’t take the train much and there were still audible gasps of delight as we went through a tunnel and everyone craned to have a look at a dam we went past. I mimed interaction with the locals, who spoke only Malay and their local dialects, becoming adopted by an elderly lady in the process.

After two stops a massive group of tourists got on the train, fresh from a round of white water rafting. They noisily filled the train and, when we were required to chain trains at one station, ran down the platform to bagsy all the nice seats before the locals could get there. Having been on the train from the very beginning, I felt some solidarity with the elderly folks and families ousted out of their seats and sided firmly with the Malays. One girl had her bag on the seat next to her while eight people crammed themselves into the vestibule, including a toothless old man. That was too much. I made her move it and beckoned the old fella over.

When we got to Beaufort, they all piled onto waiting coaches to go back to KK. I stuck around with the intention of getting the train back to the smoke in the morning and checking out the proboscis monkeys and fireflies at the nearby Klias wetlands by night. <sigh>. That is not possible. There is naturally no bus to the wetlands, you have to charter a minivan. There are no tourist facilities there, you have to arrange any mangrove trips with a tour operator. Back in KK. There was no tour available that night.

Thwarted, I stamped my feet and gave up. There was no transport back to KK that night so I booked into a passable cheap hotel, chatted to the local bus drivers (off duty smoking fags by the mosque) for a bit, called into the hawker market for an evening feed and wandered off to watch a Malay soap, narrowly avoiding being bitten by a territorial dog on the roadside. Not a shining impression of Beaufort, let it be said.

Still, the next morning was Sunday so I got up and enjoyed a sedate Chinese breakfast before boarding the second train back up to KK. This one has had an amount of investment. Compared to the Tenom train, it’s dazzling with added aircon. But what it makes up for in comfort, it lacks in charm and scenery. The trip back up was uneventful and a bargain at less than 5 bucks.

New, possibly improved.

I rolled back into KK not wholly satisfied but not disappointed with the solo adventure. Memo to self: Sabah – tours.

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