Kota Kinabalu & Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo

The two activities that Dave and I had been most looking forward to on our RTW 2.0 (and also the two activities that we’d had to book in advance and pay a lot of money for) were both taking place in Borneo. We flew from KL to Kota Kinabalu, the jumping off point for Kinabalu Park and the trek to the top of Mount Kinabalu, one of SE Asia’s highest mountains (the Lonely Planet says that it’s the second highest mountain in Maritime SE Asia outside of Papua) and the first of our two activities.

Kota Kinabalu isn’t supposed to have much to see, but is more just a place to transit into and out of and also book buses, tours, etc. Originally, after completing our trek to the top of Mt. Kinabalu, we were supposed to fly to Tawau, which is the jumping off point for our second Borneo activity, scuba diving in Sipadan, one of the top 5 dive sites in the world, where you’re supposed to see more sharks and sea turtles than you could ever possibly count. We had booked a round trip flight from KK to Tawau but after doing some more reading and re-configuring our time in Borneo, we were already regretting booking the return flight (we found a few other things we wanted to do on the way back to KK after scuba diving so taking a bus made more sense). We thought that maybe we’d just skip our return flight (which we’d done once in Vietnam at the beginning of our trip) but then, we got an email telling us that our flight had been changed to three hours later and we could cancel it and get a refund if we wanted. What are the odds! At first, we were just going to cancel the return flight but in the end (I’ll try to make a very long story short here, if it’s not already too late:), we decided to cancel the whole flight and just bus through Borneo.

All throughout SE Asia, booking anything in advance is not really something that people do. We had planned to book all of our buses as they came up and weren’t really thinking or worrying too much about it. But, as soon as we started inquiring about our first bus to Semporna (the town we were staying in for our diving), we realized that once again, Ramadan may cause a huge problem for us. Our second week in Borneo also marked the time for the Hari Raya festival, the celebration of the end of Ramadan, which pretty much everyone travels home for (apparently by bus). We were told that our Sempora bus, 4 days later, may already be sold out. We never imagined this being an issue, but we were already regretting canceling our flight:(. Also, unlike most of SE Asia where you can book a bus from any hostel and the ticket includes free transport to the bus station, in Borneo, you have to go to the actual bus station to book your ticket. And of course, the bus station was located 8 kilometers (45 minutes) outside of town. So basically this meant that our relaxing afternoon in KK was over and instead, we’d be taking a 45 minute bus to the long-distance bus terminal to sort out all of our transport for the next couple of weeks (it always amazes us why the long distance bus terminals are often several or more kilometers outside of the city center; often times, it means we’ll pay $20-30 to go 8-9 hours on a bus, and then $5-10 to take a taxi the last few kilometers). Needless to say, this was not the way we wanted to start our Borneo visit.

Fortunately, once we got to the bus station (this time we actually found a public bus to the bus station so it wasn’t too bad), we went from counter to counter booking bus after bus until our transport for our 10 days in Borneo was almost all sorted out. I kind of felt like I was in a game show and the people at the ticket counters were the audience yelling out which moves I needed to make next. We’d go to one counter and they’d say “no, no, three counters down.” Then, we’d get to three counters down and they’d tell us we’d gone one too far. It was actually a pretty funny experience and ended up not being the worst way to spend the afternoon. We felt much better once we’d taken care of our buses. There was only one bus we weren’t able to book in advance because the date we wanted to travel was the actual Hari Raya holiday, which means that no coach buses will be running. We’re hoping we’ll be able to figure out another mode of transport (eg, public bus, van, etc) once we arrive in Semporna though (fingers crossed).

After our tickets were booked, we hopped on a minivan back to KK and made it back just in time to check out the one thing worth seeing in the whole town – the night market for dinner. This may have been the best food market I’ve ever seen. It was huge and filled with places to sit down for all of our favorite Indonesian dishes (gado gado, nasi goreng, mie goreng, etc.). The best part though, all the way at the North end of the market, was stall after stall of cheap bbq seafood. For our meal, we decided on gado gado, mie goreng (fried noodles), 5 bbq wings (the same we had in KL a few days earlier), and then a couple skewers of grilled squid. The meal was amazing (though of course we had way too much food but fortunately our hostel has a fridge where we kept our leftover noodles) and the whole thing only set us back $10.

We woke up the next morning and went for a walk to book our last transportation in Borneo – a ferry to Brunei for the following week (again, we hadn’t planned to book this so far in advance, but didn’t want to take any chances with Hari Raya). After we got our tickets, we went to the KK Central Market, which mainly had fruits, veggies, and lots of snacks. It was nothing special but still nice to see. Then, it was time to get a van to Kinabalu Park.

A public van to Kinabalu Park takes about 2 hours but they don’t leave until they’re full. Of course, we were the first ones to show up (a full one was leaving just as we arrived) and we had to wait about an hour until 13 more people came and we could leave. There were two other guys in the van who were also doing the Kinabalu trek, but they were doing the whole thing in just one day.

As excited as we were to climb Mt. Kinabalu, there’s a big catch to this trek. For some reason, they only allow about 120 people to climb per day, so in order to secure a permit and a room at the only place to stay on the mountain, you have to book well in advance (we booked about 3 months ahead of time). And, it’s not cheap. Booking through a tour company can set you back about $400 per person (for 2 days). After doing a lot of research about the cheapest way to do this trek, we emailed Sutera Lodge directly (this is the company that runs/has a monopoly on the whole operation) and were able to book everything through them for about $250 pp. We felt really good about this (even though it was still a ton for an overnight trek)… that is, until we met these two guys.

Getting a permit, insurance, and a guide for the trek is relatively cheap (about $100). The real killer is that this place charges $150pp to stay at Laban Rata, the lodge on the mountain. And for $150, you get to sleep in a non-heated dorm room with 5 other people. Talk about a ripoff. The guys we met, however, were doing the whole trek in a day and therefore they were avoiding this insane room fee. We had no idea this was even a possibility. We’re pretty sure that you can’t book the one-day trek in advance, however, so instead you just have to show up and take your chances that there will still be a permit left for the day. I don’t think we ever would have taken that chance as this trek was one of the top two things we’d wanted to do in Borneo and we were also timing it so that it worked out with our scuba diving in Sipadan (which also has limited permits per day and thus we had to book in advance). Plus, you’re also taking the chance that you won’t make it all the way up and down in a day (they say only about 20% of the people who try to summit in one day make it). We were told that for this trek, you have to make it to the summit by 1pm, and if you’re not there, you just have to turn around. To get to the top in that time, you have to get the whole way up in just 6 hours. For slower climbers, just getting to Laban Rata can take 6-7 hours. Then, the climb to the summit usually takes 2-3. So, it would definitely be a stretch.

We were annoyed that they were doing the trek for so much cheaper, but realistically, even if we’d known, we most likely would not have taken all the risks involved. But, their itinerary gave us an idea. On the typical 2-day trek, climbers hike from Timphon Gate to Laban Rata on day 1. Then, on day 2, you wake up at 2am and hike to the summit for sunrise. We’d just done a 2am hike to the summit at sunrise on Gunung Rinjani in Indonesia, and while the sunrise was nice, it was very very cold. This summit hike was supposed to be much colder.

Anyway, our idea was that instead of stopping at Laban Rata on day 1, we’d get all the way to the summit. We’d still sleep at Laban Rata (we’d already paid for it), but then on day 2, all we’d have to do is the hike down. Not only would we avoid the 2am wake up, hiking in the dark, and the freezing cold, we’d also be able to get down and back to KK earlier and have more time to get ready for the next part of our trip. It sounded like a brilliant idea and we figured that worst case, if we couldn’t make it, we could still always go back to the original plan.

We got to Kinabalu Park, went into the headquarters to check in for the next day/pay the rest of our fees and tell them our plan/make sure we could do the itinerary we’d envisioned. They assured us we could, told us that we could start at 7am instead of 8, like most of the hikers, and just like that we were ready to go for the next day!

We were done with all of that and settled into our guesthouse for the night by 2pm. Unfortunately, we hadn’t brought our computer with us (we didn’t realize we could leave a bag at the bottom of the mountain), so we really didn’t have anything to do. We were just about bored to death with our game of iPod scrabble when another group of 3 Americans checked in. They were also planning to do the 1-day hike. It was a couple who were actually also teachers in Thailand (though they were planning a move to Myanmar in the next few weeks) and the girl’s sister who was visiting from the States. We ended up hanging/chatting with them for the rest of the evening until about 8pm when we all called it a night – we had a trek to get up for in the morning!

We were waiting at the park headquarter gates at 7am on the dot, where we met our guide (Edwin), got our packed lunches, and then got a ride to the stating point for the trek, the Timphon Gate (it’s a little strange taking a taxi to the start of a mountain trek, but the alternative is walking another 2-3 miles on essentially a paved road; almost everyone takes the taxi). We were on the road (or should I say trail) by 7:30am. From the Timphon Gate to Laban Rata is 6km, and there are signs letting you know every 0.5km how far you’ve gone. This first part of the trek usually takes hikers anywhere from 4-6 hours. The Lonely Planet describes it by saying that every single step you take will be uphill. That’s true, but what they don’t tell you is that 1) the whole entire hike is through the jungle and there’s nothing to see – no scenery, no animals (except some squirrils) – overall, it was pretty boring. And 2) the trail you hike on feels very artificial. There’s hardly any spots on the trail that steps or handrails haven’t been added to. I guess this is where all the money that they’re charging is going.

We made good time and got to Laban Rata by 11:30 (4 hours). We weren’t able to check in yet so we had a quick lunch (they had packed us a sandwich and apple – a little on the light side for just having hiked 4 hours and paid $250 pp if you ask me. Thanks a lot, Sutera Lodge) and rested for a bit and then hit the trail again for the summit.

This part of the hike was a bit more interesting. The trail opened up so we were able to get some good views of the mountains and the towns below and also for about 2/3 of it, there were ropes attached to the rocks for us to use while climbing up, which was something new for us. Except for a couple spots, you didn’t need to use the ropes, but rather, they were just there to help you if you needed it. I can’t imagine having hiked up at 2am with all the other hikers and having to wait in line to use the ropes.

We reached the summit after about 2.5 hours. The actual summit was extremely small, not fitting more than 2 people at a time. Again, I could not imagine having to stand in line at 5am to get my summit picture. It was foggy so we couldn’t see much from the summit and either way, it was freezing, so after snapping a couple of pictures we were ready to head down. On the way down, we put on our new/used coats that we bought in KL a few days earlier.

We were back in the lodge at 4:30pm. We were very proud that we had made it to the top AND all in one day. But we were also pretty annoyed that we likely could have made it all the way down in a day and avoided the ransom fee it costs to sleep at Laban Rata (not to mention we had to sleep on a cold mountain as opposed to nice hotel at the bottom). It was definitely a very long day and the trek was challenging, but for me, it wasn’t as hard as our Rinajni trek a few weeks earlier. The Lonely Planet made this trek sounds very, very difficult. It was very tiring and there were definitely more than a few times that I wished the ground would just be flat for a few steps but never at any point did I think I wouldn’t make it. In fact, we thought we probably could have done the whole thing in a day, though we likely wouldn’t have gotten all the way until 7:30 or 8pm.

We made it back just in time for the lodge’s very early dinner (everyone else was waking up at 2am for a late supper and probably going to bed by 7 or 8 so they all want to eat early). Luckily, they served dinner until 7:30 so we were able to wait a bit. Before eating, we wanted to check into our room to get settled and unpacked. We unlocked the door and were shocked to find 3 bunk beds and 3 other guys already asleep in there. I guess we’d forgotten we’d be sleeping in a dorm room. For $250 pp, you’d probably forget too. So much for spending a little time hanging out in our room. We went back to the lodge for our buffet dinner – pretty much the only thing this company did well was the food (besides the packed lunch): the buffet dinner and buffet breakfast the next morning were huge and had tons of variety. At 8pm we were kicked out of the lodge and sent back to our room for a pretty sleepless night. I’m not sure if it was the cold, one of our bunkmates loud snoring or the fact that 2 of our 3 bunkmates got up at 1am to get ready for the summit hike (I guess our 3rd bunkmate called it quits after the 1st day) that kept us up, but neither Dave or I were able to really get to sleep until they all left at about 2am.

We were up early and waiting for our breakfast at 7:30am. As we were finishing up, people were starting to get back from the summit. I, for one, was very glad we’d done it the day before. They all looked very tired and very cold!

We were the first ones to head down in the morning and the first people that everyone coming up that day were seeing. We were stopped for a lot of questions, but we didn’t mind. As I mentioned in my last post, in KL, Dave and I had both bought winter jackets to wear on the trek. He wanted to keep his, but I was hoping to get rid of mine so I didn’t have to carry it (it was a huge puffy white coat that was actually pretty nice but had a couple of big stains on it; what do you expect for $4). On our way down, I started asking other women if they needed a coat. After a few rejections, finally I found a taker. A girl who had only brought a sweatshirt with her told me that she would “take it off my hands.” I told her that actually, I was trying to sell it and the price was 30 RM (twice what I paid for it in KL). Without even hesitating, she reached in her wallet and paid up. Dave was very proud of my sales skills and all I was thinking about was that my “coat money” would probably pay for our whole dinner that night!

It took us about 3 hours to get down the mountain. Again, we couldn’t get over how boring the trail was. We were very happy when Timphon Gate came into view and we knew we were finished.

Mt. Kinabalu was probably our least favorite (but also most expensive in terms of price per day) of all the treks we’ve done (Machu Picchu, Everest, Philippine rice terraces and Rinjani volcano in Indonesia). Between the uneventful and not very exciting hike to Laban Rata and mostly the fact that we felt the Sutera Lodge really was a ripoff (not only are they charging an obscene amount for their treks and lodging, their customer service is also not very good), we felt like maybe our money would have been better spent elsewhere in Borneo (eg, a jungle lodge which also typically costs $100-200 pp per night). But, we’re still proud of ourselves for making it to the summit and I guess from now on, if something seems like it’s a ripoff going in, then well, it probably is. But, live and learn, I guess.

When we got back to the park HQ, we took our lunch to go, waited on the highway for a bus to KK to come by and were back at our hotel by 2:30. After showering, checking email, and packing for our next leg of the trip, we headed out to the KK waterfront for a celebratory shisha and then another amazing dinner at the night market – we love that place.

Next up, hopefully the best scuba diving of our lives in Sipadan.

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3 thoughts on “Kota Kinabalu & Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo

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