The next morning we walked up two blocks to Padang Merdeka where the line of minibuses were parked. We found the bus to Ranau and waited for the rest of the seats to be filled. The cost of the minibus was 50RM for the two of us plus the luggage we toted. I think we were somewhat lucky as we only had to wait 45 minutes for enough passengers (and the driver’s cigarette break). By 9AM we were traveling away from the city into more urban area. Soon we were winding up the road with forest-covered valleys and mountains stretching in the distance. The rocky steep face of Mount Kinabalu, its top shrouded in clouds, appeared. After the 2 hour drive, we were dropped off the Kinabalu Park entrance. After clamoring up the steep and tall stairs at the entrance to the park, we checked in at the hotel and dropped our baggage off for the day. It was still fairly early in the day and the room wasn’t ready. We stopped by the park’s visitor center where we learned that many of the trails were not passable due to the large storm the previous week. While we were sweating and overheating under the still jungle air of the Danum Valley, Typhoon no. 21 was parked over Taiwan and Japan, flooding streets and killing several people. The outer reaches of the typhoon also hit the western coast of Borneo, where KK and Mount Kinabalu were inundated with high winds and pouring rain. Climbing Mount Kinabalu was closed much of the time during our vacation, yet another reminder of how considerably lucky we were at avoiding the bad weather! We tagged this leg of the trip on rather last minute during our planning, so we only stayed one night at the park headquarters. We wanted to see a different environment and Kinabalu seemed the best option both for ease of traveling there and for cost. Although there are many cheaper options outside of the park, I booked a reasonably priced room ($130 USD, which is expensive for Malaysia) through Agoda that included meals. The room I booked was in the Liwagu Suite, adjacent to the Botanical Gardens in the middle of the headquarters area. The room had a balcony that overlooked the gardens and provided great backdoor birding. The bed was located in a loft and was considerably damp and slightly musty. The heater in the loft along with our body heat eventually warmed up the bed to a more comfortable temperature. While there was the a la carte restaurant in the same building as our room, the meals that were included with our stay were at the Balsam buffet restaurant located near the park entrance - a considerable distance from the all lodging in the park. It was a pleasant enough 10-min walk when the weather was nice, but I could imagine not wanting to make the effort during harsh rain or wind. The food at the buffet restaurant was mediocre, not the same quality or refinement as BRL (what could compare with them anyway), but decent with a variety of Malaysian (plus spaghetti) cuisine to choose from. We also at ate the Liwagu restaurant for lunch, which turned out to be a mistake as it took almost an hour for our order to come out. And the restaurant wasn’t even busy (there was one other group that had ordered before us). We ended up eating our dessert first because our nasi goreng took a long time to make. Going back to my earlier warning about restaurants in Malaysia - it’s better to stick with the buffets as the a la carte restaurants take a long time.
In Kinabalu Park, we of course visited the botanical garden. At only 5 RM per person admission fee, it was easily the cheapest entertainment we paid for on this trip. The botanical garden held a collection of orchids, pitcher plants, and other interesting plants raising and transplanted from other parts of the park. The garden despite its small size held a vast diversity of plants, most of which weren’t in bloom, but those that were were the stars of the garden at least for that day (a pitcher plant without pitchers just looks like another plant). The orchids of course were the show stoppers - ranging from delicate small blooms no larger than pencil eraser to stalks of red and green spikes to larger flashy trails of snow white flowers draping down from the trees. We also hiked a few of the trails near the headquarters. Though some of the trails were blocked, we just hiked and took the risk of having to turn around. The forest of Kinabalu differed from the lowland rainforest. While most of the trees were not as massive like those with large buttresses found in the rainforest, large impressive epiphyte-covered oaks stood out in the Kinabalu forest. Rotang grew in greater numbers - their spiky vines dangling over the path, yet another hazard of the trails. Orchids, rhododendrons, Kinabalu balsam, and ginger peppered the forest with their colorful and varied blossoms. Even after visiting the botanical gardens, we still saw different and perhaps more interesting ones while hiking around the montane forest. The higher elevation also meant a much cooler temperature. No longer were we dripping with sweat just standing in the heat and oppressive humidity of the rainforest. Up at the Kinabalu park, the temperature was pleasant day and night. I did consider reaching for my jacket only once when the wind began to blow at night. With the different environment comes different fauna. Most of the birds we around the Kinabalu headquarters were montane specialists - and completely different than the lowland rainforest birds seen earlier in the trip. In fact many of the birds were saw where unique to the Borneo highlands. We saw several groups of noisy Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush moving through the scrub; Bornean Whistling-Thrush spreading its black tail; Black-sided Flowerpeckers feeding on the medine
lla berries; Bornean Whistlers traveling with the mixed flocks; and a Mountain Serpent-Eagle taking flight through the dense canopy. We didn’t see any reptiles or amphibians during our brief stay, but we did see some nocturnal wildlife on our walk back from the dinner. A couple of giant red flying squirrels were feeding in the trees above the restaurant. They seems unconsidered with us trying to spotlight them. We also saw two Bornean slow loris. The first one moved considerably fast as it descended the tree once it realized we were interested in its movements. The second loris sat and fed upon a bunch of bananas, quite unconsidered until we got close enough. The loris was our 9th primate we saw on the trip - a respectable sum. During our brief time at the park, we hiked a few of the headquarter trails, saw a good number of endemic birds, and enjoyed finding the occasional blooming orchid. As with the Danum Valley, there was a lot we didn’t see while at Kinabalu headquarters and from not climbing the mountain. It’s times like these when we start thinking about the next Borneo trip. After spending the day hiking, we took a taxi from the park headquarters back to the Horizon Hotel in KK (200 RM, pricey, but at this point in the trip worth it).
Kota Kinabalu and back home We arrived in to KK before sunset, so we headed out to explore the waterfront markets. Most of the markets had closed for the evening. But one block of markets remained open for the evening crowds. We stopped in the handcraft market first - to look for souvenirs that we sorely missed during the rest of the trip. The stalls at handcrafting market were remarkably identical to each other - stuffed animals, wallets, hand towels, key chains, fingernail clippers and other miscellaneous “made in China” items packet tight along the walls and low ceiling of each small booth. The only handcrafted items seemed to be the pearl jewelry in the glass display cases. But the thing I noticed most upon entering the market was how incredible hot and stuffy it was - perhaps hotter than the Dunam Valley rainforest. Sweat began to pour out of me the moment I step into the market. We wandered through the rows of “handcrafted” items for a little while, before ducking out the back into the cooler (but still hot) air. On the other side of the handcraft market and next to the water were a variety of stalls clustered together by the items they sold. In the back was the seafood and poultry row, where sellers yelled out their deals. I tried not to look to hard at the puddles collected on the ground below the stalls as I stepped quickly past open trays of chicken parts, piles of prawns, and freshly chopped tuna steaks. On the other side of the raw meat and seafood was the fresh vegetables and fruits. Vendors piled spiky durian, baskets of chili peppers, Chinese mustard greens, and green bananas on their tables. Past the vegetables were the spices - divided into and sold in small clear cellophane packets - cinnamon sticks, anise, nutmeg, curry mixes, and peppercorns lined the tables. The market also had a junk food aisle that surprising amount of vendors sold. I’m not sure what was in those clear bags, but it looked like puffed corn or wheat snacks with different seasonings. The displays that each junk food vendor had looked virtually identical. I’m not sure how one goes about choosing the best one to buy. Of course, what market wouldn’t be complete without the food court. Several stalls displayed large vats of colorful iced drinks - coconut, mango, strawberry, lemon - all of which were very tempting in the heat of the market. Open kitchens pressed their menus on passing people and other food stalls displayed their trays of stir-fried vegetables, braised meats, and curried seafood dishes. We were drawn to the satay stands. Large plumes of charcoal smoke filled this row. All the vendors displayed their grilled meats on a stick and their chicken wings covered in sauce and charred grill marks. We ended up leaving the market with a couple of bags of satays, pandan rice, and chicken wings for dinner. This was probably the cheapest dinner we had with the satays and rice for 1 RM each and the chicken wing for 1.5 RM. It was also the best satays of the trip. The chicken was so tender and flavorful. It really did put all the fancy restaurants we had eaten at to shame. After our shopping and escapades in the market, we returned to the hotel to get ready for our return trip home. As I took of my socks, I felt a jolt of panic rush through me as my sock stuck to my leg - encrusted there by my blood. No one wears leech socks in Kinabalu - but there are leeches there! That morning while hiking through the forest of Kinabalu, a sneaky and undetected ground leech made a full meal out of me - falling off fat and happy at some point. After it fell off, the wound continued to bleed into my sock. As soon as I cleaned the bite, it began to bleed freely again - evidence that it must have been a leech that injected anticoagulant into my leg. A somewhat disturbing way to end my trip to Borneo, but also perhaps fitting. My blood will found new generations of Kinabalu ground leeches. The return trip home was long and uneventful. It was a good time to reflect on the past two weeks traveling Borneo - the imperiled and exotic wildlife, the fragility of the primary rainforests, the rich orchid diversity of Kinabalu, the welcoming and friendly people, the delicious cuisine, the devastation yet necessity of palm plantation, the ease of travel within the country, all of the things we saw, all of the things we didn’t see, and the potential for another future trip. All of my initial misgiving about traveling to Borneo quickly melted away in this country. It was surprising how easy it was to travel here, especially since most of the people spoke English as a second language. I was thrilled with every new bird, mammal, reptile, insect, amphibian, and fish we saw. The diversity and beauty of Borneo is simply amazing and there is so much that we missed it makes thinking about returning to the country a reasonable and exciting prospect.