Oh, well. You are all clever enough to figure things out. Although this post is “part 6,” it pertains to location 5 on the map I posted — Kota Kinabalu, which is in Sabah state on the island of Borneo. You can find it on the map on the right near the northern tip of the island.
Malaysia is divided into peninsular West Malaysia, where I have spent most of my time, the federal territory of Labuan, which is an island north of Borneo, and the east Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah on the north side of Borneo. The rest of Borneo belongs to the tiny sultanate of Brunei (embedded in Sarawak) and Indonesia.
In addition, Malaysia has two distinct monsoon seasons, depending where you are. The western coast of peninsular Malaysia has its monsoons April to October. Meanwhile, the eastern coast and Borneo have their monsoons between November and February. As I was visiting during January and February, I had planned to stay near the western coast, but as February approached, it seemed as if the monsoons had eased up in the east.
My hosts in George Town, Penang, recommended Kota Kinabalu to me. It’s right on the ocean, but also close to Mount Kinabalu National Park and the rainforests inland. Besides, there are small islands just off the coast offering clean water and beaches. So, I booked a room in a small hotel in KK for a week — my last stop before returning to Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
By this time, I had decided to spend my last few days in Malaysia in a more restful state, to enjoy the warm weather, sunshine and sea breezes. My first two days there I did nothing really special, other than visiting the waterfront to eat and the public beach to soak up some rays. Swimming was not advisable there, because of the jellyfish, however.
My tourist activities consisted of a steam train excursion Saturday on the North Borneo Railway, a less-than-successful visit to Mount Kinabalu National Park (rained out), and a last-minute trip to a small island, Pulau Sapi. I also managed to fit in seeing Deadpool at the local cinema. Ticket price: $1.50. Eat your hearts out.
KK is a city of about 500,000. Along with Malay, Chinese and Indian groups, there is a sizable Filipino population there, because the northern tip of Borneo lies very close to the southern islands of the Philippines. As with the rest of Malaysia, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity (among others) coexist in relative harmony. Developers have turned the waterfront north of a golf and beach resort and south of Jesselton Point into a restaurant and bar strip that really doesn’t wake up until around 5 pm. Developers are also now building a condominium tower just south of the point.
Jesselton Point is where ferries to Labuan (and onward to Brunei) and other points on Borneo depart. There are also water taxis to the islands nearby, as well as several scuba diving services. I found out later that the taxis to the smaller islands leave in the morning, and return in the afternoon, but you can hire a private boat outside the ferry port anytime you like.
On my friends’ advice, I booked a hotel near the city center and Jesselton Point. The Victoria Hotel (listed on airbnb.com) is next to one of the city’s major taxi stands and near one of the bus terminals. There is a night market every night right in front of the hotel. On the downside, there was a karaoke club within earshot of my room, so I got to listen to some horrendously off-key renditions of popular Chinese songs until 1 am every night.
The North Borneo Railway, which is named after the historical railway built by the British in the 1890s, is a steam excursion train managed by the Sutera Harbour Resorts [PDF]. The train leaves every Wednesday and Saturday from the Tanjung Aru train station, taking about two hours to reach the small town of Papar. (See the green route on the map to the right. The Sabah State Railway, which uses diesel locomotives, travels further south.) Breakfast is served on the southbound leg, and lunch on the northbound. The entire excursion takes about four hours, and costs about $84.
The locomotive is a wood-burning Vulcan Foundry 2-6-2, manufactured in England and delivered in 1955 to the original North Borneo Railway (now Sabah State Railway). The excursion line has two in operation, and another is used for parts. (Follow the link to the bottom of the page for details.)
[Historical aside: Robert Stephenson, who built the innovative locomotive Rocket in 1829, co-founded the Vulcan Foundry in 1830.]
The coaches used are not original, on the other hand. They were fabricated in Japan in the 1970s and have been remodeled to resemble the coaches used during the colonial period on the island. Each coach can seat 16 passengers, who each get a “passport” that a crew member stamps as the train passes each town on the route.
My tablemate was Hwa, an accounting major from South Korea. Her parents were spending the day golfing at the Sutera Golf Course, and she decided riding on the train would be more interesting. Her English was somewhat limited, but we managed to carry on a decent conversation during the ride.
The train makes two stops. A short one at Kinarut, where passengers can visit the Tien Nam Shi Buddhist temple, and a longer one at Papar. While passengers visit the shops in Papar, the crew disconnects the locomotive from the front of the train, reverses it on a turntable, and hitches it to the other end of the train for the return journey. This was how it was done back in the old days — steam locomotives were built to be driven facing in only one direction.
Before I show more pictures, let me describe the rest of my touristy activities.
I visited the wetlands park on Signal Hill. The park includes a mangrove swamp and a heron sanctuary. It’s also home to many other animals, some of which I heard but did not see. There were plenty of herons, though.
Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Malaysia. I had no plans to climb it, as the guidebooks say it’s a two-day trek best suited for hikers in very good physical condition. But I thought the trails surrounding the mountain would be worth visiting. When I left for Kinabalu National Park, which is about 90 miles from KK, it was a warm, sunny day, but I did not consider that the park, nestled in the mountains, might have different weather. I didn’t bring a jacket or long pants, or an umbrella, and as my taxi headed east into cooler, higher altitudes, rain clouds were moving west. By the time we arrived at the park, raindrops were beginning to fall. It soon began to pour. I bought a plastic poncho and decided to eat lunch at the park restaurant to wait out the rain, but it didn’t let up. So, I returned to KK, sharing a taxi with a Chinese woman and her son.
On my last day in KK, I decided I had to go to one of the smaller islands for a swim. This is when I found out the water taxis to small islands only run out in the morning. As I was walking toward Jesselton Point, I came across three tourists from Poland, who like me, put off visiting the islands till the afternoon. We bargained with a boatsman, who agreed the take the four of us to Pulau Sapi, a tiny island about 15 minutes by speedboat. We spent two hours there, enjoying very clear waters (no jellyfish!) and a beach that was nearly deserted, since all the other tourists had already left for Jesselton Point. I have no photos, because I left both camera and cellphone behind. But trust me, it was beautiful. Not Bali, but not bad.
While I was in KK, I was tempted to visit Labuan and Brunei, by taking the ferry, but figured I didn’t have enough time to squeeze those trips in. I also could have flown or taken a ferry to the southern Philippines, adding another country to my trip’s itinerary. But that, too, I decided would have to wait for another time.
After my week in KK, I flew back to Kuala Lumpur, where I once again stayed with my airbnb hosts there, Pascal and Salsabila, for two nights. On the 19th, I returned to Hong Kong, where (as I have already told you) I stayed three more nights before taking the ferry back to the mainland. One night at a very comfy hotel in Guangzhou, then high speed rail to Changsha, and the bus to Jishou, arriving around 10 pm on Tuesday.
My winter travels have come to an end. Now it’s time to get into the teaching frame of mind again.
More photos follow.
I have videos of the train ride as well, but I have to shrink them or upload to YouTube first. Please stand by for further developments.