Malaysia (Truly Asia): Kota Kinabalu our Gateway into Borneo

Kota Kinabalu Borneo Malaysia night market
Chicken wing vendor at Kota Kinabalu’s night market.
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia was a welcome sight after 15 days of eating fried chicken and subsisting without vegetables or any kind of vitamin or mineral in the Philippines. The city was clean, organized, friendly, green, and felt mildly like home (and a bit like 1980s Miami).

Kota Kinabalu Borneo malaysia
Kota Kinabalu from Signal Hill
We took a cab for RM30/$9.70 to Asia Adventure Lodge (RM60/$19.40 including a simple breakfast). We were a little dismayed that we didn’t have a window but we had AC and we slept in for the first time in five months — the miracle of sleeping in a box in which time doesn’t exist. It was a little like being part of a mad scientist’s circadian rhythms experiment. We would stumble out of the box rubbing our bleary eyes – perplexed by the sudden appearance of daylight – drag our confused bodies to the 7-11, jack ourselves up on coffee, and continue on with our day. I’ve read journal articles in which scientists put masking tape over the tops of chicken’s heads so they’re light deprived. I felt like one of those chickens. For our thoughts on the guesthouse, check out our hilarious Trip Advisor review.

We spent a lot of our time eating (as per usual) and contemplating whether to reinstate the extra meal we created in Thailand (see here for more information on implementing an extra meal in your life). Any hopes of losing weight on this trip were lost on that first mouthful of freshly cooked roti. Alongside every roti restaurant, we found an equally exquisite Chinese “kedai kopi” (literally coffee shop but more like a restaurant). Every meal from this point would be a debate: Indian, Chinese or Malay (a happy medium of Indian and Chinese).

Kota Kinabalu Borneo Malaysia Chinese restaurant
A typical kedai kopi.
To get out of the city for a day, we went to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park which is a group of islands 20 minutes off the coast with white sand beaches and snorkelling opportunities. Of the five islands in the park we tried to choose one that would have fewer tourists. We opted for Mamutik Island (it is possible to visit more than one island for an extra RM10/$3.25). The excursions are well-organized and affordable. Go to the ticketing hall at Jesselton Pier where you will have a choice of boat operators. The rates are fixed so it doesn’t really matter which operator you choose, as long as they go to the island you want. Some offer different water sport activities (paragliding, water-skiing, snorkelling day trips, etc.) but all of them will be able to rent you snorkelling equipment if you just want to float around your island of choice. We picked up a coupon for RM10/$3.25 off the boat fare from Asia Adventure Lodge that was only valid with one boat company. In total we paid RM34/$11 each (including roundtrip boat to the island, a jetty fee, and snorkelling equipment). When we arrived on the island we had to pay a RM10 conservation fee.

Mamutik Island was lovely. We sat on a beach, swam, snorkelled, and treated ourselves to one beer. Drinking beer feels quite scandalous in Malaysia. It was like we were teenagers. Ryan went off to find a place to buy it when a man looked out from under his baseball cap and whispered, “Beer?” and led the way. Later, after enjoying our beers and another swim, the same man approached our table, peered out from under his cap and said, “More beer?” to which we declined but it did feel more adventurous this way. The snorkelling was great. Ryan even saw a lion fish and some clown fish and got so close to being stung it was ridiculous. Being completely oblivious to the danger, he prodded at the lion fish with his underwater camera with the hopes of getting the perfect shot. Instead he got this:

Kota Kinabalu is great but the main reason we are in Borneo is the rainforest and its abundance of wildlife. We are off to Sepilok, to catch a glimpse of wild orang-utans.