Malaysian Borneo

Have you ever become immobile on vacation?

I have. No, really… 3 days after arriving to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia I couldn’t walk. I hadn’t made plans yet; at this point I was planning as I went.

Arriving to Kota Kinabalu

I arrived from the airport with a hostel in mind. Although, I hadn’t booked it yet, I grabbed a car there anyway. It was confusing and hard to find. I walked with my backpack in circles around the dot on the map. There was no signage but based on the location I figured it had to be in the apartment building of IMAGO. After being dropped off, I messaged the host and she wasn’t there. I had barely any battery to my phone, needed to use the toilet, and was starving. I just wanted to lay my bag down and figure out my plan. She wasn’t willing to let me drop my things so I cancelled. I’m so happy I did because my second choice hostel has easily become my favorite hostel of the entire trip. I stayed at Faloe. This hostel was also hard to find, but once I was there- about a 7 minute walk from the other, I WAS HOME.

The best hostel in Kota Kinabalu

I quickly settled in and began talking to my hosts. They checked me in early and even helped me plan some activities. First on the list, hike the tallest mountain in SE Asia. Ok… so this was part of my original plan, this is why I came to Kota Kinabalu and not Kuala Lumpur. If you’ve been following along you know I sent my hiking boots back to the US over a month ago… this was the reason I brought them- this was something I’d been planning from the start.

Over the duration of my time in Borneo, I kept my things at Faloe for 2 weeks. The hosts were gracious here and allowed me to leave my things in the locker while I went on 2 day trips they’d help me plan or suggest opportunities to me. While I believed they were getting some sort of cut I soon realized I was the one getting the deals. My first excursion was the next day!

They were able to secure me a mountain climb literally the day after my plane touched ground to Malaysia. I was so happy; the weather at the mountain was expected to be 80-100% chance of rain for the remainder of my time. The only other relevant option I found online was $100 USD more and the earliest availability was still 2 weeks away. Not only did I get to go for the best weather but it also saved me money to buy the proper gear by booking with Faloe Hostel (vs River Junkie).

Faloe was so flexible and accommodating. They let me extend my time there day by day because other than climbing, I hadn’t had any other plans for Kota Kinabalu. That soon changed, of course. Faloe also has laundry and a simple breakfast bar with a full kitchen at your leisure. Oh, and Netflix is included as well as lots of games! The best part, however, is Ivy. She made me feel so welcome the entire time. I ended up staying in Kota Kinabalu longer than I thought I would- recovering the use of my legs and exploring the wild jungles and underwater world.

That $100 I saved went toward necessary gear for the hike; used for buying proper hiking boots for $20.00, wool socks, an ear warmer, a long sleeve moisture wicking shirt from H&M for around $10, and for $75 I grabbed some Nike windbreaker-type tapered pants to wear over my leggings as a shell for rain. I also wanted to get some snacks but didn’t have the chance. I would buy snacks, Strepsils, and water at the base camp store instead. There weren’t a ton of options- I knew I should’ve bought them beforehand. I also had to buy water- the mountain water was unavailable during my visit. Faloe also has a give and take box. I gave mmy boots and there was other hiking essentials in there, too!!

A picture from a far of Mount Kinabalu. The peaks encompassed in a cloud.

Hiking Mount Kinabalu:
the tallest mountain in S.E. Asia

waterfall on the trail- Mount Kinabalu hike

I only brought my small backpack for the overnight stay. Toting around my tripod not realizing just how strenuous this hike would be. I had filled my 2.5L bladder the night before. I drank all this water on the first day. The first day we hiked 6km. Another guest from my hostel joined me slashing our price even more, we also picked up two Russians on route, they were staying in the national park. This cut our price again and Faloe refunded that to us when we returned from the adventure. Anyway the 4 of us never stayed together once we reached the waterfall. There were many guides on the mountain; groups were encouraged to split up- individuals to hike at their own comfortable pace. Our guide, Lawrence, was really my guide. He had to stay with the person in the back.

I’m not gonna lie; the first day was the biggest struggle for me. It was excruciatingly difficult. At some point after the 2km marker I asked Lawrence to carry my bag. He wasn’t a porter but he said I was going slow and kept offering to carry my camera. He gladly took my bag and lightened my load. Physically I was already going slowly, that’s my pace to keep my heart from exploding… but I also was stopping and capturing the rainforest surrounding me. This would be a timed hike back down with chances of rain and this rainforest is a UNESCO site. There are plant and animal species here that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The mountain itself is not the UNESCO site- it’s literally the route to the summit that is protected.

Support from a local hiker

Around the same time I handed my bag over to Lawrence, I met another local man. He was like an angel on this hike, I needed him. His name was Ishak and it was his birthday although I was the one receiving a gift. Ishak became my hype man, my translator, and DJ. First he was just a man I tried to keep up with because I enjoyed his music. It set my pace. Then when he stopped awhile I talked to him. We caught our breath and hiked together. He was always encouraging me and tricking me to go a little further. We would make deals about where the next resting point would be.

He came with his friend to summit the mountain- this would be just another time for him to get to the top. His friend brought his whole family, for what would be their first summit, and they were much farther behind us. The friend naturally taking role as sweeper stayed with his niece. Ishak would continuously promise me flat land if I just got over the rocks. He deceived me every time. There were so many steps; the whole mountain is steps. Flat land doesn’t exist on the mountain… not in the sense of level at least. I think someone needs to redefine his English use of the word ‘flat’ to ‘another incline’.

wooden struts to help create steps in the natural terrain

The mountain literally ends with an infinite staircase. They built the stairs in the late 90’s. I hated those steps. I’d end up liking them much more on the way down. I pushed myself so hard that first day. I made it to the dorms right before dinner was beginning. When I walked in I was cheered for by Harry, my hostel mate. He met 3 new people on his hike and we ate with them. By the time I finally went to see my bed I had the last pick. I was on a top bunk… with a ladder, a cruel joke.

more wooden steps on the trail

Mount Kinabalu Day #2, summiting at sunrise

I didn’t sleep well that night. The bed was comfortable but I wasn’t comfortable with all the people in the room. There were lots of people all up at different times. And I didn’t sleep for more than 30 minute increments. I think altogether I slept for a total of 2 hours. We had to have our supper at 02:00 (AM) to start the summit climb before 03:00. The summit climb was difficult in its own right. For starters, I didn’t have my pal Ishak. I started with my original group, in the front of a large pack trying to ascend the steepest of all the stairs- with literally no end in sight, mostly darkness. I quickly made it to the back of the crowd. Only 130 people can climb per day; this includes the guides as you have to get a permit to climb. At the back I watched many people become ill from the altitude. I also watched many people give up. I didn’t reach the summit that day, but I never gave up.

Unfortunately without Ishak, or anyone but Lawrence, I was quite confused about the hike. I needed my hype man but more than that, I needed my translator. It was hard and I was pushing a long with tons of breaks. The thin air made it more difficult whereas I lucked out with the terrain. This is the kind of climb I enjoy the most- a strenuous climb with an end point in sight. I never bought gloves which would’ve helped with the cold and I needed my hands to climb, so they were freezing. I climbed up the face of the mountain making it to the last checkpoint just in time to continue. If you don’t reach the last checkpoint by 5AM you cannot continue. I continued up the mountain using the rope when necessary but otherwise keeping my hands in my pocket. I had sticky hand warmers in them to create little hand heaters. The Strepsils (cough drops) I bought at the dorms helped me breath in this higher altitude.

It was dawn and I could see the light behind me. I tried asking my guide what to do at the top at this point, where would I go? For me I could see the end, but I also didn’t see the people. I needed to know how much further I had left. Would I miss the sunrise? I needed Ishak. The sun was rising behind me. From what I could see, there was no way I could climb one way and also see the sun rising in the opposite direction. I decided I would sit and watch the sunrise where I was. Then, once I was satisfied with that simple pleasure I could continue to fight my way to the summit.

Mount Kinabalu, The final few steps

I’m so happy to have stopped. Alone, I sat with just the sunrise as it climbed above the clouds to meet me. I was away from the crowded summit with the most amazing views. I sat somewhere in-between 7.5 and 8 km; at about 12,900 feet. Solitude and I meet again, another mountain under the same sky. I think that may have been missed if I hit summit- with no time to sit and take it all in. I had every intention to continue on. The Russian couple from my group came by and told me it wasn’t much further but it was freezing and full of fog- they seemed unimpressed. Then my guide said he would go retrieve Harry for breakfast. Breakfast begins at 7:30; if you miss breakfast you hike to the bottom with no food until 4.

I asked if we were going to continue and he seemed confused and kept pointing to go back down and said “slow and steady”, he said he would meet me at the dining hall. Disappointed in the timing and never having a clock to keep track, I turned around.

I began to accept that this was my summit as I kept looking to my left where the actual highest peak was. There were many positive grips I’d have liked to escape to. I just wanted to climb the wild edge. Again, I truly am happy to have had the sunrise I had. I just would have liked to be able to say I summited. Especially when I learned how close I was- not far at all but there was a language barrier and possibly doubt from my guide. Once I got to the van to head back to Faloe, I truly found out just how far I had to go.

me in contemplation of being able to complete the climb. Out of focus.
A picture after sunrise. People are already descending to breakfast in the background.

Descending Mount Kinabalu

I found Ishak at breakfast and we shared pictures and stories. This was his 5th climb and he just turned 45. He was proud of how far I made it for my first time. His friend’s niece gave up before that marker. I saw her below me and remember meeting his friend as he continued to the summit once she called it quits. All the guides collectively told me I had the best sunrise. They all agreed that between 7.5 to 8 kilometers you’ll find the best view on the entire mountain. I heard the summit has great views too, and a sign to show you made it, but it isn’t actually east facing. I assumed the summit is literally at the top of the World… as far as you can see in that whole region, at least, so it must have a great view. However, the mountain itself has many craggy peaks creating obstructions to the view, not to mention the dense fog/clouds.

After breakfast I took a much needed nap and actually had a solid slumber. I woke up to begin my descent alone at 10:15. On the way back it started to rain at about the 2.5 km mark or for a solid hour to the finish line. I got out rather quickly. I think I was trying to beat the rain. Lawrence must’ve been confused. I didn’t stop once the entire way down. Passing tons of people in the process. I definitely was not the girl he hiked with that morning. This girl was passing tons of others on the descent and he couldn’t keep up. Finally at the bottom, I found my van and was shuttled to lunch and to find my group.

Going down was much easier than I’d anticipated. On the way up, I had passed others on their descent who were struggling big time- some even crying. When I reached the bottom I had an hour to spare. I also learned at breakfast that checkout from the dorm wasn’t until 10:30 and technically I could have continued on to the summit instead of napping for 2 more hours. It’s too bad I didn’t have all this information when I sat only 250 steps away from the top.

That’s right, our hike included a certificate of completion and I really was within 600 feet from summit, or approximately 250 steps. My certificate shows my distance and the total distance to the tippy top.

Views from the checkpoint- on the way back down.

My thoughts and advice in hindsight

I still want to go back and summit but am also so proud of how far I climbed. I typically compare all my hikes to that of my first difficult hike: Delicate Arch, Moab, Utah, USA (click here to read about Moab). I’ve easily done much more difficult hikes since then but I have NEVER done one harder than Kinabalu. In hindsight, it’s probably good my body didn’t have time to process the muscle fatigue from the first day and before the next morning; because once I stopped to watch the sunrise my body was feeling it. When I got up to keep going my legs were stiff, I figure it was because my muscles cooled down while sitting.

Because there was also a bit of a language barrier, I want to make this clear: if you’re like me and you’re slowly hiking but you aren’t giving up, you can continue to summit after 07:00. As long as you’ve made it passed the checkpoint by 05:00. Yes, this is a timed hike, and here is where I got confused… My guide was telling me we wouldn’t make it down in time. He said I could make it to summit because I wasn’t far but if I didn’t head back down within 20 minutes than I wouldn’t make it down. This was not true- or at least not what he meant.

I had to get to base camp dorms to eat by 10:00 and had to be out of the dorms by 10:30. I ended up making it down with 3 hours to spare, so I napped. If you plan to hike, and you know your bodies limits, trust yourself. However, if you don’t hike often be very careful there are lots of stories of people being flown out and worse.

me swinging under a porch of a new dorm still being built.

Struggling to move; Becoming Immobile

When I got to the bottom my legs felt fine. I met up with the 3 other people in my group and our guide took us across the street for food. I cannot remember what I had- we ate “breakfast” at the basecamp before the final descent so technically it was lunch. Lunch was delicious; I think anything would satisfy my hunger. Anyway, we all shared stories and talked about our climb and how we were feeling. I honestly felt great… great upon entering the restaurant. I was proud I didn’t overwork my muscles. Then it was time to leave, I stood up from my seat and ‘Oh my god!’. It was so hard to walk. The back of my knees had pains I didn’t recognize. I made it to the van where I napped the whole way back to my hostel. I was sore for 4 days after the hike. This was a 6 day ordeal! 2 days to hike and double that to recover.

It is probably a good thing I stopped short of summit. I don’t know if I could have another day of the tightness. My calves and quads were solid, like rock. They were so tight. For those folowing 4 days, I hated and cursed every stair I saw including curbs. I also used 3 of those days to complete my PADI open water dive course. I decided I wanted to be certified in SCUBA diving when I was in Coron, (Click here to read about Coron, Palawan) because I’d had enough surface snorkeling. Free diving was just too difficult, too hard, because I can only hold my breath so long. Being able to SCUBA dive would give me more freedom. I could stay under longer, all the way at the sea floor, and see all the things- things I didn’t know existed

Getting PADI certified in Malaysia

the pier to where we docked mid-day for bathrooms, food, and to take our tests.

The courses were tedious and I had a French buddy, Lilou. Where I excelled she struggled and where she excelled I struggled. I think this frustrated Zarul a little. Zarul was our dive instructor. He said we were like children. If one is good the other one has an issue. It was so fun learning to dive with her. We all had a great time. Each morning we would meet up at 08:00 for breakfast at the jetty before boarding our boat. We would be with a Chinese group too. Lilou and I quickly made friends with Hellie the girl from the other group. The 3 of us would sit on the bow for our returns each day. In the morning we would do some underwater lessons to be followed by lunch and tests on the island and back under the water until 15:00. We always made it back to KK before 16:00.

The hardest thing for me is clearing the mask. I’m constantly blowing my nose as instructed but not with the force necessary. Or I blow well but I blow with my throat open… or I’m pressing too hard on the mask or maybe not enough. I also hate having to put the regulator back in- like when we switch and practice inhaling from the free flow or our secondary mouth piece. Of course it’s essential to learn but when we finally got to SCUBA it was so much more relaxing. I learned a new language, too; underwater sign language.

Me and Lilou finishing our first dive.

Everyday when I came back from my daily PADI courses I’d have 3 bowls of cereal and watch Netflix. Ivy was always good at recommending new movies or documentaries to me. She also recommended another 2 day trip she thought I might like. She booked me a Kinabatungan river cruise near Sandakan. I bought my plane ticket with a return flight to Faloe. Ivy works and lives on site in the hostel. I really enjoyed her company and took all her recommendations.

Exploring Borneo Beyond…

Eventually my legs recovered and I was off to the jungle. Another 2 day adventure, this one started deep in the Borneo jungle. I’d stay in a hut on the edge of the Kinabatagan River. I took an early flight to Sandakan where I was picked up and ‘whisked away’. I was bussed 3 hours away to my jungle resort.

Glimpse of change: On the route I was exposed to the deforestation of this jungle, for the growing demand for Palm Oil. At the time, I didn’t even know how major this issue was/is. I only started putting two and two together as I became more interested in my zero-waste life pursuit.

Kinabatungan Jungle and River Cruise

I stayed in a dorm with 2 Germans and an Englishman. They were all solo travelers, one of which, also was staying at Faloe during the same time I was on the mountain. We never met there but knew all the same people. The 3 of them already shared one night together on the 3D2N option; I only booked 1N. I enjoyed playing cards and drinking whiskey with them after our river cruise and night walk. The next morning we would wake up at 05:45 for another river cruise. The morning ride was reminiscent of the cover of the Stephen King movie The Mist. This made visibility tough but I enjoyed the backdrop otherwise.

bow of the boat in the mist of the morning cruise.

Over the course of both river cruises we saw many proboscis monkeys, macaques, and silver leaf monkeys. We also saw horned bill birds; but we didn’t see pygmy elephants or any crocodiles- just signs they were nearby. The two most memorable, strangest looking animals, (I still think about almost a year later) are the proboscis monkey and the horned bill birds; the most entertaining, without a doubt, were the proboscis monkeys. They would make huge jumps across the trees, it was so impressive. Still they’re most notoriously known for their look, the nose.

After our morning cruise we would have breakfast and pack our things. My roommates gave me high hopes and I set high expectations for breakfast that were unfortunately too high, and not met. I still had a long time before my flight back though so I at until I was full and made plans to stop at Sepilok.

Sepilok, Malaysia

I went to Sepilok for more wild life still- here I would visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and see the sun bears next door, too. This was quite an adrenaline filled adventure. I was up close with 3 orangutans this day. The first one was nicely contained in a sense. He came down from the trees to the walkway to see his visitors. There were no barriers but it was safe. We had two guides from the center there to keep the crowd moving and monitor the distance from the orangutan. This was Bidu-Bidu. I took some wonderful shots of him. And then there was the other not so safe encounter followed by a chase. Two wild orangutans chased me- with no barrier for me to escape!

Orangutans up close, too close

Let me begun by saying how thankful I was to have my mobility back. I was fully recovered at this point, and my legs were put to the test. I truly was chased by 2 orangutans. Do you know how frickin’ scary it is to be chased by a wild animal with absolutely no barricades? An orangutan can easily hurt a human. Luckily, I was not harmed.

The next up close encounter was just me and 3 other visitors- a dad and his 2 young boys. There were two ‘escaped’ mischievous orangutans on the platform. They approached the older boy and started tugging on his sweatshirt until they got it off of him. I think it was tied around his waist. I told them to keep their distance since I’d learned earlier that morning with Bidu-Bidu. It’s also posted all over the center. I’d spent the whole day here, for the morning and afternoon feeding, and I watched the informational video from the Welcome Center when the grounds were closed. The family clearly had not seen this video; they must not read or speak fluent English. Being as they were not locals, they had no other way to know the procedure other than by instinct.

an orangutan approaches the railing- this is BiduBidu.

When I first approached this part of the platform I was on route to see the babies at the nursery. It was after the feeding time and thus the crowd at the adult platform was growing. Although the orangutans still come it is somewhat a deterrent and less enjoyable than watching them without distractions. The platforms were empty as I quickly walked to the babies; empty until the orangutans decided to cross. I was approximately 12 to 15 meters away when they got near the walkway. I stopped to let them pass. The dad and 3 boys did not back up and were only about 3 meters from them. I naïvely approached as I figured the family was also passing through to the adult feeding platforms. They hesitated and the orangutans stopped and lurched toward them. I quickly stepped back and kept my distance telling them to do the same. The dad seemed to understand and the youngest boy stayed by him. The other boy froze, perhaps in fear, as the orangutan seemed to hug him.

Wild Animals are WILD

This hug was really the orangutan stealing his hoodie from around his waist… or perhaps it was on him. It all happened too quick I cannot be entirely sure. I know mine was tied around me and based on the temperature. Then the orangutan continued to try and take his clothing. One orangutan had it’s entire arm up the front of the boys shirt pulling the boys face close to it’s own. It did not rip his shirt but stretched it quite a bit. The other one stood beside them keeping the rest of us at a distance.

The boy was very lucky in this circumstance. Orangutans are much stronger than humans. Also with just one bite they can take off an entire finger. These two didn’t seem to want to cause us any harm. The boy got away slowly back to his father and then they just stood by watching as the orangutans taunted him with his hoodie. Those two were having a blast; trying to wear the hoodie- attempting to put the sleeves over their heads, etc. It was quite funny to see but also harmful to the health of the orangutans.

Humans carry diseases- such as the flu, that could wipe out an animal species like a pandemic. Orangutans are not exposed to the same viruses as humans and so a common virus for us is deadly to their species. We carry germs that would disease an orangutan; not to mention, if the boy had on sunscreen and bug spray on that may have contaminated the fibers and is toxic to the animals as well. Anyway, I watched the video at the welcome center and I knew we had to make sure someone who worked there could get the hoodie back and identify the orangutans associated with the incident… I waited.

Finally finding a guide

The dad didn’t know what to do. I informed him the orangutans were putting themselves in harm, the longer they had this hoodie the worse it could be for them and the more likely they’d escape and infect more orangutans. The family just stood there not knowing what to do. At this point another girl joined us- on the opposite side of the orangutans. The girl shouted at the boys to go get a guide. DING DING! DING! It’s like a light bulb went off in their heads. The two boys went in the direction of the adult platform. There wasn’t another option at this point, as the orangutans occupied the platform, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get near them with their new ‘toy’.

The boys were taking a really long time; it must have been like 10 minutes and they still were not back. A guide from the nursery came by and we had to explain the situation. The guide was able to easily scare the orangutans back to the trees and somehow was able to communicate to them to leave the hoodie. At this point the girl’s boyfriend had reached the other side of the pathway. From the tree an orangutan grabbed a rather large branch, snapped it off the tree like it was a twig, and tossed it at him. It hit the hand rail and fell to the ground missing the man. Clearly these orangutans were not happy anymore.

Two wild orangutans enter the jungle surrounding the rehabilitation center.

The Chase

Of course in the midst of all the craziness I took pictures, too. While I was close in proximity to these two, much closer than I was with Bidu-Bidu, I still wasn’t able to get that great of a shot. I was afraid; I didn’t want to watch them behind a zoomed lens with an inaccurate perspective on distance. Not to mention there were two to watch at all times. With Budu Bidu I could let the instructions of the guide direct me while I walked backward with one eye closed and one in my viewfinder. This was quite a different situation; a much more dangerous situation.

The Orangutans stretched the hoodie in every direction imaginable- they looked like they were having the time of their lives! Then they noticed me and my camera… that’s when they came after me. I was terrified. I mean, would they take my camera? …into the trees? Would the camera strap choke me? What would I do? I just ran and they stopped and then I stopped. Again, I probably shouldn’t have trusted this, but in the end I was fine. I was not harmed but definitely tortured. This happened at least two more times, each time my heart was pounding. I’ve missed a few details above. I forgot all the specifics when they lurched at me. I panicked and just ran- that’s all I remember.

A close up of Bidu-Bidu, he grew up in the rehabilitation center and stays nearby the feeding platforms because he was an abandoned baby- victim to deforestation

[Author’s Note: While these animals are absolutely fascinating and so very human-like, with 97% identical DNA, it is extremely important to keep your distance. Not only can they hurt a human- I mean one bite could be your entire finger, but they like to take things (they have thumbs). They will take cameras, bags, hats, and in the situation I was in… a hoodie.]

Borneo was amazing and worth every extra added day-
at this point I’d already booked my flight to Bali and before that I had another passport stamp to collect- Brunei.

Orangutan butt.

Leave a Reply