Borneo without a plan: Kota Kinabalu & Sandakan

We had to leave Indonesia. Our visa said so. So we started planning.

We played with the idea of visiting Singapore–one of the cheapest international flights from Denpasar. We scrapped that idea when we learned there would be a city-wide anniversary celebration and the already high prices would be inflated.

We were almost convinced we’d go to East Timor. How many people get to say they’ve been to East Timor? But when airline ticket prices seemed a bit steep we ditched that idea too.

Then the idea of Borneo appeared. We could go to Malaysian Borneo; we both love Malaysia and Borneo has orangutans…and proboscis monkeys and rainforest! A price check showed round-trip tickets at around $150 USD–we could do that! We booked the tickets.

A side note on Malaysia:

I’m going to let you in on a little secret… Malaysia is amazing. It was one of my biggest surprises while travelling in Southeast Asia. There’s no shortage of people gushing about Thailand, Vietnam, The Philippines…but Malaysia–it’s just so underappreciated. Read about one of my getaways here.

Malaysia has natural beauty; lush tropical jungles, (empty) white sand beaches, rolling green hills and like in Thailand plenty of protected national parks. There’s culture; modern cities, fantastic (and cheap!) food, and a melting pot of ethnically diverse people.

Sure the cost of travel is a bit higher (for the region), but you’ll get more for your money with slightly nicer accommodation, and better infrastructure. The bus system is extensive, decently comfortable and simple to use. And with many people speaking English, getting around is that much easier. Malaysia is developed compared to her neighbors, but still growing and changing in that way that makes travelling still interesting and exciting.

However, for this trip to Malaysia, we never really got around to planning much.

Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu

The uninspiring views of Kota Kinabalu

Most international flights in Malaysian Borneo’s state of Sabah arrive and depart from Kota Kinabalu. The city itself isn’t exactly special. It sits on a lovely enough stretch of coastline, however development hasn’t been too inspiring for the little city. Tall, bland, concrete buildings, completely lacking in even a trace of character, block any view one might find of the coast. The environment is hectic and dirty and the climate here is mostly wet.

When we arrive into Kota Kinabalu in the early evening, we have just one night booked at one hostel and no plans for how we will spend our next 7 days in Borneo.

We get lucky and meet a group of travelers at our hostel within 5 minutes of arriving. We haven’t the chance to change out of our travel clothes before we join the group and head for dinner. As is usually the case, our group gets larger as other backpacker types join us and we all end up in a seafood tent on the waterfront at a vibrant night market.

Kota Kinabalu's night market

Kota Kinabalu’s night market

A side note about Malaysian Food:

In our experience Malaysian food is very underrated. With popular Asian cuisines such Thai or Vietnamese, Malay food doesn’t get much attention. However of the three times I’ve visited Malaysia, the food has always been a highlight.

Due to it’s location and history, the food here is a melting pot of flavors from India, China and Malaysia with Thai, Portuguese and Dutch influences. You can find noodle dishes in thick sauces, sweet and sour meats and veggies, rich meat curries and fresh roti (chapatti, naan, canai) and a variety yummy beverages.

Our favorite cheap food spots were the ubiquitous “curry houses,” which feature a cafeteria style, serve-yourself style buffet with plenty of hot dishes to try for very little money. In addition you can order freshly made Indian-style roti breads and beverages such as fresh fruit juices, teh tarik (hot, sweet, milky tea) or milo (chocolate milk).

Malaysia also shares some dishes with Indonesia such as satay (grilled meat skewers with a thick glaze and dipping sauce), Rendang (tender meat in a spicy sauce that resembles Mexico’s mole), and my least favorite; Nasi Goreng (fried rice).

malaysian food

A plate full of food chosen at a curry house; marinated meats, turmeric veggies, bitter melon, curry

Roti Canai

Rota canai, or a fried flat bread filled with anything from meat and veggies to cheese, chocolate or bananas. Often served with a side of curry dipping sauces

After dinner we wander the streets of Kota Kinabalu with our new friends, eventually settling for a cozy expat bar for fancy cocktails and dessert. We go to sleep that night with no plans for the following day.

Over breakfast at the hostel, we meet a group of British girls coming from Sandakan, on the eastern coast of Sabah. They had just finished a river tour of the Kinabatangan region. They were impressed. Since we had heard of this and were already interested, we decided to follow their advice. We called their recommended hostel–Harborside Backpackers and booked a night. Along with two of our backpacker friends, we took off for the bus station and caught the next bus to Sandakan.

The drive was long but rewarding, as the road cut through a national park curving through rolling green mountains and terraced fields, bypassing the massive, looming, Mt Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain. We strain our necks looking around the bus, outside in all directions at the impressive scenery.

However as we drive nearer to Sandakan we notice a dramatic change in scenery. What was once idyllic tropical forests are now neat rows of hand-planted palm oil trees. And in many places, there are no trees at all, only clumpy mounds of earth, free of any vegetation, resembling the surface of a lifeless planet.

Sabah, Borneo

The beautiful parts of our bus ride…

Sabah, Malaysia, Borneo

The not so nice parts… land ravaged by palm oil farming

Palm Oil Plantations in Southeast Asia:

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit pulp of Oil Palms. It’s used in everything from toiletries, detergents and cosmetics to food products and biofuel. It is the most produced and traded vegetable oil in the world. In order to meet this growing demand, more and more palm oil plantations are popping up around the world–most of these in Malaysia and Indonesia. Unfortunately these plantations are taking the place of precious primary rainforest, many of which is habitat to highly endangered species including the great orangutan, elephants, rhinos and tigers, among others.

 Sandakan & Sepilok

We arrive in Sandakan at dark, hungry and restless from our long bus journey. Immediately after checking in, we head to the nearby waterfront and choose one of the many food spots, settling in for a disappointingly mediocre meal at a tourist trap. After, we book a 3d/2n tour (the same one recommended to us) for the day after the next.

For the following day we plan a trip to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the Rainforest Discovery Center. The orangutan center was created as an aid to help Orangutans who have lost their habitat due to palm oil farming or had been captured as pets, become rehabilitated and ideally, re-released into a new safe habitat. In addition, the center has breeding programs to attempt to help this endangered species.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

Though the center is a top tourist attraction, and hence, crowded with tourists. It’s a worthwhile stop, learning about the center’s goals and seeing one of our closest primate relatives in action.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

A few residents at the rehabilitation center

After, we check out the nearby Rainforest Discovery Center.  This is a place, which many tourists seem to have skipped as we only see a handful of other visitors. The grounds feature a massive, 1,000-foot long canopy walkway overlooking the tropical forest and two large observation platforms. We spend a few hours spotting exotic birds, black squirrels with red bellies and plenty of long-tailed macaques.

Rainforest Discovery Center, sepilok

Canopy walkway at the Rainforest Discovery Center

We get lucky on our way back and catch a tourist shuttle back to Sandakan. This is an inexpensive, mini bus, decorated “jungle style,” and pimped out with a flat screen TV blaring 90’s pop.

Next up, The Kinabatangan River…

Know if you go…

If you can get the Air Asia website to work, you can also buy extremely cheap airline tickets between KK and Sandakan. We couldn’t get the site to accept our credit cards –an increasingly common experience for us with budget Asian airlines. Otherwise you’re stuck with buses. Similar to much of Latin America, every major town or city in Malaysia has a bus station. Here you will find ticket offices for the different bus companies. There will be attendants to direct you to the correct office for your desired destination. Buses seem to stick to an accurate schedule compared to elsewhere in the region. And because Malaysia is such a beautiful country, bus rides are extra enjoyable. 

Additional Info on The Orangutan Rehabilitation Center:
The Rehabilitation Center doesn’t actually provide visitors with a lot to do or see. At the time we went (July 2015), the jungle paths were closed for renovation. This meant we could only see orangutans (or see anything worthwhile) during feeding times; at 9 or 10ish in the morning, and 3 in the afternoon and only open to visitors for a couple hours after. During this time literal mobs of tourists are released onto an elevated jungle walkway which leads to a viewing spot and to the “nursery.” Warning: this does not feel like, nor is it an “authentic” Orangutan in nature experience. This is merely a place to observe Orangutans and support a good cause.

We recommend: Take the 8:30 bus from Sandakan Bus station, get off at the turn for the center. Colectivos or bemo-style shared taxis park here and you can get a ride to the center entrance for less than a dollar. Check out the morning feeding at 10 AM. After you can see the Sun Bear Rehabilitation center (more money than we felt like paying, but another good cause) across the road, or head back up the road to the Rainforest Discovery Center. We loved the RDC. Some of our friends even saw wild Orangutans in the trees here!

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