Borneo Experience: Part 1 – Kota Kinabalu

Boat trip in Kota KinabaluThis blog covers a 10 day 3-centre trip by two gently maturing Silver Travellers with a group of 7 mainly grown up children aged 13 -27 years. The aim was to have a varied holiday, with a blend of action, adventure and relaxation. That is to say enough action and adventure to satisfy the energetic members of the party, and sufficient down-time to ensure some relaxation from busy lives.

Why Borneo? Well we wanted to go to a destination off the beaten track, which (although it might take a while to get there), would deliver plenty of wildlife, jungle, beach and sunshine, and without costing the earth. It proved to be an excellent choice. As we looked forward to the holiday in post Brexit Britain, the pound weakened against the Euro and newspaper articles warned of the increasing costs of a European holiday. This was definitely the right year to travel to Asia!

Kota Kinabalu

Flying with Royal Air Brunei via Dubai and Brunei was a very good experience – plenty of legroom, comfortable seats, excellent service and, although this wasn’t a factor at the time of booking, it’s a dry airline so no worries about teenagers getting drunk and disorderly before the holiday even began.

It also gave us an unexpected bonus of an interesting stopover day in Brunei on the way back:  more about that in a later article.

Kota KinabaluKota Kinabalu (or KK as it’s known locally) is an ideal base to begin a holiday in Borneo. Destroyed in the second world war by a combination of the Japanese and the allied forces, KK is the largest city of Sabah, which is the northern region of Malaysian Borneo, with Sarawak in the south.

Hugging the coastline with stunning views, the city can feel quite Western at times, with branches of Starbucks, Body Shop, hotel chains and other familiar names along the main drag, but this is where any similarity ends.

Right on the sea front, much of local life revolves around the water, with a whole village in the sea of wooden houses on stilts which is home to thousands of local residents. Night market in Kota KinabaluHuge markets line the sea front, and as dusk descends, they come alive. Like a tropical version of a Dickensian scene of London, the sights, smells and noise of local life are intoxicating. Row upon row of stalls selling souvenirs, with the narrowest of aisles separating them, and each shop packed to the gunnels. And not forgetting all the big brands – or rather excellent imitations, at a fraction of the cost.

You’ll never go hungry in KK! Hundreds of cafes, three or four deep along with quayside where satay sticks, chicken and lamb are roasted on spits and roaring fires, as well as local fish of every description. Mango juice in huge vats selling for just one Ringit a glass (around 20p). Local people dining everywhere seated at plastic cloth covered tables for around $2 / person. Or venture a street or two away from the waterfront for slightly more sophisticated restaurants where placing the food order can only be carried out by pointing to a colourful but not readily identifiable photo on a laminated menu and hoping for the best. It’s a somewhat hit and miss affair where you are never quite sure what is going to arrive, but that is all part of the experience!

On the beach in Kota KinabaluJust 10 minutes’ drive by local taxi took us to a virtually deserted public beach of fine sand and perfect waves, with a huge cafe of many stalls at the end. Who knows why it was so empty but we weren’t complaining as we swam in the warmest of water and then feasted like kings for £20. And that was the total cost for 9 of us. It might not have been the Cote d’Azur but we weren’t about to bankrupt ourselves on a round of drinks either!

The next day, we negotiated a local boat for a day trip to the two islands of Sapi and Manukan for snorkeling and beaches. The former was surprisingly crowded, especially with Chinese tourists whose taste in beachwear almost defies description. Full body wetsuits with integrated wide-brimmed hats, this gave a whole new meaning to SPF. The sun loving Europeans must horrify the Chinese – the latter’s quest for maintaining perfect white skin, contrasting with the European obsession with tanning whilst off course the locals just let the sun do its thing on their mahogany skins. The snorkeling was fun if busy, and there was a good variety of fish to be spotted including a few Nemos and Dorys.

Le Meridien Kota KinabaluThere’s a huge range of hotel and hostel accommodation on offer in KK, and we opted to stay in the centre of town at the Meridien. It’s a western hotel, very comfortable and reasonably priced, and a welcome air-conditioned oasis after the intensity and heat of street life.

After three fantastic and busy days in the city, we were ready for a change of scene, and to replace the urban jungle with its natural counterpart. We’d heard all about the Pygmy elephants, the red-nosed Proboscis monkeys and the Sun Bears – now it was time to go and see them for ourselves!

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia

Borneo Experience: Part 2 – Sepilok and the Kinabalu river

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Debbie Marshall

Founder of Silver Travel Advisor

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