Monday, January 25, 2010

Sabah, So Good!

Selemat Petang! Wow - time flies! Already so far behind in the blogging!

I'll try to update you as best I can on how we spent the last few days we had in Sabah, the eastern province of Borneo, Malaysia. I'll save the recent excursion to Miri & Mulu National Park for the next entry.

Our second full day in Borneo was a full day indeed. Because of the wet weather (see previous entry) we decided to for-go a two day hike up Mt. Kinabalu and opted for the less exciting, but convenient day trip offered by most of the tourist operators in the area. The tour took us, a middle-aged Japanese man, and a family from India with two adorable little ones in a groaning minivan up into the Kinabalu mountains (and the clouds) before going into the park's Botanical gardens for an informative introduction to rain forest flora. After which we enjoyed a tasty Malaysian lunch before driving to the Poring Hot Springs for a fantastic walk through the rain forest canopy via a suspended walkway. Then AA, SB and I took a dip in the hot spring tubs. By mid-afternoon the rain had moved into the mountains and we spent most of the 1.5 hour drive home slowly winding along the mountain roads covered by clouds. When we arrived back in the city, we hit up an Italian restaurant across the street from our hostel for some fantastic thin-crust pizza (I'm on a vacation from Korean food, not Canadian, after all).

The next day was the big highlight of our short time in Sabah. We were pick up early by Mini-van and drove 3 hours through the stunning countryside to the tiny town of Tenom, where we got on an old rickety train to get to the launch point for white water rafting on the Padas river! The course boasts level III and IV rapids, but thanks to all the rain the day before, the guides advised us that we would actually be navigating level IV and V rapids instead. In the minivan, the only folks who appeared to be rafting were the three of us and Ronnie, our guide. The other men in the van were simply catching a ride to Beaufort en route. However, when we arrived at the train station in Tenom we were joined by 40 Brunei soldiers on an Adventure Training course (a break from their usual boot camp routine). Needless to say, we were a popular addition to the group. The muddy Padas river was all riled up from the rain and after some brief safety instruction and strapping into our jackets and helmets, we hit the river. It was the most exciting, heart-pounding experience of my life. Our raft capsized once in a really tough section of rapid, only Ronnie managed to stay in the boat. Most of my raft members resurfaced close to raft and scrambled back inside quickly. However me and one of the soldiers found ourselves quickly being swept down river away from the boats, struggling to hang on to our paddles and figure out which direction our boat was in. We followed Ronnie's urgent advice to swim right toward the bank and it wasn't long before we were back in the boat and back in business. We rafted for about an hour and a half before stopping in a (relatively) calm stretch for lunch at a stilt-home of faded clapboard. Toddlers chased puppies and chickens around the grounds while we chowed down on some delicious home-made Malay food. It was exactly the break (and fuel) we needed before we went back out on the river to finish the course. Our second time round, our team seemed to hit our stride, navigating the rapids with more confidence and grace than the first time round. Near the end of the course, the river calmed significantly and we were able to hop into the river for swimming/body rafting. I climbed out of the raft onto the bank thoroughly soaked on rubbery legs and feeling elated.

(I'm sorry, I have to interrupt the narrative here for a moment: Korea has been following me everywhere on this trip! K-pop has just started blaring in this cyber cafe - the group 2NE1 for those of you who know who that is, if you don't just Youtube 'em - which reminds me that I forgot to tell you about the 100 or so Korean tourists who managed to find us on Mamutik island. They were impossible to miss - all wearing matching baby pink polo shirts and big sun-visors and staying far away from the beach. Oh gawd, why? Instead they blared bad Korean music, Noraebonged and played coordinated group clapping/towel waving games on a green space near the public toilets...oh Korea, if you're going to follow me all the way to a beach in frikkin' Malaysia, at least try to enjoy it! We've also met folks from Korea at nearly every stop - though thankfully they are the more adventurous type!)

Anyways, we all made it out of the river alive, feeling fantastic. We had another rocking, rickety train ride to Beaufort I believe and then a shorter ride back to KK. One of the guides of the trip, Angelo, rode with us and AA and I really enjoyed chatting with him about his rafting experiences, and some Sabah environmental and political issues.

Arriving back in KK, we debated about heading out to see some of the nightlife (which would include partying with those Brunei soldiers, a few happened to be staying at the same Hostel as us) or getting up real early to catch the ferry to Brunei. We wound up doing neither. The plan to go to Brunei got kaiboshed when I did a little online research around 1am and found it really difficult to find availability to Mulu National Park in Sarawak, a fly-in only location which we were really looking forward too. We decided it would be better to stay in KK at least one more day and get that part of the trip sorted out, rather than delay booking it and miss the opportunity. So we weighed our options, talked to a few airlines and managed to get some flights but they meant taking a flight to Miri in Sarawalk that night. So we're skipping Brunei this time. To be honest, we were mostly going for the stamps in our passports and since Brunei is quite a bit more expensive than the rest of Borneo, we felt it was better to spend that cash in Sarawak where we would get the most out of it. After all the tickets were bought, it was still only lunch time, so we grabbed some grub and our bathing suits and hopped on a speedboat to Sapi Island, another island part of the same park as Mamutik. This island had much better snorkelling and assortments of fish! I still had the bottle of fish food (re: breadcrumbs) from Mamutik and had blast starting a literal feeding frenzy around me in the bright teal water. (You'll love the video, once I get it posted!) Amanda and I took a short hike through the interior of the island to the other side, where we enjoyed a fantastic view of the sea stretching out to the horizon. Then we headed down to the abandoned beaches of the island accessible by hiking trail, but not by boats. We found several fresh monitor lizard tracks in the sand. And a few hops and scrambles-over-rocks later, we found 3 of those giants slowly lumbering across the sand. Two of them quickly slipped behind some rocks and into the forest (I'm sure they'd heard us coming a mile away), but a slowpoke patiently waited in the sand for us to go by (we had to go waist deep into the water to give him his space, we didn't feel like testing how aggressive monitor lizards are). We caught our speedboat back to the jetty at 5 pm, enjoyed a dinner of delicious Arabic food on the wharf and finally got to watch a spectacular KK sunset, which all our guidebooks had raved about, but we'd seemed to miss every night so far. As the brilliant golds and oranges began to fade into magenta and purple hues we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags and head to the airport.

As our plane lifted off, I felt reluctant to go. I know that Sabah has so much more to offer, so much to see and do that we simply couldn't get to because of time and budget constraints. It's definitely on my list of places to return to. Kota Kinabalu turned out to be a great base-camp for our day-trip excursions and a good introduction to Malaysia, a great place to get our feet wet (Literally and figuratively). At the same time, I was so eager to get to Miri and head on to Mulu National Park - we had seen so little of the Borneo rain forest, soon we would be flying into the heart of it!

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