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We got a later arrival into Malaysia than we had planned. Frantically rushing to the airport in Johor Bahru so as not to miss our flight, we came to find out that our flight to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo had been delayed 5 hours. Hurry up and wait. We didn’t end up making it to our hostel in Kota Kinabalu, The Lavender Lodge (clean, friendly, but kind of in a bad neighborhood) until 1am. Not the best timing when you’re trying to run in a half marathon the next day. Shunning sleep I decided that it would be easier to simply stay up and catch the 3:30am shuttle to the start of the Borneo International Marathon, of which I was entered in the half-marathon division. Poor Heather was simply too tired and had to forgo the event, which was a real bummer since it’s always more fun when you have someone to share it with. Even on no sleep I managed to come in 21st out of 480 entrants with a time of 1:34, and along the course of the run was treated to a sunrise welcome to the town of Kota Kinabalu. (full results of race here)
Per the town of Kota Kinabalu I have mixed feelings. The capital town of the state of Sabah, the city swells daily with over 250,00 residents. While the waterfront is spectacularly set against the western facing horizon, and the local fruit and clothing markets teem with excitement and local fervor, the city itself has a dank, ghetto aspect to it and is definitely not a place to find yourself walking alone at night. Even my mountain guide on Kinabalu said he wouldn’t walk alone there after 9pm. While the city definitely has it’s charm, I would not rank it among one my favorite cities in Asia.
That being said, spending a day perusing the local Sunday markets was definitely a highlight. At one outdoor thrift market, heaps of second hand clothing that is shipped in from Taiwan and Australia is divied up by local workers and hung on racks in varying sizes and styles. A massive outdoor Salvation Army, nearly any clothing item one could ever need can be found on those outdoor budget racks (Market is open every Sunday). Taking a turn at one of the many downtown fruit markets, we discovered n assortment of all sorts of tropical delicacies from rambutan, to durian, to live snakes waiting to be boiled. Allegedly they’re quite tasty. Thanks, but I’ll stick with the rambutan.
Leaving early the next morning we shared a cab with a nice couple from Finland up to Kinabalu National Park to begin our journey up Mt. Kinabalu, which at just over 13,500 ft. is the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. Needing to hire a mandatory guide, a short, energetic local Malay man named Julius became our mountain companion for the next two days. Having been a guide for over 10 years, poor Julius walks that mountain nearly every single day for the equivalent of $13/day. It would be one thing if the terrain was simple, but climbing Kinabalu is absolutely no easy feat. Gaining over 7,000 vertical feet in under 6 miles, the trail is hellaciously steep. Anyone who makes the climb is guaranteed to be sore after it is all over. Climbers spend the night at Laban Rata guesthouse near 11,000 ft, and while the buffet food and the warm lodging is a welcome treat, climbers cannot expect to get any sort of a good night’s sleep since the creaky wooden floors amplify every move, and most climbers are up at 2am to make the sunrise push for the summit. Add to it a violently snoring roommate and you’re going to be up all night, as we were.
The climb to the summit however, is simply spectacular and worth all of the nonsense. Under the sliver of a fading moon, a thin trail of headlamps wends its way up the steep rock face for a date with the windswept summit. As the air gradually thins and gets colder, the pace of many comes to simply one step after another. The views afforded from the top of Borneo are worth the heaving lungs, though climbers should definitely bring the winter wear, as temperatures with the wind chill dip well below freezing.
After we finally descended off of the mountain we dragged our weary legs onto a 4 hour bus ride to the old colonial town of Sandakan (site of the infamous WWII Sandakan POW Death Marches) in hopes of simply finding a warm shower and bed. What we found instead was a junkyard of a port town and a nasty case of Malaysian food poisoning. Having spent the entire night up in the bathroom, we had to cancel our plans to head out onto the Kinabatangan River for an aquatic river safari in hopes of finding some elusive proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants. It’s probably for the best, however, as many of the tours were out of our price range.
Instead we took an absolutely horrendous 6 hour bus journey from Sandakan to Semporna via Lahad Datu that featured cramming 12 people into an 8 person van, and then driving down a dirt road in the middle of the trip to pick up the driver’s family, adding another 3 people into the van. Note to all Malaysian travelers, minibus transport may be cheap, but you better have had a good night’s sleep becuase you’re going to need some patience. Here’s hoping our spirits lift with the diving and islands off of the coast.