Southeast Asia Island kingdoms

Mount Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu is a very small town on the northern, Malaysian, point of Borneo. Our hostel is really dingy, fortunately we’re only staying the night before heading up the nearby Mount Kinabalu (4096.2 m high). Our guide is a cheerful little guy called Fazely and it actually seems like we’ll have fantastic weather, just like we did in Brunei.Beautiful, isn't it? The trail up to the hostel where we’ll spend the night before going up to the top to see the sunrise is 6 km long and it’s up, up, up all the way. The lower parts are very lush and there’s lots to look at, not at all like mount Fuji which only has volcanic sand wherever you look. Keep a lookout for pitcher plants which are numerous along the path, an especially big one is at around the 4.5 km marker.

The path is very well maintained with lots of stairs and good railings. Looking at the trail map I figured that we probably needn’t stop at all the rest stops on the way up. Boy was I wrong…Still smiling You are more or less exhausted every time you reach a stop and grateful for the pause. We stop for our pack lunch at two thirds up and the squirrels have a field day with our fruit peels. Reaching the hostel takes us about 6.5 h (normal time is apparently 5-6 hours…) and we’re greeted with an awesome dinner; tons to choose from and very prepared! There’s a balcony to sit at that has a stupendous view, but it’s already packed of course. The rooms are okay as well, but the bathroom only has cold water (not that surprising, considering we’re more than 3200 m over sea level). We turn in early since we’re due to start climbing the remaining 2.7 km again at 2:30 am.

It’s a bit nippy now, but since my ascent of mount Fuji I’ve learned my lesson and am appropriately dressed. Since it’s pitch dark we all have headlamps now and you have to watch your step as it’s pretty slippery at places.Reflection It starts out as yesterday with more stairs, but after a while we go above the treeline and it gets a bit steep. There are ropes to hold on to though, but since you can’t see much it’s a bit scary since you can’t see how steep it is. The final one and a half kilometer levels out a bit but since you are pretty tired it’s still tough going, Jen also feels rather queasy since she had too much breakfast and we have to stop a lot for her to almost throw up. As you approach the peak it’s pretty steep again, but since you’re pretty psyched for it to be over at this point it’s not very bad. We find a nice spot and sit down and wait for the sunrise. We’ve timed it pretty well and don’t have to wait long. After the obligatory top photo with the sign we begin our descent.

MountaineersGoing down from the top you realize just how gorgeous a mountain this is! It actually has a whole bunch of pinnacles, all at around 4000 meters and walking over the top plateau you see most of them in all their glory. I’m sorry Fuji-san, but mount Kinabalu has you beat on every count. The walk down is very pleasant and certainly worth all that effort going up. Back down at the hostel we get a second, equally good, breakfast before grabbing our stuff to go down the remaining 6 kilometers. Back in Kota Kinabalu we’re recommended to go down to the fish market for dinner, it’s very authentic and we get some very nice, fresh, squid and some grilled fish.

We wake up with predictably terrible DOMS and hobble around for some final sight-seeing of the town (there really isn’t much to see here). I do get my hands on a jersey for the local football team Sabah FC, which is pretty neat. That’s about all we have time for though, before having to catch the flight down to Bali, Indonesia.

Southeast Asia Island kingdoms

Brunei bug hunting

It’s time to go back to Kuala Lumpur and even though I’ve only given Singapore a couple of days, it feels like enough. While I wouldn’t mind going for one of the other walking tours about the second world war, I won’t miss it terribly either.Petronas Towers Being a bit stupid in not understanding that there are a whole bunch of bus companies in the same building I end up booking at the first one I walk by and getting a luxury ticket as well. It turns out that my luxury ride is this tired old Scania bus, that while probably state of the art back when it was built (approximately some time in the 80ies), is now only worn down and dingy. It also comes with a hostess that serves the most vile microwaved meal and brings us watered down coffee.

The lady who sold me the ticket told me that I would be dropped off at the bus firm’s office in downtown Kuala Lumpur and that I would be able to store my luggage there. Though when the time comes I’m shoved off next to a parking lot, with not an office in sight. Fuckers… That means that I have to first lug all my stuff, first to a metro station, then go back to the main bus station (where I would’ve been dropped off if I’d gone with a different bus company), stash my luggage in a locker and go back to downtown, a process that takes me almost two hours. Oh well, no use moping about that. I go to the most natural tourist spot in Kuala Lumpur – Petronas Towers, only to find out that today’s tickets to the bridge between the towers are sold out. Apparently they have 900-something tickets a day, divided into a few slots. And since the last slots are probably the most popular as that’s when it gets dark and you get to see the city lights, they are probably the first to go. The moral of all this is to get there early and be prepared to take an early slot if you want any tickets at all.

Burrowing spiderI take to wandering the area in hopes of finding anything interesting and am annoyed to find that not only is it thoroughly boring, but also appallingly pedestrian-hostile. I try going a few stations down the metro to see if it’s any better, but alas, it seems like Kuala Lumpur is even worse than Singapore. There really isn’t much to like, at least not on first impressions. I guess I’ll have to do some reasearch if I’m going back some day. The day is turning into evening though and it’s time to go to the airport and meet the girls. The weird thing is that when I finally make it there I can’t find the flight listed on the monitors. I double-check the flight and it’s the correct one so I figure it’s some sort of mistake. But doubt gnaws away at me and finally find an information booth where the lady tells me that yes, that is the correct flight, but it doesn’t land at this terminal, it lands at this entirely separate terminal, where all the low-cost carriers land.Creepy crawly Fortunately I have just enough time to catch a cab to go over there – which turns out to be over twenty minutes away at break-neck speed.

I meet up with the girls, only to find out that Jourdan’s (Jen’s roommate) boyfriend has arrived on the other terminal and that none of their mobile phones work outside China (seriously, China Mobile has no roaming agreements?). Fortunately my phone still works and I’m able to send Alex an SMS so that he can take a cab in the same manner as I did. Finally the gang is assembled and we can sit down and await the morning flight to Brunei (actually pronounced Brunai, look it up!)

The tour company isn’t picking us up until 13:30, so we have some time to kill at the airport. Problem is that there is exactly nothing to do at Brunei airport. There is one store where we can buy a snack and suddenly it’s closed for no apparent reason. The actual pickup spot doesn’t exist either, so for a while we’re both annoyed and confused. To make matters worse, there is absolutely no one around to actually ask. We later learn that since we have arrived on a Friday, and Brunei is a Muslim country, everything closes from 12-14 to allow people to go to the mosque.

Canopy walkWe do eventually get picked up and driven 10 minutes into town and a little dock. There we hop on a speedboat, and like the boat sequences in Spy Hunter (the C64 game) we proceed at dizzying speed upriver. There we meet Tom, our guide for this part of the trip and board a minivan, taking us to the next river, the ride is uneventful but there is one funny detail when Tom complains about the ridiculously high gas prices they’ve had lately; 54 Brunei cents per liter (which is 2.77 sek, whereas in Sweden it’s more than five times that; currently 14.53 sek per liter…). Arriving at the river, we pack our stuff into a longboat and begin the last leg. With great skill our driver/captain navigates the shallow river in the unwieldy longboat until we finally arrive at our destination: the Ulu Ulu resort!

RainforestThe resort is a former research facility and is actually huge, it feels even moreso seeing as we are the only guests today. The rooms are great and we’re given an hour or so to settle in before dinner and the following night walk. The night walk is really fun, we walk along a little stream and Tom points out critters as he sees them. The coolest thing we see is a burrowing spider, not that large but with appropriately hairy legs. We also see frogs, a couple of stick insects and a lizard. We trace the stream all the way up to a waterfall where we turn off our lights to see a patch of flourescent mushrooms growing on a branch.

We get an early night as we’re due for a canopy walk at sunrise. So at 4:30 Tom wakes us up and we go a bit upstream, walk uphill for a bit before reaching a large scaffolding structure they’ve built. Up top we’re 40 m above ground and basically level with the tree tops. The morning mist forms big clouds which are neat to look down upon, but there isn’t many animals moving about as we’d hoped. We do end up seeing a very pretty hornbill perched on a branch though, so we’re happy. On the way down the hill we also see some really huge ants, like an inch long! I really need to get a proper camera and a macro lens…

Going backIn the afternoon we get to do some kayakaing, although it is those tragic tourist kayaks where you sit up top. Afterwards we get to do some tubing, that’s when you sit in a tractor tyre inner tube and just get washed downstream. It’s a bit fun, but the best part is afterwards when we go back up to the same waterfall from the previous night and swim around for a bit, letting the fish who live there nibble at us. We head back for some lunch before it’s time to go back to town again. Tom tells us that the level of the river has dropped about 30 cm since yesterday, which is kind of mind-boggling. Usually in the dry season (which is now) they have to get out and push the boat at times.

The Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah MosqueTom tags along back to the city and we ask him how to get to the various sights in town since we have a couple of hours to spare. He promptly offers to give us a tour of the two main mosques, which is awfully nice and not at all part of what we paid for! They are closed for prayer time though so we only get to see the outside of them, which is still pretty grand. Back at the airport we try to stash our luggage so that we can go eat downtown before our flight (airport is right in the middle of town), but just like last time, it seems like no one is actually working at this airport… So we resign and try to check our luggage instead, but there is no one working at the check in counters either! Only when we walk out to the gates we finally find the check in area (no signs anywhere). Sheesh, get your shit together Brunei!

Southeast Asia Island kingdoms


Arriving at Kuala Lumpur airport is really pleasant, and after chuckling at the awesomely named Nööödles restaurant I find out that all the budget taxis are booked, so I decide to try my luck at the bus instead. It costs only 10 ringgit (around 20 sek) but first of all takes like 40 minutes before it even leaves, presumably because the want to fill it up.image Delirious with sleep deprivation I desperately try to stay awake on the way into town. They drop us off God knows where and I start for a taxi, but the guy tells me it’s just a ten minute walk down the road. Always a good sign when the first person you meet is not trying to scam you! =)

It turns out that we have wildly different opinions on how far you get in ten minutes of walking though; when I, five or six blocks down the road start looking for the road, I can’t really find it. There are lots of helpful people with decent English to ask though, and after about 40 minutes of running around in circles with my ˜30 kg pack I finally find the place. Turns out that the road I was looking for was like two blocks from the bus, or about three minutes of walking…

Well, at least the hostel is excellent! Very nice beds with a little privacy booth up by your pillow and excellent WiFi. They also have a nice common room where you can sit down, have a beer and swap stories with all the other backpackers. The place is called the Back Home Hostel, and I can heartily recommend it!image I pop out to the nearby Chinatown for a bite to eat before bed and find a very nice Indian restaurant where you can watch the guy making the Naan bread in the kiln right outside. Two mango lassis and some lamb stew later I look around Chinatown for a bit, but since it’s around ten in the evening now, most places are closing up. It’s mostly counterfeit sneakers, bags and shirts though. Not particularly interesting stuff. I like the mood of the place though, the salesmen aren’t very pushy and you can actually browse without getting jumped immediately. There are also a bunch of really fun street food places which always makes for good pictures.

I have three days alone before Jen, her roommate Jourdan and Jourdan’s boyfriend Alex joins me and since Jen hasn’t been to Kuala Lumpur I opt for heading down to Singapore, which is only a 5 h bus ride away and which Jen has already been to. The plan is to spend two days there and then head back up to Kuala Lumpur for the last day and then meet up with the others at the airport in the evening. The ride costs like 80 sek and the seats are luxurious, albeit old. Immigration and customs are not very onerous but a funny detail is the x-ray guy who asks if I’m a diver based only off of what he sees on the x-ray (probably my BCD, dive light and camera housing). He even recommends some dive spots in the area.

Having forgotten to cache the google map for Singapore I have to ask my way around, but no one seems to know where the hostel is. After a good while I find a cab though, and it turns out to be pretty far actually. The hostel I booked here isn’t nearly as nice as the one in Kuala Lumpur but not bad either. On Jen’s recommendation I get tickets for the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo. The shuttle ride over there is positively frigid since they’re blasting the AC at top capacity, as per usual in southeast Asia… My right arm is entirely numb and I’m shivering as we are finally let off at our destination.

The safari consists of you riding a train of electric carts and a guide narrating what animals you’re passing. She has to spend most of her time telling people to shut off their flashes though. It’s pretty cool though because the animals are all calmly grazing right next to the train and not at all bothered by our presence. We get to see flamingoes, various antelopes and even lions, all surprisingly active, much moreso than any animals I’ve seen in a daytime zoo actually.

About halfway you can hop off and walk a few trails. Here you can see the fishing sibet cats, flying squirrels, slow loris (always adorable) to name a few. My favourites though are the otters and the porcupines. Both running around, chasing each other, playing and in the case of the porcupines, showing off their awesome spikes. Another favorite is the fruit bats, now if you haven’t seen fruit bats before, imagine something like a house cat with bat wings and you’re pretty close. They’re even called “flying dogs” in Swedish. So you enter this cage and the bats are pretty much just hanging out, eating fruit. I stand there and watch one munching away at arms length when it suddenly decides fly over to the other end and I can even feel the flapping of its wings as it passes over me!

Hopping back onto the train we see giraffes, hyenas, tapirs and other African savannah-dwelling critters before coming full circle. Since I lingered on the walking paths a bit I’ve missed the show where they play around with some of the animals. And since those are the only other things you can do I decide to head back to the shuttle bus. image I only have a vague idea of which of the stops are close to my hostel so I just decide to get off at one that sounds nice; Little India. It actually is nice, and I manage to get some dinner, even though it’s almost eleven o’clock at night. The temperature is a nice 25 degrees and I decide to walk all the way back, having cached the map this time and using the GPS on the tablet it’s impossible to get lost. It’s not a very pedestrian friendly city though with super wide streets and barely enough time to get across the road in the allotted time at the crosswalks. It never feels unsafe as there are plenty of other people my age out walking as well. All in all it takes about an hour to get back and by now I’ve gotten some feel for the layout of central Singapore.

The following morning the plan is to join a walking tour, but since I have to get some additional money first I plan a screwup margin. It’s lucky I did since all the ATMs are telling me I can’t have any money. Finally I figure out the cause: My ICA Mastercard has this feature where you have to explicitly have to unlock certain parts of the world before being able to get money at an ATM. The trick is to remember doing this in advance since the ATM will only tell you that something went wrong. In the end I did have enough time to sort out the money and still get to the tour in time, so hooray for planning!

The tour takes place in Little India and we get to learn about the flower garlands, pan and other typical Indian customs. We stop at a temple, a spice shop, a sari shop, a sweet shop, the market and a small museum. It’s a pretty good tour, even though I didn’t learn much new on account of already having been to India. Final stop is a henna painter place and I get to be the model, getting a nice dragon painted on the back of my hand.image I continue my Indian streak by having lunch at a vegetarian place together with  a nice girl from the tour. The rest of the afternoon is spent walking around, just looking at things. I pass through Chinatown, littered with old men and women who wants to do your horoscope or tell you what kind of person you are based on your feet. Not really my cup of tea I move on to the more modern parts of the city. I’m not really sold on Singapore as a city, it’s too sterile and car centered. If you want to walk around without constantly having to watch out for cars you have to go into a mall, and then you instead run the risk of hypothermia since they’re always running the AC at full blast.

Towards the evening I try to find a good spot for getting a picture of the skyline and I eventually find one down by the marina square. I’m kind of disappointed at Singapore as a whole at this point and decide to head back to the hostel for an early night. Turns out I picked the best route possible! As I go down to the underpass at Esplanade drive I hear music playing, it’s a bunch of teenagers practising their breakdance moves. Many of them are pretty good and I stay and watch for a good while. There’s also an adorable kid at about four years old mimicking their moves while the amused and proud father is watching. Resurfacing at Connaught Drive I see more kids, these guys are practising Cricket, with two batters at the end of a cage and two teams of bowlers throwing balls at them. This too is a lot of fun to watch and I stay a while here as well. This entire area is covered with different sports fields and I also pass football players and two female teams facing off in what can be described as a mix between Ultimate Frisbee and Basketball, haven’t seen that before. The last stretch I walk down along the southern bank of the Singapore river which is teeming with life; joggers, strollers and even a couple of parkour guys. It’s a really nice way to wrap up my day.