When We Were There: August 14-September 8, 2009
Places We Visited: Perhentian Islands, Taman Negara, Kuala Lumpur, Sandakan, Sukau, Mount Kinabalu, Kota Kinabalu, Miri
View all of our posts about Malaysia here.
Exchange Rate: $1 = 3.5 Malaysian Ringgit
WHAT WE DID
Almost all of the time we spent on Palau Perhentian was occupied with getting our PADI scuba diving certification from Turtle Bay Divers (950 Ringgit). We did a bit of advanced research on the many dive operators in the area, and we were pleased with our experience at Turtle Bay. Our instructor was very thorough, really making sure we understood and were able to do all necessary skills, and she was also fun and nice. The class is a bit intense, as it’s compressed into three days, but we get lots of practice time, and it’s very cool learning to dive in somewhere that is also so insanely gorgeous. As part of our class, we get one free open dive after certification, which is very cool. The reefs here are very nice, with lots of coral as well as fish both big and small, turtles, eels, sharks, and other cool underwater life.
We go to this jungle with the hopes of spotting wildlife but see absolutely nothing but leeches and a handful of birds. We do a 12km hike to an overnight hut that takes us an astonishing seven hours. We’re good hikers, so this is just insane, but the hiking is constant up and down, the terrain is dense, root covered, and very, very muddy, and it’s beyond humid. Plus we have to be on the guard for leeches, two of which manage to attach themselves to Theresa, despite the fact that she’s wearing long sleeves shirt, pants, and socks all of which are tucked into each other. We overnight in a hut (10 Ringgit) that is beyond basic. It’s got wooden bunks (no mattresses or padding) and that’s it. It pours rain all night, so we don’t even get a chance to look for the tapirs and other animals said to visit. We say no way to hiking back and take a boat instead. In my opinion, not worth the trip.
We use this bustling and cosmopolitan city to handle some logistics. We spend a few days here securing our Indian visas, and in the process we visit Chinatown and Little India. We visit Petronas Tower and enjoy the view from the Skybridge, tour the historic center, and pass a few hours in the air conditioned interior of the fancy-schmancy shops all over KL.
Our primary purpose in visiting Sandakan is to go to the Orangutan Center in nearby Sepilok. The center has two feedings, when many of the orangutans make an appearance, so we go early to catch the morning one and then stay through the afternoon to catch the second one. IN between we take a hike on the Birder’s Trail, though we see nothing but a turtle and a lizard.
We decide to give the jungle another chance and visit Sukau, where we arrange to do two boat cruises (80 Ringgit for boat, up to 6 people), one in the late afternoon and one in the evening. We find this to be a much better option than the hiking in Taman Negara, and we spot macaques, probiscus monkeys, lots of birds, and a group of rare pygmy elephants.
We had hoped to summit Mount Kinabalu, but because we visited Borneo during what was both local and European holidays, we found that no permits were available. (Plus, it’s extraordinarly expensive at about $250 per person). We do put our names on the cancellation list, but nothing comes up, so instead we do a hike around the base of the mountain. We’re hoping to see some rafflesia, huge 3-foot smelly plants, but none are in bloom. We do see some birds and a snake.
Though Malaysian Borneo’s main city, Kota Kinabalu doesn’t have a lot going on. There’s some malls and all the fast food you can want, but not a lot culturally. We do find some of the best mangoes of our trip in the market. Our major activity is taking a boat (13 Ringgit each) to some offshore islands where we do a bit of snorkeling. There are some nice colorful fish to watch as well as some cool sea stars and sea slugs.
In the Borneo state of Sarawak, Miri has even less to offer than Kota Kinabalu. It’s a very functional city that’s not very attractive either. We use it as a base to visit the Niah Caves (10 Ringgit), where we hike to the Great Cave, which is sort of neat, but also smells absolutely awful thanks to all the swiftlings that live in it (and that make nests from saliva, which people collect to sell as a delicacy for as much as $1,000/kilo). We navigate through the Great Cave and continue to the Painted Cave, then after watching bats exit the Great Cave at dusk, we hike back. We also visit Lambir Hills (10 Ringgit), where we did another humid and leech-infested hike (why do we never learn), though at least this one did boast some pretty waterfalls and a few pitcher plants.
WHERE WE STAYED
Bintang View (Perhentian Islands): Finding somewhere to stay on Palau Perhentian during the high season is awful. Because boat loads of people (literally) arrive every day, nowhere takes reservations, certain that they can fill their rooms without them. There are also not nearly enough rooms for the number of visitors, so if you’re not on the first boat (and even sometimes then), you’re out of luck. Our first night, we ended up sleeping at the dive shop on a spare bed they had. Because it was located right next to a club, we got no sleep. The second night, we found two dorm beds. We were also able to find a place that knew someone was leaving the next night, and they let us reserve that room for then. A rather nice option, Bintang View offered individual cabanas that were basic but clean and cozy. The shared bathrooms were clean, and the restaurant was very good. I’d definitely go for a room here again, especially after hearing some nightmare stories about other places. 60 Ringgit for a cabana with double bed and shared bathroom.
Aki Chalets (Taman Negara): Again, finding accommodations is difficult, but because we opted for the local bus which beat the tourist boat, we were able to snag a place at Aki Chalets, which was actually quite comfortable. It has a large bed, little porch, and a private bathroom. It’s also clean, which some of the places decidedly are not, and the staff is friendly.
D’Oriental (Kuala Lumpur): Right in Chinatown, the D’Oriental is a mid-range style hotel with clean rooms and private bathrooms. Despite being set amid the bustle of the market, it’s not noisy, and at just a bit more than the crowded and basic hostel we checked out, it’s worth the price. 85 Ringgit for a double room with private bathroom.
Hotel London (Sandakan): A typical budget hotel for this part of the world, Hotel London was clean and convenient. 55 Ringgit for a double room with private bathroom.
Sukau B&B (Sukau): Our jungle lodge, Sukau B&B had a very basic rooms arranged around an open common area. The shared bathrooms were fine but also rather basic. The staff was friendly, and the price was right. 40 Ringgit for a double room with shared bathroom.
Mount Kinabalu: Lodging in Mt. Kinabalu Park is insanely overpriced, and the nearby places are not cheap either. We walk down the street a bit and find one of few available rooms. It’s clean and spacious, and the best deal we’ve found though still pricey, so we take it. 100 Ringgit for a double room with private bathroom.
North Borneo Cabins (Kota Kinabalu): We weren’t really impressed with the options in Kota Kinabalu, despite checking out a variety of properties, so we ended up at the first place we looked, which turns out to be just fine. This hostel is friendly and the rooms are clean and comfortable. The shared bathrooms and showers can get busy, but not too badly. 60 Ringgit for a double room with shared bathroom, breakfast, and wi-fi.
Palace Inn (Miri): There aren’t really any backpacker digs in Miri, so we get a place at the Palace Inn, which is sort of a low-end business hotel. The rooms is fine, but like the city, lacks any sort of personality. 75 Ringgit for a double room with private bathroom.
Hostel at Niah Caves: Though very simple, the private room we get at the hostel at Niah Caves is completely sufficient and even has a private bathroom. At 42 Ringgit, it can’t be beat.
Places We Ate
While in Malaysia, we ate a whole lot of fried rice and fried noodles, much of which was bought from street vendors or small local joints. We also enjoyed a lot of roti canaii, which is basically bread with a curry sauce.
Perhentian Islands: Avoid the restaurants directly on the beach, which are both slow and have terrible food. We did have a good seafood dinner at one place just up off the beach, though I can’t recall the name (it was part of a popular hotel). You can choose from a variety of seafood, which they grill to order and serve with potatoes and veggies. The place right next door to Turtle Bay had pretty good sandwiches and roti canaii for a quick lunch. The best food we had was at Bentang View, our hotel.
Zakariah III (Sandakan): Serving your standard Malaysian options, the Zakariah III kept us full without costing us much.
Little Italy (Kota Kinabalu): Though a bit pricey, the Italian food here is really good, plus it was a very, very nice change from mee goreng and nasi goreng (fried rice and noodles). We had chicken ravioli with a pesto sauce, spinach ravioli with a four cheese sauce, and a pizza, all of which were very good.
Bavaria (Miri): This German spot was rather tasty, and they had very good fresh salads, which are a bit of a treat when you’re traveling.
*For whatever reason, we expected Borneo to be much more exotic that it was. It is, in fact, rather developed and touristed. That’s not necessarily a bad things, it’s just not what we were expecting.
*Check the timing of any trip to Borneo. We happened to be there during both Ramadan and European holidays, which turned out to be a double whammy that precluded us from doing some of the things that we hoped to do. All dive permits at Sipadan as well as all permits for climbing Mt. Kinabalu were taken, and all accommodation options anywhere near Gulu Mulung were fully booked.
*On the other hand, don’t let Ramadan alone keep you from visiting. Malaysia has such a diverse population with big Chinese and Indian contingencies, so there are always plenty of restaurants open, even with a majority of the population fasting.