Greg and Nick had never heard of Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu, but I had!

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On the Frequent Miler on the Air podcast last week, Nick talked about a few exotic, off-the-beaten path destinations he’d researched for his 3 Cards, 3 Continents trip which he couldn’t quite work into his plans. Among those “Dream Trips That Got Away” was the Bornean city of Kota Kinabalu, which Nick had never heard of before (as demonstrated by his difficulty in even pronouncing the name.) You can hear him day-dream about the obscure destination in the clip below.

Before you go booking a flight to Kota Kinabalu expecting it to be the perfect one-stop destination for a Bornean adventure, let me tell you what I remember from visiting “KK” in Christmas of 2019, and why it makes a good launching point for going deeper. (Though I officially challenge Nick to talk me into his daydream version of Kota Kinabalu as well!)

Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu may feel far-flung and exotic to Westerners, but it’s also a bustling Malaysian city of half a million people. You’re surrounded by beautiful greenery and a view of the South China Sea, but there are also shopping malls, city parks, museums, and coffee shops (like the “Kenny Rogers Roasters” which I still wish I’d visited), just like any other major city.

While a modern city with lovely sea views and interesting architecture is probably not what Westerners have in mind for a Borneo adventure, it’s not far from the jungle sights they might be looking for.

Mari Mari Cultural Village

For instance, not far outside of the city is the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Unlike some cultural parks which recreate primitive dwellings, food preparations, or dances from the distant past, this cultural village is largely about Bornean tribes which still exist out in the remote forests today. Many of the guides speak about their own tribes (and their own lives growing up in more remote villages) and it’s a great way to learn about a side a Borneo which would otherwise be very difficult to see.

There are different bamboo structures built to resemble the actual dwellings of different tribes, some historical and some more modern. Some have food samples to represent that tribe’s common meal.
The food samples were really good!
One of the structures is built with a net-like trampoline made from reeds and sticks and guides demonstrate how the people in that tribe compete with their jumping.

Seeing Borneo’s Orangutans

Our visit to Borneo was a hurried 4 days and the main focus was attempting to see the Orangutans. We achieved this in two different ways, but both required a short flight Eastward to Sandakan.

Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center

~20 minutes from the Sandakan airport is a nature-resort with two side by side sanctuaries: “Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary” and “Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.” (In Asia “Orangutan” is sometimes spelled “Orang Utan” because it comes from the words “Jungle” and “Man”.)

It’s not quite the same as viewing these creatures in the wild, but it allows a more guaranteed sighting experience. For instance there are several feeding times for both the sun bears and the Orangutans which happen along different raised boardwalks out in the forest.

I can’t exaggerate how cool it was seeing these Orangutans appear out of the jungle. (Nor can I exaggerate how crowded the viewing pier gets at feeding time. It’s a bit like waiting for Old Faithful.)
The sun bear feeding is much less crowded.

Kinabatangan River Safari

Seeing Orangutans in nature is cool…but we also wanted to see them in the wild. This required going even deeper into the forests with a ~2 hour bus ride which was eye-opening in and of itself. From a peak on Google Maps, Malaysian Borneo looks like a sanctuary of green with refreshingly few cities interrupting. But what you don’t realize until you’re on the ground is that much of that greenery may not be forest at all – but palm oil plantations with orderly palms all lined up in unnatural rows. Not the sort of landscape Orangutans can live in.

The Kinabatangan River makes a good spot for viewing Orangutans because it follows along a wildlife reserve and also creates a natural clearing for easy viewing. We had a local friend who joined us and booked a river safari tour through her brother’s travel agency, but I think it would be easy enough for someone to replicate our experience on their own. Ours was similar to the “2 Day, 1 Night” trip described here for example and it included the bus pickup from Sepilok, rustic but comfortable lodging, meals, a morning and evening river outing to spot Orangutans, and a guided night-walk through the jungle.

We saw the rustling movements of Orangutans in the trees on the evening river outing (and a plethora of proboscis monkeys), but the real gem of the trip was our morning outing when the Orangutans actually came out into view in the treetops close to the river bank. They are massive and beautiful creatures and even though photographing them in the wild was much more difficult than it had been at the sanctuary, it was an incomparable experience and 100% worth the work it took to meet them in their own home.

The safari lodging was rustic but comfortable. Think mosquito-nets and limited outlets, not wifi and hair dryers.
The safari boats are very simple, but all you need for Orangutan viewing. Outings were around 60-90 minutes long, if I recall.
Orangutan sighting! I believe our actual visible sighting ocurred on the morning outing.
We also saw silver-leaf monkeys and quite a few of these proboscis monkeys. Luckily, you can’t tell from this photo how truly ugly they are. 😛

Conclusion: Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu is a great launching point to go further.

As I said above, our visit to Borneo was only 4 days, somewhat tagged onto a broader trip. Even so, we managed to fit quite a bit into our 4 days by making sure to head out into the natural forests. While there are so many different reasons people like to travel, I feel like the unique rainforest environment and exotic wildlife is the primary reason to go all the way to Borneo, and you’re not going to see much of that in Kota Kinabalu.

 

 

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Julie. Garrison

I am enjoying Carrie’s posts. I am a long time fan of Drew and Carrie. They helped inspire me to my current nomadic lifestyle, now at 3 years.

dizzy

Same same. I had a lot of adventures in the 2010s, including a year of travel abroad in a sandwich with two thru hikes (in the US) and working a 7 month contract on a cruise ship. You two more than anyone inspired me that it was possible to travel, even without a lot of money. Currently working and stashing but with an eye on future adventures.

Didn’t get over to KK on my travels but spent a couple days in KL before a whole week in George Town, Penang. Fantastic city to relax in especially if you are into history or food.

Sco

I love when Carrie does posts from her travels! More of these please!

I was also shocked that neither Greg or Nick had heard of KK. My impressions were much the same as yours when I was there in 2011. I’d also add hiking Mt Kinabalu as something else to do while there.

WAE

Two more suggestions for Sabah… The Gomantong Caves are a source of bird’s nest soup and home to hundreds of thousands of bats that fly out at night like a black blizzard. Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Borneo [13,435 feet], can be climbed with a guide. Day 1: Hike to the mountain station by around 7:00 p.m. where you can eat and get a bed. Day 2: Get up by 2:00 a.m. to reach the summit for sunrise, and then hike all the way down. Enjoy a break at a beach hotel afterwards.

Sam

Great post! Got me day dreaming. We considered Borneo for our trip that starts next week but ended up with Sumatra, with Orangutans as our prime objective. Definitely want to do some exploring on Borneo in the near future.

MFK

I really hope to visit Borneo one day too, but you won’t be disappointed if you’re going to Bukit Lawang instead. It’s a lovely area and orangutan sightings are plentiful. Don’t skip the float trip back from your trek. It’s a lot of fun!

Thanks for the post, Caroline!

Sam

That where we’re headed. Reassuring that you enjoyed it in Bukit Lawang. Off to Banyak Islands after. Except for a couple cheap LCC flights between close cities, homestay type places & my Amex FHR credit, everything booked on miles & points. 4 countries over 3 weeks for myself, P2 & Teenage P3. Thanks again 🙂

Fathiss

Been there twice. Loved driving a car up that winding mountain.
Been to Mulu once. Prefer Mulu on the island. But either is a great place for exotic adventure on the cheap.

rick b

There’s also Mulu National Park and Kuching a short flight away. Anyone into scuba diving can check out Sipadan. Pretty easy to spend 3+ weeks in that part of Malaysia.

Last edited 12 days ago by rick b
Christian

My wife and I spent a week in KK in May. Unfortunately she was feeling quite poorly so the only real excursion we did was the proboscis monkey (the males are particularly ugly) and firefly tour. Things were just reopening and we were quite literally the only people visiting that day, which was a far cry from early 2020 when there were lots of busloads of tourists on the river. Despite some hiccups I think we’ll go back, particularly with the additional offerings you mention.

Aloha808

Super cool trip, thank you for sharing.

CaveDweller

Thanks ! To Rich they are but Bernie will fix that..
V Bernie

Paul Lobo

I’m actually headed to Sepilok in September! Great timing.

Janine

Same here my husband and and I are going in September too. Should have been September 2020 but hopefully it will happen this time. Planning everything out now as doing it on our own. Booked Turtle Island already and accommodation in Sepilok and a lodge down the river for a night. We are off the KK for a few days before then going to Kuching for 4 nights then spending the last couple of days exploring Kuala Lumpur before heading back home. Just hope we don’t have any more problems with the flights already had numerous flight changes.