Saturday, March 10, 2012

Day 141 - 143: Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

Taking only our 2nd internal flight since our trip began, we left KL behind and took a trip with Air Asia to Borneo in the morning. Things got off to a great start after arriving in Kota Kinabalu; we were waiting outside for a bus which may or may not have arrived (they were apparently infrequent at best) when a Malaysian guy who had just dropped off two female friends asked us if we wanted a lift into KK centre. Remembering the proverb about gift horses, and not wishing to perform any equine dentistry, we kindly took him up on the offer. His name was Farok, and he worked in KL for the Navy. He was familiar with KK and had a fair grasp of English, enough for him to take us in his car around the area, pointing out the sights. Shortly before he located our guesthouse, he took a good 20 pictures of the three of us on his camera phone so he had a record of helping out some foreigners. This was promptly posted to Facebook with the caption "My passenger from England. Brooke, and his lovely wife." I fear there may have been a slight communication issue regarding names and marital statuses, but at least the thought was there.

Lavender Lodge was lovely. Nora and Daniel run a tight ship and we were given a large room with a double and single bed. The extra singles are usually treated as much needed luggage space, and this was gratefully received. Breakfast was included, and after some scouting around the town we found that it was pretty much the best place you could stay in terms of bang for your buck so decided to camp out there until we moved to our next destination.

Kota Kinabalu appears to be a city that is in the middle of rapid expansion. Lots of modern shops and malls have sprung up, and it is the gateway to places like Sepilok and Semporna, both of which are often on the traveller's "to visit" list in Borneo - we were no exception. In its own right though, there's not really that much going on in the city itself.

Continuing the weather theme we’ve experienced in Malaysia, we arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm. Protected by waterproofs (something I’m very glad we decided to bring when we started travelling), we were able to capture some of the interesting light that the storm provided – all of these pictures were taken on standard settings, which shows how much of an effect the weather had.






It had been a pretty long day so we ate at a nearby food market before hitting the sack.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and went out in search of the Kota Kinavbalu museum. It is actually a complex housing a number of different buildings, including an art gallery, a science department and a “Heritage Village”. We started with the museum proper, which had a train outside. We took the obligatory “Gilly in front of a train” shot for Gilly’s dad, who is a train enthusiast:


The museum wasn’t that interesting, although it had one of the best taxidermy sections I’ve seen in a similar building. I did get to play a nose flute though:


Moving on, we wandered through the science section which was pretty dismal and consisted of a few stands (all in Malay) discussing the planets, which we’d had a much better overview of in KL’s Planetarium, and a couple of “interactive” tools explaining how motion pictures and drills work. The other parts of the science department were inexplicably closed. The art gallery upstairs was next, and was actually fairly decent.

As we were feeling peckish at this point, we grabbed lunch from the cafĂ© before taking a walk around the grounds. We came across a random tropical house which didn’t look to have anything in it of note other than plants and a water feature. Perhaps it used to be a butterfly sanctuary; either way, it was pleasant enough.


After a stroll around the confusing paths of the complex – KL’s influence is clearly visible here – we finally arrived at the Heritage Village. This is essentially a series of replica huts and houses from different cultures. They were situated on decent enough grounds, but the information on each was fairly minimal and after the third similar-looking hut, they all started to blur into one.







We’d spent a good 6 hours in the complex so walked back to the guesthouse (in the pouring rain, no less). This was made slightly less miserable by buying ice creams and, vitally, an umbrella from the ubiquitous 7Eleven. Since Borneo appears to be Rainsville, we considered it a worthy investment.

We ate at Bella Italia that evening – no relation to the UK chain – and shared some pizza and pasta, a welcome relief to the noodle and rice overdose we’d had during the last few days. This was topped by a visit to Butterfly Bakery to stock up on some tasty cakes.

There was apparently another art gallery in KK somewhere, so we set out to find it. After a good hour and a half we located Borneo Art Gallery, which turned out to be a small shop in a huge shopping lot. It was truly not worth the effort, but it killed a morning. We went back to the centre to do a bit of shopping and also book in some diving for Sipadan. After a number of recommendations from various travelers and divers telling us that we must dive in Sipadan, Gilly had been researching likely resorts and had found a converted oil rig situated in the Sipadan/Mabul/Kapalai triangle, which had its own reef underneath. The place was called SaeventuresKK office to get it booked in and they actually offered us the walk-in rate which was considerably cheaper than their online price.

With 4 days and 3 nights booked in, we moved on to Wismah Sabah, the shopping centre next door. This had possibly the best information counter I’ve seen in a mall. We’d gone in to ask them if they knew where “Borneo Books” was – Lonely Planet’s map was typically unhelpful. “Yes,” said the counter assistant. “It’s just behind you, at the end.” Great. No books there that we fancied, but we had some other requests so headed back. Next on the list, socks. “Ah, you want SoxWorld. First floor.” SoxWorld, seriously? Yes, there was a shop dedicated to socks. We stocked up ahead of our feet-chafing diving trip. Superb. Final request: I needed some swimming shorts. This was a real test, as I’d been unable to find any shorts that fit me for the last 2.5 months in SE Asia. Since travelling, I’d somehow managed to drop a stone and a half and two waist sizes – at least by Asian standards – and consequently I only had one pair of swimming shorts that fit me. The other was an emergency pair which had to be secured by two large safety pins every time I wanted to use them, to stop them falling down. Replacements were critical. Again, she came through for me. “Tong’s Department Store. First floor.” She didn’t disappoint, and I finally found a pair of shorts that fit. As I said, best information counter, ever.

Shopping trip over, we returned to Lavender Lodge to await pick up for our evening activity: a trip to the Mari-Mari Village. This was a fun, if very touristy diversion for three hours or so. On arrival you are led through 5 different tribal huts/longhouses where different activities are taking place and our guide, Felix, provided information on the tribes. For instance, the Dusun tribe is the largest of the Sabah tribes and specialised in making rice wine. Three generations of family would often live in the same house. Felix also told us that they believe that when making the wine you need to be happy, otherwise if you are in a bad mood the wine would taste sour. We tasted some, and it was strong but good - similar to the rice wine I had when I was back in 'Nam (I've been waiting weeks to write that). They make it from pounded rice, and mix it with sugar and tobacco juice to make the yeast.


At the next house, they showed us how to make a meal by putting ingredients in a bamboo cane, and then heating it over a fire. First, the inside of the cane is lined with a banana leaf to stop the food from burning and sticking, and then the ingredients are put in. We had onion, ginger, pepper, chilli, salt, sugar, bay leaf, potato, lemongrass and chicken.


You shove it all in there, then heat it up on the fire. Gilly bravely let me make a concoction for us to eat at dinner later.



Some of the longhouses had multiple rooms where whole families would take a room each. Inside, there would be a living area, a kitchen and a dining space...all in the one small room.  Women and children would sleep in the family room, but the menfolk would have to sleep out in the longhouse corridor. Equal rights, pah.


In the Rungus longhouse we were shown how to light fires using only bits of bamboo and wood. Very Baden-Powell. We didn't actually get to try it, sadly, but the "tribesman" demonstrating it was also having issues as the bamboo was pretty wet. He managed to get a spark from some bamboo shavings and generate a lot of smoke though:


In the Bajau tribe house we got to see how bamboo was used to weave clothes, and how they made thread from the bamboo bark by simply rolling them together on their thighs. Impressive stuff.

Outside, there was a grassy hill in the shape of a crocodile. I'm not sure why.


We moved on to the Bisaya tribe who made Kuih Jala, a dessert which is basically a very basic cookie made from rice flour, water and sugar which is all fried together. Gilly approved.


After more practice shooting blowpipes (we didn't improve much on the first time we tried), we moved on to a Lansaran hut. Lansaran is basically a wooden trampoline, set into the floor of a longhouse. The idea is that the tribesman would bounce it up and down until there is enough power to throw a person into the air high enough to grab a prize from something tied above the lansaran. This may be coins, sweets, or other gifts. You need to be able to land correctly, as obviously the wooden floor will have far less give than a normal trampoline...


I had a go and got pretty high, but not as high as the guys who had obviously had plenty of practice. We were then given henna tattoos, you know, because it's tribal:



Then it was time for some traditional dancing, followed by the opportunity for the audience to take part in one of the dances, where a person either side of you crouches and holds two blocks of wood which you then need to step between and out before they bring the two blocks together. It's a pretty dangerous feat; obviously they slowed it down for us mere mortals, but one of the gang was doing it a simply ridiculous speed.  I have a feeling his feet were not actually corporeal, and were simply passing through the wood. That's the most likely explanation.



Group picture time - tribesmen don't smile, as it is considered threatening. A bit like with apes, I guess.


None of the "tribe" people we encountered in the village were actual tribe people, though. They were all actors, mostly from Kota Kinabalu who dressed up and performed every day. It didn't lessen the experience at all, it was a fun evening and ended with a decent meal including my bamboo-cooked chicken thing which tasted pretty good all told, and didn't give either of us food poisoning.


The following day, we took a bus up to Kinabalu Park. We had briefly considered climbing Mount Kinabalu through one of the organised companies out there, but we simply didn't have the proper clothing or the inclination to do so, and so we settled for taking a trek around the base on one of the many trails in the area. The mountain is the tallest in SE Asia, and looked cold:



We took the Kiau View Trail from the park headquarters; it took us about an hour and a half to walk around it, and we enjoyed the cooler weather again. It was an easier trail than the one we took in the Cameron Highlands, and obviously it rained whilst we were walking, because it's Borneo. Nevertheless, we hiked the 2.5km hill, went back down again, and I found a big stick in between so I could practice my Gandalf impression.



After lunch, we got back to KK and spent the rest of the day doing very little other than reading and catching up with blogs. We'd enjoyed Borneo so far; we had decided to go to Sabah rather than Sarawak for a few reasons. Firstly, Sabah was closer to the Philippines. Secondly, Sipadan was in Sabah, and we were very keen to put our new dive qualifications into practice. Thirdly, there was an orangutan sanctuary there which was supposed to be decent (we later found out that there was also one in Sarawak...hey ho). We had decided to take a flight to Tawau early the next morning rather than the bus as it was pretty cheap and saved a lot of time. Our ultimate destination was going to be Semporna, and from there Sipadan. Shame about the 7am start though...

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