Considering that ten years ago Borneo was the only place in the world on my list of places I never wanted to go, I was surprised to find myself back there for a second visit. Spending New Year's Day there put me in Borneo in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Lesson learned: anything is possible.
What brought me back was the promise of friends to travel with. So, for the second time, I ignored the dire warnings in the book Shooting the Boh and flew to the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. This vacation was very different from last year’s trip. I had more than twice as much time and was traveling with friends from Boise. I didn’t take as many pictures and didn’t once make time to write in my journal, but I laughed a lot, enjoyed traveling with my friends and ate some amazing food. It was a fantastic star kind of vacation.
This blog entry will be mostly about the travel logistics for people traveling in Sabah. One thing I found very helpful was buying a local SIM card for my phone. It cost about $10 USD for the card and enough credit to last me the whole two weeks. I never had to buy more credit despite all the calls I made.
My trip started out with a couple days to myself and I took a shuttle from Kota Kinabalu to Tommy’s Place, up at the northern tip of Borneo. There are lots of private cars being used as pirate cabs going between KK and the town of Kudat, so if you can arrange to be picked up in Kudat, you don’t need to pay the 100 or 120 ringgit that official shuttles or taxis charge to drive from KK.
Tommy’s Place is on a beautiful beach on the west-facing coast of the tip. There is also a surf shop and a couple other places that rent bungalows along the same beach. The place was almost deserted and although there was usually somebody else on the beach, I never saw more than a few people. The waves looked like a lot of fun and I saw a few people surfing, but I spent most of my time walking the beach, searching through tide pools and snorkeling.
Low tide was in the morning that week and after breakfast it was fun to poke through the tide pools, looking at sea stars, crabs and little fish. I didn’t venture out far with the snorkel, but the northern part of the beach is protected by a bit of reef and the waves were calm enough for me to swim comfortably without fins. The current swept me back towards the beach, rather than out to sea. There were lots of kinds of coral, most very brightly colored, and lots of beautifully colorful fish.
The next stage of the trip was back to Kota Kinabalu to pick up my friend Jess. I got a ride into Kudat and then went to the pirate cab station where you can get a ride to KK for 25 ringgit. I paid extra because my backpack took up a whole seat in the car and I wanted to be driven all the way across KK down to the southern part of town where the airport is. That put me up to 40 ringgit, but it was well worth it. It was a fast ride in a comfortable car with good music straight to my hotel. Plus I got to sit up front. The scenery along the coast there is beautiful.
Jess and I stayed at the Casuarina Hotel
, where I stayed last year, because it’s right next to the airport, has a free airport shuttle and we had a flight the next morning over to Sandakan. It was my first internal flight in Borneo and I have to say it was much easier than the bus. Flights are subsidized by the government, so they’re also cheap. If it weren’t for the evil carbon footprint and hassle of buying tickets in advance, I would have flown more often. Even Kudat has an airport.
Flying over to Sandakan I was shocked to see that the entire island interior was palm oil plantations. I had heard about the destruction of the rain forest and how plantations are destroying the biological diversity and habitat of Borneo, forcing out animals like orangutans. I knew a lot about this from visiting last year. I just hadn’t seen it from the air. It was devastating.
The rows of oil palms went on as far as I could see, the whole way across the island. I kept waiting for it to end, and when I finally saw a scrap of natural forest I realized that it was the Rainforest Discovery Centre, which I visited last year. I could see the canopy walkways from the air. It was disheartening that the only “natural” jungle I saw on the flight was basically a park.