Malaysia (Borneo) – Sabah

Borneo is one of those mythical names that symbolize natural wilderness and adventure. I did not need more to be interested by a trip to the region.
There are direct flights from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu with AirAsia, Silk Air

I came with two objectives that I share with most tourists going to Sabah: climbing Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South East Asia, and diving Sipadan, one of the best dive sites in the world… It was not a cheap trip for both reasons, but definitely a memorable one!

Gunung Kinabalu

There is basically only one refuge in the mountain called Laban Rata, and it is usually full on weekends, so they charge a very high price for you to crash there, and serve you with the comforting meals you need after and before a climb.  Nobody is let go up the mountain without accomodation there.

You have different options to secure a night in this refuge:
– booking your night on their website (expensive, as they request for 2 nights minimum booking for some weird reason)
– booking a package through an agent (most expensive but hassle-free)
– go on site in the morning and try your luck at the park’s headquarter…(cheapest but very unsure)

I arrived in Kota Kinabalu at night and had a good but short night at a backpacker’s place. Woke up around 5.30 AM to try to hitch the different rides that will take me to the bottom of Gunung (mount in malay) Kinabalu as early as possible, with the goal of being the first to ask for a room, and ideally, start the ascent on the same day!

After a few issues locating the right bus station, I found a bus that drop me at the park’s headquarter before 11AM, and I found a room for the same night.
I also enquire about the Via Ferrata, the highest in the world, having tried this in Thueyts in Ardeche, France and loved it… I am being told that if I want to go through the via ferrata, I have to be at Laban Rata guesthouse before 4PM latest for the safety briefing…

So I had to get started early! I left my big backpack at the headquarter and picked my trekking one, packed with dry clothes, warm clothes, snacks and energy bars.

The longest stairway

We started on this path rather fast, and it was very easy in the beginning, although the humidity was clearly there to make you sweat…

I did not take many pictures during the climb. Mostly because the path up the mountain in really into the forest, unblocked views are rare.

The sky was pretty grey too, and I was a bit worried for the promised sunrise from the peak on the next morning…

When I say the first sign indicating 0.5km, I thought it was going to be easy. When I saw the 1.5km sign, I was already thinking we had been going up for a long time…
It started raining around KM3.0 and it made the ascent much less pleasurable…

We could spot some Nepenthes, a carnivore plant that traps flies and other insects in its jug.


Eventually, I went up these wooden stairs up to Laban Rata. We did the walk up the resthouse in 3 hours – ish, quite an athlete timing according to my guide 🙂

Food is served in the communal room at Laban Rata, at fixed times. Outside of meal times, you can always get some snacks and drinks, but be prepared to pay the highest prices probably in the whole of Malaysia…

A tiring rest…

Went to the briefing for the Via Ferrata… Pretty standard technical briefing but most importantly, I get to know where on the mountain to meet my via ferrata guide.

Back to the resthouse for some proper rest.
First, I badly needed a shower so I went to the bathroom with a light heart.

It was probably the coldest shower in my entire life.

Seriously, I don’t know what the temperature of this water was, but it was like diving naked in antartic having ice cubes gliding on your body. Many people gave up, but I didn’t and I was glad afterwards: the refuge felt so warm all of a sudden. This feeling, dry clothes, and a hot Sabah Tea were the blessings of this late afternoon, and a real booster to feel serene for the next morning’s climb.

After a couple of hours sleep, waking up at 2AM, it’s time to get ready for the latest and most difficult part of the ascent. From the 3272meters of Laban Rata to the 4095 meters of Kinabalu’s peak, it is a steep climb, starting with stairs, sometimes with the help of ropes, and then short steps on the slightly slippery granite grounds near the top.

My guide was telling me not to go too fast, and I wondered why. I understood his point when we h
ad to wait 30 minutes in the freezing breeze at the summit, being immobile and waiting for the first sun rays to warm us up.

Looking at it positively, I had secured a prime stop to watch the sunrise and get that unobstructed 360 view…

What impressed me most was the view of the scary Low’s Gully, one of the deadliest mountain slopes

On the right side, the granite plateau to access Kinabalu’s summit, on the left side, the deadly Low’s gully…

The walk down from the summit was smelling a lot like accomplishment, and you felt like staying on this granite plateau for hours, sitting in the gentle sun. But usually, clouds move up the mountain quickly, and you have to get to the bottom of the mountain by the end of the afternoon…


Via Ferrata

On the way down, I met the guy who was going to be my guide for the highest Via Ferrata in the world!

I was lucky he spoke english because we were going to spend the next 3 hours together… Conversation was good and varied, about work, family, sports and laughing at the many differences between the malaysian and french cultures…

Straight into almost vertical slopes, the Via ferrata started on a high-adrenaline note…

On one hand, the sunny views on the mountains and valleys below were instant stunners making me want to stay and say, have a picknick, but on the other hand, I was fairly tensed… The guide forced me into relaxation / confidence exercises like leaning backwards to let me realize the strength of the harness to keep me close to the rock… After a few leaps of faith, I guess I had reached an appropriate level of comfort.

The Via Ferrata was pretty exhausting, as it not only comprised the via, but also a sort of 45 min jungle crawling, before doing some via again. I was litterally starving by the time I reached the Laban Rata resthouse. Because of the via ferrata, I was one of the last to have lunch and selection was very limited, but stuffing myself with rice was already good.

A loooooong way down

Then it was time to go down the mountain… Pretty much straight after I started, it rained and all the way down the mountain. The descent was not difficult technically, except maybe for the rocks and wooden stairs made slippery by the rain.
However, the climb of the previous day, the morning ascent to the summit, and finally the via ferrata had taken their tolls on my legs. My thighs started to hurt halfway down, followed by my knees, then hips, … During the last kilometer or so, each step down was a victory in itself…

When I reached the park headquarters, the only thing I cared about was a bed… After a quick uncmfortable shower in a wet bathroom and a decent only buffet, I managed to hitch a minibus ride back to Kota Kinabalu with a group of young locals who had this planned well.

The next 2 days, I limited my walks to getting from the hotel to the closest massage parlor and back. Even walking up a sidewalk was almost requiring to use my hands to manually drag my leg up on it. Yup, that bad.

Heading to underwater wonderland

After so much condensed effort, I was happy to only have to jump on a plane and get to my diving resort for some easy action over almost a week.

I flew from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau and had my pick-up arranged at Tawau airport to Semporna, where I was going to spend one night before going to Mabul island.
I booked the whole package with Scuba Junkie, one of the most popular diving operation in Semporna / Mabul / Sipadan. SJ had a good staff and the dives were professionally run, so I recommend them.

Semporna is not an impressive city, and it is sort of cut into two parts: the harbour its hotels and diving operation offices, and the more local center, near the Masjid and markets.I stayed their overnight on the way in & out to Mabul island where they have their newest accomodation built.

Although I did not score a permit to go diving to Sipadan itself, diving was marvellous just as I expected, and I saw something new at every dive. However, I promised myself I would be back for more Sipadan action…

Mabul island is beautiful too…



The “pikachu” nudibranch


Pinnacle batfish


Tube coral and pufferfish

At every dive, you can see turtles, always gracious and exuding peace…

Returning from Mabul, I met my gf and a couple of friends in KK. We did some white water rafting, which was not super impressive (although we managed to fall twice from the raft…)

On the way back, I bought a lot of tea at the supermarket, it is one of the specialties of the region! It is quite a strong one, but it also made for nice presents.

I really loved this trip to Sabah, a region blessed with exceptional nature and good weather. The good life!
Even Kota Kinabalu was a city I found pleasant to stay in for a few days. I could be back for more!

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