Friday, October 23, 2009


1. After Sandakan, Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) was our next destination before heading SE to the coastal towns of Tawau/Semporna. We thought a stay in the conservation area could be interesting and educational.

2. DVCA is a 438 square kilometres tract of relatively undisturbed forest. It is managed by Yayasan Sabah (which holds the timber concession to the area) for conservation, research, education and physical training purposes. Located in the area are Danum Valley Field Centre (a research establishment for scientists and education purposes), lodge called the Borneo Rainforest Lodge for tourists to stay, reforestation programmes etc. From here visitors can do guided walks through lowland rainforest trails, go bird watching, night walks and drives.

3. To get there, we traveled first to Lahad Datu, some 100 km South of Sandakan, before turning right into a logging track, an unsealed, gravel road. The gate into the DVCA was a few kms from the main road. We got there at about 11 am but was told by the guards that without a permit we were not allowed into the DVCA; and the permit could be purchased at Fajar Centre in Lahad Datu. We backtracked about 10 km to buy the permit and hopefully to book a room there as well. Of course, Yeow Pheng and I were puzzled as to why permit could not be sold at the gate, even if there was a need to control the number of permits issued. We were sure we were not the first one having to be turned away and to backtrack to Lahat Datu.

4. At the Fajar centre, the first tour agent told us that they do not sell packages without transportation to the DVCA. At any rate, at more than RM 1000 for a 2 nights package at the Boreo Rainforest Lodge, it was beyond our budget. At the adjacent office, we found what we wanted, at RM 180 a night, RM5 for car permit, RM30 entry fee per pax, food and tours separate.

5. At about 3 pm, we traveled back to the DVCA, handed in the car permit at the control gate and proceeded along the logging track to Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC) where we had booked a night to stay. All in, it took us 3 hrs to travel the 70-80 km from the main road; the last 10 km was particularly bad, very stoney, and we crawled our way in, reaching the CVFC just before dark and just in time for dinner at 7 pm. Along the way, we were blocked by an elephant family taking an evening walk. Three huge logging trucks passed us, churning up a dusty trial behind them.

6. The room (they called it the rest-house) was very basic, no frills. The light in the toilet was not working. Our torches came in very handy here. And, of course, no internet in the room. Cafeteria was pleasant and sufficient. At the centre were a group of 20-30 students doing a one month course in tropical zoology. Spoke to one from Germany and one from Papua New Guinea. Also a good number of Caucasian tourists- 2 ladies from Netherlands staying for 3 days, and a young man from Germany staying for a week, specialising in photography.

7. At 8.30, we decided to join in the night drive, hopefully to see some roaming animals. Soon, we discovered we were the only ones on the night tour. We sat behind in a Land Cruiser. As the vehicle moved forward, one of the staff would throw a strong beam of light against the road and trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of the animals. We asked him how he could see. He taught us to look for the eyes of the animals. In the 1 hr drive, we saw a few deers, and a cat up in a tree. The staff tried but it was really not easy to "catch" the animals. Cost us RM160. Yeow Pheng and I agreed that once is enough.

8. We slept early that night. At any rate, there was absolutely no power after midnight, as the generator was turned off. No fan, no aircon. Next morning, we were up at 6 am. We took a short walk and did qigong near the suspension bridge. Yeow Pheng tried that in the middle of the suspension bridge. His vibration nearly took the bridge down.

9. After breakfast and after checking out, we decided to visit a nearby reforestation programme. At a 10 ha site, Infapro ran a nursery, with half a million saplings to undertake reforestation programme in areas cleared by loggings. Face Foundation of Netherlands provided the funding, with the Sabah government providing some assets for the operation. Started in 1992, it has a staff of 60. Up to date, it had planted 1.2 mil saplings in 1000 ha of land. The 2 staff who showed us around were knowledgeable and professional. They have their numbers all at their fingertips.

10. Just before lunch, we left DVCA for Semporna, the launch pad for divers to Sipadan and other nearby islands. As Yeow Pheng does not dive, I decided to give diving a miss in this trip but thought it would be good to go and see this town where divers congregate. We reached Semporna around 4 pm and after a brief scouting decided to check into Dragon Inn, at RM 90 a night. Located on a huge floating village, I could visualise its charm when it was new. Water below looked clean and we could see some fishes, but it was a pity that we could see floating trash as well. A framed picture at the reception showed that it was once voted one of the top 10 floating hotels in the world.

11. At the nearby Uncle Chang dive shop (me outside the shop), we checked up dive to Sipadan. Was told there was a slot available on 24 Oct and 2 slots on 25 Oct. As dives at Sipadan were controlled, a nearby shop said only Uncle Chang sold dives to Sipadan. A RM560 day trip would include boat ride to Mabul island for breakfast, 3 dives at Sipadan, rental of necessary gears and equipment, and return boat ride. I shall return.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


1. Day 6, Oct 19: At 7+, it was nice and cool outside the hotel; understandably so, as we were 1300 m above sea level. After a bowl of hot Bee Hoon soup, we drove to Mt Kinabalu National Park for a morning walk, and maybe golf at the Mt Kinabalu Country Club.

2. The Park HQ was already buzzing with people when we got there, some registering themselves for the climb up Mt Kinabalu, others getting ready for their climbs. To climb Mt Kinabalu, one has to register ahead, before arrival. There was a group of teenage boys and girls from HK, all excited and getting ready for their climbs. Mt Kinabalu is 4095m high. Typically, the climbers will start at about 2000m+ and climb to Laban Rata at more 3000 m and stay the night there. Next morning, they will wake up early and climb the last stretch to the top to watch sun rise, before making their way down.

3. We walked the park for about an hour. On the way back, we decided to give golf a miss and decided to visit Kundasan War Memorial not far from our hotel instead.
Quite strangely, the GPS did not behave and led us to a wild goose chase and we ended up at the Mt Kinabalu Golf and Country Club. Here I was, on the last hole of the course, with Mt Kinabalu in the background.

4. Got back to the hotel at about 12. Quite quickly, we were checked out and on the way to Sandakan, some 180 km away, along Highway A4, a sealed road, one land either way; left side not so good with regular potholes. There were many trucks along the way, as the road passes through vast tracts of oil palm plantations and they were probably carrying palm oil or oil palm seeds.

6. We reached Sandakan at about 4 pm. With the help of our GPS, we checked into Swiss Inn Waterfront Hotel, after checking Sabah Hotel, which was full, and Hotel Sandakan, which we did not quite like the odour. At any rate, Yeow Pheng likes hotel with a sea view. He said qi is good. I have no arguments here. RM 150 a night, including breakfast for 2 and a good view of the sea. We decided to stay 2 nights here.

7. Along the sea wall were many youngsters, chit-chatting and enjoying themselves. Smoking incidence rate looked pretty high here, as every other youngster was a smoker. In the evening, we had a simple dinner at the waterfront, a couple of hundred meters away from our hotel.

8. Next morning, 19 Oct, we took a walk in the town. Our first stop was the Central Market. Architecturally pleasing, it is airy, has high ceiling and clean. After walking the streets to feel the pulse of the town, we stopped at the Sabah Tourist Visitor Centre, to gather more information on what to do. After explaining to the lady in charge that we were on the road trip from Singapore, she immediately went back into her office and within minutes brought out an old registration book, showing an entry by the Swiss couple (Emil & Liliana Schmid) who were on the road for 25 years in their Toyota Land Cruiser. They visited the Visitor Centre in 2006. I told her that I was familiar with the couple as I visited their website from time to time when researching for my trip.

9. After Sabah Visitor Centre, we went hunting for St Michael Church, as Yeow Pheng wanted some time to pray. We were surprised to find it within a school compound (in St Michael School). It was a busy time, as boys and girls were leaving the school. What I found interesting was that there were Muslim girls (wearing tudong) studying in a Christian school. This integration is, in my view, healthy.

10. In the afternoon, we visited the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, more than 20 km from the city. This is one of the 4 centres for orang utan in the world. Here, injured and orphaned orang utan are rehabilitated before they are returned to their natural habitat.

11. We had our lunch there and waited till 2 pm for the ticket counter to open. Meanwhile, we visited the information centre, which we found informative and fairly well done. After paying the ticket, visitors walked along a raised boardwalk before reaching an open platform with seats available for visitors to watch the feeding of the orang utans. Looking at the crowd, this attraction had obviously become a tourist attraction. While it was already interesting, I thought the tour could have included visits to areas where the rehabilitation efforts were actually carried out, since afterall, this is really the purpose of the centre.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


1. After breakfast on 17 Oct, we set off for Kota Kinabalu, traveling Eastwards along Temburong Highway. We reached the Bruneian immigration checkpoint at about 8 am. Rather quiet when we reached there. Ours must be the first few cars that left for Kota Kinabalu.

2. After departing Brunei's Temburong, we entered Malaysia's Sarawak. Shortly after, we came to a cluster of brightly painted new buildings, in what looked like an immigration/customs checkpoint. But, it was empty; clearly not operational yet. A few kms on, we came to a ferry point, less than 100 m wide. A bridge was under construction nearby. After crossing, a lady driver, also in a Pajero, led us to the Sarawak's immigration checkpoint, located in 2 units of an inconspicuous row of shop-houses. They must be temporary facilities before they move into the new facilities which we just passed.

3. At Lawas (still in Sarawak), we decided to take a break and look at the morning market. The permanent market building was mostly empty as the stalls spilled out to the adjacent open areas filled with morning shoppers. Most stalls were manned by ethnic people, many wearing "tudong", providing livelihood to many. We had a cup of sugar cane juice and bought some fruits.

4. As we proceeded, we were looking out for the Sarawak/Sabah immigration checkpoint. We were alerted that, though they belonged to the same country, Malaysia, there is immigration control between the 2 states; apparently part of the agreement when Sabah joined Malaysia in 1963. Eventually, we came to it - 2 small buildings, one on each side of the road, about 10 m apart. After the passport was stamped by the Sarawak side, we were told to move to the other building on the other side of the road for our passports to be stamped by the Sabah side. If we did not ask and not told, we would have just sped off and missed the Sabah's immigration counter.

5. All in, to get from, Brunei to Kota Kinabalu, we have to go through 8 immigration checks and cross 2 rivers by ferry on the Sarawak side, one before and after Temburong. The 8 points were:
(a) 2 Brunei OUT and 1 Brunei IN
(b) 2 Sarawak IN and 2 Sarawak OUT
(c) 1 Sabah IN

6. For my car, the Brunei authority gave me a pink card that allowed me to get in and out of Brunei for a month. On way out to Limbang, we were asked to show the pink card. For the Malaysian side, the Malaysian embassy confirmed that there was no need for special permit and that we only need to declare by showing our car log card and insurance. Up to now, the Malaysian checkpoints have not asked to see the car documents.

7. We had lunch at the outskirt of Kota Kinabalu (KK) and reached the town by about 3 pm, 17 Oct. We circled a number of times, around Jln Tun Razak, Jln Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Promenade, looking for Sabah Visitor Centre; nearly wanted to give up at one stage. Eventually found it- located in a beautiful old building, apparently a former post office.

8. After gathering some tourist brochures and some advices from the staff there, we decided to stay the night in a hotel along the buzzy promenade, and the following night at Mt Kinabalu National Park. We checked into Promenade Hotel for 230 Rgt a night. That night, we had a great seafood dinner at Portview Seafood Restaurant along the Promenade; very fresh (crabs, fish, clams etc), 160 Rgt for 2 persons, very good value, in our view. Also in the restaurant was a large tour group of Chinese tourists. Was told by a local that tourism in Sabah is doing well, and it is receiving good number of tourists from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and now China, some coming to look at the prospects of owning a 2nd home here.

9. The next day, 18 Oct, spent the late morning visiting Sabah Museum. Its a 4 storey building, with its architecture inspired by the long house. I particularly enjoyed the section on the recent history of Sabah, how it was interwined with the sultanates in Brunei and Sulu and how the coming of the "white" people changed everything. Unfortunately no pictures allowed inside the building. The section on heritage buildings was also worth looking. Overall, the Museum is worth a visit, before one moves on to see the rest of Sabah.

10. Had a quick lunch there before we departed for Mt Kinabalu National Park, where we had already booked a room at Mt Kinabalu Heritage Resort and Spa, formerly known as Perkasa Hotel. Traveling North and then East along a winding road, going over the Drockers Mountain Range, reaching more 1300 m at some points, and passing the Mt Kinabalu Park HQ before reaching the hotel. Along the way, we took a break for durian.

11. Located at the top of a hill, the hotel looked a little run down but it was surrounded by tall pine trees (reminded me of Da Lat in Vietnam) and had a great view of the surrounding areas. From our room on the 7th floor, we took some great sunset shots. Room rate is Rgt 250 a night, inclusive of dinner and breakfast for two. We will walk the park tomorrow morning and perhaps play a round of golf.