Borneo, Sweet Borneo!

Amy and David on top of Mt. Kinabalu - Borneo
(Amy and David on top of Mt. Kinabalu)

Directly on the heels of Christmas, Vietnam celebrated its most important holiday of the year…Tet – the Chinese Lunar New Year! And this ‘Year of the Dragon’ sparked an even more joyous atmosphere. Hanoi was abuzz with activity – with families out on the town shopping for clothes, decorating homes, paying homage to ancestors, burning lucky money and cooking traditional Tet meals.

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(Kumquat Shopping)

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(Looking a little bored)

The festive nature was contagious! I couldn’t help but smile as I walked around Old Quarter admiring the decorative lights, gorgeous flowers, and vendors selling peach blossoms and kumquat trees! In fact, I beamed every time I saw an enormous kumquat tree perched atop a motorbike, weaving through rush hour traffic. I continuously marvel by the loads people carry on their scooters! I honestly don’t know how they do it…

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(Typical street scene)

(Kumquat Trees)

Work slows down considerably as the holiday draws near, but not before a mad rush to squeeze in as many deadlines and meetings as possible.

Tet Celebrations
(Tet Celebrations)

And slowly but surely, the shops shut down and the city streets empty as people travel to the countryside to spend time with their families. A lot of my friends chose to remain in Hanoi over Tet, when the city of 6.5 million dwindles down to a few. I can only imagine how peaceful it would be to walk down the street without having to worry about traffic or to hear the constant blaring of horns!

(Chau Long Pagoda)

However, I preferred to use this week-long holiday to explore other destinations; and this year’s Tet excursion led us to Borneo, the third largest island in the world!

(Amy at Ferry)

(Mamutik Island)

Borneo is rather unique in that it is divided among three countries, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. David and I flew to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah – which offered everything from gorgeous beaches to pristine rainforests to stunning mountains.

(Mamutik Island)

(Gorgeous beaches all to ourselves)

While backpacking in India over Christmas, we spent way too much time literally traveling from one city to another; so on this seven day journey, we vowed not to venture anywhere outside of a two-hour radius of the city…which ended up being a great rule of thumb.

(David on Mamutik Island)

(Exploring on the rocks)

Immediately off the coast of Kota Kinabalu is Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a group of five stunningly beautiful tropical islands located in the heart of the South China Sea a mere 3 kms to 8 kms away from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal.

(Monitor Lizard)

David and I spent two days lulling about on the beach, reading, relaxing, swimming, snorkeling and hiking.

(Happy on the beach)

(David snorkeling)

First we explored Pulau Manukan, the most popular island in the group. We cruised up and down the long, striking white-sand beach and hiked in the forest-covered interior. But our favorite was the small island of Mamutik, a mere 300meters from end to end. We relished in the sun, sea and sand on this tiny little paradise.

(Hiking in the forests)


Mamutik island was also the least crowded. We were able to hike to the back side of the island where we were virtually the only ones around…David and I clambered down the rocks and snorkeled among the rare white distichopora lace coral and brightly colored fishes like sergeant major, parrot fish, butterfly fish, angel fish, and even the clown anemonefish. On the down side, the jellyfish were also out in full force! I think we both got stung numerous times!

(Proboscis Monkey)

(Proboscis Monkey Eating)

Granted, the snorkeling was some of the best I’ve seen in years! And despite the coral reefs not looking too healthy, I marveled over the sheer abundance and diversity of fish!


(Garama River)

After our cherished beach time, we ventured towards the Southwest Coast in hopes of spotting the famed Proboscis Monkey, an arboreal Old World monkey only endemic to Borneo. We booked a river cruise through the Klias Wetlands along the Garama River and immediately came across these amazing creatures.

(Proboscis Monkey)

(So human-like)

I literally squealed with delight upon seeing these bizarre looking monkeys! And as an added bonus, we saw Macaques and the rare Silver Langour. It’s always a joy to come across such beauty in the wild.

(Orangutan baby)


The other rare animal that I desperately wanted to see was the Orangutan – another endangered animal endemic to Borneo. However, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, perhaps the most famous place to see orangutans in Borneo, was a seven-hour bus ride from Kota Kinabalu. And since we didn’t want to spend two days sitting in a bus in order to view these magnificent animals from a feeding platform, we opted for the next best thing – Lok Kawi Wildlife Park – a short thirty-minute drive outside the city.



This 280-acre wildlife center is home to several tigers, elephants, orangutans, and other protected animals. While the animals are kept in large enclosures, every effort is given to make the setting as close to the natural habitat as possible (at least, that’s what I keep telling myself).

Rhinoceros Horn bill
(Rhinoceros Horn Bill)

Rhinoceros Horn bill
(Male Rhinoceros Horn Bill)

I loved hanging out and watching the antics of the orangutans. Their facial expressions are so human-like!

(Our first glimpse of Mt. Kinabalu in the distance)

(David with his huge backpack)

We discovered the famed night market in Kota Kinabalu, which reminded me of the seafood barbeque stalls in Stone Town, Zanzibar!

(Beginning of our hike)

(Before the rains)

Indonesian, Filipino, Chinese and Malay foods are prominently displayed, along with an array of fresh seafood! We had a difficult time choosing between the squid, prawns, crab, lobster, snapper, marlin, etc., but in the end we settled for grilled tuna steaks! Simply delicious!

(Summit Trail)

(Too much rain)

And the main reason why we chose Borneo as our holiday destination was to climb Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest peak in Borneo’s Crocker Range and at 4,095 meters (13,435ft), the highest mountain in South East Asia!

(Sunrise at 4,095meters)

(YAY!!!! We did it!)

Mt. Kinabalu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its surroundings are among the most important biological sites in the world, with over 4500 species of plant, 326 species of birds, and 100 mammalian species identified.


(Gorgeous sunrise!)

The majority of climbers take two days for the ascent, including a stay at Laban Rata Resthouse prior to attempting to summit.


What I’ve failed to mention up until now is the fact that we were traveling in the rainy season! Furthermore, because space at Laban Rata is limited, we had to book our climbing date way in advance. So it didn’t matter whether you had rain or sunshine, your day to climb was your day to climb.


And unfortunately for us, we experienced torrential downpours on our allotted day to climb.


In fact, it took us over six hours to hike six kilometers to the Laban Rata Resthouse! Between the rain, the freezing cold temperatures, the steep ascent, the slippery rocks, the slimy mud, and my way too heavy backpack, I was not the happiest camper. And with the high altitude, my heart literally felt as if it was going to leap out of my chest with every winded move!


With each exasperated step I mumbled, “Why am I doing this?” “I wanted to go to the rainforest to see the Orangutans!” “This isn’t fun…not my idea of a relaxing holiday”, etc… Poor David labeled me the biggest ‘whinger’ ever! But in my defense, hiking when you’re cold, wet and miserable is challenging under any circumstances!

(Laban Rata Resthouse)

(Face of Kinabalu)

When we finally reached our resting point, I was shivering cold and wet to my core! And unfortunately, most of my things in my backpack got soaked, too!


With no heat and no way to dry my clothes, I ended up huddled inside my bunkbed, curled up in a ball until I finally warmed up!

(Low’s Peak at the top)

We went to bed rather early and woke up at 2am to begin our ascent towards the summit! With only the light from our headlamps, we climbed the last three kilometers on naked granite rock to Low’s Peak! Fortunately, the rains stopped at midnight and we had dry weather on our final ascent! I actually thought the climb to the summit wasn’t nearly as challenging as the first half of the climb – but perhaps that could be attributed to multiple factors – the weather and because we were climbing in the dark, I couldn’t really see what we were hiking across! Perhaps I would’ve been more afraid and freaked out if I had seen the drop-off over the side of the cliff!

(Our guide)

A few sections were rather sketchy where we had to use ropes and scramble over steep rocks; but in the end it only took us three hours to climb to the summit, just in time for sunrise – which made the previous day’s torturous climb all worthwhile! The view from above the clouds was magnificent! Plus what an accomplishment – to finally summit Mt. Kinabalu!

(Above the clouds)

However, what goes up must come down! And it’s the downhill that stresses me out…especially with my weak knees! So after leaving the Resthouse at 2am, we finally reached the bottom of the mountain by 2:30pm….over twelve hours of hiking at one stretch! Needless to say, I was grateful to flag down a bus and to head back to Kota Kinabalu.

(On top of the world)

The trip as a whole was fabulous! I feel so fortunate to live in Asia – and to experience so much of what this world has to offer!



And the experiences never seem to end. I’m off to Geneva next week to meet up with my family in Chamonix, France for a ski trip! It will be nice to see how Sami and Scott have settled in Geneva, and to see my dad, my niece and nephew!

Sending much love to all,

2 comments to Borneo, Sweet Borneo!

  • Stephanie

    Great documentation of the trip. I can’t believe that mountain is 13,000 ft! What an achievement! I’d be complaining too….even more w that big pack! Well done. Love the pics of the monkeys. 🙂

  • Nadia


    I had total flashbacks while reading about your ascent to the summit of my experience with Corey in the Annapurna mountains in 2000. Had similar grouchy thoughts around “what am I doing? why did i sign up for this?” blah, blah blah. 🙂 Love the amazing pictures. Thanks so much for sharing your adventures with us.


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