My second stop on my tour in Asia. I was planning to come here at some point, however, was a last minute decision to visit Malaysia this early on. An unexpected visa requirement for India made me postpone my visit, and prompted me to book a ‘day before’ flight to Malaysia and start by exploring the south east.
This is one of the hidden perks of not having a concrete plan, you let plans unfold as you go. Similarly, I was debating between Langkawi or Perhentian islands after Kuala Lumpur, until I met some locals that suggested visiting Borneo, a large island that hosts Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small country of Brunei. Frankly, this seemed to be a more adequate plan for someone that is trying to avoid extra touristy and mainstream destinations. In the end of the day, the island is frequently visited by locals, its like their summer vacation destination. Another upside was getting to visit Brunei, one of the richest countries on earth.
A pretty vibrant city, very well developed, yet also maintaining an authentic feel to it. Lots of locals, lots of expats, a huge Chinese population, some Arabs, with a splash of Europeans.. seemed pretty international to me! The nightlife is excellent, Bukit Bintang, the neighborhood I stayed in was vibrant. Changkat Bukit Bintang street is closed for vehicle traffic on weekend nights, becomes a pedestrian area, with bars on your left and right. Among the places to try at night are Pisco bar, offering live music at times and PS150, a nice speakeasy with great cocktails in Chinatown.
A mixed array of food options, given the mixed population living in the city. The street food was specifically magnificent; ‘Jalan Alor’ street had Chinese seafood that was on point. The locals were very helpful and friendly.
Since I was not planning to stay past the weekend in Kuala Lumpur, I took a hop on hop off bus that showed me the most important landmarks in a short time.
The capital of Sarawak, one of the two provinces I ended up visiting on the island of Borneo. Kuching is a pretty laid back city, divided into two by Sarawak river. Both sides have a nice river walk at the waterfront, with small boats taking you between both sides for 1 ringgit ($0.25). The river walk is loaded with street food establishments, where locals prefer to dine. Fine dining options are also present, nevertheless.
I visited an 1879 fortress, Fort Margarita, from the colonial era, that contained an informative gallery about the history of Sarawak and its progression in modern history.
The fortress was built by Charles Brooke, James Brooke’s nephew; James Brooke was a British traveler and explorer that founded the Kingdom of Sarawak, which later became a part of Malaysia. The information in the gallery is nicely laid out and the fort itself is very well maintained.
History aside, while in Kuching, some of the national parks should be visited, as the nature and wildlife are both interesting. Bako national park is among the places that should be visited.
Hosting (long) nosed Promiscs monkeys, normal looking monkeys, wild boars and several outstanding trails in the rainforest, you can easily spend a couple of days in the park. Cabins can be rented there if you plan to spend the night.
Indeed, the stone formations are not to be found elsewhere, some shaped interestingly. The ‘sea-stack’ is a famous one, upstanding from a very narrow point of contact. The boat rides between these formations are breathtaking.
You can get to the national park by bus for 3.75 ringgit ($1/way) or uber for 24-40 ringgit ($6-$10/way). The bus is taken from the city center, takes about an hour to get there. Once there, you purchase the park ticket for 20 ringgit ($5) and a boat roundtrip ticket for 40 ringgit ($10).
The boat takes you to the park, as it is not accessed by land. While there, you can take a private boat from the jetty platform to take you around the park, and have a closeup look to the sea stack, for instance. A tour of such will cost about 35 ringgit, which is less than $10; worth it! The other alternative would be taking a two hour hike, but the view from the hike end is significantly far from the stack.
Despite the fact that some of the hikes do not offer the best view points for some of the attractions, they shouldn’t be avoided. Hiking in a rainforest is an interesting experience and you come across lots of objects of interest. Getting to a hidden beach after an hour or two of hiking is a rewarding experience on its own.
On a separate note, Semenggoh Nature Reserve, which contains a significant population of the endangered ‘Orangutans’ is found near Kuching. Visitors can go observe from a distance, especially during feeding times, these smart apes. Orangutans are considered one of four great apes, which includes Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Bonobos. Something to be seen if you have time. Final note on Kuching, the city is very popular for its layered cakes. A place called Mira’s cakes bakes daily freshened cakes that are really delicious. Try it.
Miri can be reached by land and ferries from Kuching, however I chose flying to maximize my time. Miri is another city in the province of Sarawak, mostly famous for its caves in the rainforest. The caves are not located in the city, however Miri is the main hub close to these attractions. Mulu cave is the world’s biggest cave, can only be reached by plane, and Niah cave, world’s oldest cave, can be reached by car or bus from Miri.
I will talk about Niah since it’s the one I ended up visiting, I do nonetheless advise that (if you have time), to do both. To me, Niah was an absolutely mind-blowing experience, and I can’t even imagine how there are bigger caves out there. Getting there by bus seemed to be a hassle, so i rented a car for one day, cost about 150 ringgit ($30 + $10 gas). The journey to the cave national park takes roughly 90 minutes. I stopped on the way back at ‘Pantai Tusan Bekenu’ beach, which is another perk of having a car.
Regardless, let’s talk about the cave. Entrance fee is 20 ringgit ($5) and you take a boat that crosses a narrow river for 1 ringgit/way ($0.25).
Once you deboard the boat you come across a museum (free entry) presenting information about the cave history, studies and excavation work that has been done in the near past to open the cave for visitors.
One of the interesting features, was a skull that belongs to prehistoric men, about 40,000 years ago. Long time. Anyway, an easy hike for about an hour on a trail in the rainforest is the prerequisite for entering the cave area.
The area consists of a ‘trader’s cave’ once you get in the complex, followed by the ‘great cave’ which is the main one and the one pretty large in volume. The cave is home to thousands of birds that were enjoying sky pooping regularly. It is advised to wear a hat.
While in the main cave, you find a completely dark path that takes you to the ‘painted cave’, where paintings on the wall dated to the iron age are found. The paintings are in delicate condition, which is why there is a fence around them; you cannot come close all the way. Rewind back for a moment, the dark passage to the painters cave.. A kind of frightening experience to be quite honest. I was all alone with my 10% battery iPhone’s flashlight, walking for what seemed to be an endless passage. Frankly, the thought that this place hosted pre historic people from thousands of years ago was haunting. I could hear noises, thought they are birds until my courage (not myself) pointed the flashlight to the walls.. Surprise! Hundreds of bats were responsible for this noise. Goosebumps as I write these lines!
Either way, in the end, you get to the painted cave, and the walk back through the same passage was a lot better, seeing occasional spiders and giant insects on the ground, but the fear barrier was broken, thankfully. I was not looking up, however.
On another note, on my way back to Miri to catch the flight to Kota Kinabalu, I stopped at ‘Pantai Tusan Bekenu’ beach. The beach is reached from a hike down a cliff, offering spectacular views. An arch made of sandstone is where I spent the afternoon and enjoyed a partial sunset due to the clouds, before heading to the airport.
The capital of Sabah, another province on Boreno, and the second largest city in East Malaysia. The city is referred to as KK, contains Mount Kinabalu, the third highest peak in southeast Asia, and the city overlooks some islands that form ‘Tunku Abdul Rahman’ National Park.
For hiking/climbing fans, there is lots to do at Kinabalu National Park, and for sea lovers, the five islands that lie about 15 minutes away by boat offer a variety of activities, including zip lining, snorkeling, trekking and scuba diving. The five islands, Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik and Salug vary in size and popularity.
One ticket from Jesselton Ferry Terminal in KK can get you to all islands in a day; options exist for one, two, three or four islands as well. The video above I took when zip lining between two of these islands, Gaya and Sapi.
An island that is considered a federal territory, where visitors can enjoy duty free shopping all around. I reached this island as a transit before heading to Brunei, which is a tiny sultanate on the island of Boreno. Spent only a few hours there, renting a bicycle and touring most of it at that time.
I will close this post with some food advice. The Malay cuisine is very diverse, ‘nasi lemak’ is definitely to try, the ‘mie goreng’ is good as well. As for fruits, durian is pretty famous and should be tried, I’d say. Not for everyone though, very overpowering taste and has a strong smell. It’s so strong that it is banned to have durian in most hotels; the no durian signs are always next to the no smoking signs! Oh, and Rambutan is an addictive sweet fruit that is usually found in two colors, red and yellow. Both are awesome.