Kota Kinabalu and Tamparuli, Malaysia

March 29 – April 3, April 5-6

*This is an unfinished blog post. There are some notes below, but I will fill in the details later. My folder of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia pics can be viewed here. And my folder of Tamparuli, Malaysia pics can be viewed here.


I found a really cheap flight from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur, so I bought it – along with another flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo.

But since I only had 2 nights to spend in Kuala Lumpur before I’d need to go back to the airport (and because it was rainy, I was feeling really worn out, and I really just wanted a few days to catch up on stuff – banking, laundry, Internet stuff, sleep), I decided to just camp out at an airport hotel for those two nights. It sounds super lame, but it was exactly what I needed. I stayed at the Tune Hotel, owned by Air Asia. It was surprisingly cheap for how luxurious it was (25 ringit/night). What I didn’t account for was that by staying near the airport, I would have to survive on expensive airport food for the next 2 days. So my stay at the airport hotel didn’t end up being as cheap as I expected when you consider the food. Oh well. I still got a giant cozy bed with a night light, big windows, a large mirror, my own shower with hot water and amazing water pressure, and really fast wireless Internet. After spending the past 4 nights in nasty hotel room with mosquitoes and rats, this was exactly what I needed to recuperate. I used my computer to listen to the radio while I took care of errands and drank orange juice, I slept in until noon, and I barely left the room for 2 days. I spent a good chunk of one of the days trying to figure out what the red itchy bumps were all over my body. Turned out they were probably bed bugs. Nice.

Early in the morning on the 31st, I walked over to the airport (which was conveniently 2 minutes away) and got on my flight to Kota Kinabalu. I had been really looking forward to Borneo and it was exciting to finally be flying over the island.

Despite my plans to for rest and relaxation, I stayed up way too late enjoying the comforts of my hotel room and I showed up in Kota Kinabalu (or KK, as they call it) exhausted!

I knew KK was a pretty small city and I didn’t really have any destination in particular, so I just got on the bus from the airport and hopped off when it looked like I was in the city center. I had made plans to meet Kuni and a few other Couchsurfers for dinner, but it was still really early so I had many hours to kill before meeting them. All I really wanted to do was find a park where I could drop all my stuff and take a nap (but with the crazy rain combined with all the people staring at me, it really wasn’t possible).

So instead I hoisted my big pack onto my back and wandered around. I found a big building called CenterPoint and almost immediately discovered the food court, where there was a grand vegetarian buffet! Lucky me! I visited that place several times over the next few days.

After eating, I had even less energy and decided to look for a coffee shop where I could just sit down in a chair for a solid 4 hours. I only got about half a block when a guy stopped me to talk. He was a tour guide who leads rafting trips and other excursions around Sabah. I told him I was on my way to get some coffee and he ended up joining me and letting me store my bag at his place nearby. He seemed nice enough and I really didn’t want to carry my stuff around anymore. At the coffee shop, we talked, he showed me the giant scars on his legs from leeches (apparently the big brown ones are the ones you should watch out for), and he told me how it costs 2 buffalo to get a wife, but he doesn’t have any buffalo so he’s looking for an American wife because they don’t need buffalo to get married. After this whole speech, I could see where the conversation was turning, so this is where we parted ways. When I didn’t want to hang out with him anymore, he pouted and threw a sort of temper tantrum. Very strange.

Kota Kinabalu was suprisingly very modern looking. With lots of big office buildings and shopping malls.

A beautiful beach view and amazing sunsets.

Some of the most amazing clouds I’ve ever seen. Probably b/c it rained off and on all day every day, with bright sun in between rainy spurts.

Cute kids from the Phillipines. Helping their parents sell fish at the market.

At dinner, I met Kuni, Kent, and Joe. We had a nice dinner and then I went back to Kuni’s place where I would spend the next 2 nights. Kuni works in the tourism industry, arranging trips for Japanese tour group. His place was nice and I even had my own room. His complex also had a big swimming pool, but I never ended up using it.

Kuni has traveled all over the world and has hosted over 155 people at the various places he has lived (including Japan, India, and Borneo). Kuni said he’s kind of addicted to couchsurfing and he keeps a calendar so he can keep track of all the people he hosts each month. And he has little notes all over his refrigerator from people he has hosted. One night I was wandering around his complex looking for the cyber cafe and the guard asked me where I was staying. When I told him who I was staying with, he smiled knowingly and said “Oh yes yes. Kuni. Of course.” I think the guy probably thinks Kuni runs some sort of brothel.

Found the Texas BBQ resturant. In Borneo? Yup. I hung out there for a bit and ordered french fries. Told the waiter I was from Texas, but he didn’t seem too excited. Apparently the owner is a Chinese man who went to the University of Texas, then moved back to Borneo and decided to open a restaurant. All the proper flags and slogans were displayed prominently on the wall. “Everything’s Bigger in Texas”. “Don’t Mess with Texas”, “All My Exes Live in Texas”.

After staying with Kuni for a few nights, Kent picked me up from Kuni’s place in the morning and took me to see Tampuruli. There’s some significance to this name, something about “temporary”, but I don’t remember and will have to look it up.

We visited his Ken’ts aunts in a water village.

Walked on a hanging bridge over the water.

Big monitor lizards


Ate lunch at the school canteen where Kent’s mom works.

I really like this poster and wish I own it.

Went to the market to buy some vegetables for dinner.

Dropped Kent’s car off at the shop and walked around while it was getting fixed.

ABC - funny fruit concoctions, some with dairy, others not. Some even with strange things like corn and beans.



We made a big curry and I stayed the night in Kent’s spare room. We also watched planes fly in front of the sunset, made friends with one of his neighbors, and adopted a stray cat (who we named Mr. Gila). It was a busy day.

Kent works for Malaysian Airlines and usually has to be at work around 6am. He told me I was welcome to sleep in, but he lived a bit away from town so it was just easier for both of us if I woke up with him around 5 and he dropped me off at the bus stop on his way to work.

It was still dark when I got downtown. I took photos of graffiti and buildings until the sun came up.

Once the sun came up, I went to the Gaiya Street market (which happens on Sundays). Kent had been playing it up, but it made me kinda sad actually (because of the dehydrated animals in cages). But I did like the glutinous rice thingamajigs with peanuts inside. Yum.

A lot of the time I was busy trying to figure out what I would be doing with myself for the next month.

I ended up spending a few days too many in KK, but I needed to make some plans before I could move on. And plan making was proving to be pretty difficult and frustrating. Every other place I’d traveled to on this trip, I’d been able to just show up unannounced and do whatever I wanted to do without making any prior arrangements. Borneo was different. Traveling alone in Borneo is often tricky and more expensive (as many places can only be visited through an organized tour, many tours are so popular that they need to be booked weeks in advance, and to travel to some of these places without a tour…you need to have more people in your group than just one). I didn’t know any of this before I got there, so I had to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do everything I had planned to. Climbing Mount Kinabalu was out, snorkeling Pulau Sipidan was out, hiking Maliau Basin was out. I wanted to book a tour of the Kinabatangan River, but the earliest available date was the 21st. So I took what I could get and figured I’d plan the rest of my trip around that. Damn. When did tourists get so organized?


*KK is known for having some of the best sunsets in the world. I would have to agree. With all the rain and crazy clouds every day, the sunsets were consistently amazing every single day I was there.

*Bahasa Malaysia (learn some = Selamat Pagi, Terima Kasih).

*Suda Makan? (have you eaten?) Malaysian people like to eat and this is the typical greeting.

*The word for vegetable is “sayur.” “Saya hanya makan sayuran” means “I only eat vegetables.” But most people speak enough English to understand the word “vegetarian.” But their misconceptions of the word are just as common as in every other place. After you explain that you are vegetarian, make sure you emphasize everything you don’t eat just in case (like fish, shrimp paste, oyster sauce, etc.) Eggs are common – and even if you order “fried noodles with only vegetables,” they’ll likely throw in eggs unless you specifically tell them to leave them out

*Tofu (tauhu) and tempe can often be found in markets. Chinese health food stores are quite common too. I wandered across several of these and they had interesting things like 9 bean soup mix, wheatgrass drinks, and spirulina noodles. They even had Bragg’s Liquid Aminos!

*my favorite thing = paku (fern shoots)

*Most people eat fried noodles for breakfast. Or they eat roti canai (an Indian flatbread served with curry to dip in). Yum.

*In Malaysia, soy sauce is referred to as ketchup. If you really want “ketchup,” you need to call it by the appropriate word (tomato sauce).

*Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world. It is made up of Malaysian Borneo (which consists of the two states of Sabah and Sarawak), Indonesian Borneo (the state of Kalimantan), and Brunei.

*History of headhunting

*60% of Borneo’s tourism revenue leaks out of the country into the hands of foreign investors (many from China), while nearly all of the remaining $ goes as profit to local business elites.

*Islam is the national religion, but religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed (many malaysians proudly highlight this point).

*Dayak people (Up the Notched Ladder by Sydwell Mouw Flynn). Dayak religion = Kaharingan

*The best way to experience Malaysian dining is to pop into a kedai kopi (or Malay coffee shop). They’re usually really crowded during mealtimes and the food is good and cheap. Generally you pick a seat and someone will come up to take your drink order. Sometimes the building has several different stalls serving food on buffet style steam tables. They either hand you a plate with rice and you serve yourself, or you just let them know what you want on your plate. Usually you pay at a cashier stand after your meal is finished. Even if it’s a big place and you served yourself, they’ll have already figured out what you ordered by the time you walk up to pay. This type of eating establishment can be both good and bad for vegans. Sometimes it’s great because they usually have at least a few vegetable dishes to choose from. And since it’s sitting right there, you can see exactly what you’re ordering. But sometimes it’s bad because if their vegetables dishes are cooked with eggs or oyster sauce (as they often are), you won’t necessarily be able to custom order your meal at a place like this.

*If you order at a restaurant with a menu, you’ll be choosing from various noodle (mee) or rice (nasi) dishes. Mee goreng (or fried noodles) is a common breakfast food.

*Malaysians love their coffee. But they love it to be served with lots of sweetened condensed milk. And if you just order “coffee”, they’ll assume that’s what you want too. If you don’t want milk in your coffee order “Kopi O.” If you don’t want milk or sugar in your coffee “Kopi O Kosong” or “Kopi O tan bagula” (?) Even if you want a little sugar in your coffee, it’s best to order it without so you can add exactly how much sugar you want. Otherwise you’ll end up with a coffee so sweet, it’ll feel like your teeth are rotting out of your skull.

*I’ve talked a lot about the reasons traveling alone is so fun (you make many more friends than you would if you were already traveling with someone else, you learn so much about yourself, and you are more mobile, flexible, and free to do whatever you want 100% of the time). But I don’t think I’ve talked about how lonely it can be sometimes. If you travel solo long enough, you’ll have some lonely days too. Like when you’re in an 8-bed dorm room all alone, when you have to pay extra because the only room available is one with a double bed, when you can’t hire a boat because the driver wants a minimum of 2 people, when you’ve spent 6 hours hiking on trails with nobody to talk to except yourself, or when every waitress or bus driver has to single you out and make you feel weird for not having friends with you “Only 1? Why?” they say. “Why aren’t you traveling with your friend/boyfriend/family?” It usually doesn’t even occur to me to feel lonely until they bring it up. Then I start to feel that way. Aside from the lonely times, there are also the awkward moments that would probably be much more amusing if you could share them with someone else. Like the times when you order food and it never comes. You conclude one of two things: Either they didn’t understand you and couldn’t be bothered to try to figure it out. Or they were so busy staring at you during the 45 minutes you were waiting that they just plain forgot. There are also the times when you have just the perfect window of time to cross the street, but the cars slow down so much to stare at you, they ruin your opportunity. After this happens 4 or 5 times in a row, it stops being funny.

*Liberal Islam Network

*Mamak (muslim of Indian descent). Gerai Mamak (Muslim Indian restaurant)

*Bakun Dam Project – flood Malaysian rainforest (area the size of Singapore).

*Pay toilets

*Books about Borneo:

Stranger in the Forest (Eric Hansen), Espresso with Headhunters (John Wassner), Land Below The Wind / Three Came Home (Agnes Newton Keith), Kinabalu Escape: The Soldier’s Story (Rich Mayfield), Escapes and Incursions (Kevin Smith), My Life in Sarawak (Margaret Brooke), Into the Heart of Borneo.

One Response to “Kota Kinabalu and Tamparuli, Malaysia”

  1. I love how shocked that guy on the sign at the pay toilets is to find it clean.
    I think the loneliest thing about traveling alone would be the part you mentioned about not being able to share amusing things with other people. I would probably be constantly telling myself, “If only someone else was around to see this!”
    I’m pretty good at talking to myself so the conversations missed when wondering around on an ordinary day probably wouldn’t bother me too much.

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