Sabah … Malaysia … Borneo … too many names: first impressions

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ January 17th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).

With Philippines travel still in my blood, and white foreigners abound on every corner I find myself uneasy with how easy everything is in Sabah, Malaysia. Also known as Borneo or …  my new destination.

Clean road of Kota Kinabalu

I've not seen roads this clean and well kept for a long time!

Travel is easy in Kota Kinabalu

Taxis, don’t overcharge. Hostel, booking ready, room ready. Still the annoying shoe removal thing. And clean, everything is so clean. The big coastal city is spotless.

My choice of Sabah, Malaysia before Australia is turning out to be a good one. Why? I am in tourist shock. I’ve not seen so many young white people with money for a long time!

Kota Kinabalu’s clean streets:

Bins line the paved sidewalks, the roads are sealed in tarmacadam. And, the traffic lights work. Cars even stop at them. What’s more, I’ve yet to hear a car horn. Neither have I been asked for money, nor eyed at. Why? Because there’s 100’s more like me roaming the city’s streets.

I think back to a man I knew who used to work flying in cargo to Sabah (Borneo) in the 1960’s. Wild tales of jungle tribesmen, rainforest and some final frontiers. While I am not naive enough to know that has all changed now. I am still uncomfortable with how easy everything is in this place once called Borneo. No longer the wild jungle frontier.

Communication in Kota Kinabalu:

For a country that my guidebook print outs tells me only the basics of English are known, I’ve yet to be misunderstood.

Public Bus in Kota Kinabalu

Even the buses are clean, and so easy to get around

“The bus stop here?”

“Where do you want to go?” comes the reply from a local waiting at a bus stop.

“The Api-Api center.”

The lady nods, “Yes, just wait a little.”

Sure enough along come an aircon bus to take me for 1 Ringet. All too easy. No over crowding, no stares. Just some smiles. The journey is smooth, and still not a car horn.

My jump from travel in undeveloped to developed

Indeed if it was not for the humidity, and faces, I could mistake parts of Kota Kinabalu city for a modern Spanish town. The buildings are well kept, and have a block house Spanish apartment look in places. They even have English signs offering rentals. Open shop fronts, shopping centers, and pedestrian crossings included.

If I could fault the city on anything it would be that there are not enough pedestrian bridges to cross some of the large main roads that ply through the town. And, maybe a sign or two to direct the lost tourist. But then again, I am being really nit picky here. It’s far from the jumble that a lot of large Filipino cities are.The whole place is walkable, at least the city center.

First impressions of Sabah, Malaysia vs The Philippines

A one city perspective. No hanging wires from lamp posts either! That’s something I now notice. In the Philippines nearly every lamp post has hundreds of black cables wrapped around it.

Lizard in Kota Kinabalu

Not exactly the wild jungle island of old anymore. Lizard (Monitor? correct me if I am wrong)

The tourist office in Kota Kinabalu is also helpful, and the 4 staff seem to work. In the Philippines I noticed in one office 8 or so staff, all shuffling papers. My questions going largely unanswered. The difference is quite blatant. And yet, I still feel uncomfortable with the ease of it all.

Learning from the past:

I spent over 2 years in West Africa. Upon arriving back in Portugal I was surrounded by white people, things that work, water, flushing toilets, varieties of food, and cleanliness.

It took a while in getting used to this. I would turn a tap on and off several times. Water flowed on command in front of me for the first time in years.

Now, albeit not so dramatically, I am experiencing this once more. The challenges are there to be over come. It’s a new culture. New language. But these are easy.

What I find most difficult is seeing and interacting with foreigners again.

As I revel in a hot shower followed by a noodle dinner with many, many side dish choices;  I must adjust once more to not just a new place, but a new mental attitude.

To quote a friend of mine from Africa:

” I feel like a F*#@ing  bushman at a White House dinner”

With that said, I am taking some chill out time for myself.

Coming Soon:

Visiting a very beautiful mosque my style …

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36 Great responses to Sabah … Malaysia … Borneo … too many names: first impressions

  1. Ciki says:

    LOL! we’re practically neighbours.. a mere 3 hours flight and i’ll be ur guest in KK. better yet, i feed u steak in KL. btw, if u want the best fish head noodles of BKT ever there , ask me.. i know!! LOL

    • Yes, nearly neighbors :) Fish head noodle location … I don’t think so. I am still calculating my 3 meals a day of steak in KL. Might be worth one of those cheap flights after all! Glad you eyes are getting better, it’s an age thing possibly? Actually this different color is by accident. Might change it back again soon! Let’s see …

  2. Ciki says:

    hey this white background and big fonts are way easier on my eyes. good job! LOL

  3. yay for a MUCH easier place to live in – it sounds wonderful. how’s the food?

  4. Desiree Guasch says:

    Dear TLWH,

    I haven’t been to Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, but, the Philippines side of your observations are true.
    Aray! as we say Ouch! It hurts to be pinched back to truth that we lag behind in customer service and tourism infrastructure. It can be traced to patronage politics wherein many who are unqualified corner government posts that should be manned by competent people.
    Keep going with your honest travel and social diary.
    :-)

    • He Desiree,

      Your own observations are also so true. Unqualified people in positions that reflect on a nations image. Sadly I’ve spoken with tourism graduates and what they are being taught is from another world many years ago. So your point about competent people takes on even more importance. I only wonder they can make a change?

      Glad you are still following :)

  5. Excellent, man. This entry made me smile. It is difficult to write about the good, easy parts of travel. This entry did this well.

  6. rainmaya says:

    yeayy! you’ve arrived in Malaysia! *clap clap*. I’m Malaysian (if its not obvious already)…Never been to Sabah though! lol. Head down to Peninsular Malaysia though while you’re here;you’re white, it’s cheap, you’ll get by! Have fun and a peaceful journey!:)

    • Thanks for all the Malaysian good will. It’s really amusing (in a good way) to see the difference in Malaysians online vs offline! Or maybe offline only happens when you get to know Malaysians better? So happy! :)

      Looking forward to exploring Malaysia some more. And always open to tip on how to get to know Malaysia people better!

  7. Jason says:

    Lap it up Dave, you’ve no doubt earned it. Your description, is how I remember Sabah from only a few years ago. No doubt you will make it into the jungle (whats left of it after the bloody palm oil companies have had their way. You’ll get what I mean by that soon enough) and see another side to this part of Borneo.

    • Thanks Jason. I won’t pretend I am not enjoying the food. It’s pretty spectacular eh?! I’ll certainly keep an eye out for the palm oil companies. Are there more in Sarawak or Sabah? I’ll start asking questions.

      • jason says:

        I never made it to Sarawak Dave, so you’ll have to let me know, but they were taking over a fair chunk of the state of Sabah. When you do actually make it to the jungle propper (ie Dannum Valley or Maliau Basin) it’s well worth the effort. We hired a 4WD, and nearly ran over a herd of Pygmy Elephants that just popped out in front of us on dusk. Amazing place.

  8. el buen samaratin says:

    Been a while since last in KK. Is that a KFC I see in the picture? What is this world becoming?

    • You have eyes like a hawk my friend. Yes, that is KFC. And, just around the corner is Burger King and … well so it continues. I know how you feel too. I’ve just heard that KFC is in Kathmandu now! One of the poorest countries in world has a KFC serving $5 meals while most in the capital eat for $00.50. I often think – is it just me that see this?

  9. Marsha says:

    Hi Hi,
    Been following your blog for sometime now and had to leave you a post as you’re in Sabah ! I’m Sabahan and grew up in Kota Kinabalu :) I’m living in Chile with my husband now. Oh, do visit, Sepilok ( Orang Utans ), and the Islands for a nice getaway too.
    Best regards,
    Marsha

    • Hi Marsha, thanks for your comment, and I’ve glad you are following along. I hope I can give an accurate picture of your homeland!

      Thanks also for the word “Sabahan” I’ve been asking what do you call a person from Sabah for a while now! The cultural diversity here is one of the things I like a lot!. And, yes Sepilok is on the cards. Waiting to hear back from their offices actually.

      I might just have burnt out on islands though :)

  10. I’ve haven’t been to the Philippines yet, but I can say life in KK is pretty easy.

    More importantly, a restaurant in KK makes one of my favorite dishes EVER. Best Pineapple Curry Chicken. I should know, I think I ate it there 4-5 times…

    • It’s near on, a different world.

      Tell you what, that pineapple chicken curry sounds good! If you can remember the name of the restaurant, I’ll go there, take a photo, eat, write up a review and give you a mention. Any idea on the name?

      • arrgh! II just went through all my photos but I have none of the magical Pineapple Curry Chicken or it’s location. It was in some sort of square outside along one of the main streets where they sing terrible “pro” karaoke in the evenings.

        After typing that, I realize that could be about anywhere… but I did google map it and I’m sure it’s along Jalon Gaya. There is also a great Thai place, but I have absolutely no idea where that is. I should just stop now.

        Definitely make your way to Sarawak. Cheaper, less commercial, Laksa Sarawak (yum). It’s getting exploited very quickly (palm oil, above), and you can see the damage taking a boat up a river, flying anywhere, or google maps even.

        and catch up with David, he’s good people!

  11. BKT and Fish Head Noodles in KK? So many to choose from. As I am frequently here, I would vouch for Thien Thien along the main road serving one of the best chicken rice in town. A short drive out of KK takes you to some amazing seafood noodles at a place called Kedai Kopi Wan Wan and this is only the beginning. While I was there last year, I met fellow posted above, Dustin Main who was in town.

    So how long are you gonna be in KK? Heading to Sarawak and then Kuala Lumpur as well? Been waiting for your reply to the KL trip.

    David

    • I’ll keep an eye out for Thien Thien! Thanks for the suggestion. No idea on time frames yet. A lot going on at the moment, and there’s a lot to cover. I’ll certainly give you a heads up regarding KL, are you in the city center, or outside? I might end up doing some hop skips and jumps from here. Still trying to work things out and keeping things basic for now though

      • Dave, I’m actually 20 mins away from the city in Petaling Jaya but it’s no probs for me getting to the city. Keep me updated :)

        Dustin, I think it’s where the Shangrila Town is, near Black Pirates Pub! lol

  12. Hey!
    I have been following your blog for 5 months and am enjoying it. I am also an avid traveller! In fact, tomorrow Jan. 19th I leave for Malaysia and Borneo. I believe our paths may cross and would love to meet you in person. I will be visiting Mulu, kota kinabalu and sandakan on the island of Borneo. I will be there around 2 weeks. So, if you are down let me know your schedule and we can try to make it happen!

    • Hi Rachel, sure always good to meet up. Borneo is a big place though. Do you know when you will be in Sabah, are you flying in or boating around?
      I believe Mulu (Sarawak) is meant to be great. Best thing to do if you are on twitter is to send me a tweet when you know you’ll be in Sabah. We can take it from there. If not then just drop me an email. You should have it with the reply here :)

  13. Caroline says:

    am a Sabahan! :D lotsa nice foods to choose at here! n fresh seafood is guaranteed! :D

  14. LeslieTravel says:

    Sounds like you are experiencing a bit of culture shock! I felt similarly when I returned to NYC after my RTW trip. This is probably a good place to transition before you hit Australia.

    Too bad you aren’t having a tweetup with Ciki. I enjoy seeing two blogging masterminds connecting :)

    PS- I like the look of this post. Are you using a new layout for this one? Seems like the background and heading colors are a bit different.

    • Hey Leslie, yes it’s a kind of strange culture shock. Not so much the place, as the tourists here. I’ve not seen so many people in a long time. Most, I don’t seem to like. It’s all very tour oriented as well. Very few people taking part in independent travel here. Lot’s of backpackers just lounging around.

      Don’t rule out a Ciki visit yet, there are rumors afloat :)

      Yes, it’s a new color scheme. I was working on lighter (easy read) version for a while. Then accidentally left this up for too long. What do you think? Or moreover, which did you prefer?

      • LeslieTravel says:

        I kind of like this color palette. It’s very light and airy! The headlines really drew me in to the post. Do you think you’ll keep it or go back?

        • Not sure if it will stay or not. I write black on white, so rarely get to see the old white on black color palette. I don’t think it’s possible to please everybody. So I’ll probably just have to go with analytics and see things like time on site etc since the change in color palette’s.

          I think you guys are the one reading here and should dictate what it should look like. You’re probably a lot better at choosing colors than me too! :)

  15. iamthewitch says:

    Hi Dave! I’m another Malaysian and it warms my heart so see a visitor speaking so fondly of a neighbouring state! As Ciki puts it, do come and visit in KL or your journey to Malaysia wouldn’t be complete! ;)

    Meanwhile in KK, I guess you are definitely going for the inevitable climb to the highest peak in South East Asia aka Mount Kinabalu? And don’t forget the Poring Hot Springs after, as well as the White Water Rafting in Padas river. The train ride from Beaufort to Padas is a different experience altogether. :)

    • Hi Iamthewitch!

      Glad to have you come and visit here :) Yes, so far the people of Sabah have been very nice. Tourists not so. The food is simply great, and I can’t get enough. I hear KL is also a hot place for food. I look forward to it!

      Not at all sure about Mount KK. I’ve been to Nepal, and like the mountains there. The tourist scene here puts me off a little. I might just be the first tourist to not climb Mount KK :)

      But I really like your suggestion about the train ride. I am researching it as we speak. Some people told me it was not operating, others are saying yes. I’ll have to see for myself, but thanks for the suggestion, it’s really my kinda thing :)

  16. Sounds like a wonderful place to visit. Can’t believe that there’s a place like that in SE Asia.

  17. TCC says:

    KK is very easy travel and yes…extremely clean…
    And guess what? there are lots of filipinos there in KK…they can speak the local language and look local but are actually filipinos…specially the market place area – i can’t remember the exact name…

  18. Kimura says:

    Its have been decade haven’t been to KK