Thursday, January 27, 2011


A couple of months ago my friend Michael Fahey got back from a company trip to Sabah and told me "it's bikeable." I've always wanted to go to Borneo (it's Borneo, man!) and so without further ado I browbeat my close friend Jeff Miller into coming with me in January. He brought along his friend Kenji Sugata, a professional cameraman and director, divemaster, and all around competent person. And the three of us were off for 11 days in wonderful Sabah.

I chose the photo at the left here as the top photo because this was Sabah for us: super friendly, fun people constantly wanting to interact with us in totally positive ways. We didn't do any of the trekking stuff; instead, we biked around the small towns and roads of western Sabah. A very relaxed and enjoyable experience it was, and I'm already planning to go back in July.

We flew AirAsia direct to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, Malaysia, for $7000 NT + $500 NT to ship the bikes. I changed $12,500 NT at the airport in Taoyuan and came back with 10 ringgit (=$100 NT), thus spending $1000 NT a day. Actually I spent less, but we blew a lot on souvenirs and gifts the last couple of days. Total cost of the trip: $21,000 NT. A bargain. Here we are at the left assembling our bikes outside the airport in Kota Kinabalu (KK-town, as the locals call it).

After arriving at the airport, we planned to bike to Tuaran and go over the mountains to the east coast. But we got lost and ended up staying in KK town instead that night. After observing the rain and clouds over the mountains, we decided to give the idea of crossing the mountains a rest for a few days.

KK town (left). The first night we stayed at the Step-In lodge, full of backpackers. It offered dorms for 38 ringgit, but for few more ringgit you can get a low priced hotel in the town's extremely competitive lodging market. Although I admit that I totally got off on the backpackers headed for remote trekking in Borneo calling us "hard core" ("look at that kit!").

In the morning we decided to ride north. On the way out we passed by the port and bay outside KK town.

Enjoying a lovely morning by the seaside.

Riding out of KK town.

Navigation was a problem. Roads were poorly marked, and signs did not tell you whether you were headed north or south. Fortunately Jeff and Kenji were infallible navigators. I, on the other hand......

On the left is the main highway headed north. From the cycling standpoint the main roads were mostly dull. They were quite crowded and noisy, but drivers in Malaysia were almost supernaturally polite and well-behaved. Everyone treated us with the utmost courtesy.

"Guys, we're in Borneo!"

Stopping for lunch, Kenji tries the local staple mee goreng, fried noodles. We were quite unimpressed with this dish and soon switched to the heavenly rotis and curries available everywhere.

Once you got off the highways into the local communities, the riding became quite pleasant. And then there were the wonderful local people.... these two boys, whom I told to smile. A superfluous command if ever there was one.....

Kenji discovers something unpleasant: he's pulled a muscle in a his thigh and can't bike! He was forced to walk the remaining hills, but we arrived in Kota Belud, some 70 kms from KK town, with plenty of daylight to spare.

Stopping to rest, I picked off an egret, a common sight in Sabah.

Recharging with bananas and water at a roadside stand.

We stopped at a collection of buildings along the road to grab some cold drinks. One drawback of Sabah is that sugarless drinks are nigh on impossible to find. My own theory is that everyone likes Sabah so much because they are buzzing on sugar the whole time there.....

A farm near Kota Belud (left).

On the highway we made an efficient 90 kilometers per joule.

Entering Kota Belud, famed for its magnificent views of Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in the region at 4,000+ meters.

A street in Kota Belud.

The mosque at the end of town. It's a useful orientation point. Facing the mosque, the KB Travel Lodge, where we stayed, is to the left about 200 meters away.

The travel books all say that Kota Belud is a boring prosaic town, but we had a great time there hanging out, introducing ourselves to Sabah and talking with and imaging the locals.

In the morning I rose at dawn and went out to photograph Mt. Kinabalu, or "God Mountain" in the local parlance(s), that being the tourist thing to do. I didn't know where to go, and fell to chatting with some early risers who turned out to be local Chinese and were delighted to speak mandarin with me. Chinese are common in Sabah. The men pointed me in the left direction for good pics of the mountain.

Breakfast vendor, Kota Belud.

Granary attached to house, Kota Belud.

A Chinese newspaper vendor in Kota Belud. There are Chinese language papers in both simplified and traditional available everywhere we went.

Jeff and I hit the local market to take pictures. Here's a breakfast vendor on the left.

Dried fish, a local staple.

The morning market in Kota Belud.

Schoolgirls hanging out in the square.

Breakfast vendor display. Yum. I'm already missing the food terribly.

Jeff in our room at the KB lodge. This was 85 ringgits, with attached bath.

In the morning Jeff and I set out on our bikes for a leisurely ride to the beach, while Kenji rested his leg. We climbed past the mosque and then turned toward the ocean. Pleasant riding ahead!

Mt Kinabalu, visible from anywhere around Kota Belud, overlooks an intersection.

Bikes at rest while we photo break.

Jeff navigates around Sabah-style road obstacles.

Farmland outside Kota Belud.

Jeff rides through a village.

A river and stilt village near the sea.

On a bridge overlooking the river mouth and stilt village.

We hit the beach, where waterfowl and sand abounded. After lounging about in the water for an hour, we hopped on the bikes and went back to town.

On the way I shot a few pics of the local housing....

...fellow cyclists....

....and local structures.

Lunch in Kota Belud: rotis and curry. Yum.

In the afternoon we took a minibus back to KK Town to give Kenji more rest. Here we are at the Ruby Hotel in Kota Kinabalu. 129 for the room, but they will discount you to 110 or less if you bargain. Of course, the aircon was a bust and the toilet didn't work. The former problem resulted in high humidity in the room, which killed my Fuji HS10. The next day I had no camera. Aargh!

In every hamlet in Sabah there is a snooker hall, where men stand around for hours watching other people play snooker.

Jeff grabs dinner in KK town. Jeff's quirky good humor and quiet graciousness were a big hit with the locals, while women swooned over his blond good looks and ignored me. I'm definitely not taking him on another trip.

We left KK town in the morning for a 120 kilometer ride down south to Kuala Penyu. The cycling side was dull -- flat road, like riding endlessly through Pingtung -- but the people were great and the small towns lots of fun to visit. Jeff successfully navigated things despite Google maps' presentation of Sabah, which is like a teenager's description of his Saturday night date: a mixture of fact and fantasy, with the important things omitted. Kenji's leg was gimpy but serviceable for flat riding. Since my camera was dead, I have no pics of this ride.

Eventually we turned off the highway and entered the highlight of the ride, speeding through villages and then through some 20 kms of desolate coastal marshland, as lonely and scary a ride as I have ever done. Our only company were herds of water buffalo occupying the road, giving you that beady-eyed stare that asks "should I charge you?" The scary thing is that they have brains made of rock -- even the lizards know to sensibly get out of the road -- so the gods alone know what conclusion they'll come to. I've been gored by cattle before, in Africa, and the buffalo terrified me. Fortunately, they were as scared of me as I was of them, and always got out of my way. Finally we wound up in Kuala Penyu town around 4 after a nifty little ferry ride across the local river. We blitzed out to the place you see in the picture there to the left, the Tempurung Seaside Resort, which at 135 ringgit a person (=1350 NT) was a mite overpriced. So pretty it was practically a cliche, it is not easy to find.

UPDATE: Kenji passed me this pic of the buffalo in the road.

Kenji massages his bad leg. In the morning as Kenji was adjusting his seat the seat clamp broke with an audible crack, rendering his bike hors de combat. The resort drove him and his bike back the 10 kms to town where there was a small bike shop. He found a seat clamp and after much persuasion with tools, got it to fit. We were back on the bikes! Kenji, a professional camera man, suggested that humidity was problem with my camera. He gave me a ziploc bag and told me to put the camera in it with a bag of silica gel desiccant. It turned out that desiccant is not used in anything made in Malaysia, so I scoured every shop in town looking for that little packet in a bag of imported food, much to the amusement of the locals. Finally I found one -- in a bag of WantWant rice crackers made in China.

After Kenji's bike was fixed we headed south down to Menumbok to take the 4:00 pm ferry to Labuan Island, with the idea of going on to Brunei. After leaving Kuala Penyu we rode for 30 kms of up and down road through jungle. But people were always willing to stop for a chat and a photo. Even though the cycling was monotonous, the locals made it totally enjoyable.

Stopping for sugar water.

In Menumbok for a late lunch. We had a good time talking to Nelson, the cashier at the restaurant near the ferry pier.

To kill time we rode around the local byways. I wish Taiwanese would make their homes this colorful.

I had a pinch flat, which fortunately ruptured along the side of the tube, meaning it was fixable. Here the local repair shop takes a stab at it ("I've never seen a tube this thin," said the woman nervously.) There are no parts for 700 cm wheels outside KK town and Labuan Island that we saw, though 26 inch bikes were sold in many places and tires and tubes for that size are available.

At last our ferry arrived.

Stilt village outside Menumbok port.

Chinese temple, Menumbok.

Aboard the ferry. Sabah was filled with children and pregnant women, and from conversations we formed the idea that having children was a powerful sign of womanhood for the local girls. It was such a pleasure to be in a place with tons of kids, after child-starved Taiwan. The local kids treated us with great friendliness and courtesy.

Boat and marshes, near Menumbok.

Jeff makes friends on the ferry.

The two hour ferry ride from Menumbok to Labuan was an amazing experience.

First you pass, in the distance, a large fleet of 20 or so tankers and LNG ships at rest near the oil and gas platforms out to sea. Then, as you enter the port on Labuan Island, there's a fleet of at least 40 rescue ships at anchor. The ferry passes left next to them as night falls. Truly an unforgettable experience.

The fleet stretches over the water.

We crashed in town and then in the morning rode out for a resort on the north side of the island.

The Mysterious Chimney, a relic of UK coal mining operations on Borneo in the 19th century. There's a cute and informative little museum next door.

I know you were anticipating numerous bug here's one for ya.

Stopping by a local shop for various sugary snacks and drinks.

Kenji and Jeff rock Labuan Island.

After a leisurely ride along the small roads by the ocean, we reached the Manikar Beach Resort. The rooms were 150 ringgit each, or 50/person. Cheap. It was totally deserted, except for us, and we had the run of the place to ourselves. Despite the large staff service was indefensible and the food was inedible. We loved it. We ended up staying two days and eating our meals back at the port.

Jeff finds a shot.

In the evening we went out to the beach to take sunset photos.

Far out to sea, the oil platforms were sending off flares of burning natural gas.

In the morning we decided to circumnavigate the island, a pleasant ride about 40 kms along the ocean. Here Kenji takes photos of the lovely tree-lined streets.

Chinese temple.

There are some really gorgeous homes in the area.

Islam is omnipresent but somehow manages to be low key. Lots of small mosques about.

Taking a break at a local bus stop.

Going into town, some local students ran out to yell at us and exchange high-fives.

In the port town we ate many meals at the excellent Restoran Dinnie, which we selected because it was packed at mealtimes and busy all the time. Obviously excellent food....

Rotis: the center of our lives in Sabah. The Dinnie did them well.

Lunch at the Dinnie: beef curry, a spicy salad (every restoran had its own version, all delicious), and a couple of plain rotis. Yum.

Not all rotis were flat.

We went out to the port to take pictures and hang out. A bunch of local kids came out to ooh and ah over our bikes.

Eat your heart out, Kerslake.

The Hobby Mix, near the ferry terminal, carries a variety of bike parts. Kenji found a quick release seat clamp that fit his bike. There is a limited supply of Maxxis 700 x 25 tires with appropriate tubes. One of the workers said they get a lot of cyclists from Brunei who come up on the weekend to ride the island.

A little ferry boat crosses the harbor under gathering skies.

Then it was time for an afternoon beer. Vacation sure is heartbreaking.

These nectar feeders hover around flowers in the cities.

In the afternoon I rode out to the memorial for British Commonwealth WWII dead.

I stopped at the beach to photo the waiting fleet of rescue ships.

Then it was the Aladdin Restaurant for tea madras, a heart attack in a glass (tea powder plus fake creamer plus palm oil plus sugar).

The next day we took the ferry shown here on the left back to Kota Kinabalu town, about 3 1/2 hours for just 39 ringgit for Business Class.

Sabah has the world's most awesome cats. They always let you pet and hold them, even the street cats. Really great for my necessary cat fix now and then.

They wouldn't let us out of the ferry to take pictures, so this was the best shot I could get of the awesome scenery of the coast as we came into KK Town port.

We stayed at the Stay Inn next to the big Chinese seafood food court. At 25/person, it was cheap, clean, and conveniently located.

Kota Kinabalu from Signal Hill.

Stilt villages across from KK town.

Shaving coconut meat in a local market.

We spent the next couple of days racking our brains for souvenirs to buy our teenagers. Here we enter the souvenir market, where each stall offers the same totally unique souvenirs.

We did a lot of photography of people....


...fruit markets....

....Dry markets....

...vegetable markets...

....night markets....

....local scenes....



....and more people....

...and BBQ....

...and bugs...

...and then one day, just as dawn was breaking in Sabah, we hopped on our flight back home, vacation over, our bags filled with souvenirs, our cameras crammed with images, and our hearts full of the amazing experiences and people of Sabah. I'll be back soon!

REMARKS: We had no trouble with our various bikes on the local roads. Pavements are in good condition, but shoulders are found only outside larger towns. Drivers are excessively polite. In case you are wondering, I took my road bike with 700 x 25 Continental Ultra Race tires; had no trouble on the road (pinch flat was caused by improper packing on a vehicle). We only cycled the west coast, so I can't say anything about the east, but cycling was a totally different and very lazy and enjoyable way to see Sabah and experience its life. It also saved tons of transportation expenses, and enabled us to work off all the beer we were drinking. So I lost weight despite constant consumption of beer and rotis. Aren't bike vacations great?

Daily food expenses were about rm 20-30 and for accommodations, we paid 25-50. It was more expensive than I had anticipated.

We didn't do any treks, because they were out of our budget. But it didn't matter. The people of Sabah are so friendly and positive that the vacation was a total success. They created a wonderful time for us, and I can't wait to see them again.
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums! Delenda est, baby.


Everything Taiwan! said...

You should try to conquer Mount Kinabalu on your next trip!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Great photos. I must say I like mee goreng and its sister dish, nasi goreng. I make nasi goreng at home with spice packets bought at the Indonesian supermarket in the Civic Blvd. underground mall near Taipei Main, and my husband gets all excited when I announce that it's nasi goreng night!

Anonymous said...


OzSoapbox said...

Welcome back, looks like you had a great time. I can't wait to get the Long Haul Trucker out and about eventually.

Any plans for CNY or you staying local?

(sidenote: photo titled 'eat your heart out kerslake appears to be a duplicate)

Michael Turton said...

Oz, I would absolutely love to ride with you. Really liked your post on Lion Head Mountain in Miaoli. I'll be around all through CNY. Riding tomorrow, in fact, if you have time.... and sat and sun too.

NONE said...

Kerslake needed a double whammy of jealousy!

P. S. said...

Good and first bike travel story I have read from that part of the world. Looking forward to seeing more!

Jade said...

Really enjoyed the pictures and the stories.

OzSoapbox said...

Unfortunately I gotta work and CNY is looking like a solemn event money wise as I've got to travel overseas in March.

I'll have the bike with me in Taipei during CNY though, not sure if I'll be around to use it though!

Chris said...

The orange flower is Pyrostegia venusta, or "Orange Trumpet".

Jean said...

Great trip photos!