Monday, October 11, 2010

Welcome to Pandora

Kota Kinabalu: a place no one or at least very few people have heard of back in the States. For all the NUS exchange students please bear with me for one moment. Kota Kinabalu is in Malaysia, more specifically Borneo, which is the Malay part of the third largest island in the world. More importantly, Kota Kinabalu is located an hour and a half from one of the tallest mountains in southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu. The twentieth highest peak in the world, I had heard people raving about hiking up this mountain for a couple of weeks so when I heard people going the first week in October, I had to jump on the opportunity of a lifetime. Luckily, it was e-learning week at NUS meaning a lot of classes were either cancelled or required writing up a quick post on the internet, meaning there was no reason for me to be in Singapore.

So after a few clicks, the entering in of some credit card information, and chaos meeting up with people the morning of the flight, I found myself sitting next to one of my friends at the gate to our plane in Changi Airport. We got on the plane at around 10:30 A.M. and found ourselves in Kota Kinabalu approximately two hours later.

The two of us took a taxi into town and in no time found a place to stay. Since our main goal was to climb the mountain, we hadn't put in any thought as far as what to do in Kota Kinabalu. Fortunately, the guy who ran the hostel we were at was very helpful and told us to check out a number of things right on the water. The city/town, I'm not really sure how you would classify it, was very small so we walked across town to check out the various markets down by the sea. Soon thereafter, it was time to check out the food stalls located close by. There were many different places offering up their own fish, right off the boat, as well as chicken wings, corn, rice, tiger prawn, lobster, and so on. Between the two of us, we had banana fish, tuna, two servings of rice, and ten chicken wings. Without question one of the finer meals I have had in southeast Asia thus far.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent seeing whatever was left of Kota Kinabalu and waiting for the rest of our group to meet up with us at the hostel.

The next day, we made an attempt to go and see orang-utans at this hotel/resort located an hour outside of town. We arrived at the very nice and most likely overpriced venue only to find out that the orang-utan viewing was fully booked. As consolation for our travels, the five of us ended up chilling out in a hut on the massive beach located adjacent to the hotel. A few hours went by before picking up our things and heading back to Kota Kinabalu for another fantastic seafood dinner. Afterwards, it was time to head to the bus stop to go to Mount Kinabalu.

Now here is one of lasting memories I will forever have of Malaysia. We arrive by taxi at the bus station swarmed by ten or more Malays. They immediately flung open the doors to the vehicle and popped the trunk. It was then that I saw them take my bag and a friend's bag. Instinctively, I went after the man who had taken our stuff and followed him to wherever he was going. I asked repeatedly for him to give me my stuff back but he didn't comply. Finally, he dropped our things at his stall to buy a bus ticket to Mount Kinabalu. I let down my guard after having to endure such a chaotic situation being separated from my friends momentarily in a country where none of us had working phones while having so many locals screaming in your face and not understanding a word they are saying. The other four individuals found me without any problems and managed to also grab the pair of shoes I had left in the trunk, which was crucial since I wouldn't have had anything to hike in the next day.

It was a crazy ninety minute bus ride: twisting and turning up and down the many mountains that consumed much of Borneo. Upon arriving at the base of the mountain, the group walked down the road for cheap accommodation. It was very refreshing to be outside as the air was cool and even a little on the chilly side. It must have been about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 10 degrees Celsius for everyone else in the world). Those were some of the best few hours of sleep I've had in southeast Asia; it was splendid to not be cooped up in a very warm single room back in Singapore.

It was now Thursday morning, the beginning of our grueling hike was approaching. We met our tour guide who would watch over us for the next two days and caught up with another friend from NUS. The six of us got a ride over to the starting gate of the hike and in almost no time began the our trek up the mountain at 10:44 A.M. MYT.

At first, the terrain seemed relatively flat with a few staircases to climb here and there. But as time went on, the rain that had started that morning began to pick up while the convenient staircases turned into muddy areas with jagged rocks. Nonetheless, the six of us and our guide moved forward at a solid pace taking the occasional break to catch our breath and indulge in energy-filled snacks. Five hours later, covered in soaking wet clothes, we found ourselves at the Laban Rata Resthouse, which is 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) from the starting gate. Starving and exhausted, we indulged in the buffet at 5 o'clock prior to passing out in the room at 6:00 P.M. I enjoyed once more being able to sleep in a room that wasn't one giant inferno, yet going to bed so early ended up not working out so well. I would have thought climbing one of the biggest mountains in southeast Asia would have put me out of commission for a few hours. Instead, I ended up just taking a bunch of hour long naps. Time slowly passed by, but at long last it was 1:30 A.M. Time to wake up and finish the last leg of our journey to the summit known as Low's Peak.

Following an early morning breakfast, the expedition continued in the darkness of night at about 2:30 A.M. For an hour we struggled up steep staircases in the midst of many other hikers, making it very crowded on various parts of the trail. Then came the part of our ascent up the mountain that nobody saw coming. The mountain had become so steep that ropes were assembled so that people could pull themselves up, untethered. It was still very dark out and all we had for visibility were the headlights we were wearing. One person actually lost their footing for a second and almost got seriously hurt if they hadn't been hanging on to the rope. This was very physically demanding to have to pull our own weight for the majority of what remained in our hike. As time went on, our pace sped up in order to make it to the peak for sunrise. For the last kilometer, I was working my body so hard in the thin air, giving every last bit of energy I had as I could see the peak in front of me, but also see the tiniest bit of light coming from the sun off in the distance. For the last hill I had to traverse, I must have looked like a barbarian as I just climbed from rock to rock with no regard to where the beaten path was. Having nothing left to give, I had made it to the top of Mount Kinabalu. One friend was already waiting for me there while the rest of the group caught up with us in little time. The view was outstanding! I took, in all likelihood, some of the best photos of my trip to southeast Asia up to this point. Here's that sunrise I was working towards:

It was a sight for the ages as we hung out on the freezing cold summit for over an hour. I really could have convinced myself we were on the planet Pandora from James Cameron's "Avatar," the way the clouds looked from above complemented by the spacey looking terrain of the mountain. Simply stunning. After enjoying the view from the top, we began our slow descent down the mountain. At one point down the mountain, we reached a checkpoint to make sure everyone in our group was still there. It was at this stopping area that a park ranger got in the face of one member in our group and began yelling in his face. He was shaking with anger and kept asking him "Who are you?" He spit just to the right of my friend as a sign of disrespect and began going off about how much he hates white people. We still to this day aren't sure what he was so mad about, maybe that we weren't holding the rope for a second on the way down when it wasn't exactly necessary, but no one is too sure of that. He went off for a few minutes before we just walked by and ignored him. The rest of the 8.9 kilometer path felt like it was never going to end as the rain began to come down very hard, once again. When we did reach the end, it felt so good to have achieved such a great accomplishment. We had lunch as a group at the base and headed back to Kota Kinabalu to stay the night.

The next day, three of us took an early morning flight back to Singapore.

Overall, it was another exciting, exhilarating, and pleasant trip. There weren't many tourists in Kota Kinabalu, which was interesting since many local children came up to us and would say "Hi" just because we were Westerners. The mountain itself, I highly recommend to anyone who comes out to this part of the world. You may hate yourself during the climb and descent of the mountain as well as the few days after its over (I'm still very sore in my legs), but you will not regret the opportunity to be above the clouds on one of the biggest mountains in southeast Asia. A great experience on all fronts, thanks to all who I shared it with.

Let me also take the time to remind everyone that more photos and videos from my escapades can be seen at the following two links:

Thanks for reading!


  1. Neph - hate to admit this, but I wouldn't have made it past the first kilometer -- you da man. Sounds like all is great -- we miss you.
    Uncle D