Thursday, January 25, 2007


Kota Kinablau, Sabah, Malaysia

Photo: Mount Kinabalu panorama

FYI - You can find photos from my trip to Sabah, Malaysia at:

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you unexpectedly get all the things you were wishing for? Well that happened to me here in Malaysia last week.

As I write this I am at the Universiti of Teknologi MARA in Shah Alam, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. I am here in my capacity as an External Examiner for the tourism degree program. An External Examiner is a concept from the British system of higher education and is technically someone who is brought to the university each year to review the final examination papers to ensure rigor. These days, however, the position involves consultation on a wide range of curricular matters.

This is my second visit to UiTM and I basically set aside two weeks so I would have plenty of time to attend to the duties of the position. Before I got here they told me that I would be going to visit the tourism programs at their branch campuses in Kuching (in Sarawak on Borneo) and to Melaka. I have been to both of these cities before and have no objection to a return visit as they are both interesting (though not new).

However, after I got here they told me that I would instead be going to Kota Kinabalu (in Sabah on Borneo) with the Dean of the Faculty of Hotel and Tourism Management. Cool! I have never been there before and have wanted to go there for a long time -- and especially after hearing the Sabah Tourism Director talk about it at a conference last year.

There were two things that I wanted to do in Sabah: visit Mount Kinabalu, at over 13,500 it is the highest peak in Southeast Asia, and go scuba diving (and hopefully see sea turtles). At first, however, the plan was to only go there for two nights (Wednesday to Friday), as there was another event back at the Shah Alam campus on Saturday that they wanted me to attend. But then they found that the Saturday event was cancelled due to a Muslim holiday, so I was allowed to stay until Sunday in Sabah. Thursday there was spent all day at the university. I was scheduled for more talks at the university on Friday, but we pretty much covered it all, so Friday and Saturday were wide open for doing the two things that I most wanted to do there – the mountains and scuba!

Photo: The UiTM branch campus, like almost everything else in Kota Kinabalu, overlooks the South China sea. The nearby islands are part of a park and are surrounded by coral reefs.

I really liked Kota Kinabalu. Maybe it was the brand new 5-star (I think) Le Meridien Hotel that I stayed in for about US$60/night, located across the street from the Philippine Market, fish market, and wet market. Maybe it was the incredibly friendly and welcoming students I met at the UiTM campus. Maybe it was all the new shopping malls that were going up – far more than the 600,000+ population can probably support. Maybe it was the sea food that the city is famous for. Or maybe it was all the villages built on stilts out over the flood flats that are covered by water at high tide and exposed at low tide. Many of them are actually squatters which, for political reasons, are almost impossible to move.

I was envisioning Kuching, in neighboring Sarawak, which I had visited in early January 1998. That was a while ago, and Kuching was far from very modern at that time. Kota Kinabalu (aka KK), on the other hand, is very a very modern city – modern hotels, shopping centers, streets (with traffic jams), and suburban residential development. There are beautiful island surrounded by coral just a few minutes boat ride from the city. And there are cooler mountain resorts surrounding the slopes of Mount Kinabalu. To me it would be a great place for a family vacation, and I am trying to figure out just when I can do that.

The UiTM campus had set aside a car and driver for me for on Friday and two of the tourism lecturers from the UiTM campus took me up to Mount Kinabalu. We left at 7:30 am, as the peak is often cloud covered by mid-morning. We did not get back to my hotel until 6:30pm. We stopped at a couple of scenic and gift shop places going up the mountain, and at the Poring Hot Springs on the far side of the mountain. The driver and one of the lecturers went to Friday prayers, while the other lecturer and I went to the hot springs and the rainforest canopy walk, which was the first time I had done that.

Photo: Poring Hot Spring Rainforest Canopy Walk

After lunch we headed up to Mount Kinabalu Park (the Poring Hot Springs is also within the park boundaries). On the way, we stopped to buy three durians, one wild durian (known as a “dalit”) and a small kind of jackfruit with white fruit inside (instead of yellow). We went up to the top of the road, where people head out to hike to the top of the mountain (an overnight trek). The area was covered with clouds when we got there that were swishing around the rainforest trees. We then stopped to eat the fruit.

Although I tasted my first durian over 20 years ago, it has only been in the last couple of years that I have learned to like eating them. I still cannot eat as much as a true durian lover, who will eat them non-stop until they get sick! However, I can eat a fair amount and enjoy it. The wild durian tasted even better because it was sweater. It was smaller than the regular durian and had long pointed spikes coming out of it, instead of the stubby spikes on the durian. The jackfruit was really good – much sweater than regular jackfruit.

The day after I got back to Shah Alam I ran into the tourism program coordinator who had flown over to review final exams. She said that she was surprised that her husband gave me the wild durian because most people get an allergic rash from eating it. I dawned on me that I actually had the same reaction. When I was diving the next day, I would feel occasional pinches on my arms and legs, though I was not touching anything. And the day after diving my face felt strange and I assumed that I had gotten sunburn, despite the spf 50 sunscreen I was wearing. However, now I am convinced that it was an allergic reaction and not a sunburn. I had some antihistamine from my last outbreak of hives (from eating something in Hong Kong in 2000), which I took to relieve the allergy. The worked and a couple days later I was fine.

Photo: Wild Durian (dalit) on the left; Durian on the right

I was introduced to a faculty member at the UiTM KK campus who is working on his Dive Master certification. He picked me up on Saturday to join him and his daughter on a diver with Borneo Divers (RM267 / US$78 for three dives/tanks). We got all our supplies on Mumatik Island. We took a dive boat out and back to a reef for the first dive (45 minutes), took a boat out and came back on shore for the second diver (55 minute), an did a shore diver for the third (50 minutes). The second dive was the best – the most coral and fish; the third was mostly sand and not great visibility - but still interesting. It was a great day.

Photo: areas we dived in just of the coast from KK

One of the major reasons I want to come back to Sabah it to dive at Sipidan Island – one of the best dive destinations in the world. It is an old volcanic neck that is completely underwater and the inside of which is lined with coral, amazing fish and a large number of sea turtles. It is on the far side of Sabah from KK and so takes a day to get to and is best visited for a few days.

The morning before my flight I went to the Sunday market which was several blocks from my hotel. It had a carnival-like atmosphere due to the music buskers and the colorful clothes and knick-knacks that were for sale.

A couple of additional notes about KK and Sabah:
So, I went from not having any plans to go to Sabah to going there and having two full days to do the major things that I have always wanted to do there! I have always felt that I had a gift for eventually getting things that I have really wanted in my life. This experience, however, was amazing and great fun!

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