Labuan- The alternate route to Kota Kinabalu in the “Land below the wind”Another visit to Sabah seemed a good idea, so we made arrangements to fly over from Kuala Lumpur together with friend Winnie Leong.
Athough there are a number of sights to see, bird parks etc. we decided it was not for this trip. We checked into a low cost hotel with bathroom for RM60, but I hasten to add there are a lot of better (and worse) ones available. We were close to the ferry terminal, which again is efficient and opted for the more expensive high speed ferry direct to KK for RM34 one way. Tip-morning ferry is a very smooth crossing whereas afternoon trip can get a little rougher. Also a 0830 ferry usually means it leaves a 0755 so don't be late. Next time we may try the slow ferry to Menumbuk and bus up to KK. Not only cheaper but more to see.
Labuan has plenty of good eating cafe's and being a duty free port a long neck beer is typically RM5 in the cafe or RM2 a can chilled from duty free shops. The price range in duty free shops is huge and pays to shop around. Example is original Glenmorangie in shops on the main street and near the ferry terminal starting at RM185. As you start in the side streets it gets lower until you reach Adeline Tan's “Maryland Duty Free Shop” in Jalan Bunga Kenanga (ph 0148513888 or email email@example.com) where we bought for RM96 a litre
Labuan however has a unique character which revolves around the oil industry workers. It seems on the surface normal, however look closer and you will see only Muslim Malay or Indian (Mamah) cafe's actually serve food. The Chinese cafe's are all BYO...food that is. They serve only drinks and 99% of that is beer. The Muslim cafe's naturally don't have alcohol. The other thing you notice is a huge number of 4D lottery shops. So the guys get back from work, buy a few numbers, grab some nasi lamak or roti canai on the run and within minutes have their chair in a Chinese cafe drinking ice cold beer. Later when they decide to go home its into buy a few more numbers on the way to the late night duty free shops to pick up some nightcap in black plastic bags. This is truly 1 Malaysia where all races work together in their own unique way to extract the oil dollar.
Kota Kinabalu has changed for the better in less than a year. More places have been refurbished, food even better, but prices higher. Generally a budget hotel now starts at around RM60 and add RM10 for an on suite bathroom. But it will be clean and usually include free wifi and a basic free bread and jam coffee or tea for breakfast.
Beware the rip off boys. Long distance taxis, even local ones will rip off. I have yet to find a tour operator who does not rip off and a great many places charge tourists up to 500% more than locals. It gets up my nose so my policy now is that they obviously don't want my business if they stick to this double standard, so they don't get my business. Examples, ferry and landing fee to Gaya Island, Proboscis monkey sanctuary Sandakan, etc. Even the KK museum, although once I objected the price became the same for everybody and is a good visit.
Especially if you can get a car load together, consider hire car. Again not cheap but much cheaper than alternatives. Here we found the Grace Express car rental (ph +60 168319763 or firstname.lastname@example.org talk to Ah Chung) was by far the best, great service , top vehicles and will negotiate price if over a few days. Typically a decent 5 seater RM130 (was RM160) and a 6 seater RM200 (was RM250) a day plus RM18 a day insurance. Delivery and pickup to the door.
I had forgotten Sabah is north of KL and the temperature our whole trip was generally cooler, with lovely sea breezes most of the time. At Kampung Kokol on the mountain overlooking KK at sunset (another must do) it was cold, but hot coffee at Cloud Nine health spa warmed us up and lightened our pockets. If you preferred you could stay there for around RM200 a couple a night and sip dandelion teh (tea) to clean your colon while watching the spectacular view!
Food in Sabah has got better, Every second place sells Bak Kut Teh, not as good as the original Port Klang stuff, but OK. The chicken is great and beats KL hands down, Some of the local dishes and local Chinese dishes are to drool over. Especially some of the mee (noodles) Pan mee, Yee mee, Kolok mee to name a few. Add chicken, roast and char siew pork and some siew chong sausage and your will never want anything else. The fruit is something else as well. Sarawak has the name for pineapples, but the ones we had in Sabah were better, sweeter, juicier and you slurp through chunks with juice dripping everywhere.
Its a pity that a week is not made entirely of Sundays, as Sunday markets are the thing to do. Gaya Street in KK becomes one huge market with everything you can think of and all fun, if not as cheap as you might think...but check which Sunday of a month is the special grand day in Kota Belud. We missed the special one with the wild Bajaus cowboys showing their riding skills and the market I'm told is huge and authentic. We did just an ordinary Sunday in KB, with the old people in their wonderful costumes, not for tourists or effect, this real and local fruit and veg, medicine men with wonderful cure all potents and always a friendly smile. Unless you run over a fighting cock and then get out of town fast.
Local story is that a Chinese trading junk foundered off Kota Belud and the sailors and their wives were taken in by the Bajaus people of Kota Belud. Towering above KB is Mt Kinabalu and the sailors thought it was the home of the golden dragon and set off to get its riches. Naturally they perished and their widows stayed behind in hope. The old word for China is Kina and Balu is Malay for Widow and Kinabalu is Chinese widow. I love useless information!
With our wonderful hire car we drove to Sandakan via Renau and took in Mt Kinabalu and all the wonderful mountains and valleys crossing the Crocker Range. 6+ hour drive on rather ordinary roads with slow trucks, but a spectacular trip. Having our own wheels meant we could stop when we felt like it and buy roadside produce...and a few litres of petrol from a drum by the road when we almost ran out
Alternate to Sandakan is a bus from Inanam RM43 one way having got a No3 bus from down town KK to Inanam. Double it for round trip and a full hire car is an option.
Sandakan harbour front
Sandakan is a big almost city. The old town is not large and has quite some history since its founding by William Pryer in 1879. The harbour is lovely and very protected with lots of largish islands offshore. One can still take tea at Agnes Kieth's tea rooms in the annex of the old residency on the hill overlooking the town. To the north of town are a couple of large temples and an attractive mosque. Many people live out over the water and usually at the end of a pier there is a restaurant. For those who prefer Chinese food, piers 7 and 8 are the ones to go to and the price is good. 5 people with 5 dishes, tea and rice for RM70. That include fish, wonderful prawns, chicken veg etc. Super friendly town, where everyone smiles and says hello. There are a huge number of low/med cost hotels as well as Swiss Inn and a Sheraton 4 points being built out over the sea and the nearby waterfront cafe's a great place to eat and grab a coffee. A wonderfully civilised town.
We didn't get time to check out the Orang Utan rehab centre, but we did check the Proboscis monkey sanctuary and with RM15 for Malaysian residents and RM 60 for tourists we voted with our feet. When will the greedy bastards learn that double standards leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Labuan by fast ferry on the way out again and restful stroll around the town buying stuff before the short trip to the airport and back to KL. ...and happy to see Air Asia continues to get better.