Sepilok’s Orangutans and Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves. An End to Malaysia Travels.

When planning our trip across Southeast Asia on our way home to the United States, Amy and I sat down and looked through the guide books to see what we would want to do. The entire point to making the voyage out to the Borneo Island for us was Sandakan. Sandakan is small oceanside city on the Malaysian side of the island that is the transit point to Sepilok, the home of the Sun Bear Sanctuary and Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

I remember the moment that Amy and I got off the plane and were waiting in the taxi line and an elderly tourist stopped me.

“Excuse me miss? Can you tell me why there are so many young individuals flying to here?” he asked me.

“There’s an Orangutan Center thirty minutes away from here,” I responded back.

“Oh….I thought it was something more exciting,” and with that he turned and walked away.

More exciting? What can be more exciting than visiting a center that is only one of four in the world? The world, people!

Sepilok is an easy taxi ride from the airport. We discovered early on in our travels, that when having to take public transportation, it was typically easier to take a taxi, then local buses. Not only in efficiency, but because with local buses, you have to change buses to get almost anywhere. It is also really convenient, and overall, not that expensive. At any airport, you go to the taxi window, tell the attendant where you are going, they charge you a cost, you pay, and then you give the ticket to taxi driver when you go outside. It prevents greatly from the taxi drivers scamming you by running up the meter, if it even has a meter.

There is no dirt cheap place to stay in Sepilok. The luxury hotels monopolize the area, but the Long House offers a somewhat inexpensive accommodation. Food however, good luck. Look to be spending US prices eating the simplest meals on the menu. That’s just the way it is. The hotels are the only option for eating.

The Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is open all day for hiking, but there are only two feedings to see the orangutans, 10am and 3pm. If you want the best value for the ticket price, go to watch both feedings. If you have two days in Sepilok and you won’t make the first feeding for the first day, put it off and go to the Sun Bear Sanctuary instead. Right across the street, and pushed out of the limelight because of the orangutans is the sanctuary where the world’s smallest bear lives, and they are worth the visit. They are some of the cutest animals I have ever seen, and they climb trees! We spent three hours without even knowing it watching them climb up and down trees.

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Apart from the Sun Bears and Orangutans, Sepilok is also home to the Rainforest Education Center, a great place to take a hike and bird watch if you have extra time, and learn about the plants that call Malaysia home. But beware of the humidity and the leeches! They’ll get you every time.

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 Amy and I spent a total of two nights in Sepilok, and left the morning of the third day to our final Malaysian destination, Kuala Lumpur. We had intentions to make the trip to Kuala Selangor to experience the fireflies, but with traffic getting back into Kuala Lumpur from the airport, we missed the last bus out, meaning an extra night in Kuala Lumpur, doubling our time in there. We ended up staying at The Pod Hostel, one of the coolest hostels I stayed in the entire trip. The dorm rooms were the same, but the individual room we slept in the first night since nothing in the dorms were available was very “pod”esc, something I enjoyed.

The reason we only allotted two days to Kuala Lumpur was mainly because it was just a stopping point on the way to Thailand. We did want to visit the Batu Caves and two friends from our Peace Corps group were in town as well, so our days were planned, and only two were needed.

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Everyone that travels through Malaysia has heard of the Batu Caves. It is a religious sight, known for its tall statue guarding the stairs and the entrance of the cave. It too can be easily reached by the local metro system, costing roughly $4 round trip, dropping you off right at the entrance. It would be beneficial to do some cardio in the days leading up because those steps will definitely cause you to be winded by the time your reach the top. You can be blessed at any one of the temples, giving a dollar or two donation in return. I have never liked when people make a religious site a tourist trap by ‘selling’ the experience, but Batu Caves does it in a very classy way. Monks are walking about, using the grounds to further their faiths, and overall, tourists are very respectful of what areas are designated tourist and what remain for their original purpose.

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Petronas Twin Towers, also in KL

Malaysia was a whirlwind of 7 days and a lot was accomplished in that time. There was little time to relax, but rather take in the sights, and the rest of our trip would be the same as well. On to Thailand, starting with a flight into Chiang Mai.

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Navigating Airports Through Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu

When you join Peace Corps, you are bitten by the travel bug. You want to go everywhere, see everything, and experience it all. I traveled through four different countries on my way home after finishing my service. First stop was Malaysia. It was a bit unfortunate that I visited the country a mere month after the Malaysia Air flight went missing after takeoff. That was all anyone could converse about. I was even a little hesitant myself to get on a plane when more than 5 countries and 13 military ships couldn’t find the wreckage of the plane that supposedly went down. With that being said, I tried to not let the conspiracy bring down the expectations I had for traveling. A little easier said than done. The nearly two months of traveling involved 9 flights. I took one flight at a time, and enjoyed the each destination reminding myself nothing ever comes from being worried.

If you know me, you know I have everything planned out. I want to know where I’m going, and when I’m going to get there. Something I didn’t research, that now I look back and realize I should have, was airports. I assumed that when you arrived into one airport and you have a connecting flight in the same city, you just need to walk to the gate…wrong. Note to any backpackers who might be traveling through Southeast Asia, or more importantly Kuala Lumpur, and happens to stumble across this post, there are TWO airports. One for any international flight and one for regional transportation/Air Asia. They are not in the same airport, and more detrimental, they are not close to each other. I allowed two hours in between arriving in Kuala Lumpur and catching a flight to Kota Kinabalu. I believe a little over one hour before our flight was supposed to take off, a nice gentleman told us that we needed to get to another airport, 30 minutes away. Queue panic mode.

Air Asia terminals are laid out strangely. They screen your bag before you get to the counter. You check in online, preferably twenty four hours prior to your flight, which is when your seat is assigned unless you pay the extra few dollars to pick your own seat. I have also noticed that when you fly with Air Asia, the first seat they assign you tends to be the seat whereabouts you are assigned for the rest of your travels. I never sat in a row less than 22 which my friend always seemed to be sitting around row 9. When we arrived, t-minus 30 minutes to the terminal, we rushed through the lines trying to get through security before our plane took off. Success!
After a short three hour flight to the island of Borneo, we landed at our first destination, Kota Kinabalu. After checking into our hostel, we went searching for food, and our first meal outside of Madagascar ended up being chicken livers and rice. We found some small hole in the wall place right around the corner from our hostel, and the cravings for rice lead us into this little establishment. Filled with Malay individuals who all gave us a puzzle luck as to why two Americans were eating there, we ate our meal, discussing that although we may have left Madagascar, we never really left our picked up habits.

The entire reason for visiting Kota Kinabalu is to climb Mt. Kinabalu and visit Tunku Abdul Rahman Park second. In order to climb Mt. Kinabalu you need a climbing permit and reservation, something we didn’t get, so that was out. Second choice, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. A national park of four islands, it is a relaxing place to snorkel and enjoy the ocean. Tour companies will try to sell you a package tour for nearly triple the price of what you would to walk down to the port and buy the boat hopper ticket and snorkels yourself. Backpackers are all about pinching pennies, so walking and figuring out the program yourself means adding a nice meal to your schedule later on. When visiting islands however, make sure you mind the hundreds and hundreds of jelly fish that hang out on the shoreline.

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Kota Kinabalu also has an amazing food night market, one of the best I saw in the two months traveling. Descriptions can’t even do it justice. Just look at the photos. Fresh fish and seafood, coconuts, and very hospitable people working the stations.
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(photo creds to Amy Wallace)

There are so many tours taking off from Kota Kinabalu to other locations. We opted to see the summit of Mt. Kinabalu and the Poring Hot Springs for our last day in town. The massive size of Mt. Kinabalu alone was worth the trip, but personally, I felt Poring Hot Springs was completely overrated. It had been commercialized to the point that it lost its raw tourism aspect and felt more like a water park than anything. For those that want to really “experience” the island, I don’t think I would ever recommend it as a destination. For a family outing, it would be perfect. But if you do end up venturing out that direction, you can get a free pedicure in the waterfall behind the rope bridge at Poring from the little fishes that eat dead skin.

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Kota Kinabalu was a fast first stop on the two month adventure, stay tuned for part two: Sepilok and Kuala Lumpur.