Borneo: flying solo

I took my first solo trip last weekend. I had been considering attempting venturing out on my own but had not put a lot of thought into it because it didn’t seem like something that I could fit into my fully booked travel schedule. But then my travel buddy for Borneo got sick and dropped out, which was mostly really sad because no one wants their friends to get sick (!) but I wasn’t at all upset about her having to bail because it presented me the chance to strike out into the world and see how I did without a partner. Also, if I’m being completely honest (as I generally try to be) I was a little nervous about traveling on my own and so without having the situation thrust upon me like it was I would likely have never really pursued the possibility. However, thrust it was and happen it did. And it went swimmingly! I’ll be going into a bit more detail about this weekend due to the inaugural and somewhat pivotal nature of the trip.

Perhaps not the most stunning of photos, but this is a pretty accurate portrayal of what walking down every street in KK looked like.

Perhaps not the most stunning of photos, but this is a pretty accurate portrayal of what walking down every street in KK looked like.

As a mildly-seasoned traveller of Southeast Asia I wasn’t too nervous about the logistics of the travel itself or figuring out how to spend my time, but I couldn’t avoid a case of the butterflies as I headed out to the airport from NUS. What can I say, I’m a worrier. The trip was to Kota Kinabalu (KK), the main city in Sabah which is the Malaysian section of the island of Borneo. (For those curious, Borneo is an island split between a piece of Indonesia, a piece of Malaysia, and the entire tiny nation of Brunei.) Most visitors to this region come for one main purpose: to climb Mount Kinabalu. However, I had not trained nor prepared for the undertaking so I had done a fair amount of research about things to do in Sabah besides the trek, focusing on KK centered activities.

In line to check in for my flight I ended up chatting with the woman in front of me, a KK local heading home from a business trip. She (as everyone I talked to on my trip) assumed I was going to climb the mountain and seemed surprised I was giving the popular destination a miss. She suggested I spend a day on the islands off the coast of KK and confirmed what I had read about the Sunday morning market being excellent, so I solidified both those activities in my plans.

After the flight I waited a good 30 minutes to get through immigration. I was the last person to enter the room so I would have been last in any line I chose, giving me the option to play which-line-moves-fastest? I thought about what my Uncle Bobby once said: in traffic he always picks one lane and sticks with it, ending up at his destination at the same time as his friends who spend a lot of effort weaving through lines of cars. I was content to follow this sage wisdom until an overweight Indian couple started to nudge over into a space I had left when the line in front of me scootched up a person. Then I made it my personal mission to make it through security before them, and you’ll be happy to know that through strategic observations about the skill of each immigration officer and waiting until the last moment to make my move I stepped into Malaysia a good two people ahead of them. Score 1 for imaginary justice against un-perpetrated (but definitely considered) rudeness.

I made it to my hostel just fine and found myself housed on the top floor as seems to be my luck in hostels across asia. The bed was fine and the wifi was great so the stairs were an acceptable trade off. I headed over for some fresh seafood at a hawker center directly across the street and went back to my room to sleep as it was already 10:30pm.

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The next morning I followed airport woman’s advice and made my way over to the ferry. I turned down free hostel breakfast so I could stop for some Malaysian food along the way, which ended up being a pastry from a small shop and an accidental latte from coffee bean — I really wanted a Malaysian cafe and finally saw a sign for coffee, ordered, and only after receiving my drink noticed I was at a badly labelled western coffee chain. At least the pastry was legit.

...damn it, Coffee Bean.

…damn it, Coffee Bean.

The walk over was sunny and I was dripping sweat when I arrived, but what else is new — I have broken a sweat every day so far in Southeast Asia, and I expect that trend to continue unscathed. I used a coupon from my hostel to get 10 ringgit off of a 33 ringgit ferry ticket for two island hops, but with the 10 ringgit service fees ended up paying 33 anyway. I had done some reading on the islands earlier and decided to go to Sapi and Manukan. After getting my ferry ticket the girl behind the counter said “Go to the back.” I was in a large room with bench seating and nothing against the back wall, so I said “what does that mean?” and she said “Go to the back.” I tried to clarify but she shushed me away with a wave in the general direction of the back wall and would offer nothing more. A little miffed (clearly the back wall was not where the boat was waiting) I headed out the back door and asked some women who had bought tickets at the same booth as me where we were supposed to go, following them out the back along a row of restaurants behind the terminal to a dock. Ah yes, “the back.” Thanks kind strangers.

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I boarded a speedboat along with a Chinese family, heading to Sapi first. I was seated towards the front of the small craft on the side paneling, facing the middle of the boat. At first I thought the boat ride was awesome, the wind in my face and the sea spray in the air. But as we got further into the 15 minute ride and thus more into ocean territory I learned that in sea waves the front of a speedboat will get a little lift from a bump in the water and then smack back down onto the ocean surface with the force of an ultimate fighting body slam onto the mat. The extent of the vertical movement was much greater at the front of the boat and so the force I felt was much greater than if I had sat in the bacl. I had to cling to the edge of the boat to keep from sliding backward into the chubby asian boy next to me and couldn’t stop but visibly brace myself and flinch with every slam, while chubster let out exuberant whoops of glee at each impact as only tween boys are wont to do.

After my fingers were sore from gripping so tight and my left butt check was well and truly bruised the ride finally ended as we pulled up to a dock. No one from the family moved, which seemed weird. But the driver kept repeating “Sapi” so I clambered off the boat. I walked down the long wooden dock over beautiful turquoise waters to be greeted by a sign saying “Welcome to Manukan.” Oops. My ride had already left and I felt no real need to get back in a boat anytime soon anyway, so I decided my two island hop would turn into a one island sit and stay.

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This is my "I'm on the wrong island" face.

This is my “I’m on the wrong island” face.

I had a few hours to spend so rather than head straight for the beach I decided to see what the “marine research center” had to offer in terms of entertainment. When I arrived at the tiny building the signs had directed me to it was completely empty. As I feared no judgement from random strangers, it become my own personal hall of selfies! I posed with a lot of skeletons. The informational posters were interesting and I enjoyed my brief exploration of the small classroom-sized exhibit maze.

I exited and wandered along the beaches before settling near the dock area, managing to get only minorly sunburned. I finished my book (State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, pretty good) and swam among the many tropical fishies. There were some ‘water sports’ available but I don’t like snorkeling and was too cheap to jetski so I stuck to entertaining myself. There were, however, these hilarious contraptions called underwater bikes which had a seat and an attached helmet: the helmet was water proof so oxygen tubes running from the bikes to the surface allowed tourists to pedal along to ocean floor without learning to scuba dive. I didn’t feel the need to take my life into my hands and try one out, but the knowledge that these insane apparatuses even exist makes me happy.

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I headed back to land around 3pm, sandy and convinced my face was burned to a crispy fuchsia but unable to verify my feeling with anything other than unreliable selfies. (I was wrong, yay!) I walked back to my hostel along the waterfront and collapsed in my room for a bit before heading out for dinner at a cafe I had passed on my way back earlier. I sat right on the water’s edge and ate my seafood (aka containing 3 shrimp) Pattaya fried rice and then meandered home through the preponderance of night markets spotting the streets.

All in all a successful first day exploring on my own. Next post: morning market and monkey river cruise!


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