HEADING FOR THE HILLS
We left Kota Kinabalu (KK) behind today, bound for the wilder Eastern side of the the Island, where wild orangutangs can still be seen swinging through the trees. Our bus didn’t leave until mid-morning, however, so we had time to explore the Sunday Walking Market, where hundreds of stalls were selling fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, and other staples.
Every Sunday morning in KK, the length of Gaya Street is closed off to traffic to make way for the markets. We walked the length of it and rode a roller coaster of sensory pleasures and horrors along the way…
There were edible delights from both the sweet and savoury sides of the fence, and drinkable treats too (though it looked like durian juice is something that needs to be eaten with a spoon rather than drunk).
There were also a variety of basic, staple foods that piqued our interest – including a wide selection of edible greens, unusual tropical fruits, and dried fish and shrimp*. The former were appetising and colourful, the latter on the other hand…., well, let’s just say mounds of salted, dried fish are not that appealing at 7:00am.
*Shrimp paste is used in virtually all dishes here. Made from fermented ground shrimp mixed with salt, it’s a heady, pungent mix that tastes great when cooked but smells truly repugnant when baking in the sun on the hottest of humid days.
As well as foods, there were a wide array of souvenirs like t-shirts, batik sarongs, arts and craft, footwear, antiques, and traditional musical instruments on display and for sale. It was a great way to start to our Sunday and one of the more interesting stops we’ve had in KK.
Around 9:30am we hopped on our bus, bound for Ranau, a small town about 150km from KK. There’s not much in Ranau itself, but stopping there broke up the long journey to the Eastern side of Sabah*.
*The island of Borneo is divided among three countries: Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. Approximately 75% of the island is Indonesian (known as Kalimantan); the rest is made of the Sultanate of Brunei, and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah is the most developed and tourist-friendly part of Borneo and the part we’re focusing on in this trip.
Ranau is up in the highlands of Sabah (altitude approximately 1,200m), and the ambient temperature is far cooler than down at sea level. The more pleasant climate and rich soil in the highlands lends itself to agriculture, which is why most of Sabah’s vegetables come from here. We passed acres of farmlands on the drive up here, many of the fields carved out of the steep mountain-sides and precariously perched atop rugged hills.
One of the more successful agricultural establishments in this area is the Sabah Tea Plantation. This 6,200 acre farm was established in the 1970s and is the largest tea producer in Borneo, exporting unfermented green tea, semi-fermented oolong tea, and fully fermented black tea around Asia.
We stopped by the tea plantation for a visit and took the proffered free tour around the factory to see how the tea is processed and packaged. We even got to sample a few varieties of their tea and enjoyed the view of Mt Kinabalu from the restaurant.
For many visitors Mt Kinabalu is a major highlight of their visit to Borneo. This 4,095m high peak is the tallest mountain in SE Asia and one of the highest non-volcanic peaks in the world. Many visitors to this corner of the world do the 2 day hike up Mt Kinabalu; we thought about doing it too, but, given our limited time here, opted to skip the climb in favour of other, more genteel pleasures (i.e. a couple of days relaxing on one of the many tropical islands off the coast of Sabah).
The area surrounding the mountain is a national park and, even though we didn’t want to scale the pinnacle itself, we happily spent time exploring some of the hiking trails around the lower reaches of Mt Kinabalu. Kinabalu Park was established as one of the first national parks of Malaysia in 1964, and was Malaysia’s first UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. The park was granted this honour due to its uniqueness and value as one of the most important biological sites in the world as the home of more than 4,500 species of flora and fauna.
This 750 square kilometre highland conservation area is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including many orchid species and carnivorous plants. We got to see a few of these during our explorations, including the famed pitcher plant that drowns its insect prey and slowly liquifies them and absorbs their flesh for sustenance. So cool!
After our pleasant afternoon exploring the Sabah Tea Planation and Kinabalu National Park, we retired to our hillside hotel for the night. The cool, moist air here makes for a nice change from the hot, moist air down in the low lands, and the clouds surrounding us makes it feel like we’re somehow displaced from the rest of the world. Sitting on the verandah outside our hotel room we can’t see anything of the town or farms below – it’s as if we’ve somehow been stranded on an island in the clouds. Quite surreal really…