Hiking Kinabalu – Climbers, Keepers!

Standing tall at 13,438 ft, Mt. Kota Kinabalu, located in the Borneo Islands of East Malaysia is also the country’s highest mountain. The granite summit of Kota Kinabalu is the backbone of Borneo in the Crocker Range of mountains. It stands inside the Kota Kinabalu national park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Sabah state of Malaysian Borneo. The majestic mountain rises above the tropical forests that house rich plant life and wondrous bird life, few of which I was lucky to see, but could not photograph because a bulky camera dangling from your neck is the last thing you want in an arduous trek like this.

1-viewpoint-en-route-kinabalu
A viewpoint en route Kinabalu

I recently scaled the steep inclines of Mt. Kinabalu to reach the summit in the wee hours of the morning to witness what is perhaps the most feisty sunrise I have ever witnessed.

Though a demanding task, perhaps reserved for the physically fit, Kinabalu attracts hundreds of enthusiastic climbers every day. Climbers belonging to varied age groups from elderly Japanese tourists to pre-teen Malaysian school kids make an attempt to climb the steep ascend strewn with boulders. Though not all of them succeed in ascending the peak to watch the spectacular sunrise, the ones that do are rewarded with the awe-inspiring view of the sun rising over Borneo.

Tropical Borneo, home to Orangutans, stinky Rafflesia flowers, variety of Hornbills and other wildlife,  attracts a lot of tourists from all over the world – Western and Asian backpackers, Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian domestic tourists. Among them, a large part of the tourists visiting Borneo have Kinabalu on their list. In effect, you are never far from humanity on the trail, huffing and puffing their way ahead and behind you. Don’t get too competitive for this is no competition and your knee will pay the price. I took a lot of breaks, drank a lot of water (which you must carry) and took in the sights around me while inhaling fresh mountain air.

The trail is canopied by hulking tropical trees most of the way, the first day. Island thrushes croon sweetly while we climb. The views opened up briefly yet the canopy stay with coniferous trees lining the trail. Tourists – youngsters, students, elderly Japanese, populate the narrow bolder strewn trail ambling along. The trail is peppered with rhododendrons in sprightly blooms of pink and yellow, bird calls of Bornean Treepies, Bulbuls and Mountain Barbets and plants like the pitcher plant.

Though it is possible to climb the mountain in a day, it is perhaps best left to the devices of experienced climbers. For novices, like me, there is a break of the climb midway, 6km after the commencement of the trail, at Laban Rata Resthouse. This also helps you acclimatize your body because altitude sickness is common. An 8-year old boy was puking his lungs out while his mother was scrambling for medication and care for him as we arrived. Headaches induced by altitude is quite common too, keep a strip of painkillers. The evening went down as the still white high altitude clouds formed patches on the sky that changed its colors from pink to purple to orange. Kinabalu loomed large, like an erect phallus of a mountain god flashing his endowment in the waning sun.

The second day’s climb starts as early as 1.00 a.m. and takes you through the steep, bare granite rock mountain. It is perhaps better you are in the dark as you climb this part of the mountain because as the sun dawns on you, it also dawns on you that you’ve climbed an extremely steep part of the mountain. An unruly, cold breeze engulfs you as you reach the summit. Soon enough, the sun comes out and swathes everything in the glorious morning light. Selfie sticks are pulled out, flashes go off, smiles broaden despite the tedious climb as sun makes its appearance.

15-as-the-dawn-descends-on-kinabalu-the-descend-will-be-evident
The granite rock climb.

Armed with the knowledge that we have scaled Malaysia’s tallest mountain, we started our descend. By noon, we have reached the base as my knees turned liquid and every inch of my body silently screamed in pain. We also treated ourselves with hot bowls of Tom Yum soup that teared me up and opened up my sinuses.  I slept for 12 hours and whined for another two days about my aching body. Small price to pay, perhaps.

Selfie sticks come out as light comes out.
Selfie sticks come out as light comes out.

Sabah Parks, the Malaysian government body for national parks, has leased out the maintenance of the trail and operations to a private player so you are required to book a tour with an agent to climb Kinabalu. Book a trip in advance before you arrive in Borneo, plenty of options are available online!

Some amount of rope climbing is needed.
Some amount of rope climbing is needed.
A hearty bowl of Tom Yum soup.
A hearty bowl of Tom Yum soup.

Have you climbed Kinabalu? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Strolling the Crab Island – Pulau Ketam, Malaysia

The aircraft shaped ferry arrives bobbing in the water. Chinese gentlemen unload the wares – fresh catch from the island in sacks, dragged by another set of men in black containers. When I stepped inside the boat, the air smells of paint, the windows are sealed over from rust and age. The boat would take me to Pulau Ketam island, Crab Island in other words, off the coast of Klang Port. The prospect of looking out of the window having been sealed, I turn to the only other in-boat entertainment – a supremely bad B grade Hollywood thriller with Chinese subtitles about bizarre beasts and skimpily dressed blonde women.

Soon enough, the boat bobs gently and picks up. I remember the ticket counter gentleman explaining that the boat is air-conditioned. I doze off and after a couple of hours, I reach a tiny Chinese fishing village. A narrow strip of wooden walkway lined with shops on both sides sell fresh produce of vegetables, fish and groceries. Restaurants slowly wake up to the morning, elderly Chinese men sit around on concrete benches and banter. “Sir, bicycle?” a friendly Chinese girl asks. I’ll come around later, I tell her and continue walking.

Row houses on stilts face each other, women squat and wash their utensils. Tiny shrines with Chinese idols – smiling baby faced Buddhas and monks with flowing beards – are painted red and incense sticks burn in front of them. I walk to the end of the road and find a Chinese temple without doors. The pagoda like structure has dark green paint and the wooden benches are cool and inviting. Chinese workers mill about in the workshop opposite. The humidity in the air hangs heavy.

I sit around, inhaling the incense, taking notes and listening to birds screech in the mangroves. I spend the better part of the day thus and wander around some more in search of lunch. Amid the din of fiercely competitive restaurants soliciting business from tourists, I settle in a eatery and ordered Seafood Mee Hoon with a bottle of Guinness.

On return though, in the boat, this time there was a bad Chinese movie. And it was about a woman who owns a cobra for her pet. If the movie was any realistic, I think, the girl would’ve had something the Chinese consider unpalatable for a pet. I dunno, say, a dog?

Some pictures from the trip.

the dock
the dock
Houses on stilts
Houses on stilts
inside the chinese fishing village
inside the chinese fishing village
a temple on stilts
a temple on stilts
a chinese temple
a chinese temple
the village square
the village square
a chinese idol
a chinese idol
sea food mee hoon
sea food mee hoon

Have you been to the Crab Island? Leave a comment.

Walking in George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Leaving the precincts of Kuala Lumpur and its haze, high-rises, malls and traffic seemed like a release of sorts from the quagmires of urban life. Now don’t get me wrong. I liked KL and its veritable array of cultural and gastronomical experiences but I prefer a small town to a big city any given day. And I wasn’t going to exclude Penang, the northwestern coast of Malaysia, from my plans. So I boarded a bus and rode on it for six hours.

The pleasures of arriving in Penang are only multiplied by the beautiful visual scenery en route – the gargantuan mountains, vistas of the ocean, greenery and the tree rich landscape that is a relief from the landscape dominated by palm trees in KL. I arrived in the charming seaside town and its unhurried people to be welcomed by my host Mr. Henry. After a tiny tour of the neighborhood, Henry left me to my devices. Help was at hand, however. An architect friend Sanjay, took over from Henry but by then I had found a hawker stall, ordered the best tom yum soup I had in my entire life and finished slurping it. I felt welcomed.

The World Heritage Site title was awarded to the George Town area in Penang Island in 2008 by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The architecture of buildings in George Town infuses elements from the architecture of Europe, China and India. George Town was once a British trade post and hence colonial architecture is predominant. The rich cultural influences brought in by immigrants from India and China have also contributed to the city’s landscape and food.

The Street Art of George Town

The streets of Penang depict a curious array of art – iron rod sculptures on the theme ‘voices from the people’ and mural paintings on the walls by renowned artist Ernest Zacharevic. There are a total of 52 such iron rod sculptures present in almost every street of George Town, of which there are about 18 street murals by Zacharevic. There are maps available if you want to take a walking tour of these. A few pictures:

a wall art
a wall art
street murals of George Town
street murals of George Town

a street mural, up close

Temples of George Town

George Town hosts numerous ancient temples / churches – the oldest Anglican Church in all of South East Asia, the Maha Mariamman Temple from the 1790s, Chinese temples, Kapitan Keling mosque from the 1803 to name a few.

The Khoo Kongsi temple
The Khoo Kongsi temple
a chinese mazu idol
a chinese mazu idol
Kapitan Keling mosque
Kapitan Keling mosque
a smug buddha
a smug buddha

prayer lamps at the thai buddhist temple

a burmese buddhist temple
a burmese buddhist temple

Culture of George Town

Walk the streets of George Town and you are likely to find more than a handful of art galleries, art studios, puppet theatres and workshops, gold and blacksmiths who use ancient methods, Chinese coffin makers, book binders, perfumers and other quirks.

a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a souvenir
a souvenir

Architecture of George Town

The architectural treasures including the shop houses, colonial era buildings, Chinese clan houses are bunched together as a cultural enclave in the town. These buildings define the rich history of George Town and its cultural past.

the famed blue mansion
the famed blue mansion
an ornate chinese door
an ornate chinese door
streets of penang at night
streets of penang at night
penang skyline
penang skyline

Food of George Town

The coming together of various cultures has ensured a delicious variety of street food sold in the hawker markets of George Town, Penang. Taste the super pungent Assam Laksa, Mee Robus, Mee Rojak, Char Kway Teow and Fried Oyster and get introduced to flavors that you didn’t know existed. night time food scene

assam laksa
assam laksa
a funny sign board
a funny sign board

5 initial impressions about KL – Malaysia

If you were blind folded and taken around in the cities of KL and Singapore, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. Granted the food is much diverse in the former and the attractions are much better in the latter. However, these two cities have much more than weather in common. Be that as it may. These are my 5 initial impressions about the city of KL – Malaysia.

1) The Street Food is Phenomenal

Pardon my cliche but Malaysia is indeed a melting pot of cuisines. The Indian and Chinese influences found in the food in Malaysia has made eating out fun and much more economical. Every street and every mall is brimming with street food from different regions. And Malaysians seem to love their fat. So much so that they have dishes named after fat – Nasi Lemak (rice with fat).

street food in Malaysia
street food in Malaysia
street food in Malaysia
street food in Malaysia

2) Roads are great but traffic is a nightmare. So is parking.

KL has huge, broad roads and the infrastructure is in place. However, the growing number of vehicles seems to constrict the roads and peak hour traffics are legendary and nightmarish.

friday night traffic in Malacca
friday night traffic in Malacca

3) Selfie poles are quite the rage now

No tourist attraction in the city is complete without selfie pole wielding youngsters and even families taking pictures of themselves in front of monuments. Like this couple in front of a graffiti wall in Malacca.

selfie pole
selfie pole

4) The city has an impossible number of high-rises

And twin towers is one of them. Like any other south east asian / middle eastern developed countries, Malaysia has its share of high rises too. The central business district is filled with them and the hop-on / hop-off tour covers a mighty lot.

The twin towers of KL
The twin towers of KL
The high rises of KL
The high rises of KL

5) There is a dearth of dairy but fresh soya milk is sold on the streets

Malaysia is not a dairy producing country but fresh soya milk is available for consumption, sold by hawkers. The powdery, earthy taste of soya milk can be off-putting at first but it is much better than condensed milk (which has no dairy and is used even in coffee as well).

soya milk in the background
soya milk in the background

Have you been to KL? What are your impressions? Leave a comment.