Trip to Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia - July 2016
A visit to Sabah or the land below the winds as it is also known, the large island of Borneo, beautiful islands, a trek to a 4095 meter mountain summit, the highest via ferrata in the world, night food market with fresh seafood grilled to perfection, browsing around local markets, sunset drinks at the sunset bar, Gunung Kinabalu, cooking class with Halimah, Malaysia Truly Asia! This is a trip report from our visit to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah in Malaysia (also known as East Malaysia or Malaysian Borneo) and a trek to the top of the 4095 meter (13400 ft) Mount Kinabalu in July 2016! We made it to the summit!
Planning the trip
The trip begins
Hello Kota Kinabalu
Time to start hiking!
As you can see from the description above, it took quite a bit of time to make it to KK in Malaysia. But on the morning of July 15th we were finally ready to start our hike. We had communicated with Mountian Torq in advance and had been told to be ready at 6.30 am! We had organized ourselves the night before and packed the stuff that we needed for the hike in our backpacks – the rest were packed in our suitcases and we stored them at the hotel. As the hotel didn’t have any breakfast we just enjoyed oats that we had brought along from Norway. Our driver picked us up about 10 minutes late and we started the 85 km (53 miles) drive to the park entrance. Please check out the Google map to see the location for the start of the hike.
Let’s talk about equipment!
So what do you need to hike a 4000 meter mountain! We have been on a couple of mountain hikes before and here are some of our suggestions.
The path was a bit wet so good hiking shoes are a good idea. It is always good with a bit of ankle support and to have shoes that don’t get wet easily. The starting point of the hike is at about 1800 meters (5900 ft) and this means that it is a bit cooler here than at sea level. But it was still like 15-20 degrees (59-68 Fahrenheit) so I started the hike with running tights, a running t-shirt and a windproof west. I was also wearing hat and don’t forget good sun screen for the exposed body parts as the sun is strong in this part of the world. Nikki wore a summer wool top, running tights, running socks and thin wool socks, and similar hiking boots. You’ll need a sturdy backpack and I prefer a larger one as I like to have options of clothing. First of all I had a camelbak with 3 liters of water to be able to stay hydrated. I also brought along snacks in the form of chocolate, energy bars and nuts. When it comes to clothing I had thin thermal underwear for sleeping over at Pendant hut and cold weather gear for the summit night. I heard that it can get quite cold at the summit so I had Gore-Tex jacket and pants, fleece top, good gloves and a balaclava. In addition to this I had cameras, an extra battery pack for charging stuff. We also brought a good headlamp (a Petzl NAO) as we were going to hike at night. All in all my bag was about 10 kg (22 lbs) which is not that bad – but when you are going to walk for a few hours you want your backpack to be as light as possible. Nikki had similar overnight and summit clothing but took a chance with lighter wind / rain proof pants instead of Gore-Tex. Packing your own first aid kit is a must. Nikki had also packed some jet lag sleep aids (eye covers, ear plugs, Tylenol pills).
Back to the drive to the Kinabalu Park entrance. The drive was not that exciting to start with but soon we turned into Asian Highway 150 and it didn’t take long before we got great views to the mountain. The mountain stands out in the terrain and it is the 20th most prominent mountain in the world by topographic prominence. I just added that because it sounds cool but I think it indicates that the mountain is quite dominant compared to the terrain around it.
The drive to the park entrance took about 1 hour and 45 minutes and when we got there we signed the necessary papers, we met our guide Apson, got a lunch box and got a chance to go to the bathroom. We even got special badges with our names on it – how cool is that? You have to show this when entering the park area so it seems like they have full control over everyone entering and leaving the area. I wonder what happens if you lose this badge on the way down again ;-)
After we were done with the paperwork it was time to conquer the mountain. Well, it turned out that we had to get into a new mini bus first and we drove for about 10 minutes before we reached the actual gate known as Timpohon Gate and then we were ready to start hiking. We had to show our newly printed badges to get access to the park area and then we started the summit trail. It was a damp and wet trail and it was good to have proper hiking shoes to be able to walk through some of the mud on the trail. I had my Runkeeper app activated on my phone and the curves show that it is a pretty steady uphill all the way.
At every ½ km there was a sign in order to keep track of the distance and about every 1 km there was a small hut with toilets, water tanks and benches to sit down and relax. I guess the local squirrels had noticed that there is food involved with lots of hikers around as there were lots of them around the huts. It was nice to have the signs indicating how far we had gotten and the altitude to keep us motivated to move on. The toilets were better than expected and some of them even had toilet paper. Yes, remember to bring your own toiletries and toilet paper. As we got higher there was less vegetation and it also got drier. It must have been about 15-20 degrees most of the hike and we walked most of the way in our t-shirts. As we got higher there is also less oxygen! I wasn’t that affected by the altitude this time but Nikki started running low on energy but we moved slower to try to save energy. It is quite impressive to see porters almost running past us uphill with huge beams intended for construction further up the trail. It was almost an insult to experience this especially when we would meet them when they were taking a break to smoke a cigarette! There’s no way to tell how one will react to altitude sickness. I tend to get a bit light headed and delirious but this was the first time Nikki reacted after having 3 other +3.500m hikes under her belt. It’s important to take this condition seriously and take necessary precautions.
After about 5 hours we reached the Pendant Hut and we had walked from about 1800 meters to about 3300 meter (10800 ft). There are several huts in this area and one of them is the Pendant Hut where we would be staying. I guess the various huts are used by the various operators. Pendant Hut was a cozy place with a reception was we walked in and with a large room with tables and benches. We also got access to board games, coffee/tea and snack. This was also almost like in Norway, as we had to change to indoor shoes before entering (crocks are provided with storage for your own shoes). We quickly moved on to one of the dorms to secure a bunk bed in order to get some sleep before the summit hike. Each bunk bed had a sleeping bag with a liner bag and it was comfortable for a few hours sleep. The hut also had a ladder/staircase leading down one floor and this is where the bathroom is located together with toilets and showers. The standard is not high of course and I did not test out the shower facilities. We enjoyed snacks and coffee in the main room and talked to other hikers. There were people from all over the world: America, Germany, Holland, Japan, Singapore, Thailand etc. It didn’t take long before we were playing jenga with some of the other hikers and got to know some of their stories.
At about 4 pm we got more information about the hike that would take place the next morning to the summit. We also got information and a practical lesson on how to use the safety harness and equipment in connection with the via ferrata. When Nikki and I planned this initially we looked at the two options that Mountain Torq offers. The “Walk the torq” option was described as Grade PD which basically means that it is suitable for kids so I insisted on doing the longer “Low’s Peak Circuit”. But when we had the introduction at the Pendant Hut it turned out that everyone had decided to go for the “Walk the torq” option and it was only Nikki and myself that wanted to do the “Low’s Peak Circuit”. That made us a bit uncertain – had we made the right choice? And then when a taxing jungle trek was mentioned for our circuit, we had to seriously reconsider – a 4 hour summit and the the via ferrata was starting to sound like a lot. Nikki was still not reenergized and was concerned about summiting.
Dinner was served at about 6 pm and it was served at a hut nearby. The weather was cooperating and it was not a problem walking over there. Although a good jacket and your headlamp are recommended for the short walk. Well, it was down a long staircase and that was not appreciated as we had been walking uphill all day! The sun was setting as we had dinner and there is something special about seeing a sunset when you are above the clouds.Dinner was buffet style and it is safe to say that the Malaysian dishes were a lot better than the western style alternative that was offered but it was excellent to get some warm food. The rules at the Pendant Hut indicated that it was lights out and quiet time from 8 pm and most people went to bed before this. We prepared our equipment for the morning hike by getting our camelbak’s filled, checking the headlamps, packing the backpacks etc. It was not that easy to sleep as early as 8 pm even if we got up very early that morning and had been hiking all day. We were excited about the hike the next morning and sleeping at high altitude can also be an issue!
The summit hike!
At 2 am people started waking up to get ready. There were some breakfast that was served but I was not that impressed by it was it was just bread and egg if I’m not mistaken. I was quite happy that I brought along instant oats so that I could get my regular breakfast. I had heard that it could get really cold during the summit hike and hence we had put on serious hiking gear including thermal underwear and Gore-Tex pants and jackets. When we started hiking about 3 am we soon discovered that it was not that cold outside and I un-zipped my pants and jacket to cool down. Again the route took us up up up and it was a pretty steady climb. It was a beautiful night with light winds and with few clouds and it was spectacular to look at the stars. When you live in a city there is so much light pollution that you don’t see that many stars so make sure to appreciate it if you go for a hike here.
Parts of the route were improved with wooden stairs (after the recent earthquake). There are some places that are a bit steep but in my opinion it was not a major problem to get past these points. After a while we reached a check point and once again we had to show our badges to get permission to proceed. After this we reached a sort of plateau – we were still walking uphill but on a wider rock face and we could see the contours of the peaks around us. It didn’t take that long before we started seeing a glow in the horizon and the sun was starting to make its presence known! At this point Nikki was running a bit low on energy and I was afraid that we would miss the sunrise. After a quick pow wow with Nikki, I decided to “run” ahead while Nikki would go for a slower pace with the guide. I’m not sure how smart it was to push myself at this altitude but I was intent on getting to the peak before sunrise. The plateau ended pretty abruptly as I started the ascent to the highest point known as Low’s Peak at 4095 meters (13435 ft). The last few meters to the summit was hard – one basically has to scale up some sections and there is less oxygen at this altitude but I made it to the peak before sunrise and dumped my bag and gear to get cameras ready for the photo shoot.
Soon the sun peaked over the horizon and all the mountain peaks around us were glowing in the first ray of sun light. A cool effect of a sunrise on a mountain like this is that you get the shadow of the mountain! We saw this when we did a hike on Mount Agung on Bali a couple of years back as well. At this point I was happy that I had brought along good clothing. It was not really cold on the top but when standing still it gets cooler and there was not much warmth in the sun just yet. Nikki also made it up as the sun was rising and we got to take photos together with the sign at the summit and we got to enjoy the view of the peaks and landscape around us. There isn’t much space at the actual peak so be prepared to take turns with photos and don’t hog the spot. Unless you plan on returning, make sure you take a lot of photos to avoid disappointment – our guide was exceptional at a number of things but he is not a photographer!
Time for a via ferrata
As mentioned earlier, we were the only ones that had signed up for the long via ferrata option. After the summit hike Nikki was a bit exhausted and we decided to switch to Walk the Torq (the shorter option). And I have to admit that I’m pretty glad we did this! We had been hiking from about 3 am to about 7 am when we geared up with helmets and harnesses to prepare for the via ferrata. We have done Via ferrata stuff before (e.g. at Trolltunga in Norway) so we knew what we had signed up for. But after a hike to the summit it felt a bit unnecessary in a way to also cram it a bit of a via ferrata activity. At this point we were also getting a bit tired from being up so early in the morning and the altitude was finally getting to me and I had a headache. We had a super enthusiastic guide but the poor guy was facing a tough crowd. I was grumpy because of my headache and Nikki was grumpy as she was exhausted. The guide was trying to get us to pose in all sorts of weird postures and we did our best to play along but in the end we just wanted to get done as we knew we had a long days walk ahead of us! The via ferrata is quite simple but there is a couple of places that will bring up your heart rate if you are not used to this kind of activity.
The decent to Timpohon Gate
Our poor via ferrata guide finally understood that we were a bit grumpy and we finished the route and got ready to return to Pendant hut. At least he did us a big favor by taking a lot of photos of us while we were doing the via ferrata route – he was really trigger happy. As the sun had risen it was also easy to see the marks in the terrain from the earthquake that took place in 2015. Huge boulders from the mountain had crashed down the mountain side and some of them had crashed very close to where the huts are located! We made it down to Pendant Hut eventually to pack up our stuff and to have some breakfast. Again I have to say that I was not very impressed by the food selection – there were a tiny bit left of some cold hot dogs, some cold beans and a tiny portion of scrambled eggs. This was rather disappointing, especially as we were going to need our energy to descend.
We packed up our stuff and luckily it was much lighter now as we had eaten some of our snacks and we didn’t pack as much water as when we were going up. The decent turned out to be much harder than expected. Nikki was still a bit worn out and some of the steps are high so each step takes its toll on both knees and hips. After a while we started meeting people on their way up and it was interesting to see the variation in age, level of fitness, choice of clothing etc. On our way down I met a girl on her way down that looked pretty miserable so I said hello and asked her if she was OK and she said she was fine but tired. Later on I met another girl and again I said hi and she said she was waiting for a friend that she was hiking with. When I took a break at one of the huts these two girls came and the one that had looked miserable now broke down in tears as she had a painful ankle and she was having trouble walking. Later on we saw park rangers helping her out by actually carrying her the rest of the way down. And again – they walked a lot faster than us even when they were carrying her and even if they had breaks to smoke a cigarette!!
On the way down it started drizzling and the drizzle soon turned into pouring rain. I had bought some cheap rain ponchos and I was happy that I had brought them along. The rain poncho covered both me and my backpack and I avoided getting totally soaked. Nikki was getting a bit fed up and decided to test of the Norrøna Gore-Tex jacket would be waterproof! In the end, even the Gore-Tex jacket was soaked. We reached the Timpohon Gate at about 3 pm and the decent seemed to take forever. A hike is always great when you hike towards the top and you are going for your destination. But it is not that much fun when you are hiking to get back home in pouring rain! In addition to this we still had a 2-3 hour drive ahead of us to get back to Kota Kinabalu. But all in all – what an experience! Hiking in altitudes like this can be a challenge and my experience is that you never really know how the altitude will affect you. But it is amazing to see sunsets above the clouds, it is spectacular to see all the stars at night when you hike at night and it is beautiful to see a sunrise happen! This hike is worth the time and effort but I think you can skip the via ferrata bit. But a hike like this is hard for the body! I don’t think that I have ever been that sore after a hike and I had trouble walking as a normal person for the next 3 days!
Remember that the mountain is part of a nature reserve and should be respected accordingly. Don’t stray from the path and take your rubbish with you. Nikki only had one encounter with the local “wildlife” and I’m pretty sure that mouse was just curious to see who was shuffling past. We did see a group without a guide. The trail is quite defined but summiting before sunrise means you’re navigating with a headlamp in the dark. If you end up with altitude sickness you can’t count on following the masses as a pointer. It’s not a race but if people behind you are moving faster, let them pass so you’re not holding up the queue. You can see lots more photos from the hike in the photo section of this trip report.
Time for relaxation – in a way
We had booked a room at Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa – a beautiful hotel located pretty close to downtown Kota Kinabalu. Check out my TripAdvisor review of the Shangri-La here. The only problem was that I ate something that I shouldn’t have and I got pretty sick the day after the hike. So I was pretty much knocked out for the next 3-4 days when we were there! Kota Kinabalu is not a big city that has a lot to offer. It seems to be more of a pit stop for people that are heading for the hike on Mount Kinabalu, for people that are going to the north east coast for diving etc. We checked out the downtown area a couple of times and it was fun to browse around on the Sunday market. They close off a few streets and instead of car traffic you can walk around to take a look at souvenirs, vegetables and fruits, homemade soaps, t-shirts etc. We also took a walk to Signal Hill which isn’t much of a view point these days as buildings are blocking much of the view. The Atkinson clock tower is also something that can be missed as there is not much to see or do there.
Night food market
We had to try the night food market as this was recommended as the place to go for fresh seafood. I think we went overboard as we were so hungry when we came there so we ordered lobster, prawns and a fried fish! It was raining that night and the market was covered up with temporary canvas. There were barbeque stands all over the place frying up various type of seafood. I’m not sure that this place has the best reputation because when we mentioned eating here to some locals, we could tell that they had second thoughts about it. There is also a waterfront area right next to the Night market with bars and restaurants. We had dinner at Gusto Food and Wine one night and we were not totally convinced about this Italian restaurant.
Cooking class with Halimah
Before I got my food poisoning we started planning what to see and do in Kota Kinabalu. One of the things we looked into was taking a cooking class – we did this a few years back with friends in Bali and it was great fun. We googled cooking class a bit and we didn’t find that many alternatives and some were already fully booked. But we found one called Equator Adventure Tours that seemed to have potential but the website was not working properly and in the end I had to call them. The guy that answered the phone seemed a bit surprised to get a call at like 7 pm where I was asking for a cooking class the next morning but I soon got confirmation that we were on. The next morning we were picked up by an enthusiastic and talkative gentleman by the name of Pat. He was great to talk to as he was quite open with regards to politics, religion, life on Malaysian Borneo etc.
We started by driving into town to look at the local markets and this is always fun. We have been to Asia a few times before so I would say that we now quite a bit about vegetables and fruit that are special for the region. But we sure learned more stuff when walking around with Pat and I’m sure if you take this tour as a first time visitor to Asia, it will be information overload. Pat could tell that I was not functioning 100%. Due to the food poisoning I was using all my energy just to stand. Pat bought a medicine for me based on old traditional Chinese recipes but I’m not sure it helped much. We bought a few vegetables that we need and went over to the fish market to buy some fish that was needed for the cooking. There’s something exhilarating about being surrounded by mounds of fresh produce – whether fruit, veg or fish. Pat seemed to be on friendly terms with quite a few of the stall owners. The guys at the fish market seemed inquisitive and had a lot of questions to Pat about us – Bahasa Malaysia is mostly spoken locally.
After getting our supplies, we were on our way out of town to a small restaurant called D’Soka where we got to cook with Pat’s mum Halimah. This cooking class was not just about the food – it seemed like both Pat and Halimah was interested in the human and cultural interaction so we sat down to just chat to start with. But soon we went over to the actual cooking where we got to help out with chopping, frying up coconut and frying up the actual dishes. Halimah seemed a bit concerned that we would not be able to keep up but we are used to cooking from back home so we could have done even more! But all in all it was fun to do this cooking course with Halimah in her outdoor restaurant D’Soka. As we were chopping and frying, the restaurant opened. I wonder what we would have thought of tourists cooking up a storm in our local hang out? And after the cooking class we enjoyed the dishes we had made in addition to a few others that Halimah had made in advance. I would certainly recommend an activity like this for a chance to try an off menu/authentic local dish and also interact with locals.
Sunset drinks at the Sunset bar
We didn’t really get to do much more in Kota Kinabalu. I was knocked out most of the time so we mainly had pool time, a massage and relaxation. Sounds great when I summarize it like this but we do like to be more energetic on our vacations and we do like the option of having various activities. The weather was not cooperating 100% when we were there – most mornings were sunny while afternoons (ca 2pm to 5pm) brought heavy rain and thunderstorms. One afternoon we had sundowners at Sunset bar at the Shangri-La resort and the drinks were good and the view was great. Lots of people stopped by just to take photos of the sunset and the spectacular colors. We also take selfies but a lady next to us took selfies to the next level. Nikki couldn’t help seeing that the lady took selfies with the sunset but then the photo went through a pretty extensive photoshop session to make sure that the appearance was good enough to be published on social media! This is also a great hotel if you’re planning on not leaving the premises. Lots of daily activities, e.g. yoga, learning mahjong, golf (putting), multiple restaurants. It’s also currently very popular with Chinese tourists and families. Fortunately, there’s an adult pool and life guards on duty.
Short stop in Bangkok
On July 21st it was time for us to start heading home. We took a flight to KL in the morning and then onwards to Bangkok. We had a bizarre experience when we landed there. It is usually not a problem to take a taxi from the airport to the city. The drivers will usually ask for a fix price but I usually ask them to run the meter and that I will cover the toll stations. But the driver this day asked over and over again and I told him that I preferred if he used the meter. He then said that as he had a big car he didn’t make any money if he was running the meter and that he would return us to the airport. I said that I was fine with that but I think he was just bluffing as he started driving towards the city. I asked him again to run the meter or return us to the airport and he then went a bit crazy and started shouting that we could get it for free because he was just an idiot that liked to drive people for free. Nikki got a bit nervous from this kind of behavior but he drove us to the hotel in Bangkok. When we went out of the taxi I asked him how we were going to settle this and he just drove away without saying anything.
Time to go home
On July 23rd we started our journey home. We took a Qatar airways A380 from Bangkok to Doha, a 787 Dreamliner to Copenhagen and then a short flight to Stavanger. The last flight was only 1 hour but I think I was a sleep most of the flight as I was so tired. As I got a bit sick in Kota Kinabalu we did not get to enjoy our time to the max there. It was great to trek the mountain and it was awesome to see the sunrise from a 4000 meter peak. But we didn’t get to try the snorkeling that we wanted to, we didn’t get to go out to enjoy restaurants etc. Fortunately I don’t get sick very often when I travel. At least this gives us an excuse to visit again in the future. Our cooking class guide Pat mentioned recommended lots of other activities while we were with him - from scuba diving to jungle treks. Please get in touch by e-mail if you have any questions or comments about the mountain trek to Mount Kinabalu and I will do my best to answer. And don't forget that you can see more photos on this page and see the locations on this Google map.