Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Living the Good Life in Kota Kinabalu

So many adventures, and so little free time to write about them....

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, we arrived in Kota Kinabalu for the first time on this Fulbright trip on January 11, 2012.  It was my second time here, the first time being in January 2007 as an External Examiner for the Universiti Teknologi MARA (aka UiTM) to visit their Sabah branch campus, review exams and write a report.  I was here for three or four nights and fell in love with the place.  In addition the the great diversity of physical landscapes, from Mt. Kinabalu and its surrounding highlands to its beaches and many islands, I think it was the way people here get along and relate to each other that made it the focus of my return.

Kota Kinablau from AirAsia (click on photo for larger view)
Double rainbow over the Central Wet Market area on the KK waterfront at sunset.
This was supported by comments made while I was in KL last month by two friends (one Chinese and one Malay) who separately told me about how special they felt Sabah was.  In essence, they said that people in Sabah are Sabahan first, above their ethnicity, and that the ethnic strains of West Malaysia (aka Peninsular Malaysia) we far less evident in Sabah because of this. An Orang Sungai man who I met this past weekend in Kinabatangan (who was also part Filipino and part Sulawesi) told me the same thing in a discussion about language and the Sabahan accent that they all share.

Anyway, we were here for one week in January to find a place to live and to find a car to rent.  The problem we had was that apartment rentals are mostly either for the day (vacation rentals that are costly in the long term) or they want a one year lease.  We only needed three months (which I have since extended to four months).

After being a bit frustrated in the process of home hunting, we thought to ask the nice lady at the front desk of our hotel, Eden54. She said she had a friend who was a part-time real estate agent and she would ask her. Later that day, we were sitting in the hotel lobby looking at the local paper for rentals, when Susan introduced herself.  She said she had a client who had a place that might work for us, but she needed to confirm with her about the less than one year term.

Later that same day we finally looked at an apartment at the 1Borneo Hypermall -- billed as the largest shopping mall on Borneo.  1Borneo is a large, sprawling complex of structures all jumbled into one, including hotels and a couple of apartment towers. It also has the highest concentration of fully furnished apartments that can be rented on a daily to monthly basis.

1Borneo Hypermall (click on photo for larger view)
The one we looked at there was OK.  It came with everything, including a rice cooker, though the furnishing were quite bare and it was a little worn.  1Borneo is somewhat far from KK's great downtown area, but it is closer to the UiTM campus and would have worked.

We then got a call from Susan and so our hosts from the university took us to look at the place she had.  It was a brand new apartment, no one had ever lived in it!  It had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, though overall was only about 1200 972 sq ft.

 Our new home (click on photo for larger view)

The location was just outside of the downtown, but only a 10 minute walk to the very popular Foh Sang and Damai eating districts!  It also has a small gym to work off all that great food.  The price was RM2000 a month (USD$667), plus utilities, and after a few minutes of thought we grabbed it. (Fulbright gives us RM1500 a month for housing, and KK tends to be more expensive than most other parts of Malaysia, except KL.)

While it was not fully furnished when we looked at it, Susan and the owner managed to get us everything by the time we moved in on Feb. 1st, including a washing machine, rice cooker and microwave oven.  The only downside has been a second block (apartment building) that is under construction outside our bedroom window, which makes for some noisy daytime hours (actually they work almost 7 days a week and as late as 11pm on some days - the workers live in the building that is under construction).

One nice feature of our apartment is a shoe cabinet outside of the front door.  Here in Malaysia everyone takes their shoes off before entering a home.  Many homes have shoe racks, and some, like ours, has a shoe cabinet where we could actually lock our shoes -- though we never do that.  The floors of homes here are all  very smooth and usually large tiles, which make sweeping easy to do (with the ceiling fan turned off).  They also help to keep the homes cool on very hot days.

Children of the constructions workers playing on the site.
Our friend at Hotel Eden54 also contacted the company that she gets rental cars from for her guests.  He gave us the best deal yet on a monthly rental (with insurance).  We got a 2011 (almost new) Proton Saga for RM1700/month (USD$567; Fulbright does not cover this cost).  It is a four door, automatic transmission sedan that was designed and made in Malaysia. Interestingly, while it has air conditioning, it has no heater, because they are not needed so close to the equator.  There are cheaper cars available, but they are tiny boxes that are more like toys than cars.  Thank you Ling Ling.

I bought a GPS unit because even though KK is fairly small (population about  200,000) and compact, some streets can be pretty confusing.  while I could probably figure it out eventually, the GPS saves a lot of time in having to do that!  Driving in KK is interesting because of the use of center u-turn lanes.  These are often placed in the middle of a long street so people do not need to go all the way to the next intersection to do a u-turn.  They are everywhere and widely used -- first and only place where I have ever seen this.  In addition, I always find driving on the left side of the road a lot of fun (I'm serious, I like it).

Another interesting car-related note is that all of the cars in Malaysia come with backup beeping systems. When you approach an object while backing up it starts beeping.  The closer you get the faster the beeps come, until it goes solid, which means you better stop.  I know that this is an option on some cars in the US. Because of the often tight spaces in Malaysia, it is required for all cars here -- and I really appreciate that.

The Foh Sang morning wet market (click on photo for larger view)
Our purchases typically include some breakfast items, as well.
In our local neighborhood, Foh Sang is our favorite destination.  The 10 minute walk to get there makes a nice little exercise when getting vegetables and breakfast items (like Chinese meet baus) in the morning, or going out to eat in the evening.  We try not to go out too often because we have both put on more pounds than we would like since we got here.  The nearby City Mall (a 20 minute walk, though we usually just drive) is one of the new malls in town and has a really good food court and a huge Giant Hyperstore (groceries and household items; like a smallish Walmart Super Center).

How Lee is one of the more popular evening restaurants in Foh Sang.
(click on photo for larger view)
So now we are living the good in of Kota Kinabalu.  We are enjoying it so much that I managed to change my research plans to spend four months (or close to it) in KK, instead of just three.  Now I need to get back to work...

Chinese New Year lasts 15 days and even though fireworks are illegal in Malaysia, it was a very noisy in our neighborhood each night until the middle of February. (view from our window)
(This blog was brought to you by about 10 cats at http://writtenkitten.net)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Rungus Road Trip to the Northern Tip of Borneo

Last Sunday we drove from our new apartment in Kota Kinabalu to the Northern Tip of Borneo.  Google maps and online websites said it should take 3 to 3.5 hours.  However, with major road damage and construction underway following this past winter's heavy monsoons, it took us over four hours.  Highlights of that road trip were:

1. The Kota Belud Tamu (market). The market was one of the more colorful that I have seen (supporting all that I had read about it) and reminded me of the morning market that we visited in 1995 2005 in the city of Keng Tiong in the Shan State of Myanmar. Then, as now, it seemed that we were the only tourists at the market. We only bought a couple of food items. I got a small doughnut thing with chicken floss and sambal (chili sauce) inside for 60 sen (US 20 cents).  I gave the guy 1 Ringgit and he gave me 50 sen back, along with a smile.  We also bought a small bag of banana chips that we tasted and loved (not sweet at all) on Mt Kinabalu a couple of days before.  The guy told me they were 2 Ringgit, but when I gave him a 5 Ringgit bill he gave me 4 Ringgit back. (More on this below...)

Mable got this great photo of a lady selling small silver fish at the tamu (above). She is probably a Rungus, which is the dominant ethnic group in the Kudat district of Sabah (which includes Kota Belud and the Northern Tip). They are a branch of the Kadazan-Dusun, which is the largest ethnic group in Sabah at about 18% of the legal population (excluding perhaps a million Filipinos. The Rungus are also the only group in Sabah that traditionally lived in longhouses -- which are very common in neighboring Sarawak. We also visited the lesser known Rungus village of Kampung Tinangol, which specializes in bead work. More interesting, though, were all of the longhouses that people live in still today (photo below), though these had been enhances with satellite dishes. We also visited a longhouse lodge, which gets a lot more writeup on the tourism websites for Sabah than does Kampung Tinangol.

2. At the Northern Tip of Borneo. The second highlight was our geographic destination of the Northern Tip of Borneo. Getting there was more than an adventure as, in addition to the road issues mentioned above, my Garmin GPS took on a road that turned to dirt and then became impassable due to mud. The approach to the tip was lined by a beautiful beach and the tip itself was a well developed park. The northern tip is marked be the rocks (photo below) that point to the island of Palawan in the Philippines. The South China Sea is on the left and the Sulu Sea is on the right. Palawan is so close to this point, yet when I visit there later this month I will need to fly through Hong Kong and spend one night in Manila (bummer)!

We had lunch at a restaurant here on a cliff overlooking the Sulu Sea. I had read that the islands we say in the far distance were part of the Sulu Islands of the Philippines, but looking at a map, I think they were actually still part of Malaysia. The photo below shows the chalets that extend beyond the restaurant area.

3. Buying Roasted Corn. The third highlight of the trip was a short stop we made on the way back. Someone had told me to eat the roasted corn that is sold along the side of the road, so we decided to stop and try some from one of the roadside shops that had clouds of smoke rising from the fire on which the corn was being roasted. I asked the girl how much and she said 5 Ringgit (US$1.70) -- which seemed a like a lot. Walked further down and I asked the next girl who said the same thing. I said 4 Ringgit and she laughed and said OK. She heated up 4 corn husks and gave them to us. Mable gave her 16 Ringgit and she laughed again saying it was only 5 Ringgit -- giving her 11 Ringgit back.

Click on photo for larger view.
What made this such a highlight was the pleasant honesty of the girl, who could have taken our 16 Ringgit without us ever knowing that we paid too much. Note that this came on top of the two experiences of paying less than I was expecting to pay in the Kota Belud Tamu (above), though it was far more dramatic this time.  I had read about the relaxed and friendly nature of the Rungus people, but I had not hear about how amazingly generous and honest they were.  Perhaps all of those character traits go together. 

This last experience, in particular also supports my belief that some of the best memories from travel come from the small and unexpected encounters with people and places. The photo above shows the girl who sold us the corn, as well as our two friends from Taiwan whose visit prompted this trip to the Northern Tip of Borneo.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Malaysia Whirlwind

For some reason the word “whirlwind” comes to mind when I think about this past month here in Malaysia.  It has been one of the more sustained periods of travel that I have done in quite a long time.  Because of the constant moving, I have barely blogged about this trip at all.  Now that I am more settled here in Kota Kinabalu (KK), it is probably time to start.

We arrive in Malaysia on January 4, 2012 after about 36+ hours of driving, flying and sitting in airports.  Our first week was in the Kuala Lumpur (KL) area.  Our first and last nights were in the Quality Hotel in Shah Alam, so I would have easy access to the university that I am affiliated with for my Fulbright stay (UiTM – Universiti Teknologi MARA).  The rest of the week was at a friend’s apartment in KL, which happened to be a penthouse with an amazing view of the KL skyline. 

Although I have been coming to Malaysia quite often (about every 1.5 years) since 2005, I did not always make it to KL.  This time, I was pretty much blown away at the level of development that the city has achieved.  It now has one of the most modern skylines of any city on the planet. And maybe it was because my wife was with me, but I also found that KL had become a more fun city to visit. 

We went up to the top of the Petronas Towers (world’s highest twin towers), visited the new capital in Putrajaya (outside of KL), and went to Chinatown, in addition to getting a bank account and meeting with the Malaysian Fulbright office.  I also gave symposium lecture at the University of Malaya, and was asked if I would serve as an external examiner for their brand new urban planning program. (My stint as the external examiner for UiTM’s tourism program is what has been bringing me Malaysia recently and had just ended last year.)

View from the 86th floor observation deck of one of the two 88 story Petronas Towers.

The highlight of KL for us (in addition to the great food) was a visit to Batu Caves (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batu_Caves), which is large cave complex that has become a Hindu Temple and is the site of the colorful Thaipusam Festival (which just took place yesterday, Feb 7, 2012; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaipusam).  In addition to the Hindu caves, which are reached via a 272 step staircase, there is the “Dark Cave”, which is a conservation site for bats and other cave creatures.  It is immediately adjacent to Batu Cave, but has never been developed, and you need to pay for a guided ecotour.  Together, this was a great experience!

After KL we flew to Kota Kinabalu with the goals of getting settled with the university there (UiTM Kampus Sabah), find a place to live, and find a car to rent.  This was my second visit to KK, and I have been wanting to return ever since I was first here in January 2007.  We stayed in the Hotel Eden54 – which is on the north edge of the city core and close to a lot of great food and sites to see (like the Philippine Market and Sunday Gaya Street Market).  More importantly, it was through the hotel’s front desk staff that we found our apartment and our car rental – after having mixed success looking on our own online and in the newspaper. 

During our week in KK, a friend from the university took us to the Sabah Tea Plantation, on the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mt_kinabalu), and we spent half a day on the island of Manukan, where I snorkeled and tried out my new underwater camera case.

What stood out the most to me about that first week in KK was the food.  As good as it was in KL, we had some really great food in KK – especially seafood.  Sabah is famous for its seafood, and I really think it was some of the freshest and tastiest that I have ever had.  The restaurants and bakeries near our hotel were really great, too, especially the Bak Kut Teh (white bone tea; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bak_kut_teh), which is a pork or other meat herbal soup.  Our last night was the start of Chinese New Year activities in KK and Gaya Street (near our hotel) was closed for nighttime activities, including lion dances, performances, food (of course), and a lot of other things for sale.

Our next stop was Singapore, where we stayed at a friend’s place in the Bedok Housing Estate (government subsidized housing; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedok).  There was no air conditioner, but her place was sufficiently cool enough, especially at this time of the year.  I gave a lecture at the National University of Singapore’s Geography Department and had lunch at the popular yong tau fu restaurant in the canteen there.  NUS continues to have the best student food options of any university I have ever visited. 

We visited Singapore’s Chinatown twice – once in the daytime and once at night to fully experience this center of Chinese New Year activities.  And we celebrated the traditional “reunion dinner” with our friends, which starts with the traditional yusheng salad (aka lou hei in Cantonese, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yusheng) where everyone around the table helps to mix the dish before it is eaten.

Mixing our Yusheng salad for Chinese New Year in Singapore

The biggest surprise was the new Sands Hotel and Marina Bay casino and shopping center area, which was just starting construction the last time I was in Singapore.  The other big shock was the prices for most everything in Singapore – often three times higher than in Malaysia!  Our biggest challenge there was finding internet access, which my friend did not have. 

The Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, in neighboring Jorhor Bahru, sent a car a driver to pick us up in Singapore and take us across the border, which was pretty fast since most people were away on holiday. Our last week of travel included a couple of nights in Johor Bahru (for another lecture), then a couple of days driving up the coast with a night on the beach in Cherating (a backpacker haven).

Our first night in the state of Terengganu was at the brand new Terrapuri Heritage Village Resort (http://terrapuri.com), all of the building of which are over 100 years old on the outside, but very high end on the inside.  They were houses for the ruling classes in the past and have been moved here from around the state of Terengganu in an effort to save them.  We spent about three hours with the owner of the project (who is also the owner of Ping Anchorage, one of the larger travel agencies in Malaysia).  It is a very interesting, and so far successful, effort at conservation and community development (involving local fishing villages).

We also spent two nights at a high-end hotel that is the base site for the Monsoon Cup yacht races, and a couple of night in the downtown area of Kuala Terengganu (KT).  The Monsoon Cup race in November is very successful – filling all of the hotel rooms in KT when it is held in the middle of the rainy winter monsoon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsoon_Cup).  Our stay at that hotel (the Ri-Yaz) was hosted by the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), where I gave a guest lecture (and was asked to serve as a program reviewer of their brand new tourism degree program).

  We were surprised to see my large face, from a 20 year old photo, near the entrance to the UMT campus.

Chinese New Year was still going on (celebrations last 15 days) and KT has a really nice little Chinatown that was close to our last hotel.  We also had some great seafood and visited the Crystal Mosque and its adjacent model replicas of famous Islamic architectural sites. 

Finally, a main focus of our visit to Terengganu was to investigate possible places to live when we return to Terengganu in May for a one-month stay.  We looked at both legal and unlicensed homestays.  The unlicensed ones range from smelly dumps (still a bit pricy) to some nice clean ones.  We are still exploring options for that part of my Fulbright stay.

I told a friend here in KK a couple of days ago that that Terengganu was nice, but its great to be back home in Sabah.  He said that I sounded like a true “Sabahan”. :-)

Related to this: Have Block, Will Travel

The NEW Travelography

This Travelography Blog used to be a place where I posted links related to my old Travelography Podcast.  I have not done that podcast in a couple of years now, and I have no plans to restart it.

So instead, I am going to blog here about my travels, of which I do a lot at this point in my career.


BTW - I Do Not Recommend Go-Sim, shown in my older links.  I have used it and found that it only works in about 50% of the places that have gone to -- which is quite frustrating.