Category Archives: Malaysia

Malaysia’s Jungle Train

I wanted to experience one of South East Asia’s classic train journeys – the last remaining conventional diesel engine trains before they are all electrified – The East Coast Railway Line (ECRL). Sometimes referred at the ‘Jungle Railway’. Built by indentured Tamil laborer between 1910 and 1931, the 530km track was built through difficult terrain, rivers, wet tropical weather and mountains. It was originally known as “Golden Blowpipe”. The builders followed the most convenient way – followed the lowest points – the river. The single track passed through plantations, village houses on stilts surrounded by tall coconut palms and mango trees; crossed a network of muddy streams and rivers over historic bridges and tunnels; and tracts of lush jungle. There is only one service on this single track, east and south bound, between Johor Bahru (near Singapore) to Tumpat (near the Thailand border). This is also the only service with sleeper amenity (ERT26/ERT27) offered by KTM. To fully appreciate this service, I did this journey in parts. Partly, to enjoy the ride in daytime as well as seeing interesting places. More importantly, to see the jungle as it is diminishing at a alarming rate to Palm Oil cultivation. I want to re-live the nostalgic journey of its hey days.

My train journey on the East Coast Railway Line (ECRL) began in Gemas. However, I would do it in 3 legs. First from Gemas to Jerantut. Second from Kuala Lipis to Gua Musang. Finally, on the iconic long distance conventional diesel locomotive with sleeper carriages (day and night) facility from Gua Musang to Tumpat.

1st leg – Gemas to Jerantut

For my 1st leg, I returned to Gemas for an onward journey to Jerantut. The reason is to visit Taman Negara (National Park) located in Kuala Tahan. I boarded the DMU Shuttle 36 at 1535. To take the conventional diesel express train (ERT26), I needed to depart at 0118! This is the first time I had taken the East Coast Railway Line (ECRL). Besides that, this was my first visit to the National Park (Taman Negara).  The DMU Shuttle is primarily providing transport service to  interior smaller towns where road access is limited. Thus included plantations and villages. The cafeteria on this train  today had no service. Gemas is also the junction where the East Coast and West Coast Railway Lines meet. As such, has a large depot for maintenance.

Departing Gemas, the coaches were almost empty. Only 3 passengers in my coach. Train speed was between 35-55kph through mix of rubber and large oil palm cultivation, and across small rustic townships. In the villages, under rambutan trees, kids chatted while lying in hammocks. Passed a couple of palm processing factories and labour quarters. Stands of rubber trees with tapping panels on the trunk and black collection cups line the part of the track. Horns were sounded occasionally as the track passed close of inhabited but rural areas. This ride truly gave an insight into rural life.

However, at next stop in Bahau Station, the crowds began to fill. Many were locals visiting friends and relatives during the Raya season. Malay women in head scarfs from Mentakab returned after holidaying in Bahau. The festivity mood spread around the coach. Stops were frequent, as its a peoples train. We passed market stalls and villages mosques. Train slowed down in places as cattle crossed the tracks. Several road crossings are passed with road traffic brought to a halt. Not long after, the track passed through large oil palm plantations and processing factories.

A brief stop at Kemayan Station and within minutes at Triang Station where, mostly Chinese passengers with shorts and t-shirts boarded the shuttle. Mentakab Station is a significant stop for those intending to travel to Kuantan (via the East Coast Expressway), the capital of Pahang, on the coast. It is also the exit point to Kuala Gadah Elephant Sanctuary (on the fringe of Krau Wildlife Reserve). To get there, take Highway 2 to Lanchang and then follow route 236 to the sanctuary.

The station master had a train token around his hand. The train token (railway signalling) is a ‘key’ to allow the train engineer to pass from one section to another. At the end of each section, the engineer must surrender the token to the station master and collect the next token for an onward journey. This is particularly used in single track lines to ensure safety. No trains are allowed to pass without these tokens. They are exchanged at strategic stations along the route.

Kuala Krau Station is picturesque as the sun dipped below the surrounding distant mountains. However, beware, mind your step means just that, as the platform is much lower. The journey get interesting as we passed Sg Krau and views of muddy Pahang River. As we passed through a large scale FELDA palm plantation, the train made a brief stop. Jenderak Station is nothing more than a shed. Trucks and motorbikes rushed towards the train to collect the passengers as well a groups sending off families and friends. This train is literally the only public transport for many on this line. There are no buses or taxis at these remote stops. Dusk rolled in q.

The journey crossed several tributaries of Pahang River and hills. We finally rolled into Jerantut Station at 1910. It was quiet and only a handful of passengers disembarked. I noticed that the station master had a token in his hand, destined for a train heading up to Wakaf Bahru . My SH36 DMU train however continued to Kuala Lipis and return to Gemas. From the station, it is a short walk to my accommodation in town, Jerantut Hill Hotel. Due to covid, many businesses were shut including eateries. Tomorrow, I’ll leave for Kuala Tahan to explore Taman Negara (National Park).

2nd leg – Kuala Lipis – Gua Musang

On my 2nd leg, my plan after visiting Taman Negara was to find transport from Kuala Tahan to Jerantut and bus to Kuala Lipis to catch the 1645 DMU Shuttle (SH60) to Gua Musang(1818). However, I managed to hitch hike from Taman Negara to initially Kuala Lipis. The foreigners were heading to Cameron Highlands. After confirmation from the polis, the road through Sg Koyan was closed. Recent heavy rains had damaged the road causing landslides and flooding. Therefore, without any option, we continued all the way to Gua Musang by road. This option meant I had more time to explore in Gua Musang. Unfortunately, there is no train journey account. The train route from Kuala Lipis to Gua Musang followed the main roads mostly through oil palm plantations. Occasionally, patches of forest appeared. Both the road and the ECRL skirt the Western boundaries of Taman Negara. A new dual carriage highway was under construction in Pahang. Strangely, it abruptly ended at the Kelantan border. Perhaps local politics at work. (Kelantan is ruled by a government opposition party). The drive was uninteresting – just hectares and hectares of oil palm plantations on relatively flat terrain. I arrived at Gua Musang around 3pm.

Kual Lipis itself, the former capital of Pahang has some interesting sights. It is located at the confluence of Jelai and Lipis Rivers which eventually drains into the mighty Pahang River. It old train station, proximity to Kenong Rimba Park and old town vibe deserves a day or two.

Gua Musang is an interesting place, in the middle of no where. In my youth, this was the place to go. So remote in the middle of the dense jungles. Back then, only logging tracks from Lojing Highlands (and Cameron Highlands) head towards Gua Musang. The ECRL was the only link to the outside world. Today, there is road access to both Lojing ang Cameron Highlands. Read here about my stay in Gua Musang.

3rd leg – Gua Musang to Tumpat

This early morning I was quite excited as I headed towards the new Gua Musang train station for my 3rd leg. Thick mist descended over the many limestone hill that surround this lovely town. The street lights were on at 7am. Just before the station, a mak cik was setting up the warong (roadside stall). After a tasty homemade nasi lemak and hot condensed milk coffee, I made my way to the station. My Jungle Train – Express 26 (northbound) that departed Kempas Baru, Johor last night (2044) is expected to arrive here at 0740. Bukit Gua Musang formed a dramatic backdrop for the station. Breakfast was available at the station too. I packed some snacks for the journey. A red locomotive approached the station right on cue. Finally, the reality of taking the conventional train on the ECRL from Gua Musang to its terminus at Tumpat became a reality.

Types of seats and coaches

On this ERT26, T6 – 8 are sleeper carriages, ADNS (Air-conditioned Day/Night Second – bunk style (upper and lower berths). Each coach has 60 berths. This sleeping berths are popular and therefore, early booking is essential. There is also a buffet coach on board. The rest of the coaches T2 – 3 are sitting class – ASC (Air-Conditioned Second Class) with a 2×2 and T1 is AFC (Air-conditioned First/Business Class) with a 2×1 configurations.

My booking was ASC with only a handful of passengers. With flag signals from the Station Master, we rolled on. The beautiful sound of the wheels rolling over the iron track and gentle sway of the carriages brought me back to childhood holidays. Only ‘negative’ were the sealed glass windows. The train whizzed pass the old picturesque wooden Gua Musang Station and the surrounding limestone hills. An Indian lady from Johor Bahru made this journey to Kuala Krai for a wedding. I ventured into the last coach T1, the AFC. It was tidy. I asked the conductor there if I could be here. ‘Help yourself, its almost empty! The end of that coach has a glass window to the outside world.

Almost immediately, we passed forests, mixed-cropping and rural scenery. The train crossed a few iron bridges and sometimes almost brushed past tall grasses. Between coaches, the doors are not automatically locked. I described about my childhood experiences with open doors and windows to the conductor. To my surprise, he opened the door. The smells of the pristine jungle and the dense and cool morning mist was heavenly. I held the door handle tightly in one hand. The cool wind brushed against my face. The track came close and followed Galas River for several kilometers until Limau Kasturi Station. It then turns and travelled west. Soon, we passed Bertam Baru Station and crossed Clementi Bridge over a muddy Betis River, a tributary of Galas River. Between dense jungles, locals cultivated cash crops like bananas and vegetables along the tracks.

Just past 0900, we crossed Kemubu Bridge over tea coloured Galas River with a backdrop of majestic limestone hills. Pedestrians and bikes use the attached lane to cross. We soon zoomed past Kemubu Station. At 0935, we reached Dabong Station. Many people, mostly with backpacks, disembarked here. Dabong is a learning center where the ‘school train‘ brings students. Otherwise, a longer journey by road. Besides that, it is popular with hiking and cave exploration. Particularly, climbing Gunung Stong.  With limited time, my journey continued north.

Now, following Galas River again, the track continued towards Kuala Gris Station. From here-on, the track through dense jungles veered away from Sg Galas and turned south. To facilitate the journey, engineers constructed eight tunnels and viaducts. These construction were made by the British when they occupied Malaya. These were exciting times especially on a cloudy and misty day like today. The air is crisp. Almost taste the freshness of the jungle air as the train swayed slowly from one tunnel to another inter-spread with historic viaducts that seem to float in the air. Sometimes with rivers below. As the ECRL is a single track, our EP26 stopped at Bukit Abu Station to allow the DMU train to pass. It is always interesting to witness other trains pass.

The track soon made a big U, over a mountainous and densely forested section, on a south-east direction and moved north towards Manek Urai Station. The jungle became distant as palm cultivation became prominent. The course now followed Lebir  River until Kuala Krai Station. Kuala Krai lies on the confluence of Galas and Lebir Rivers. From here-on, the combined rivers becomes the mighty Kelantan River which drained into South China Sea at Kota Baru. This stretch gave the Jungle Train it’s namesake.

Kuala Krai Station is substantial. Perhaps an exchange station as it had several tracks. An abandoned burnt mail train engine was parked with several wagons. Near Kusial, we crossed one of the historic bridges – Guillemard Bridge over Kelantan River. The sound, jungle scenery and the river brought back wonderful memories of my childhood train experiences. It was nostalgic. This 600m single track railway truss bridge is one of the of the oldest in Malaysia. It’s historic as it was built by the British. Astonishingly, after nearly a hundred years (completed in 1924), its still not only standing but functional. A technological marvel to appreciate.

Soon after we rolled into Tanah Merah Station. Many Malay families disembarked here. returning home after the raya celebration. This is also the access to Kuala Terengganu including Perhentian Islands. The scenery became more urban as the jungle retreated into the background. We passed a couple of road crossing before reaching Pasir Mas Station. From here, there is access to Sg Golok Station via Rantau Panjang and onward into Thailand by train. From here-on, it was flat terrain with various agriculture cultivation including paddy. At Wakaf Baru Station, probably the last station, almost all passengers disembarked. Local transport was available as this station is the access to Kota Baru. However, I decided to travel further to the end terminal.

The scenery was just hectares of paddy cultivation and small villages. Buffalos grazed lazily in the hot afternoon. The train journey slowed as it approached another road crossing before rolling into the terminus station – Tumpat Station, at 1257. We were just 3 minutes slower than the scheduled time. Fantastic for a schedule that started the day before at 2044 in Kempas Baru. A journey of about 16 hours. A handful of passenger and mostly the crew assembled on the platform. Construction work on the station was still ongoing. Activities were frantic – the sleeper bed linen were removed and heaped into bundles; the cafeteria was emptied and restocked and the engineers and conductors long day was done. A distant marker indicated  527.75km. The was nothing dramatic about this place. Only at Tumpat does the ECRL actually meets the coast. Within 10 minutes, the work horse engine was detached and moved towards the terminus – the end of the line.  A worker manually diverted the track to allow the engine into the adjacent track. At 1310, the engine is hooked up to the carriages at the tail end and dragged away. Next departure on the ERT27 to Kempas Baru (Southbound) is at 2030 tonight.

Summary and tips

The East Coast Railway Line lived up to its name as the ‘Jungle Train’. An opportunity to encounter rural life. The other sections encountered rural life and passively traveled through interior towns normally not witnessed if travelled by road.

(1) The section between Gua Musang and Kuala Krai is the best ‘jungle’ experience – jungles, historic floating bridges (viaducts), village scenery, haunting tunnels, spectacular limestone hills and networks of ‘teh-tarik’ colored rivers. (2)To experience the jungle ride, the ERT26 (eastbound) offered daytime experience. (3) I suggest doing the journey in several legs including stops in Gemas (old town) , Jerantut (to Taman Negara), Kuala Lipis (historic/old town), Gua Musang (cave exploration/old town railway station) and Dabong (mountain/cave exploration). This offered off the main highway, truly Malaysian town/village experiences. It is certainly a fascinating journey worth doing.

I am not sure whether plans to electrify the ECRL or the disappearance of the jungle will come first. To experience the jungle is to be exposed to the exterior by way of open windows and doors. However, with modernisation, coaches are air conditioned. Therefore, sealed windows. Almost sanitised from the exterior environment. Another important aspect of conventional train travel, in a single line like the ECRL, is the use and exchange of tokens. This art will be extinct with introduction of electronic communication. The future for this train is incorporate a ‘tourist train’ with open windows coaches. This will preserve this iconic experience. Perhaps, this might help stop the ‘disappearance’ of the jungle itself. The novel idea of KTM to provide ‘student transport’ in rural areas to pursue education would certainly affect negatively to many rural families. As always, the best time to travel and experience this Jungle Train in Malaysia, is now.

East Coast Rail Link (not to confused with the existing ECRL – Jungle Train) is mega project to join rail from the west coast – Port Klang through KL and onward to Mentakab to Kuantan and along the coast up to Kuala Terengganu and Kota Baru. It cost about RM50 billion and 30% completed with the help of Chinese State owned companies. Will this bring about the demise of the Jungle Train?

Route and schedule
Riding the trains in Malaysia

Read all about bookings, trains and interesting destinations while Riding the Trains in Malaysia.

Kinabatangan River – adventure into the wilds of Borneo

Table of Contents
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre 
Sun Bear Conservation Center 
Kinabatangan River Cruise 
Gomantong Caves
Rainforest Discovery Center
Sandakan Memorial Park

Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Malaysia (563km) and drains into a wide delta and into Sulu Sea at Sandakan. The river has many uses – serves as a conduit for transport between interior villages and developed towns upstream. Why Kinabatangan River? The area has diverse habitats – dipterocarp forest; riverine and freshwater forests; limestone caves at Gomantang; mangrove swamps on the coast and ox bow lakes. Furthermore, it is endowed with remarkable wildlife, some endangered. In fact, amongst the highest concentration of animals in Borneo. The place to do this is in the Lower Kinabatangan River – with lodges around Abai, Bilit and Sukau. We choose the most dramatic and with abundant wildlife – Sukau. Homestay and river excursions in local villages is also possible.

To see my adventure photos, go to Kinabatangan River.

We took a 3 days /2 nights package deal which included lodging; meals; river cruises and transport from Sandakan and the resort; Sepilok Rehabilitation Center; Sun Bear Conservation Center; Rainforest Discovery Center and the Gomantang Caves. The package is practical and just be taken care of. You can do it independently – book accommodation, organize food and transport independently. However, most lodges provide all the services.

We booked with Sukau Rainforest Lodge and its affiliate Borneo Ecotours. This lodge became the first member of the prestigious national Geographic Unique Lodges of the world collection.  It cost more than other resorts, but it had a reputation of being eco-friendly, using electric motors on smaller rivers/streams and supports environmental issues. A bit of luxury from time to time is great.

Read about  Sandakan – a rustic old-world vibe

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Sandakan, the gateway to wildlife, is a great place to hang around, enjoying local fruits and delicacies, seafood and ordinary life. We were picked up from our hotel in Sandakan. Our first stop is the unique Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. As wildlife is threatened by habitat loss to agriculture, profiteering and human settlements, this center is a pioneer in rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild. More importantly, it is an educational center. To learn and educate issues relating to Orangutan in Sabah.

Our visit coincided with the 10am feeding time. Several age groups reside here. Interestingly, the released orangutans are free to go into the unenclosed part of the forest. I managed to see a wild male and a mother with a baby. It was an amazing feeling. At the center, it was a little crowded with visitors. Watching through the glass room was not particularly inspiring. Perhaps necessary to separate visitors from the animals.  My first encounter with an orangutan was in the late seventies in Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching, Sarawak. I was a student. His name was Bullet – as a bullet is lodged in his head permanently. Any attempt to dislodge may cause death. He had the softest of palms as he grabbed my hand and walked.  I was nervous. A moment to cherish.

Sun Bear Conservation Center

Close to the Orangutan Center is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Malayan sun bear are the smallest bears in the world. Again, like in the orangutan center, it is about rehabilitation, reintroduction and education. Most bears are brought into the center escaping capture and hunting. Poaching is a major concern. The bears are in an enlarged enclosure and watching them in a ‘natural’ environment is great. They seem to get on with their normal business – foraging for food. Magnificent animals though.

Kinabatangan River Cruise 

We were picked up by bus (by boat if we had taken the most expensive room – the villa) in Sandakan and headed towards Sukau, on the banks of Kinabatangan River. Ironically, to see wildlife, we passed large swath of oil palm plantations. Its cultivation, for economic growth is equally a major threat to biodiversity, wildlife habitat and ecology. Other threats include human settlement and draining wetlands for cultivation. How do we balance it? We arrived at Sukau village and caught sight of the muddy brown Kinabatangan River. The water level was high and occasional flooding is common. A short boat ride brought us to our lodge. I am always awed and feel inspired when surrounded by dense lush green tropical rainforest. The only sound heard was the fast-flowing river and sound of the forest – insects creaking, bird calls and the occasional boat passing on the river. The lodge has expansive boardwalks, aptly named Hornbill and Attenborough Boardwalks, extending into rehabilitated forest for nature walks – day and night. The reason we are here, to hopefully to see wild orangutan, pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys while on a river cruise. There is a sense of tranquility, having arrived. Only the sound of forest. Along the boardwalk, high on a tall tree, I sported a nest. It was an elegant Wallace Hawk Eagle. Later, I was stopped in my track by a group of common pig-tailed macaques. They can be aggressive. Butterflies, creepy crawlies and lizards kept me occupied along the walk.

After a relaxed evening snack of traditional deserts, we embarked on our first river cruise. Spotting wildlife on the riverbanks is by chance. Surprisingly, just a short ride on the river, we spotted a wild orangutan gorging itself on wild figs. Its golden hair shined in the afternoon sun. It was exciting to know that these gentle creatures, although increasingly difficult, to see them wander freely in the forest. Soon we encountered the playful and endangered proboscis monkeys or “Monyet Belanda”. They have distinctive flopping nose. They are endemic to Borneo. The mainly live on trees amongst the mangrove forest. They are arboreal – tree dwellers. My first encounter of these monkeys was at Klias Wetlands near Beaufort in Sabah. Birdlife is plentiful and likely to spot the many species of hornbills and water birds. Sightings of pygmy elephants had not occurred for nearly sixty days as our guide explained. The reason – plentiful of fruits inside the forest. I was optimistic. Perhaps a stray or rouge elephant. Our lodge is comfortable and relaxing. Don’t miss the talk by a guide on the lives of the orangutan. Fascinating and informative.

At 9pm, we took the optional night cruise. In the pitch black, only illuminated by a spotlight, we sped through on the river. I had no expectations on what we would see. Perhaps a waste of time. I was wrong. We spotted a kingfisher, presumably in deep sleep as it did not move as the light shined on it. Its technicolor feathers are amazing. I could almost grasp it in my hand, and that’s how close we got! Next, look out for red spot on the water, our guide advised. They would be salt water crocodiles. There are plenty here and they move quickly and submerged immediately. It certainly was an interesting hour.

The next days’ ‘morning cruise was early. We departed around 6am. In parts of the forest, the mist had settled on the surface of the water. It was a dreamy world. However, it disappeared rapidly as the sun rose. We slowly made our way through several smaller tributaries. The forest here is closer. So is the wildlife. More proboscis monkey swayed on trees as the foraged for food. Some with little babies on their rounded bellies. On the way to an ox bowed lake, our guide pointed out to a pair flying birds some distance away – Storm’s Stock. She mentioned that there is only five hundred left. We were lucky. As we made our way through a narrow channel, a small troop of proboscis monkeys jumped in mid-air from one bank to the other. Their acrobatic skills must be admired. They happen to be good swimmers too. Just watch out for the crocodiles. We switched to the electric motor for a slower and quieter cruise. There was a chorus of calls from the black and white Oriental Pied Hornbill.  Further down, a Brahminy Kite (Eagle) perched on a treetop, surveyed its domain. However, the lake is slowly being choked with aquatic plants. Common kingfisher casually passed looking for their next meal. We revisited the fruiting fig tree near the lodge. We were lucky, again, to see a mother and baby wild orangutans feeding on the fruits. A lovely outcome to end the day.

Gomantong Caves

After lunch we headed to Gomantong Caves (optional). It is known for its resident, mainly, colony of the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats. It was an interesting walk through the forest aided by wooden steps to get to the cave entrance. this is Simud Hitam Cave. It was dark and had a strong odor of bat droppings (guano). These make great organic fertilizers. Aided by torch and head lights, we managed to make our way slowly. I could see the floor moving – giant cockroaches and spiky (centipede-like) insects. Above, chatter from bats. The entire wooden walkway is slippery from water seeping through the limestone. In the middle, a shaft of light and greenery. An exposed section and an outlet for bat to enter and exit. Permanent ropes hung from the ceilings. These are used to collect swiftlet bird’s nest high on the walls. A dangerous and arduous job to collect them. Any false move, a 90m fall into the guano heap below. At the entrance, an owl was perched on a tree branch waited patiently in anticipation. In the skies above, falcons swirled. Why? Well, like us, they too are waiting for the daily dusk exodus of bats from the caves. Unlike us, they want to feast on them. Finally, the exodus began in batches. I could only see them as black dots in the sky. They swayed like music cords. They were in their thousands. An impressive sight indeed.

We departed our luxury lodge after breakfast. We were in luck. Instead of returning to Sandakan by bus, we were put on the boat. Something I hoped for. It was a fast but pleasant two-hour ride through initially the main river and eventually through smaller mangrove forest channels at the mouth of the river at Sandakan Bay. The final section is rough as we hit open water. It was another opportunity to spot wildlife, and we did – crocodiles and proboscis monkeys. Also, an opportunity to see the Orang Sungai community – the indigenous people of the river.

Rainforest Discovery Center

From Sandakan we headed to the wonderful Rainforest Discovery Center close to Sipilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This is a great way to explore the Borneo Rainforest. Not only at ground level but also with an aerial experience via the several canopy walks. Seeing eye level of  treetops is amazing. A bird’s eye view of the forest below. however, with our guide’s schedule, we managed about 1.5 hrs.

 Sandakan Memorial Park

A lovely park to commemorate one of history sad episodes. This is one of three site of POW camps between Sandakan and Ranau. A few articles displayed were a steam engine and a dredge. This is a place for contemplation. On an black obelisk, these words were written –

Sandakan Memorial
In Remembrance Of All Those
Who Suffered and Died Here,
On The Death Marches
And At Ranau

Finally, we returned to Sandakan and just in time to celebrate Chinese New Year.


Sandakan – a rustic old-world vibe

I have been to Sabah several times. Sandakan is a new destination. The main reason – to explore the mighty Kinabatangan River on a river cruise. We checked into Four Point by Sheraton, ideally located at the heart of Sandakan, overlooking Sandakan Bay and Sulu Sea. Nearby is the harbour and fish landing base, central market and a walking promenade. To see my photos, go to Kinabatangan River

Sandakan buildings looked tired but have a delightful old-world village vibe about it, especially around the central market and harbour. In the morning, rickety fishing boats laden with their daily catch arrived and unloaded. This include, sting ray, prawns, sharks and an assortment of fish. Ice blocks are transferred from lorries to the market via ramps. The fish market is busy. So is the adjacent produce market. I love markets as they are a great way to soak in local culture and gauge the economic prosperity. Outside the central market, impromptu stalls sell all kinds of produce from night to early morning. It becomes a car park after 7am.

A great way to experience this old town is walking the Sandakan Heritage Trail (about 2hrs) – we started at the old town’s 100 year old Masjid Jamek – a quaint square with William Pryer Monument and the Sandakan Heritage Museum – a steep climb on the a rather unkempt 100 steps staircase through a forest surrounding – sipped tea amidst great sea views at English Tea House with an English colonial architecture – Agnes Keith Memorial, then called Newlands. Once occupied by American author, Agnes Newton Keith, amongst which wrote the Land Below The Wind in 1939 – little remains of an old staircase to nowhere – pay respects at Kun Yum Temple (Goddess of Mercy Temple) – Saint Michael’s and All Saints Church – Sum Sing Kung (Temple of Three Saints), opposite the town field and back to town. A short ride to Puu jih Syh Temple, high on a mountain, provides wonderful views of rustic Sandakan and its coast.

In the evening, head to Kampung Buli Sim Sim for some seafood dinner over swaying water. It is overpriced but you should try it once. There are several eateries to choose from. Ask the locals for their recommendation. My favorite is the out of town, Kim Fung market – from breakfast to supper! Try the handmade Youtia (Yew Char Kuey), Tow Foo Fa and many delicious local dishes. Others include Kong Teck (homemade noodles) and San Da Gen Kopitiam, a cafe style and the food court above the central market, in the old town. You won’t go hungry in Sandakan.

Rhythmic drums echoed through the old town as a golden dragon made it way through. Even dragons use elevators (inside the mall)! Today is Chinese New Year. In the evening, the waterfront is the place to be – watch the sun set and stalls opening for business. After dark – durian, mangosteen and langsat seller occupied the pavements to sell their wares. Nearly everyone eats on site. That way, you don’t pay for bad ones. Just watch out for pick-pockets!

Sandakan is also the gateway into nature reserves – Kinabatangan River cruises, Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Rainforest Discovery Center, Gomantong Caves and Turtle Island. Nature, wildlife, food and cultural experiences in one town.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu 6


The sky was blue and darkness was just disappearing. The horizon began to emerge with reddish -orange hues. I could barely see the blinking lights of the huts in Laban Rata and Kundasang. My body was already spent but my spirits were high. Navindd and I kept moving. Hikers supported each other and urged us to press on. The thick blanket of cloud below us seem to have taken a life of its own, swirling and weaving. The sun began to rise behind the Ugly Sisters and Donkey Ears rock formations. However, the view towards the summit at Low’s Peak was clear. The serrated surface of the mountain became detailed. The sun peaked above the clouds around 6.15am. It was magnificent. Tired but elated. We continued walking and reached the 8km mark around 6.20am. Shadows formed of the surface. There were sounds of jubilation. About 500m away, the triangular but serrated peak glowed softly. Nearby, a monstrous St John Peak rose abruptly form the barren rocky floor. Several other peaks formed a unique structures. The highest, Low’s Peak is at 4095m, the highest. As we rested,  Navindd developed some cramps in his foot and I was plain tired.

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I looked up the trail to the summit. It was crowded and in most places a single file trek. Part of the large group were making the way up to the summit and movement was painfully slow. It was made difficult by the hikers descending from the summit. At times, traffic came to a standstill.. We decided not to continue on, 300m from the summit, as it would certainly take us quite some time to complete the circuit.  Instead, we wandered around and savoured the fruits of our climb with the sun warming our bodies. Views to the valley below were certainly obscured. We were lucky with the weather today. Small pools of water reflecting these unique rock formations, added to the dramatic scenery. For the previous two days, the attempt to hike to the summit was cancelled due to poor weather. The surface in most places is slippery even without rain. Hence the ropes to give a little support along the way.

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We began our decent around 7.30am. It daylight, some stretches were visibly dangerous.  Yes, there are some element of danger if we strayed away from the ropes. We retraced our steps back towards Laban Rata, which could be seen in the valley below. Once again, I had to confront the treacherous rock face rope assisted decent.  I was more nervous now that climbing is in daylight. Navindd seemed fearless. Hanging on to the dear rope, little by little I managed. It seemed like eternity. Past that stretch, my body eased completely. We reached Laban Rata Huts around 9.30am.

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After some much needed breakfast, we prepared to decent the mountain. The weather began to change as dark clouds began to build up. The landscape evolved from barren to sub-alpine to cloud forest. It was humid and the vegetation lush. Epiphytes and orchids hung on trees and rotting branches. Birds darted quickly around the forest. Flowering rhododendrons added some colour to the green environment. As we descended, we met hikers going uphill. The strain of the climb was written on their faces. I was humbled by the heavy pack the porters were hauling up the mountain. Not to repeat my previous day’s error, I packed lunch at Laban Rata. It rained intermittently as we approached Timpohan Gate. It poured heavily as we entered the gate. It was around 2.40pm. Even in “good weather”, the climb is slippery at places and definitely on the barren rock surface towards the summit. I wondered about the predicament of all the hikers on the mountain.

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We caught a bus back to the Park headquarters where we received our certificate of achievement. I am proud of Navindd with his achievement and the fact that we had travelled this journey together. I hope this little gesture of climbing Mt Kinabalu would instil a sense of adventure and love for the outdoors. I told myself, I am not climbing this mountain again. (I recalled the same statement after reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro in 2012). In my older age, I may have to find an easier way to bond in the future. Nevertheless, this has been a rewarding, adventurous and fulfilling journey. Well done Navindd, albeit some aches and pain.


On 5 June 2015, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck on Mt Kinabalu. Eighteen people tragically lost their lives including hikers, porters and guides. Through this story, I hope readers will have a greater appreciation of the unique landscape and environment, the ardours task of porters and guides and of course the enthusiasm, motivation and pain of individual hikers. This is a small dedication to all who have been there, those whom aspire to experience this natural phenomenon and above all, in memory to all those whom lost their lives. I belief they are in a good place. After all, this is a “Mountain of Dead Sprits”.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu-5

Today is summit day. There was quite a commotion downstairs in the dining room. I had little sleep. It was a little cold as I stepped out of my room. The large group members had already gathered and attired to start the morning hike. They were waiting for the food caterers to prepare the morning snack. I noticed a sign with a quote – something like ” breakfast will only be served from 0230″. The time now was 0130!. I could not believe it. Were they just eager or just plain silly? I went back to bed. There goes the plan to leave before and ahead of the group! Navindd was fast asleep.

After a quick hot snack, we were eager to get going. When we stepped outside, the cold wrapped us up. Fortunately, this time, we had thermals, gloves and proper jackets on. We even had our own headlamps to shine the path forward. Azman informed us that we need to be at Sayat-Sayat check point before 5.30 am. Otherwise, hikers may be stopped from continuing to the summit. I am not sure about this. With that in mind, we forged forward….which translated to uphill all the way. Up on a steep wooden belian steps, we climbed in pitch darkness shone only by our head lights. A long thin line of lights streamed up hill. It looked like a formidable task ahead. I stopped frequently as my poor fitness level surfaced. Navindd was still good, perhaps a little cold. We were above the cloud line. Visibility of the valley below was sporadic. We reached a fixed roped section of the trail. Against a solid granite rock face, a narrow crack rose uphill. Gripping the rope, we heaved up with our legs finding traction on a rather slipper surface apart from the narrow crack. I was nervous climbing up as the steep fall did not look attractive. One after another, we all climbed up very slowly. This is a treacherous stretch! I was concerned and wondered how I managed this stretch the last time. I don’t even remember it. Then was about 20 years ago. Perhaps youth had a part to play.

After that wrecking rock climb, we finally reached Sayat- Sayat Huts (3668m), the final checkpoint. It was 5am. We made it. There seem to be some pressure to walk quickly to get here, otherwise….. Our permits were checked and we were off again. The vegetation here is now a few standing shrubs and trees skeleton left. The landscape is now a rocky one. There were a few more tricky stretches using rope to propel forward. We have now passed the 7km mark and it was slow slog up the barren rocky plateau. I could see lights stretching from Sayat- Sayat Hut right up towards the summit. Surreal mountain formations surrounded us.

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Climbing Mount Kinabalu-4

The immediate impact was the crowded trail. A large group of hikers, some with identical attire, climbed the mountain today. Later I found that they belonged to a non-profit group making up to a 100 people. I belief that only about 150 people are allowed to climb per day. It looked like peak traffic on the narrow trails. However, the atmosphere was pleasant. The quiet contemplation that comes with climbing in high places was lost. Trees thinned out and whatever was present, were stunted and twisted. Some were permanently swayed onto one side. Rhododendron plants seem more prolific and some in flower. Undergrowth is thick. Fortunately, it was cloudy which eased climbing. I relived the vivid memories of this subalpine meadow zone. Old man’s beard  (air plants) hung on branches of the skeletonised trees. This added dramatic sceneries. Higher up, I could see the rocky plateau. The walk from here, at over 3000m, was exposed. With chattering from other hikers and the dramatic sceneries, I slowly made my way up. Words of encouragement and support was occasionally heard. Navindd was keen to carry on and he took off. From here, there are no diversions and not likely to get lost. The trail is not dangerous here.

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We reached Laban Rata, 3273m, our stop for the night, at around 5pm. It was crowded and noisy. Dinner was already in full swing. Weary and tired, we checked in and almost immediately at the dining table with a hot meal. It was satisfying for me to have climbed this far without any injuries or pain. Tiredness is normal. The mantra to climb any mountain for me is try to walk continuously with regular but shot stops. Being fit is a requirement, which I had not heeded this time….again. Our accommodation was warm, although no heating was available. Several other huts were scattered around. It was already misty and cold. The views of the unique landscape were obscured. Fortunately, throughout the trail, it only rained intermittently. The paths and black rocky surfaces were already wet.


One conversation that evening was about attempts by hikers to reach the summit in the previous days had failed due to poor weather. We hoped for the better. The other conversation, by hikers not part of the big group was, what time do we start walking the next morning to beat this crowd? From here on, the trail became narrow and in many stretches, probably single file. It rained. I looked around the room, everyone seemed happy just to have arrived here. Like us, just happy to have a hot meal in hand.

Navindd and I had a shower and readied to get some rest and sleep. Our dorm room had four beds. It was certainly cosy and surprisingly warm. However, it was noisy with the large group. It was already dark after 6pm. Hikers were still arriving, drenched and shivering, around 7pm. Some of them just 10 years old. I wondered if the had enjoyed the hike? At these heights, altitude sickness can hit anyone. There were some signs amongst this group. However, help was on hand.We had a plan for next morning. Wake up at 2am and after a light snack, attempt for the summit. Being a light sleeper, I had difficulty sleeping with the constant walking and knocking by people arriving late at the huts. Navindd had no such issues.

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After a quick but hearty breakfast, Albert brought us to our stating point. Unlike most people who start at the Timpohan Gate, we started at Mersilau Gate. This Mersilau trail is longer by about 2km adding about an extra 2 hours trekking time. However, this trail is gradual and the exposure to the mountain environment is greater.

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Through paved winding roads surrounded by pristine native forest, we arrived at Mersilau Gate around 7.30am. There is accommodation here. Being here feels amazing. Breathing the freshness, listening to the sound of a waking forest, seeing the mist lifting above the tree canopy and feeling the coolness of the jungle on my skin, I felt invigorated and spirits lifted. Although, I had been in many forests’ before, this feeling doesn’t seem to ware off. We handed over our documents to the rangers and met our guide, Azman, a native to this area.

We set off on the trail around 8.30am. This time around, I decided on the Mersilau Trail starting from Tambang Gate (2000m). Most people seem to hike from the Timpohan Gate. Mersilau trail is longer by about 2km or about 2 -3 hours walking. Today, there were about 10 hikers. It was hot and humid once we entered the forest. Perhaps, it was due to sweat pouring out of my body. A result of the steep climb. This is Lowland Dipterocarp Forest. Vertical tree trunks reach for the invisible sky as the tree canopy form a thick cover. Within the first hour, I could feel the strain on my body. Again, I am attempting to climb Kinabalu in a rather unfit state. Perhaps, better to have climbed Kinabalu and carry on to China. Wishful thoughts in hind sight! Navindd was as pace with our guide, Azman.

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Fortunately, although wet and humid, the trail was good. Not muddy or slippery. The trail is uphill with occasional decent. With regular stops and slow walking, we managed from one shelter hut to another. A slow progress, and thankfully not painfully as I recalled my first climb. Now we entered the Lower Montane Forest. Gradually, the tree canopy opened up as the trees become shorter.  We had crossed a river earlier and now another small wooden bridge over a tributary of West Mersilau River. It is refreshing but no time to linger too long. We have already reached above 2500m.The vegetation here is different. Moss hung off tree branches, dense undergrowth and bamboos and orchids appeared. Azman introduced me to Rhododendron lowii, a bright large yellow flower. Nearby were orchids and other epiphytes.

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As we continued, we came across an impressive cluster of Pitcher Plants or Nepenthes. I remembered seeing larger ones on the Timpohan trek. Now we had entered the Cloud Forest. These part of the mountain are constantly drenched with moisture. This encouraged epiphytes and moss to flourish. Liverwort and ferns covered shaded parts of the forest floor. Gradually the height of trees reduced and the canopy opened. Grass like plants became more frequent. An assortment of flowering plants also sprouted in pockets. We stopped for lunch at Magnolia shelter, around 2.30pm. We thought the guide would provide lunch as arranged by Sutera Santuary. To Azman’s surprise, there was none. Neither did we talk to him about it earlier. We survived with a few chocolates and biscuits. Shortly after that, we walked into an open area on the ridge of a mountain. Steep slopes on either side. The views were great but partial due to low mist and clouds. The trail seem to be descending. Walking became relaxed. Eventually we arrived at Layang-Layang Hut (2702m) intersection where both trails met, from Timpohan Gate and Mersilau. We had hiked about 5.5 km. The circumstances at this point were in contrast.


Climbing Mount Kinabalu-2

In January 2015, my son Navindd, and I climbed Mt Kinabalu. I thought this would be great for bonding as well as planting a seed for the love of travel and the outdoors. It is certainly a trying effort for an old fella like me to carry on with this type of activity. Well, perhaps one more time!

My bookings for the climb were all organised by Lay Yong, my sister-in-law, including accommodation in Mersilau (Alan’s (nieces’ husband) parents place), whom I had not met before. Sabah Parks had privatised the bookings for the climb. Apart from issuing permits ( cost RM30) and organising guides, all bookings are handled by Sutera Sanctuary. Naturally the cost had increased, now about RM480.

Mt Kinabalu, part of the Crocker Range, is the highest peak at 4095m in South East Asia on the island of Borneo in Sabah, Malaysia. We arrived at Kota Kinabalu, in short called KK, just past midday in stormy and rainy weather. Tropical rain bucketed down and views of the surrounding hill and mountains were obscured. A taxi was pre-arranged to take us to Kundasang. Some roads turned to streams with fast flowing water. Carefully our driver negotiated these treacherous metal roads. The drive became more challenging as we hit the mountain roads towards Kundasang, the closest town to Kinabalu Park.

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We arrived at Kundasang after three hours, around 3pm. The driver stopped at a row of stalls selling fresh fruits and vegetables. The air was thick with cool mist. Visibility was poor. The ladies, however, were colourful and cheerful. The weather improved dramatically as we approached Kundasang town. I remembered it as a small village market on my first foray here. Now, it is a decent town surrounded by agriculture cultivation. Lay Yong, my sister-in-law, had organised a friend to pick Navindd and I and stay for the night. At 2000m above sea level, the quaint town is cool and has a temperate climate. The local population are mainly of Kadazan – Dusun origin and a small Chinese population. It is a lovely place just to enjoy the surrounding and climate. Its proximity to Kinabalu National Park makes it a tempting place to visit.


Thomas and his, rather cheery, son Albert waited for us. I immediately got a liking to them although we have just met. Through winding narrow roads, roadside shops and farms, we arrived at their home in Mersilau. Home, is under the gaze of a hazy silhouette of the unique formation of Mt Kinabalu. On the opposite side, a forested valley. I could live here, I thought. After settling in with a hot drink, Albert took us to the Park HQ, the gateway into the mountain, to sign in for the following day’s planned climb. It rained. Local buses and transportations arrived and departed from here. Accommodations and restaurants are all found here as well.  All the bookings were checked by Sutera staff, required fees paid and a guide organised by the Park’s staff. It was around 5.30pm. Darkness came early in the mountains. After a hot meal, we went to sleep quite early in anticipation of the ardours climb the following day. I wanted to be well prepared this time around. However, having a month holidaying in China before arriving here is not quite what I had in mind. I was apprehensive.


Climbing Mt Kinabalu 1

This was 1994. I remember this journey vividly. My company sent me to Sabah for some work. The site was Mamut Copper Mines, one or if not the largest open cast copper mine. My task was to study ways to reintroduce vegetation as well as find new opportunities in agribusiness for the company. This was my first visit to Sabah.

The site was a massive scar on a mountain. Terrain was steep and in places, near vertical. However, the climate was temperate and flower and foliage production may be viable. The discussions ended early on Friday. I decided to climb Mt Kinabalu.

I arrived at the park HQ around noon. I applied to climb the mountain and book accommodation for the night. The rangers looked surprised. Normally, trekkers would start early in the morning. It was mandatory to take a guide. Eventually my guide, Lumborg, turned up. Booking and permits sorted, about RM50, I went off on the trek. The start was from Timpohan Gate. I was naive and my only motivation to climb was to take the opportunity of being here in Sabah. This activity was unplanned. I am always motivated to go and see places.

My guide, Lomborg, a local Kadazan, sized me up – are you fit? I am an active sports person and with a rather free willed spirit. My enthusiasm overflowed. He seemed satisfied with those words. The climb through magnificent tropical rain forest mountain, the oldest in the world, was exhilarating. However, it was taking a toll on my body too. My guide stopped to give me an opportunity for a rest and drink. I had no drink.  I drank from the stream as he did. Part way, my legs were arrested with severe cramps. Four points – both calves and thighs. The pain was unbearable. Tears came easily. We had passed the halfway point. I literally dragged my pants putting one foot forward and followed with the other. The climb was uphill of course! My guide must be having second thoughts to continue. Incredibly, he was patient and encouraging.  Eventually, I made it to Laban Rata, the stop for the night. It was around 6pm. Everyone were in jumpers. I was only in my T-shirt. I felt strange. The solid granite rock terrain with an alpine vegetation was amazing. Stunted Rhododendron with twisted trunks and branches surrounded the accommodation. Heavy mist descended. After dinner I collapsed into bed with the knowledge that I will be woken up at 2.30am to make an attempt for the summit to catch sunrise.

When my guide came the morning, he must have doubted my ability to continue. In contrast, I was up and fully charged for the climb. He was happy but surprised. He asked me to put on my gloves. I had none. I removed one pair of socks and slipped onto my hands. Any torchlight or headlamp? I just said, let’s follow the people in front with lights!   All I had was a day pack with a camera and a light waterproof jacket. On my feet, sturdy shoes with, now, one pair of socks. I was ill-prepared for the climb. The fact is, I was here and therefore just wanted to climb. My guide was stone-faced as if numbed.  I reached the summit just as the sun came over the horizon. Dark shadows, majestic rock formations, heavy mist and the filtered sunlight on glistening black granite surface, created a heavenly sight.  A place for the gods I thought.

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The mist lifted. At Low’s Peak, surrounded with deep ravines and gullies, with the warm sun on my face, I sat and savoured the incidental journey. The views of the lowlands were clear and magnificent. From the summit, Low’s Gully seemed like no one would return! We were lucky indeed today as this mountain seem perpetually draped in mist.  We returned to Laban Rata. After a quick breakfast, after a long descend through the tropical rain forest, we headed to Timpohan Gate. I absolutely loved being surrounded by trees and the natural environment. A telecommunication station and a cascading waterfall came into view. By now, I was walking only on excitement and adrenaline. The body held, only just. A  memoir – a certificate of accomplishment is given – “…….had climbed to Low’s Peak, the summit of Mt Kinabalu (4101m) highest in South East Asia on 22 October 1994”.

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I returned to the copper mine. That evening and for several days later, my legs were completely stiff, heavy and riddled with pain. This was the low point of the climb up Mt Kinabalu. In bed at home, with strong painkillers doing its job, I felt a sense of achievement and satisfaction. To climb the highest mountain in South East Asia and to have witnessed local people and wild scenery, simply amazing.