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  • Writer's pictureRick

East Malaysia Day 1: To the Land Below the Wind, Sabah (沙巴)

9:36am, after alighting from the free shuttle bus, I was at Changi International Airport Terminal 4 once again after 7 months. And, same as last time, I would be flying to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in East Malaysia (Borneo), on AirAsia flight at 12:10pm.

Changi Airport Terminal 4

6.28Kg. That was the weight of my backpack. I had no check-in baggage since AirAsia allowed 7Kg cabin baggage. I had packed similar number of stuffs as my recent 25-day trip in West Malaysia — minus sunscreen, hand sanitiser, nail clipper and safety pins. I did not bring along my bulky DSLR camera too.

I already had my e-boarding pass on AirAsia MOVE app, skipped the check-in counters, went through immigration’s automated clearance in less than 10 minutes and began the wait for boarding. I had forgotten to buy breakfast and survived on several pieces of biscuit since morning, was famished and went to the International Food Hall for brunch.

I had a pork cutlet fried rice from King of Fried Rice. I had heard good things about King of Fried Rice at other outlets before and was glad to find an outlet here — or I did not notice it 7 months ago? The pork cutlet fried rice was delicious with succulent pork cutlet.

Food Hall @ Changi Airport Terminal 4

Boarding began at 11:40am and Flight AK 1794 took off at 12:10pm. I tried to sleep on the flight but was unable to do so — it had never been easy for me to sleep when flying no matter how tired I was.

Unlike the 5-day trip in October 2023 to Kota Kinabalu just for food and relaxation, I had several objectives for this trip:

  1. My intention was to travel either from Sarawak to Brunei to Sabah or vice versa from Sabah towards Sarawak — I chose the latter and booked the flight to Kota Kinabalu — but after doing more research, I discovered that there were tons of twists and turns in this plan. It would have been plausible to travel between Sarawak and Sabah via Brunei in 2017, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, the route was somehow disrupted and online information were mixed.

  2. Harvest Festivals would be held in Sabah and Sarawak at the end of May — I learnt later that Sarawak's Harvest Festival (called Gawai Dayak) was in the beginning of June.

  3. I would want to see a blooming Rafflesia flower (again) but this would very much depend on my luck.

In short, I did not have a workable travel plan except first 3 days in Kota Kinabalu. The first couple of days would be for me to gather more information on the ground before deciding what to do or where to go after Kota Kinabalu. It was not my first unplanned journey anyway and I had up to 30 days free visa to work out something — but last-minute bookings, especially flights, could make this trip expensive.

The flight landed at Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) at 2:36pm, 10 minutes ahead of schedule. At immigration, the Malaysia Digital Arrival Card (MDAC) was required to be submitted online and the reply email must be shown to the custom officer with the passport. Sabah managed its own immigration, so whatever policies that were applied to other immigration checkpoints of Malaysia might deviate a little here — MDAC was optional for Singapore passports at the land checkpoints to Johor.

Flying to Kota Kinabalu International Airport

Outside the arrival hall of the airport, I tried using Grab app to e-hail a car but the pick-up point was restricted only to Pillar 5 outside the domestic arrival hall. No waiting was allowed. I walked to Pillar 5 before hailing a car, got it and left the airport in less than 5 minutes. It was just RM9 to Pantai Inn near Gaya Street.

I checked-in to Pantai Inn (海滂酒店) and got a standard double room on the 3rd floor. Everything seemed to be fine except for the window facing the road outside — traffic noises, or whatever noises, were one thing that I hated most when sleeping in any accommodations. This was why I preferred rooms with solid walls and no windows but it was not easy finding hotels with such rooms on booking apps as "solid walls" was not a criteria to state in any property's information section.

Standard double room @ Pantai Inn (海滂酒店)

It was already 3:40pm. I changed out of my long pants and long-sleeve shirt — my “flight suit” when taking flights — to something lighter and went down to find things to eat.

I was thinking of going for coconut pudding, a popular Kota Kinabalu dessert, when I walked past Yuit Cheong (悦昌), a coffee shop, saw a guy grilling satays at the entrance and decided to have some too. I stepped in and ordered 5 ayam (chicken) and 5 daging (beef) satays, from the satay stall that opened only in the afternoon, and an iced lemon tea — it was a little late for coffee. The nicely-done and tasty satays were only RM10.

Satays @ Yuit Cheong (悦昌)

A shop right beside Yuit Cheong was a travel agency named Mee Young Holidays. I went in to ask if there was any Rafflesia flower in full bloom and Florence, the lady manning the shop, told me there was a sighting in one of the private gardens in Kundasang — 1st day in bloom. I was excited to go and see the flower, but, except for one fully-booked group tour on the following day, there were no other tours with participants and I as a solo traveller could not form a new tour group, which required minimum 2 pax — all local tour packages needed minimum 2 pax to go. I also took a copy of the Sabah's Traveller Guide.

I went to another travel agency, and similarly, there were no other tour groups. I was told that May was the off-peak season for travelling in Sabah — probably due to the hot weather. I was lucky but not fated to see another Rafflesia flower after seeing some of the big flowers on Cameron Highlands many years ago.

Off-peak travel season was not a big issue for me, when all else failed, I would fall back on local food, which would always be there regardless of travel seasons. However, certain food, especially fruits, might be seasonal. The month of May was not in the seasons for durians and taraps.

I went to The Royal Coconut, originallly wanted a coconut pudding but bought a coconut shake instead. I sat in their air-conditioned room to cool off, enjoy the dessert and try to work out something for the next few days with new information that I had obtained. Conclusion was… totally clueless! With my travel plan from Sabah to Brunei to Sarawak in bits and pieces, I could not decide on what other course of actions to take.

Coconut Shake @ The Royal Coconut (太子椰)

I took a brief walk along Lorong Dewan, also known as Australia Lane, in a little area below Signal Hill called Australia Place, where Australian soldiers used to camp here during World War II. Nook Cafe and October Coffee House were here, with other cafes, bars, restaurants, a hotel, a launderette, hostels, and several traditional print shops. Other than Gaya Street for local food, this would be another popular street to hang out, especially in the cafes and bars.

Australia Place at dusk

Back at Gaya Street, I looked around for dinner. Several restaurants and coffee shops were opened in the evening. Yee Fung Laksa (怡丰叻沙) was closed after 5pm. I counted at least 6 bak kut teh restaurants around Gaya Street, including Sin Kee (新记肉骨茶) and Yu Kee (佑记肉骨茶), which I had tried before — I learnt later that Sabah's bak kut teh was from West Malaysia and Klang buk kut teh was undoubtably from Klang in West Malaysia. I wanted something that I had not tried before.

Night scene of Gaya Street

I saw Hakka Bites (客家小吃) and decided to give it a go. After browsing their menu, I ordered their signature Hakka fried noodle (招牌客家炒面) and kit chai (桔子), a popular calamansi beverage in Sabah. The Hakka noodle was fried to give it a near-crispy texture and topped with a light-tasting broth — the style was similar to Singapore’s seafood hor fun. The noodle was also added with savoury barbecue pork and roasted pork, the two main ingredients of Sabah’s Tuaran mee (斗亚兰面). It was a new experience.

Hakka fried noodle @ Hakka Bites (客家小吃)

With nothing more to do and feeling tired after having to wake up early for a noon flight, I was back in my room at 7:30pm. I would not mind visiting some bars if they had low-alcohol local wine on their menu — like Kiki Lalat in Ipoh — since I was not a great fan of strong alcohol.


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