Chiang Mai was our last stop in Thailand for now and it was a long transit to Kota Kinabalu (KK), in the Borneo side of Malaysia. We took an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, flew to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, before finally landing at night in KK. Check below for some tips for getting through this transit.
Last year (2012), during my first backpacking trip with Mandeep, we had a one night stopover in KK on the way to Kuching. This time around we were going for Paul’s brother’s Malaysian wedding ceremony. As soon as we land, we are whisked off to a local hawker stall to have satays. Along for the ride are all of Issac’s high school friends we I know from playing recreational hockey, a bunch of our church friends, and my girlfriend Carrie. Needless to say its a party every night!
We stay in Akinablu Youth Hostel, which is clean and conveniently located on Gaya street, the home of the Sunday market and the best Laksa establishment around. Our time in KK is full of fun with familiar faces from Vancouver. If you have a big appetite, then KK is the city for you. Just on Gaya street, there is a renouned Laksa restaurant (literally 3-5 stores right of the hostel doors), countless eateries serving up Malaysian favourites like char kwei teow (fried rice noodles in rolled sheet form), Mee goreng (fried noodles), hainanese chicken rice etc, with all the drinks you could ask for, and finally a place specializing in bak kuh teh, or pork bone soup. This interesting dish revolves around a broth made by boiling pork bones for hours with tea, leading to a rich, almost medicinal, herbal broth, in which fixin’s like fish balls, beef balls, noodles etc are cooked and served in.
One of the rather interesting things we did was go for massages as a big group of churchies. Now, Malaysia isn’t like Thailand where you can get a massage for <$15. However, the masseurs are apparently more well trained, and you can notice this when you go for one yourself. They seem to hit all the right places to get out those pesky knots that you seem to acquire carrying around a pack all day and sitting in cramped seats. A few of us, Jon included, went for a foot scrub, which involves the person filing and scrubbing your feet until they are as smooth as a baby’s bottom. By the 30 minute mark, Carrie and I were well finished our scrub and had moved onto our massage. Jon’s guy was still filing away at his feet and had to dump the filings of dead skin (it looked like grated potato peels) twice! Nasty! The results however, were undeniable. From hard, calloused feed to baby smooth skin.
Shortly after we arrive, comes the day of the wedding. The reception is held at a beautiful hotel and Isaac and Cheryl get the presidential suite, which all of us promptly crash after the festivities are finished. They did afterall, have a full blown Canadian wedding ceremony and reception about a month and a half ago, so we didn’t feel bad at all. The next day, trying to milk the suite, we all use their pass to hit up the hotel pool, which is quite luxurious when we compare the past few weeks of roughing it in Thailand. Unfortunately, Isaac decides to take a dip in the little bay area beside the pool and gets stung quite seriously by a jelly fish. ouch.
One of the highlights of KK for me personally was spending my birthday with all the Vancouverites at Welcome Seafood. A buddy of mine and Isaac’s, Jeff shares the same birthday so we all went to this place that I was first exposed to the previous year, where you pick seafood and choose how it’s cooked. Perfection. On my actual birthday, most people had moved on to the next city or had to go back home. Paul had family engagements so Carrie, myself and Jon made our way to he Sunset Bar for a relaxing evening of birthday drinks to soak up the last bit of Borneo we would get.
KK is a city where you have to go out there and explore yourself. Although nowhere near as metropolitan as KL, this city still has much to offer, especially in the food/dining area. If you’re into golf, this is definitely the place for you. This city is big on its hotel gold resorts and you will definitely enjoy the luxurious golf experience of Borneo. Make sure to check out the travel tips section below for some essential knowledge for navigating through this coastal Malaysian city. If anything, you can walk around and eat until your stomach can’t take anymore!
- The transit from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by train is quite straightforward. Make sure you buy your tickets a few days ahead of time (we almost didn’t get our’s), especially when there is a local holiday. If you’re unsure, ask! The trains are very cold at night due to the AC so make sure you bring a long sleeve. No joke you will freeze.
- The international airport at Brunei is quite boring. There isn’t really a restaurant when I was there and we resorted to buying snacks and what not from the overpriced shops there. And no bars!! It’s a muslim country and the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Make sure you bring entertainment if you have a layover here.
- Regarding KK, I will say that if you are staying around Gaya street, there is plenty to do, see and eat within walking distance. However, getting to and from other cool eateries for shaved ice, or hand made dumplings, requires transportation of some sort. This is extremely difficult because their bus system isn’t that great and this means that budget travelers have to resort to renting a vehicle. Definitely something to consider.
- Do your research! And when possible, consult a local because there are so many hidden gems that are not written in guidebooks or tripadvisor. This isn’t KL, where hoards of tourists flood in so ask around.