From one of the world’s oldest rainforests to the highest mountain in Malaysia, Sabah is home to a diverse punch of habitats. As a first timer in Borneo, I opted for a tranquil and authentic retreat with Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.
“Are you going to climb the mountain?” My driver Gondu asked, 30 minutes after my touchdown flight at Kota Kinabalu airport and five minutes into our journey to Kinabalu Park. I meekly shook my head, telling him I had thought about it but deciding I simply did not (yet) have the stamina. Conquering Mount Kinabalu seems to be the unspoken, unchecked box on every Malaysian’s bucket list – the closer you are to the UNESCO World Heritage Site geographically, the more you are expected to have climbed it. Borne out of personal goals or nabbing bragging rights – I wasn’t sure – but what I did know was that I could barely climb Semenyih’s Broga Hill without gasping for breath (or life).
“Conquering Mount Kinabalu seems to be the unspoken, unchecked box on every Malaysian’s bucket list.”
Burying mixed feelings of regret and relief, I was ushered into my accommodation for the next two nights at Kinabalu Park – a quaint little hexagonal hill lodge situated high up on a slope with a misty view of the montane alpine meadows. At the bottom of the slope sits Liwagu Restaurant, one of the two restaurants in the park. A short 15-minute walk away is Balsam Buffet Restaurant, where avid mountain trekkers would fuel up with breakfast before making their way to Laban Rata, the midpoint rest house before making their final climb to the mountain. Around Kinabalu Park where there is only one shuttle van for the plethora of guests they host, everyone is encouraged to walk – I noted as I observed a gaggle of Japanese tourists armed with visors and sunglasses making their way to the Botanical Garden.
Aside from regular staff, Sutera Sanctuary Lodges has a selected team of naturalists in each retreat. Under my appointed naturalist Freddie’s guidance, I passed through Timpohon Gate which operates under a strict climber’s permit-only entrance. For those who prefer to view the summit from a distance, climb the stairs that lead to a viewing deck. Since the 6.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Kinabalu in 2015, Timpohon has become the sole trail that leads to the summit. The quake tragedy caused the destruction of the more advanced Mesilau Trail and took 18 lives; tourists, mountain guides, and primary school kids. As I stood and contemplated the brass plaque that was erected in honour of these 18 individuals, a pang of sadness washed over me when I overheard another visitor regaling the story of how a 12-year-old victim’s family decided to conquer Mount Kinabalu in her honour on the anniversary of her death.
The short trek from Timpohon led me to a 10-metre tall waterfall with a wooden signpost that read ‘Carson Fall’ in yellow staked into the ground. As I took in the sight of the small reward for a few minutes of trekking, a few mountain trekkers made their way back from the summit, sweat plastered to forehead but full of gumption and carefree grins that one wears even when your muscles ache or scream in pain.
I made my way back with the group, passing the gate and the arch which congratulated, or in my case, mocked me with ‘Welcome back, you are successful climbers’.
Tourists and locals flock to Mount Kinabalu for its world-famous attraction – but some 40 minutes away, nestled further deeper in Ranau is Poring Hot Springs. Out of the four retreat destinations Sutera Sanctuary plays host to, Poring Hot Springs is its most remote. Here’s why you should not dismiss this – after the chilly mountain air, a relaxing dip in the park’s all-natural sulphur hot springs soothes the muscles and a casual stroll among the park’s highly dense and humid lowland rainforest is a welcome breath of fresh air.
The accommodations offered were nothing short of luxurious and cosy, ranging from Serendit Hostel; a dormitory that boasts a lovely communal area in the heart of the park, to Palm Villas; private premium double-storey lodges that evoke the feeling of Scandinavian houses with large windows that extend all the way to its gabled roofs.
The only restaurant in Poring Hot Springs is the Rainforest Restaurant where I opted for dinner on a rainy night. I wasn’t the only one who was excited about having my dinner at 7pm – due to the presence of a bat cave in the park, the creatures of the night swooped in and out of the restaurant to feast on flying night bugs – making it an unusual sight for a city girl like me. Rainforest Restaurant’s Head Chef Minin was extremely enthusiastic about the local delicacies he had prepared for me in small dishes: fish mackerel simmered in coconut milk, fried chicken with local tuhau, banana heart with shallot and garlic, fern shoot tossed with anchovies, and my favourite – prawn with Thai chilli and young mango. These dishes were comfort food for the heart. Chef Minin takes pride in the fact that everything is cooked with fresh local hand-picked highland vegetables. If you were to wander into the restaurant and expect to order this right off the menu, you would be disappointed. Instead, Chef Minin told me he likes to get to know every customer, tailoring the dishes depending on the taste and preference of each guest.
With so many natural attractions in Poring Hot Springs (a butterfly farm, orchid conservation centre, waterfall trails, bat cave hikes) I was spoilt for choice. I’d heard about the canopy walk among the trees and decided to give it a try. At the entrance of the gate was a signboard that warned visitors with heart ailment, fear of heights, and hypertension. Given that I had attempted bungee jumping three years ago and was convinced nothing could beat the heart-stopping fear of diving off the edge of a platform, I entered. With my tote bag slung over one shoulder and my phone clutched in my hand to document the experience, I confidently placed my right foot forward on the narrow plank – which was barely wide enough for the width of my two feet pressed together. My heart sank and jolted along with the plank as I rethought my earlier lack of height-fearing conviction. Linked from one tree to another like a long hammock, the plank is only supported by tight ropes and nets. It felt very much like walking an elastic tightrope – it wasn’t taut but the walkway swayed and bounced with every step I took. Towering above the lush rainforest canopy, I was at least eight storeys high. Five wobbly steps in, I muttered “I can’t do this,” to my phone, stopped the recording and stowed the device away in my bag.
“My heart sank and jolted along with the plank as I rethought my earlier lack of height-fearing conviction.”
There are restrictions placed on these man-made walkways – only six visitors are allowed on one plank at a time, and the walkways are checked for safety thrice daily. Regardless of acrophobia, I definitely recommend this jaunt through the tree tops – it’s equally thrilling and terrifying; else choose a more certifiably grounded walk to the Kipungit or Langanan waterfalls.
One of the highlights of my stay at Poring was seeing a Rafflesia flower up close. I had only ever seen photos of the red spotted parasitic flower in large ‘World’s Strangest Natural Wonders’ pictorial books. The blooming of a Rafflesia flower is extremely unpredictable and rare, the park’s naturalist told me, as she pointed out a dark cabbage-like bud while we were Rafflesia-hunting in Viviane’s Rafflesia Garden. The Rafflesia bud lies dormant for up to 16 months until it reaches maturity, then it uncurls at night and blooms over 12 to 48 hours into the world’s largest parasitic flower. From then on, it’s only a matter of five days – six if you’re lucky – before the Rafflesia slowly withers away into a black shriveled state, reminiscent of its former glory.
I wouldn’t be able to call this a true vacation without a beach getaway. I made my way down to Sutera Harbour, and a 10 minute breezy speedboat ride later, I set foot on Manukan Island. It derives its name from a chicken (manuk as the locals call it), and the island is one out of the five that make up Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park – the first marine national park in Malaysia.
The only accommodation on the island is Manukan Island Resort, yet another lifestyle retreat provided under Sutera Sanctuary Lodges. Although the island itself cannot be fully claimed as a private island (the first public boat arrives at 8.30am, and from then on the crowd comes pouring in) Manukan Island Resort offers the next best thing – a private beach right in front of its hillside chalets. Located just a few flights of steps away from the chalets, in-house guests can enjoy the pristine white beach sand and crystal clear waters on a sunny day. I found the easy accessibility extremely helpful, if I forgot my sunscreen or felt like having a snack on the beach, all I had to do was trudge back up the stairs to my double-storey chalet. The resort staff is outstandingly attentive, constantly anticipating my needs before I even knew what I needed: a basket of welcome fruits; room-temperature water instead of cold water (I recalled mentioning in casual passing conversation I felt a sore throat coming on); and the water heater switch conveniently turned on by housekeeping after a long day at the beach (it takes 30 minutes for the water to be fully heated). These may seem like inconsequential details, but I appreciated the little attentive afterthoughts and thought it added to my experience. After settling into my room which overlooked the sandy beaches and frothy gushing waves, I headed down to the beach, armed with snorkelling gear and a beach towel.
For those who don’t want the mess and grit of sand, hammocks are strung up between palm trees – just enough shade for a good spot of reading while enjoying the soothing sound of ebbing waves washing over sand. For the adventurous and restless, a 1.5km sunset point trail and a jungle trekking trail will not disappoint – on my trek to sunset point, I had the pleasure of being serenaded by a songbird and the heart-thudding shock of a lifetime when I stumbled across a two-metre long monitor lizard. I hovered between whipping my phone out to Google if they were dangerous (pointless, since reception on the island was at best wonky) or turning around to make my way back. Several heartbeats later, the huge reptilian creature seemed to notice my presence, and it rustled away among the fallen leaves with a slow, walking gait, being completely at ease in its environment. I gingerly continued on my way until I reached a shelter and a signboard – Welcome to Sunset Point, Manukan Sabah.
Being surrounded by dense foliage, the view might not look like much, until you venture down the steep narrow path through the foliage – you get a postcard perfect view of the sparkling sea and a conveniently placed Pandanus tree, growing directly towards the sunset. Brave the steep descend down, and you’ll be greeted by strong waves as they roll and crash into the boulders. Look further to your left, and you’ll see a pair of beautiful rare mangrove trees, called Berus Mata Buaya by the locals.
“Venture down the steep narrow path through the foliage – you get a postcard perfect view of the sparkling sea and a conveniently placed Pandanus tree, growing directly towards the sunset.”
At 5pm, the boatmen started their last calls for boat transfers back to Kota Kinabalu city. Day-trippers piled into speedboats, leaving the island in a tranquil state. Contented, I chose a spot on one of the boulders that escaped the wrath of the sea, and kicked back to bask in the warm setting sun wash over cotton candy clouds.
Kinabalu Park on a rainy morning, visible waterfall in the distance