Summer Vacation 2008 - Dos, don'ts, and lessons learned.
08.03.2008 - 08.17.2008
We made it home safe and sound. We've had a little bit of time to discuss and think about our vacation. With every vacation we've had, there have been things we would do again and things we would definitely not do again, and things that fall somewhere in the middle. Here are our thoughts and opinions of what we did.
Kuala Lumpur (KL)
We stayed at the Alpha Genesis Hotel. I'd stay there again. Our room was large with a comfy bed and a nice clean bathroom. The hotel is in a good location and, more importantly, has a pretty good breakfast buffet.
I would recommend the Batu Caves to anyone with time in KL. We took the train to Gombak (Terminal Putra), at the end of the Kelana Kaya line, then took a taxi the rest of the way. The taxi should cost about MYR10 from the station. It took us a morning to get out there, look around and get back.
There are still some activities and things that we didn't do in KL that we would like to. I don't think there are enough to warrant another trip back to KL. But if we ended up there for a day or two on a stopover, we'd be able to fill our time.
Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB)
We stayed at the Terrace Hotel. It was an OK place to stay, but it is definitely starting to show its age. Avoid the elevator, as it makes frightening sounds. The breakfast there was not worth the cost, but there is a good night market across the street for good, cheap eats. As far as the room, is was a decent size, but always felt a little damp. BSB is pretty small, so it was an easy ten minute walk from our hotel to the various downtown sights. For the price, I might stay there again.
We spent two days in BSB. This is the longest amount of time I'd recommend spending in BSB. There's not a whole lot happening in the city. If we spent anymore time in Brunei, we would have explored the rest of the country. Because Brunei is a relatively wealthy country, they haven't touched their rainforest. Supposedly, the rainforests are beautiful. However, I'm not sure if they are better than the some of the rainforests we saw in Sabah. I don't know.
For the activities we did, the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque was definitely worth going to. However, we only spent 30 minutes in the mosque and about 30 minutes wandering around the grounds. If you are going to enter the mosque, you are provided with a robe to wear, but it would be wise for women to have something to cover their hair with (hats are OK, but I think a scarf would be preferable).
The Royal Regalia Museum was fascinating. This is definitely worth entering. Some of the gifts the Sultan received were beautiful. I was also amazed by everything that was purchased/built/made/used for his Silver Jubilee. WOW!
We did a boat tour of the stilt village. It's not hard to find someone to give you a tour. Go down to the water and there will be tons of people waiting to take you for a ride. We paid about BND30 for the two of us to take a tour. I don't know if that is a good price or not. We didn't mind paying a little bit more, we had a boat with a little roof and we had two men in the boat: one guy to drive the boat and one guy giving narrating the tour. We didn't do the proboscis monkey extension tour because we were doing a river cruise in Sabah.
We ate a lot of meals in the food court in the Yayasan complex in downtown BSB. It had a large selection of food. We ate there about three times and had no problem finding something to eat. We also went out to “The Mall”. It was a typical mall. It looked like almost every other mall we've been in.
We took the ferry from Brunei to Pulau Labuan in Malaysia. To get to the ferry terminal from BSB there is an express bus from the bus station. It leaves from the spot next to bus 37 or 38. It doesn't have its own number. It cost about BND3/person, instead of BND30 for a taxi. It takes you directly to the ferry terminal. You'll have to go through immigration at the ferry terminal. Don't forget there's a BND1 departure fee to leave Brunei.
I would recommend taking the earliest ferry out of Brunei. The first ferry is at 7:30 and you need to catch the bus at 6:40 from the bus station. When we arrived at Pulau Labuan the ferry to Kota Kinabalu was full. We couldn't get a ticket to KK. We think if we caught the earliest ferry we would have been able to get a ticket. Instead we had to make other arrangements. Click here for that fiasco. It's not an impossible feat, but I recommend getting the earliest ferry to avoid the hassle.
We spent a day here last year and a night here this year. I'd recommend NOT planning to spend much time in the city. There isn't a lot going on compared to what is near by, e.g. Turtle Island National Park, the Kinabatangan River, etc. There are a couple of markets that are an interesting way to kill time, though.
We stayed at the Nak Hotel. It is in a very central location. The room looked good but the bathroom was not good. The shower was in rough shape and we found a dead cockroach on the floor. It was relatively cheap and we only needed a place to lay our heads. I don't think I would go back to this hotel.
Kinabatangan River Cruise
I would recommend a river cruise to anyone with time in Sabah. We stayed at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan near Bilit. There are other places you can go, eg. Sukau. Bilit is further inland than Sukau. We used Down Below Marine and Wildlife Adventures to book our trip. They were very good and helpful to us. I'd recommend their services.
One other thought: if you are going on a river cruise or animal watching, invest in a good pair of binoculars. It's not a zoo. The animals may be a distance away and the animal watching is a lot better if you can get a good look at the animals. There were a lot of people who did not have binoculars and got bored quite quickly. With binoculars, we could spend a lot of time sitting and watching the animals.
I recommend spending as little time as possible in Lahad Datu. Only come here if you need to transfer to the Tabin Wildlife Resort or Danum Valley Conservation Area.
Danum Valley Conservation Area
GO! I would recommend the Danum Valley Conservation Area to any nature or animal lovers The guides were excellent and the animal watching unbelievable. Thankfully, there is only one lodge in the valley, the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. You can book packages through their website. The lodge facilities and staff are superb and the food is awesome. Seriously, if you can afford it (it's a little on the pricey side) GO!
Keep in mind that when you are in the rainforest most of the animals will be up in the canopy. This can make them harder to see. It's important to move around and look for the best sight lines. We had many conversations that went like this.
“You see that animal up in the tree?”
“Do you see the branch with a few leaves on it? It's in the leaves just above that.”
“Nope, still can't see it.”
“Ok. Come stand over here.”
“Ok. Now I see it. Oh it just went behind the tree.”
Also, bring your rain coat and lots of water on hikes. Take the amount of water the guides recommend and add more. You sweat an ungodly amount in the rainforest.
Kota Kinabalu (KK)
It seemed like a nice town. We didn't spend a lot of time there. And the time we did we spent at the 1Borneo Hypermall. We've heard from other travellers that there's not a lot going on in the city and the islands off the coast are where you should spend your time. We didn't have a lot of time though. Most people come here to climb Mount Kinabalu. We didn't.
We stayed at the Tune Hotel in KK. This hotel chain was opened by the same guy who started AirAsia. Like Air Asia, Tune Hotels are great if you know what you are getting in to. You pay a basic price for the room then you have to pay extra for 'add-ons' , eg. towels, TV, air conditioning. Even with buying all of these, it's still relatively cheap. We paid about MYR90 for the two of us for one night. The room had enough space for the bed and two night tables. That's it. But the bed was really comfy and we slept well. However, the hotel was far from the airport and it cost MYR40 for two people one way from the airport.
General thoughts on getting around
- We learned our lesson in KL to always ask if the cabbies have a meter. If they don't have (or won't use) their meter don't go with them. Some like to make a quick buck off the unsuspecting tourists. We paid about three or four times what we should have for one of our taxi rides.
- If you take buses or mini buses in Malaysia, prepare for them to be slow and without a set schedule. They leave when they are full. If you have somewhere you must be by a certain time, plan accordingly.
- We flew Air Asia from KL to BSB, and from KK to KL. I would recommend Air Asia to any traveller in southeast Asia. They are clean, comfortable, and provide good service. Remember that when you buy the ticket you get a seat. Everything else costs more. I recommend getting the express boarding. Some of the lines for regular boarding were huge and there was a lot of pushing and jostling going on.
- We flew MASwings from Lahad Datu to KK. It's a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines and services only Sabah and Sarawak. The flights are quite affordable, and they provide good service. They cover some routes not covered by Air Asia.
Other random thoughts that don't fit in anywhere else
- When traveling in southeast Asia, keep in mind the local economy. If you get really great service at a restaurant and want to leave a tip, keep the exchange rate in mind. MYR50 may equal $15, ₤10, or your currency's equivalent, but MYR50 is a HUGE tip in Malaysia. Then this service person may expect MYR50 tips from every tourist that comes through.
- Be prepared bowel oddness. Whether they become more or less frequent, have a game plan. In both situations, make sure to drink A LOT of water. There is nothing worse than becoming dehydrated. If it's the former situation, change your activities or plan to make sure you are never far from the facilities. Don't take an all-day boat tour without facilities. If it gets worse or lingers, don't be afraid to see a doctor. They can prescribe some medicine for you.
- Don't be afraid to bargain. In most southeast Asian countries, there is the local price and the traveller price. This is fine, but there is usually some room to bargain with them.
- When looking for a restaurant, find the one with a lot of locals. Avoid the one with a lot of other travellers in it. The local ones will be cheaper and usually better. This especially goes for breakfasts. Get the local breakfast.
- When animal watching, remember that you may not see anything. The rainforest is not a zoo. Be aware of this and be excited by anything that you see. Pick up a bird book or mammal field guide. You can get small pocket sized ones that are useful for learning what you saw. Otherwise, you end saying, “Oh look another bird. And there's a monkey.” It's much better if you know what kind of bird or monkey that you saw. Sometimes the insects you can find crawling on the ground are just as interesting, if not more interesting, than some of the bigger animals you can see.
General thoughts on Malaysia
We'd love to go back. The people are great. The food is excellent and it is relatively cheap coming from Japan. And don't forget, the wildlife is outstanding!