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One of the main reasons why I went to Sabah was to have a look at Pulau Labuan. Pulau Labuan is one of the three ‘duty free’ islands in Malaysia (Langkawi and Tioman are the other two). Labuan is also being touted as the ‘next Penang’.
I, also, had wider hopes for Borneo… especially because of its ‘nature lovers paradise’ marketing and because of the many ‘paradise’ islands around its coast (in particular islands like Sipadan down near Semporna).
With such a large coastline and with so many sandy beaches, surely Sabah will offer a contender for my Retirement Locations shortlist…
TRAVEL MONEY / PRICES:
There are Money Changers and Banks everywhere. There are, also, many ATMs to choose from.
Please read my notes on prices in my post about Penang. In this post, and in my post on Langkawi, I provide a lot of information on things like food and what you get for your money. I won’t duplicate all of the similar information here.
Typical costs are:
LOCAL CAFES: Average main dish MYR9. Kopi-O / Black Coffee MYR1.50. Can of soft drink MYR2. Small bottle of water MYR1.
RESTAURANTS: Large Beer MYR19.
SUPERMARKETS: 300ml can of OFF Bug Spray MYR21. 640ml can of Bug Spray MYR10. 500ml shower gel MYR6. Large bottled water MYR1.05-1.30.
OTHER: Laundry MYR5 / Kg.
Free WiFi in Malaysia is normally of good quality and reliable; but not so much in Sabah. I found that I needed the freedom of my own Mobile Data Plan. On many occasions, my own data plan was the only way that I could get a decent connection even when I was in a hotel that provided ‘free wifi’. As a consequence, I ended up using many more GBs of data in Sabah than I did anywhere else to date…
On my trip to Langkawi, I got myself a Maxis Hotlink SIMcard for RM60 which gave me 2GB of high speed data for 1 month. As the SIMcard was still ‘active’ when I returned later from Thailand, I just topped it up for RM68.
However, when I came back to Malaysia from Cambodia, the SIMcard had expired (which they do after 6 weeks). At KL Airport, Maxis wanted MYR72 for the same 2GB package with a new SIM (the price increase was due to the new 6% GST).
I popped next door to Celcom and got a 4GB High Speed 1 month ‘FIRST SIM’ data package for MYR50. This would, normally, have been enough for me over 1 month but it was not in Sabah… I ran out after 2 weeks. When I tried to top it up later, I was able to load MYR64 onto the card but found that I could not actually (1) add additional data nor (2) change my FIRST internet plan to another plan. I was left with an unspent MYR64 in credit on the card. I had to abandon that card and buy a new Celcom Magic SIM… these are much easier to manage.
I would advise you to either get the Maxis Hotlink or Celcom Magic SIMs.
I used CHEAPFLIGHTS.COM to book a flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia to KK (via KL) on Air Asia for a total cost of NZ$150 / US$100. This included an extra charge for 20Kg of checked-in luggage and another NZ$12 charge for paying on-line with a Credit Card!
The flight from Siem Reap to KL took 2 hours. I had a 4 hour wait in KL. The flight from KL to KK took 2.5 hours. I left Siem Reap at 8:30am and landed in KK at 6:00pm.
Lessons Learnt: Keep your passport on you as they check it all of the time (like an ID card) and even want to see it when you get on a domestic flight.
As is usually the case in Malaysia, Airport Taxis are regulated and prices are fixed. At KK airport, I purchased my Taxi Coupon to KK Town Centre for MYR30.
But, take note, KK Airport is a bit different… as you walk out of the terminal the taxis aren’t waiting for you immediately outside like at other airports. You have to cross to the far side of the road in front of the terminal to find the taxis.
The taxi took about 15-20 minutes to get to my hotel.
Alternatively, you can take the Shuttle Bus to town center for MYR5 each; it leaves hourly.
It stops at one or two places in town on the way to the Terminus at Dreamtel Hotel. from Dreamtel it is only a 5-10 minute walk to almost any hotel in central KK.
You save MYR40 over both directions – which buys a lot of meals in restaurants.
WHERE TO STAY:
The area that I would recommend is from Jesselton Point in the north to Jalan Kemajuan in the south and from the waterfront back to the Jalan KK Bypass in the east.
Everwhere is easily walkable within that zone.
You also have easy access to Jesselton Point (for ferry services) and most of the Bus Terminals that take you to places all around Borneo.
This is, also, where you will find most of the tour agencies for booking you excursions.
On my first visit to KK, I booked 2 nights online for a ‘discounted’ price of MYR67 per night. I booked a Double room with aircon, in-room wifi, TV, and hot water ensuite.
The Iskandar was a bit of a mix or both good and bad.
My room was newly decorated, clean, comfortable, and of a reasonable size.
But, it was on the 4th floor and the was no lift.
As is usually the way in these places, the hotel starts on the 1st floor (as the ground floor is usually reserved for shops). The 2nd and 3rd floors were being renovated, so there was noise during the day.
No doubt, they were offering this discounted rate because of the renovations.
On my return from Labuan, I decided to try somewhere different so I booked the Somido Hotel online for 1 night.
I had trouble finding the place as it was in amongst the market stall lanes down near the night market and different online maps put it in different places. There are a lot of these budget accommodation places in this area – all of which seem to be pretty much the same.
I arrived early at 12 noon but the lady at reception said that I could check in immediately – but advised me to check the room first. Which I did.
The room was small – there was a 1-2 meter clearance between the bed and the walls. The ensuite was similarly small. I didn’t really care about that as I was only staying that 1 night… but she seemed to be trying to put me off from staying there – as if she knew something that I didn’t.
She may just have suspected that I wouldn’t like it (and was worried that I might give her a bad ‘Trip Advisor’ score).
She then said that there was no wifi in the room. I rely heavily on wifi now, so that was the decider for me. She offered to keep my bags safe whilst I went and found alternative accommodation.
Budget to Mid-Range Hotels:
I had plenty of time, so I walked the area for about 3 hours and checked out almost every budget to mid-range hotel that I could find. I must have checked out prices in about 50 hotels and seen rooms in about 20.
As with Labuan, the story was the same… you won’t find anything nice for less than MYR100-120 / night. You won’t find anything with an ensuite for less than MYR70 / night and, in that price range, you are usually below our ‘GRANDPAcking standard’.
Hotel Full Hua:
I could have gone back to Hotel Iskandar but I thought I’d try somewhere else anyway. I found the Hotel Full Hua on Jalan Panai (you won’t find this in hotel search engines). I paid MYR75 / night for a standard Double with aircon, hot water ensuite, Malaysian TV, and in-room WiFi.
There wasn’t anything particularly better about it than any other of the ‘best of a bad bunch’ hotels in this price range. The room was average. There was no Cable TV. But it had a lift – and I was feeling lazy.
You cannot rent Scooters in KK but the Business Centre of town is easily covered on foot.
WHERE TO EAT:
Waterfront Night Market:
I found the night market to be very average. There are stalls selling fresh foodstuffs and other things next to several hawker stalls selling food – many of them all selling the same thing.
My issue with the market is that you sit and eat on long tables that are cramped for room under tarpaulin with no views of anything. It is an ‘eat and run’ environment. I don’t find it very comfortable – and it is very hard to meet people.
Bur the meals are, probably, MYR1-2 cheaper than you would pay in a local cafe for the same thing.
I found the local cafes to be a nicer overall environment.
Asia has not really embraced the ‘cafe culture’ where cafes spill out onto the streets to offer an open air feel and a better overall ambience.
I found myself drawn to these places rather than the night market hawker stalls.
At one, I had a pork noodle soup (MYR7.50) with ice lemon water (MYR3).
Near the Hotel Full Hua (opposite the small Jalan Panai bus terminal) I found an open air area in a park where you can get a ‘help yourself’ Malaysian meal with a drink for about MYR7-8 (a very similar price to eating down at the Night Market) but a much nicer environment.
WHERE TO DRINK:
If you are on a GRANDPAcking budget, you don’t. If needs must, you are best to take your own small (and disguised) bottle of spirits to mix with the soft drinks that you purchase.
I used to fill an old 150ml Red Bull screw-top bottle with whiskey or rum and order coke (a can of soft drink in a cafe usually costs MYR2).
If you are looking for a few adventures, shop around – as prices can vary by as much as 50% for exactly the same thing.
KK is known to be a good place to ‘springboard’ from to a number of sights and destinations. I found one of the best priced operators in Centre Point Shopping Mall (Borneo Tropical Holidays Sdn Bhd) – when I was there they had a promotion on their excursion rates; examples of their promo offerings include:
Full Day: Kinabalu Park and Poring – including Park, Hotsprings, and Canopy Walk (MYR130)
Half Day: Klias Wetland River Cruise – including Proboscis Monkeys & Fire Flies (MYR130)
Half Day: Mari-Mari Cultural Villlage tour (MYR140)
Full Day: Mantanani Island – including snorkelling (MYR250)
Half Day: Grade 1-2 Kiulu White River Rafting (MYR130)
Full Day: Grade 3-4 Padas White Water rafting (MYR200)
Klias Wetland River Cruise:
We were in a 26-seater bus with a total of 21 passengers.
I was the first passenger to get on.
We spent the next 40 minutes going around to 5 other hotels to pick up the rest.
We stopped once on the way for 15 minutes to give everyone a break.
On arrival, we had High Tea which consisted of some cakes and a drink of tea or coffee.
It was then on the a small river boat at 4:55pm to search for Proboscis Monkeys.
We saw some monkeys but they were too far away for a smartphone camera with a 4x digital zoom – sorry.
By now it was past sunset, so it was back on the boat in search of fire flies.
Fire Flies settle in trees and glow to attract a mate. This lights up the tree like a Christmas tree.
By 7:30pm we were back at the pier and heading for our bus. We were back in KK by 9:30.
It was a pleasant enough trip but it was not my sort of thing.
IS KOTA KINABALU A RETIREMENT LOCATION?
Sabah is a beautiful place for nature lovers but it is more of a place to visit than to live.
Places like KK and Sandakan could provide sufficient infrastructure for a retired GRANDPAcking couple but they are just not very ‘endearing’ places to be.
There are better places in this world.
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