This past July, I had the chance and opportunity to backpack about Southeast Asia. I have been reluctant and hesitant to share my travel experience and adventure with others — until now.
This is my story. (Part 2 of 7)
My eyes open. I reach out my hand to put on my glasses.
I arrived into the city of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, just last night from Hong Kong.
My vision starts to clear and I sit up from my bed when I almost hit my head on the bunk over me. I try to recollect in my head thoughts and memories from the previous night when I arrived safely into KK International Airport.
I had to withdraw some cash from the ATM machine since the currency exchange booth was closed by the time I got there.
Great, there goes that 3% international fee.
I luckily found a taxi driver who was willing to drive me out into the city to the hostel I booked, which wasn’t too far from the small and fairly quiet airport. The ambiance of the airport followed through to the city, which was equally as still. After all, it was a late Sunday night entering into a mundane Monday morning. The lack of street lights, save for a few, forced the night to be closer to its true nature. After 15 or so minutes, we arrived at the hostel.
I take out a few Malaysian ringgit from my wallet and mumble out a quiet “terima kasih” (thank you) to the driver. After being in Singapore for so long, I came to pick up a few Malay phrases here and there. The driver seemed to appreciate the gesture and my attempt at his language more than the cash I gave him.
I stepped out of the car with just a backpack on me and my camera bag by my side as the driver drove away on the dark and dimly lit street. I looked around me.
Where the fuck am I?
This was no Hong Kong or Singapore. There were no bright city lights or tall skyscrapers towering over its inhabitants. There weren’t even that many people on the streets. The few street lights that were there were dim enough to make out the shapes of the buildings. The buildings were small and looked as though they could use a cleaning on their exteriors from its people. The people … where are the people? The silent atmosphere permeated through my body and made me feel a bit uneasy. Time to find my hostel.
It took me about 10 minutes to realize I was at the back door of the hostel after trying to see if there was another entrance on that street. I walked into a dark alleyway connecting the street from the backdoor to the street where the actual entrance was. I swear I just saw a rat scurry across the ground in front of me. A dim orange-ish street light ahead leads me to the end of the alleyway.
I found my way to the front of the hostel, which had a much more modern setting to it than I expected it to have. The name of the hostel hung on a canvas sign in front of the door and through the glass I could see that all the lights have been turned off except for one small bright lamp that indicated the person at the counter was still awake. I walked in.
A girl at the counter who seemed to be just slightly older than me looked up from her beat-up-looking computer. I cautiously walked over to the counter and checked in my room for my duration at KK. I took my shoes off and walked up the stairs to the rooms. When we got there, the girl handed me a towel for when I shower and a key for a locker where I could keep my personal belongings. Everyone in the room was already sleeping as far as I could tell. I get the bottom bunk of a bed set and dropped my backpack next to it. I looked at my watch; it was a little before midnight.
I should probably get something to eat. I haven’t had dinner tonight.
I quietly walked back down the stairs and asked the girl if there were any places open for eating. Ten minutes later, I was at a KFC eating a measly piece of chicken that was too small for my standards and a poorly put-together chicken sandwich.
Well, that’s obviously going to satisfy me for the night … not. Makes sense this was only 9 ringgit (2.50 USD).
I walked down further on the street where KFC was. The girl was right — everything was closed. Everything but a small grill with a boy about half my age cooking up some late-night ramly burgers — a must-eat Malaysian street food with the burgers wrapped in egg and a mouth-watering sweet BBQ-like sauce that I cannot describe with words. Seeing there were no other alternatives around, I walked over to the grill and asked for a burger.
My stomach was set for the night as I got some shut-eye.
I get up from bed earlier than everyone else and walk over to the one of three available shower stalls to clean myself up for the morning. I spend the morning at the hostel’s only computer available for the backpackers researching on activities and things to do in the area.
I originally planned to spend the entire duration of my stay climbing Mount Kinabalu, which is said to be the one of tallest mountains in Southeast Asia standing at 4096 meters (13,435 feet). However just a month prior, an earthquake hit the Sabah area and 18 people died with as many as 137 climbers trapped and stranded on the mountain. I was hoping to still get a chance to climb the mountain during my time in East Malaysia, but reparations were still being done on the main trail and areas around the mountain. Besides that, I did little to no research on the state of Sabah prior to arriving in KK other than having a small list of activities recommended by a friend.
I jot down ideas and places of interest in a small ragged journal I picked up on the street markets in Hong Kong. The more I look online for things to do, the more I become intrigued by the amount of outdoor activities and wildlife diversity there is in Sabah. The only problem is everything is at least 3 to 8 hours outside of KK by bus and way beyond my spending budget.
Damn it, I only have 4 days here. What can I possibly do without tiring myself out on a bus and going over budget?
I decide on something called the “Tip of Borneo”, the northernmost tip of the island where the South China Sea and Sulu Sea meet. I walk downstairs and eat some toast and jam breakfast that came with the hostel room booking.
At this point, I have not really met or talked to any other people unless I really needed to, such as the girl at the counter. Two female backpackers come downstairs from the rooms and sit at my table. I did not really make eye contact or care that much for talking; I just want to go check out this so-called Tip of Borneo and see what it was all about. From overhearing their conversations, it seems like one of them is from Germany and the other is from the Netherlands. I finish my small yet feasible breakfast and go over to the counter.
I talk to the girl about how to get to the Tip of Borneo and she tells me there’s a shuttle bus service just a short minute’s walk from the hostel on the main street. I thank her and go upstairs to grab my red knapsack, my camera, a water bottle and my phone. I throw in my phone charger and portable battery charger in case for emergencies.
Little did I know I would need it later that night.
The shuttle service taxi, which is more of a small car than a bus, has been driving for about 3 hours now. I drift in and out of the lulls of the monotonous car movements as we left the city. I’m sitting in the passenger seat while a young couple sits in the back, who seems as though they’re also hitching a ride up to God-knows-where. The driver keeps his eyes on the road even though there’s barely any cars on the road to nowhere. No one speaks a word during these last 3 hours while the radio gently spews out current pop songs from artists such as Taylor Swift and Maroon 5.
The city of KK, or at least the buildings that make it known as a city, gradually fades away and melts into the background as tropical palm trees, or at least that’s what I see them as, begin to take over and claim their wild territory. These trees have a much more savage and wild look to their trunks and leaves compared to palm trees I’ve seen in Las Vegas when I was a kid.
These trees mean business — I’m entering an actual tropical rainforest.
This ain’t no pretty looking New Hampshire pine tree forest.
We finally arrive at our destination — sort of. Instead of the Tip of Borneo that I am expecting, it’s a small town called Kudat. Or rather, more like a long strip of small archaic looking buildings with the waterfront nearby.
After exiting the car, I walk over to what I can only imagine to be the main center of town since it was the only place in sight that had people actually doing some sort of action. In this case, selling street food. I walk through the market and have a small lunch of fried noodles, chicken pieces in the shape of hearts on a stick, and perhaps the best-tasting mango juice I’ve ever had. There is something about the mango juice that’s different from the mango back home. Maybe it’s the way it’s juiced. It goes down smooth down my throat and the flavor is perfectly blended.
I put aside these food wonderings and ask one of the men at the market if they knew how to get to the Tip of Borneo. He mistakes me for a Malaysian-Chinese as have many other people I came across the day so far. With the limited amount of English he knew, he directs me to where there are supposedly taxis that take you specifically to the Tip of Borneo. I thank him and compliment him on his English usage to which he smiles.
I walk over and manage to convince a taxi driver to drive me to the Tip of Borneo AND back to KK in the same day. He starts talking in Malay to his other taxi buddies as I get into the car. I take a few bills out of my wallet and give it to the driver. Oh, what a mistake that’s going to be.
“You, take picture!”
I step out of the car as the driver points out of the window indicating the Tip of Borneo.
Finally, we’re here.
There’s a small clearing between the vast amount of tropical trees in front of me and where I can make out the faint outline of a beach and seawater. I tell my driver to wait for me and I walk off through the clearing. I reach the beach and look from right to left. The sand goes on and on from what I could see. I can distinctly make a faint piece of landmass further down the beach in the distance, jutting out into the ocean. Just like a tip of land would.
Just like what I googled this morning.
Wait a minute. I’m not at the Tip of Borneo. The tip’s over THERE.
I turn around. I see endless amounts of trees. I see the road.
I see no car.
The thought of being lost in the middle of a tropical rainforest in Malaysia did not hit me until maybe another 30 seconds. I have no signal on my cell phone. My cell phone’s dying anyway. There isn’t a single person in sight.
Good job Phil. First day out in a new place and you’re stranded in the middle of bumfuck nowhere.
Trying to avoid all panic and chaos in my mind, I decide on walking to the tip which would probably be another hour on foot from where I am now. No other plans of action come to mind and I begin to walk towards the tip’s direction. Before I get too far, the sound of a motorbike creeps up on the road behind. It’s as if God has answered my prayers.
I wave my hands frantically in the air as the motorbike rider slows down to a stop.
The wind sweeps through my hair as I slowly climb down the rocky crevices and step onto the Tip of Borneo. I look straight ahead into the vast nothingness of the ocean in front of me. Finally.
I am lucky enough for the guy on the motorbike to give me a ride to the tip. We have dinner in a small restaurant shack conveniently located next to the tip as I get to know more about him.
Apparently Elliot, the guy on the motorbike, is a gym teacher from Belgium who had the summer vacation off from teaching and was doing a backpacking trip himself. Before Malaysia, he toured around Vietnam and was telling me about the beautiful countryside there and the simple life it was to live freely on a backpack.
Would getting lost and stranded in the middle of nowhere be considered a simple life?
The day turns out nicely and Elliot even gives me a lift to a small shack further down the road from the tip. We meet the shopkeeper and restaurant owner, an English guy named Howard. Elliot and I share a beer as we share stories from back home. Howard calls one of his taxi buddies who picks me up later in the night and drives me back to Kudat since it was too dark to drive 3 hours back to KK.
The town is dead and quiet as I get off the taxi. I find a small hotel that looks as though I am the only person there for the night besides the lady behind the counter. I check into my room, turn my phone off to save battery, and crash for the night.
What a fucking first day.
I manage to get back to my hostel in KK a little after noon. I am fortunate enough to have met a different taxi driver this time who had a much more earnest look in his face (and reputation as well, since I asked around for advice). Charles the taxi driver is a quiet one, but I learn that he was born in the Philippines and moved to Malaysia at a very young age. Growing up in this specific area around Kudat, he is able to learn and speak 7 languages — Tagalog, English, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Hakka Chinese, Malay and one other that escapes me. I thank Charles and he gives me his contact information for future travels.
I walk back into the hostel, up to my room. It’s not long until I realize I left my locker key in the hotel back in Kudat. The owner of the hostel personally himself comes up to pry open my locker. Oops.
Kostas pays for a few beers and raises a glass for me. Though I am done and over with drinking alcohol at this point, I comply for the sake of turning 21 years of age.
I completely forgot I turned 21 today. I find it somewhat ironic not to be home to be celebrating it with friends or family, even though I usually just treat it as any other normal day as of recent years. Instead, I’m sharing beers for my birthday with a Lithuanian-Mongolian (and lot of other mixes) professor named Kostas who looks like he’s in his early 20’s (but was really 30 something) and who I met on a tour to a cultural village display earlier in the day. Kostas tells me about his adventures in Eastern Europe and Tibet and I can only share his excitement that gleams in his eyes.
Ah, who needs to get drunk and wasted. This is bliss.
I never really found the age of 21 to be a pivotal age other than the fact I can officially purchase alcoholic beverages legally IN THE UNITED STATES. In fact, it hit me a lot more when I turned 20 just last year. The big two-zero. It made more sense to me to start to reevaluate my life goals at 20 and figure out what I really wanted to do in college, what I wanted to do in life. I felt I needed to take my life into my own hands now instead of just putting it into others. A year has passed since then.
You told yourself you’d figure out what you want to do with life when you turned 20. Then you made an excuse and pushed it to 21. What do you want to do, Phil?
I go back to the hostel that night and lay on my bed for a while, reflecting in my mind the past six months and imagining the next six — filled with event recalls and what-if scenarios. Sleep gradually overtakes me, as well as what’s left of the Heineken in my system.
The temperature drops slightly as we walk into Kinabalu Park. Trees and leaves fill every corner with beautiful exotic flowers and plant life that I’ve never seen before. I fumble around with my camera as I take pictures of the tropical setting I’m surrounded in.
I meet many interesting people in my group as the tour at the park continues throughout the day. One such person is an English journalist named Sarah who worked for some sort of magazine back in England. Sarah looks to be in her mid-20s and gives off the notion she is more on the quiet side and reserves her wild side to closer friends. She tells me about her magazine work and all the different things she’s done in Borneo in the last two weeks she’s been there including going off onto the nearby islands, diving, and seeing orangutans. I learn from her that the word orangutan is actually Malay — “orang” and “utan”, which when combined means “man of the forest.” Mind blown.
I also meet a fairly elder couple from the US (New York to be precise) but are of Peruvian descent. Carlos and his wife seem to be like the happy elder couple in retirement — kids off with their own kids, spending money with no worries and enjoying vacations in far off countries. What a life.
I walk with them and listen to their stories of going back to Peru every now and then with their children as well as their stories back home in the clamorous New York City. Carlos and his wife are a hockey family — watching hockey, playing hockey, introducing their kids to hockey! It feels refreshing to be hearing stories from Americans, seeing that I have not met a single American on this trip until I came across them.
Carlos goes off on how he would always join the kids playing hockey, even if he was sore from work for the day. As his kids grew up, he would invest more time with his children and take on every opportunity to drive them to their games or sit in at their games and cheer on the sidelines. He even tells me a story of how he breaks his nose while playing on the ice with the puck and still joins in and play with his children.
In all honesty, I am only half listening as I eat my tour-given lunch of Cantonese style dishes including fried rice and vegetables. It isn’t until he pauses in his story that I look up from my food. He looks into my eyes and says in his gruffy voice of his,
“You know, I spent so much time and money into all this hockey equipment and going to games for my kids and family. Over the years, it builds up. I could’ve spent that money on two cars for myself! Just imagine, two cars! You know what I could do with that? Haha!
In the end, it really comes down to the matter of what you want to choose to spend money on, Philip. And you know what I choose between those hockey games and two cars?”
He leans forward and puts on a grin. His eyes emit a childlike charm to them.
“The hockey games.”
He reaches out and grabs some more fried rice. I see some get stuck in his mustache.
“You’re still young, Philip. Live life while you’re young and you’ll figure out the rest.”
His comments and positivity stick with me for the rest of the day.
Though I did not get a chance to see more of the exotic wildlife Borneo has to offer, I vow to come back again in the near future. I spend the day walking around the city center, trying different street foods and walking by the pier.
It has certainly been an interesting first few days.
My backpack and camera bag are set and ready to go as I board the shuttle bus to the airport later in the day. When I got to the airport, I made sure to stop by the gift shop and pick up a postcard as I had promised Jodie I would send one to her from every place I go to let her know I was more or less alive on this trip of mine.
The last few days play back in my head. I feel as though luck has been on my side since day 1. Or maybe it’s just a typical backpacker’s thing.
Whatever it is, it has been some sort of crazy adventure for me so far.
The people I’ve met during my time here keep popping into my head. Each and every one had a different story to tell and I begin to wonder how much bigger the world is than I initially thought.
I sit down and wait to board my night flight to Bali.