Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sabah Kundasang, Ranau - Trip Planner Series

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Here's part 2 - Kundasang, Ranau and an easy route to viewing the Rafflesia!
Click here for Part 1

 And yet as this moment, we had not planned in detail what to do. My friend, TC and his wife were renting a car and  headed to Kundasang to check out the view of Mount Kinabalu and the Desa Cattle Farm – people claim it is the New Zealand of Sabah. Based on that and some inputs from Nilu’s friends, we also planned to add an overnight stay in Kundasang. One of the friends recommended Mesilau or Walai Tokou Homestays. Sabah's Homestay site seems pretty decent, clicking on Kundasang gives me two main homestay groups - Kundasang Homestays . Do note they seem to do this collectively, i.e the two homestays mentioned for Kundasang are actually a group of houses and family offering the services, probably one of the village lead takes to role to divide or manage.

Below is a prelude to the view that you can get from Kundasang. And nicer views as well.
Read on...

-Skip this paragraph if you are familiar with Homestays- It is a rather recent concept introduced in Malaysia, that has become a good option for accommodation. Homestay basically means you would stay in someone’s home. Usually either people who have spare houses or build one specifically for this (at times next to their house). For Sabah - check out Sabah Homestay. The options range, with the best of the best being a full blown HS with meals with owner’s family, tours, and activities that would be related to that district / village, e.g making kuih, rice, or … And the basic ones are probably still of basic lodging. The one with stayed with did not provide towels and any toiletries, so do take note to check. They were nice enough to give us a ‘complimentary’ soap when asked J

We enquired about some homestay options  and planned to decide once we get there. I’m more of a pre-planned dude, and my better half the opposite… We rented a Saga FL 1.3 Auto after calling a few companies searched via google. I ended up renting from Aura Biru (Mohd Don) @ +6-016-8470945 as I found he offered the best rate. My friend managed to get a good rate for a Viva as well. Based on our drive to Kundasang, my suggestion is to get at a min a 1.3L car. Even Kancil’s (small CC cars) drive up there, but it is a steep climb. No regrets in having some extra horse power.

He was nice enough to drop the car at our hotel the night before. So no worries about if he comes late in the morning and no rush of doing the transaction early morning and then rushing to Kundasang etc. Hyatt does have complimentary parking. We left around 9.30am from Hyatt and with average driving speed & overtaking skills, I think it took us around 2 hours to reach. We took a left slightly before Kundasang town into Kinabalu Park – which you can drive your car in. GPS be it Waze or Google Maps will probably not be able to find the homestay's and smaller hotels. Probably just try Kundasang, or Kinabalu Park or a nearby large hotel, like Kinabalu Pine Resort.  Once you are on the road up to Kundasang, the signboards are enough and there aren't really many junctions, mostly a direct road. I did find signboards lacking from Kota Kinabalu Town to go to Kundasang, so that's where your navigation app will come in useful.

We arrived at Kinabalu Park around 11.30am, and the view was quite spectacular. It is around 5 minutes before you reach Kundasang town. I believe this is the spot most hikers start their trail. I do not hike, due to few reasons, among others the car has been created, lack of interest and plain lazy. I was wondering why it's declared a world heritage, don't think 'people' stayed there - well here's why from Wiki Kinabalu Park or Taman Kinabalu in Malay, established as one of the first national parks of Malaysia in 1964, is Malaysia's first World Heritage Site designated byUNESCO in December 2000 for its "outstanding universal values" and the role as one of the most important biological sites in the world with more than 4,500 species of flora and fauna, including 326 bird and around 100 mammal species.[1]
Kinabalu Park - World Heritage Site
Entry was around RM6 per Malaysian if I recall. The peaks of Gunung (Mount) Kinabalu was not visible though at this time due to clouds / mist / fog. Driving around the park did provide around 2-3 good viewing points. Below was the viewing point which has decent parking and a well done observation deck.

Nice place to park & stop for pics
 Some of the views from here.

What was a disappointment was that once you drive up through the park, you are STUCK. At one point, going fwd is only for hikers, so all cars need to turn back, and there really isn’t much place to turn back, with cars parked on the road shoulder, the management should really do something about this. I can’t imagine how it gets during peak seasons like school holidays, or do they just block out cars then?

One thing becomes clear a midst the mist and clouds - if you are there by around 10+am most likely you will NOT be able to see the peaks. The clouds and mist would have set in. The locals do say if you are lucky, you will see the peaks again in the evening, depending on weather. 

So what do you do after going around Kinabalu park - look for something to eat.
Buffet

They seem to have 3 options - there is a hotel + restaurant inside the park, drive on and near the gallery (which was closed) there is a simple canteen / cafeteria. Drive further closer to the exit and there is a restaurant that has a good environment offering buffet during lunch. RM38 per pax if I recall.

Probably during peak season - e.g school holidays and public holidays the whole area down here would be packed!
View from Kinabalu Park of Kinabalu Public Car Park...


Then we headed to Kundasang City which is around 5-10mins from Kinabalu Park. Just exit Kinabalu Park, turn left (right would head back to Kota Kinabalu Town). Drive for around 5minutes and you will see some crowd and a round about.

Again here I could not find any informative signages. Luckily I asked around in the Park how to get to our next destination - Desa Cattle Farm. One of th best persons to ask for directions is usually taxi drivers and tour operators.

At the round about we took a left up a very steep hill and that’s just the beginning. We were headed to the Desa Cattle Dairy Farm. Yes, this is the New Zealand of Sabah…The view going up was quite New Zealandic, but the cows were missing!? Now the road was REALLY STEEP and mostly of gravels / stones, not a bitumen / tarred / asphalt road.

From Kundasang up to Desa Cattle

 Turning left at the round-about and straight UP and up....We stopped below for a pic. As you can see, on the way up to the Desa Cattle Farm there are also a number of accomodations.
More to go UP

So once we get to the Desa Cattle Farm route, the climb is still steep and some of the roads is more of a stone road. Anyway, the view does get nice, clean and green. But where are the cows!?


New Zealand'ic

Ride up was not that comfortable, pretty bumpy and scary (steep) for first timers. Once we got there, noticed a lot of expansion constructions works. And finally we found out where all the cows went. They were headed back to the barn for feeding and milking.

Ah, even cows que better then humans. All waiting for their turn to feed and be milked.


Interestingly, the milking happens while they feed. So that explains the Desa Farm’s schedule, if I recall 2-4pm milking, 2-4.30pm feeding…Heheheh. I was expecting something more detailed, but well we did get to see feeding and milking.. They do charge for entrance to the farm. Diary products and by-products as well – yogurt, gelato etc are sold there. We tried the Gelato, RM5 each - was average. Probably if you want to see cows grazing the fields then come before 2pm since they probably start heading back to the barns after that.

Now it was around 3.30pm, time to find accommodation. During the climb to Desa Diary Cattle Farm, we were undecided where to stay, just a normal hotel (which were limited), or just check out homestay options on the way, Mesilau or Walai Tokou. We were also considering checking out Kiram's Village as per recommended by this blogger. (his blog is very informative and nice to read - and was a key reference besides friends' inputs for planning our trip).

Interestingly, exactly where we turned left to go into Desa Cattle, there was a Mesilau Atamis Homestay signboard. The chap I called did mention it is not too far after you reach the Desa Cattle farm. So it seems Mesilou Homestay is a little further up of Desa Cattle farm. We headed there. As soon as you arrive in Mesilau (I believe it is the village’s name) you will see signs for a number of Homestays. So Mesilau (Atamis) Homestay is a group of families offering this service, and usually caters for large groups, however they are also receptive to smaller groups / couples. We turned right at the entry of the village (After the entrance bar / pole), and headed to a yellow workshop  / garage, checked out the offerings.



Here's the view of the basic room. You have a couple of options - attached bathroom, separate, and attached bathroom w/basic kitchen.

Mesilau Atamis HS


We opted for the room w/attached bathroom.


 Here's a view right outside the homestay. Believe it or not, because of the potential view of the below, we opted to stay at Mesilau Atamis HS - read on and you'll know its worth it.

What do you think this exact view will offer in the morning...


Just down this road we noticed a couple of houses offering Homestays. After confirming our accommodations, we headed down to Kundasang town looking for petrol / gas. I’m not sure if I overshot, but I couldn’t find any petrol stations and thus drove another 20minutes to Ranau from the round-about to Ranau (left from Desa Farm or straight 12’oclock from Kinabalu Park / Kota Kinabalu). And my, was that a good decision (or a good mistake missing the petrol station), there are a couple of very good spots to take pictures of MK (Mount Kinabalu). We stopped around 10 minutes after Kundasang city, where there is a decently large open space and some areas to park / wait on the left of the road. It gives an open view of MK, alas it was cloudy. Snapped some pictures, and then headed to Ranau.

However on our way back from Ranau to Kundasang, voila, the clouds opened up for a spectacular view. Our first view of the Kinabalu Mountain Peaks!
View between Kundasang and Ranau

There is a Petronas, Esso and Shell in Ranau. I obviously went to Petronas – why? It was the first I saw, and couldn’t see the others in sight and had no idea if there were other options – I have no petrol brand loyalty – except for the one that gives the best rewards / loyalty rewards… We contemplated either to head to Sabah Tea (it was around 4.45pm and they said they close at 6pm). Decided otherwise as the person at Petronas said it would be another 25mins drive. So headed back from Ranau to Kundasang.

We stopped at the fruit / veg market on the side of the road right before arriving at Kundasang town, to buy some (obviously) fruits.

The market is located very close Pine Resort Hotel.

Many choices - fresh!

Tried a couple of local fruits as well as the norms. Buah salak is also available.


A view from the road side market

And tadaa– the clouds cleared again for a while, giving us a really nice view of the peaks. It was around 5pm + and according to locals, getting a clear view of the peak in the evenings is really hard. So yeay! Alhamdulillah.


Yeay! And let the photo snapping begin. Delightful view of Mount Kinabalu. 

We headed back to our Homestay, taking the steep climb to Desa Cattle then to Mesilau Atamis. By then the clouds had come and the view was blocked. We took dinner (this homestay deal was only for lodging – you can opt for other packages). Right at the Mesilou entrance a few sundry / grocery shops and as well a simple restaurant, offering among others Nasi Goreng A/D…hmm. Auto Detect? Nope, Ayam / Daging (Malay for Chicken / Beef).  Sun sets around 6.25pm at the time we were there, you can check times for sunset or Maghrib online or just check with the locals. While ordering dinner, I checked out the Mesilau Kampung centre, and there were a number of signboards offering homestay packages. I can't attest to them but if you want to check them out, below are some snap shots of them.



You can also use keywords to search, just click here Hotels near Kinabalu National Park / Kundasang / Ranau to get started.

Came out a while to check out the stars, and it was fabulous. Since there were no high buildings and hardly any artificial lighting, the moon and stars were the stars of the night - abundant and aplenty! As it does get dark early and most eating places and shops close early do plan your dinner and any necessary shopping early probably latest by 6pm.As you can see it is pitch dark at night. Good thing is the stars really shine in the darkness.

Generally no fans or air conditioning as it gets very cold at night, so bring along you jacket, and thick clothes. Socks as well maybe, as the floor can be cold…

Buah Cermai ~ Indian Amla taste
We enjoyed some of the fruits we bought.

Next morning, we woke at 5am, hmm still to dark, couldn’t see anything but the sky, stars and …Went back to sleep. Nilu woke again at around 6.15am, and timing was perfect, the sun was making its debut, and no mist – I’m not sure is it called mist or fog? Amrin the HS operator did say early mornings around 2 / 3 am onwards, you can see lights flickering on the mountain - hikers making their early morning climb up.


Early in the mornings, the view from Mesilau is really nice, and the view is nice both sides, facing MK and against MK. Remember this picture earlier, right outside the house, spot on view of the peaks - clear and crisp.


She sun shining down. Really nice look in below photo - obviously better in person.View is just getting better. There is a large rock just a walk down, which you can climb for getting a better view, and also pose for yourself for better pics. Its always cool to pose a on big rock!



Nature.

And here is the view direct from our room. Awesome right. But frankly with such a nice weather and view, obviously you'd step out your room.

View from the room.

So Mesilau is a good spot for catching the morning view (and possibly the only view of the day) of the MK peaks.

So if you're tempted with Mesilau - check out Mesilou Atamis Facebook - you should be able to call Amrin (+019- 580 2474/ +017- 832 5578/ +013-886 2474 (Whatsupp)) for directions and help with transportion if needed.  Also you can discuss your package, i.e if you want a full package with activities, or just an overnight stay. They seem pretty flexible IF given ample notice. 
Bye bye

So now what? We had a simple breakfast – fruits and buns we bought the evening before in our room / house, checked out, and headed for Sabah Tea. I am very particular on having my morning breakfasat WITH tea or coffee, but since we were headed to Sabah Tea….was willing to wait. The drive to Sabah Tea via Ranau was probably around 45minutes, and on the way, saw a banner for Rafflesia blooming right before the Roning Hot Water Springs left turn sign (After passing Ranau town) on the right side of the road.

Sign boards on the roads were decently ample except for when you exit Ranau which you could take the wrong turning - left at the Ranau round-about if I recall - do double confirm.

Once you enter Sabah Tea entrance, the road up (yes uphill again) is rather steep and a rock / stone / gravel road. We first had our tea as below - verdict average. Arrived at the top, wasn’t crowded, wished they had a few more signboards on the way once you enter as you start wondering how far more up.
Sabah Milk Tea and Cinnamon Tea
The tea processing plant was closed- they said due to a Sunday. Just had milk tea and Cinnamon tea at the restaurant. Here's is a view from Sabah Tea. Nice but frankly, for tea plantations head to Cameron Highlands for Boh Tea Plantation and Bharat Tea (must try their masala tea there in Cameron). But if you are on the way via Ranau and never been to Cameron or have ample time - give it a go. 

Tea Plantation

Rumah Panjang
The also had a long house (rumah panjang) which is a traditional house.  


A World War II memorial and some history located the tea plantation - Prisoner's of War (POW).



Headed off from Sabah tea, and after passing the Roning hot water springs, slowed down and looked for the Rafflesia blooming banner – funny it was only facing the way we initially came – luckilty it wasn’t’ 100% opaque!. Slowed down, tried calling –got the third number and confirmed below
-        There is a flower blooming
-        Not much walking /hiking required as travelling with a 2 year kid.

I am officially excited to see a Rafflesia- the largest flower in the world! And which takes ~9 months to bloom. And once got confirmation – we were headed to see the world’s largest flower – and a rather smelly one at that they say. Well if you’ve changed baby diapers, this is probably nothing.

Drove ~3.5km down and saw signboards for it and followed through. Parked, and there was only one other group. Wow, I’m surprised to see more people at a Tea plantation then at something so rare, which takes around 9months+ to bloom. We walked in, paid and walked for actually ~100meters, and got to see nearly all stages of the rafflesia, from small bud to bloomed, to rotten. AMAZING, people wait, book and wait for phone calls when the flower blooms and then go hiking to look at this flower and here we got to see it. Awesome…

Took a picture of the banner and contact numbers. Definitely a must do if you are in Kundasang / Ranau area. I'm not sure if there are other operators / sites as well.
Contacts - call to check. 

Here's a mid way blooming in process and a carcass. They have a simple yet informative guided tour (cost to visit around RM20-30 per person). The guide mentioned they leave the 'dead flowers' as is, to enable the pollination by animals as there are male and female flowers.


Here's one that is just beginning the process - so still 'small' .

And here is my first time ever seeing a live Rafflesia. Large. Notice the 'spores?' inside the flower. Also the flies around it - click the picture of a larger picture view - and check out the details!


Here's a familar face next to the flower - to give you perspective of the size. (somehow the flower looks smaller in this pic, due to me being alot closer to the camera then the flower). Probably the picture above with the fly (lalat) gives a better perspective of size. Generally flowers are 2-5x larger then flies, this is what ~200x larger then the fly?


If you are going to Kundasang / Ranau this is a must, try calling before hand – also there might be others that offer rafflesia viewing, do google.

One of the reasons I’m kind of ‘re-borned’ to write a blog entry (you’d notice I've been rather lazy and hardly update) is that there is very little information available for places like Kundasang that really deserves more ‘net time’ (like TV airtime?). Even tripadvisor had minimum info, and again trip advisor is good to get advice and reviews, but doesn't really help tell you how to plan your trip. Even finding accomodation reviews, and options is limited. Waze and Google Maps have a long way to go too for this village roads.

I did find Mr MON’S JOURNEY BLOG – among the most informative – and very well written.

After completing the Raffesia we headed for one last important stop before heading back to KK – nope we skipped the Poring Water Springs as were tight for time (nor dressed for it either)  and peninsular has a good share of hot water sprints as well– so we stopped at – yes petrol station. I’m a little risk averse (or a lot) so want to make sure we’re good. Filled up petrol, an then headed back to KK (Kota Kinabalu).

A view of the shop

We stopped by the waterfront area – wanted to go to Port View Seafood restaurant but was closed, headed to the market just down the road – sea facing and as it was Sunday the food area even opens for lunch, otherwise they open for dinner only. Was a cool experience – kudos to Nilu and friends for recommending. Go for Butter Prawn – REALLY good, we went for the shop quite close to  the fresh chicken market. And the seafood you order, they just walk over to the fresh market next door, buy and cook it for you. AWESOME.

Shops name - and BUTTER PRAWN!

Fish was average and seemed pricey. Probably to big for us, eventhough requested small fist only.




Tomyam was nicely done. Gave us a good sweat!


And the highlight of the meal - butter prawn with some nice crunchy crispy flakes.



Wow it was 4pm. Need to head back. Went to Hyatt to grab our luggage and freshen up, yes, usually hotels can help keep you luggage for a couple of days – so when we went to Kundasang we left most of our bags at Hyatt. From Hyatt headed to Beach 1 by Tanjung Aru, slightly before Shangrila. There are a couple of buildings in beach one, the last one is the ala food court, with some very good fruit juice choices – check out pics below.

The three type three layer fruit drink was good!

The entrance is right at the round-about. We parked on the road side.

From there headed to the airport and waiting for the car rental guy to come pick up the car. Do note –there are 2 airports in KK, so be careful which you should go  to , and where Waze / Google Maps takes you. People are friendly enough so just ASK..

And that ends our trip…The trip purpose was more of a relaxation, and we didn't plan much up front, so definitely we did not cover 100% of Sabah due to time, not much planning and wanted a relaxing trip.

ps-  there is a Rumah Terbalik on the way to Kundasang. Didn't notice it, but a good place to check out. Also Kampung Nabalu for views of MK.







Monday, April 7, 2014

Sabah Kota Kinabalu - Trip Planner Series

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Sabah – arrived in Shangrila Tanjung Aru. There are 2 Shang's in Sabah, one in Tanjung Aru (nice beach and sunset, and the other in Shangrila Rasa Ria Resort - go there for the Orangutans mini conservation centre. Was looking forward to the Shangrila (fondly called the Shang), all my experience with other Shang hotels has been tremendous, undoubtedly one of the best hotel chains there is. One that is comparable is the Royal Plaza in Singapore. For Royal Plaza, even when you call the front desk, the way they greet you is as if they are looking forward to your call.

Yes you actually get the below view, and you can pose in it as well. Really nice 'photo' view.
The famous Shangila pool + sea + tree view...

Back to Shang Tanjung Aru. Tanjung Aru is known by locals as one of the best spots to catch the sun set, and has a good number of dining options available along Tanjung Aru beach - so called Beach 1 & Beach 2. 

Sunset by Tanjung Aru Beach - public beach

Nice fruit juice too!...
Check in experience was average, and calling the front desk and in room dining both was disappointing. Not really in the mood to write about my experience but definitely was no where close any of the other Shangrila’s I’ve stayed in. I do have to praise the on duty manager – both Russell and Hakimi, as they went out of their way to assists us, and tried their best to make up for the rather ‘dissapointing’ experience we had with the Shang!.

Shang itself, the place, and the facilities are quite top notch. Nothing beats the children mini water 'theme' park they have. If you and your kids are adventurous, even for a 2 year old there is something to do in the water.
Nice Water Park - source Expedia.

I really liked the giant chess set. And note the nice sea view you get.
Chess it out


Shangrila itself is a great location to view the Sunset. The beach itself I didn't manage to check out, but haven't heard rave reviews - probably the islands nearby would be better. Shang has got a long sea side so you can pick your views.

Sun Setting right behind an Island
From this spot, at this time the Sun set right at the back of the island, so couldn't get the fireball sun view but was still a spectacular sight.
Watching people watch the sun set while watching the sun set

Completing our stay in the Shang, we checked out and then moved to Hyatt Regency - it is right smack in the Kota Kinabalu (KK) town. Parking in Hyatt is complimentary. Upon arrival, we were nicely greeted and checked in. Room was nice. Too bad not given the sea view. YuGou (can't recall exact name spelling) at the entrance was a pleasant delight, he was really informative and provided some very good suggestions on where to eat. Click Hyatt to check out ratings and rates. Read on...

So after we checked in, besides really liking the room, we were hungry, and we were contemplating of either going for the night market or Fook Yuen - a restaurant recommended by the pleasant Hyatt staff. Decided on Fook Yuen as it is difficult to get Halal Dimsum in Penang (weird isn't it)...

Fook Yuen is quite close to Hyatt, around 10 minutes walk only. Told you Hyatt is right smack in town. Good to see the JAKIM (authorized and authority in Malaysia to issue Halal Logo)

Fook Yuen - Halal

Firstly ordered the DimSum. I'm not a DimSum expert, eventhough I have a food blog makan2food.blogspot.com , - not an expert on Chinese cuisines as hard to get Halal Chinese Food.
DimSum, some done.
Overall the DimSum was nice (now again I don't have a good benchmark). My only thought is all the DimSum dishes were prawn based (with a concoction of chicken, veg..). What if I don't eat prawn...


Roti Kahwin
Dim Sum and some

And what happens after that - obviously below. By the way not the drink - Kopi Cham (campur?) - mixed coffee + tea. 
Aftermath
 Above is the roti kahwin. Pretty nice, but the old town type of bread would be my preference. Talking about OldTown - it was right next to Fook Yuen, but rather empty. Good to see a local breed out doing a Malaysian and now global franchise.
The Bill. 

Next day, while waiting for friends, we went for a climb at the Signal Hill Observatory Program. The beginning point is just a 10 - 15 minutes walk. The stair climb itself is not too bad, unless you are carrying a 2 year old kid :)
The Beginning

The Climb (half of it)

At the observatory deck - I'm guessing will be more happening in the evenings!

The view.
It was a nice climb up, and offered a good view of the city. My thoughts is its one of those activities that you'd do if you have the time. And guess what we realized when we got to the top - you can also drive up there. Haha.

We then headed to the City Mosque - Floating Mosque. A nice view. We didn't go in though.
Floating City Mosque
 As you can see, there is also a boat paddling option you can pay for if you are up to it at the mosque. We had some snacks right next to the Mosque. Bakso and Keropok Lekor. Ok to fill an empty stomach.


Then we drove across the road, to catch the sunset.

Right across the mosque, there are good parking spots, by the sea side, with a joggers / cyclers path.


Well as normal, once you complete the SunSet and after Maghrib prayers, it is time to head for dinner. A friend recommended Kampung Nelayan - Floating Seafood Floating Restaurant. Frankly I was initially worried it would a be rip-off with way expensive dishes and some simple cultural dance.   When we arrived, depending on where you park, you'll climb a deck of stairs, greeted by the host. You have 3 options - Buffet at around RM38 if I recall - but it is inside and you do not get a view of the Cultural Show. Probably makes sense since if everyone is walking around to take food, pretty hard to have a clear view of the dance on the platform. The other two options that offer a view of the cultural dance is ala-carte (menu) ordering, or Steamboat at RM20 per person.
Steamboat - some of the items served...Serving more then enough per person

 Overall the price was reason-able, except for the juices. Note - somehow Waze navigation took us to the wrong destination, so confirm the address, call and ask or try Google Maps. Also check out their facebook page :  FB Kampung Nelayan.

The cultural dance itself was entertaining and quite 'stuntful'. Mostly covering the local traditional Sabahan Dances from the many native races there.




That ends another day in Kota Kinabalu. This is just the beginning of the trip, and once you venture to Kundasang, the view and experience just gets better. If you do plan to stay in Kota Kinabalu, you can start with Hotel'sCombined website that gives you a comparison of rates from multiple providers and a good summary of reviews and rating, click Hotels in Kota Kinabalu

Next entry planned is part 2 - Kundasang (viewing Mount Kinabalu and Rafflesia the Flower) as well as Ranau.  Click to read on.




 

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