Cultural Notes and Observations: East Malaysia (Borneo)

  • Steering wheel is on the right but you drive on the left side of the road
  • Kota Kinabalu – well off, bike lanes, adult playground equipment in parks, most people drive cars, safe
  • Muslim country
  • Most of the pastries are covered with sugar – even the cheese ones
  • Many more vegetables served in meals than the Philippines
  • Fancy drinks and desserts with corn, kidney beans, and multiple types and colours of jelly
  • Some toilets are western, some are Bidets, and some are squat. Chances are there are more than one style in a public washroom.
  • Durian is very popular – tastes tropical, with potato, with something slightly off
  • Uber and Grab are widely used in major cities
  • Beer and alcoholic beverages are expensive and not common in Sabah. However, they are sold in the streets in parts of Sarawak
  • Plastic obsessed! Everything is wrapped in plastic – even take away cups
  • Street food seems more trustworthy than in the Philippines
  • Different price for Malaysians vs No Malay for tourist attractions
  • Sometimes there are camera fees at tourist attractions
  • Have soccer fields! The Philippines only had basketball courts
  • Sabah’s highways are lined with Palm oil plantations. Sarawaks are lined with scrub brush and fields
  • Taxi drivers will not negotiate prices
  • Take you shoes off before entering some hostels, shops, etc
  • Buko Pandan – green drink that is delicious
  • ayam pansuh (Chicken cooked in bamboo)
  • KFC is very popular
  • Waiters and waitresses will seat you and then stay at the table until you place your order
  • All power outlets have an on/off switch
  • ABC Special
  • Roti!
  • Laksa
  • Teh C
  • Sabah tea
  • Nasi goring – rice stirfry
  • Mee goring – noodle stirfry
  • White Coffee
  • Red Tea

Dec 15-19, 2016 – Couchsurfing, Bako National Park, and Annah Rais Longhouse


Maya, Franki, Ranah, and I at Bako National Park

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Dec 15, 2015 – Couchsurfing

Ranah, Franki, and I were a little nervous in our Uber on the way to meet Maya, our first couch-surfing host. However, once we found her home and met her, any doubt or worry vanished. Maya and her family were lovely! She even cooked us dinner and let us try durian! Couchsurfing is a network of locals and travelers connecting and providing accommodation for each other.

 Dec 16, 2016 – Bako National Park

Bako National Park was the first National Park established in Sarawak in 1957 and it is only accessible by boat. Maya, Franki, Ranah, and I took a Grab car (similar to Uber) to Bako Village where Maya’s friend met us. We got complimentary boat ride down the river and then were invited Maya’s friend’s home for a traditional lunch which was an amazing experience.

The boat ride to Bako National Park only took about 10 minutes. The rock formations are beautiful and all the vegetation is very green and luscious. Just a few meters from the shore we found wild proboscis monkeys, silvered leaf monkeys, bearded pigs, and other small monkeys. Unfortunately, we didn’t have too much time there so we did a 40 minute hike. I feel like I could have spent days there and there is accommodation in the park.

To get back to Maya’s house, we tried hitchhiking which proved to be very successful!

Dec 17, 2016 – Annah Rais Longhouse

The Annah Rais Longhouse was more modern than I had anticipated. This Bidayuh Trib’s longhouse houses over 80 families and is located about 60km outside of Kuching. The majority of the villagers there still live in a traditional sense but use some modern-day technology. They are primarily farmers and plant cocoa, pepper, rubber, etc, in their nearby fields.

The best part of visiting here was talking to the local residents! They were very kind and gracious. Moreover, they were more knowledgeable and informative than the official tour guides we had overheard.

At the entrance, they even provide a sample of rice wine, which is great!



Dec 10-14, 2016 – Adventures in Kuching


The Sarawak Cultural Village

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Dec 11, 2016 – Chillin in Kuching – a city filled with cat statues because Kuching means “Cat”!

Today we relaxed and recharged. It was also rained a lot during the day. The rain comes in huge downpours but doesn’t last long. Ranah and I got some amazing palm sugar flavoured ice cream from DP Ice Cream.

In the afternoon, the three of us escaped the rain by ducking into the Chinese History Museum and learning about how Chinese immigrants contributed to the development of Sarawak. Its petite and can be finished in less than an hour.

Dec 12, 2016 – Sightseeing in Kuching

Kuching is extremely multicultural. It includes, the many aboriginal peoples, Chinese, Indian, and Malays.

Franki, Ranah, and I ventured to Fort Margarita on the other side of a small river crossing through the city. I was a little disappointed because looking across the river, there is a beautiful large golden building beside it, which is what I thought the Fort was…. But it was a government building. The Fort was actually a small picturesque concreate fort tower painted white. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive to go inside so Ranah, Franki, and I just admired it from afar. We walked around the island and stumbled upon Miri Cake House, a famous cake chain. After trying at least 20 samples, I settled on purchasing a s’more flavoured cake. YUMMM!

Later, we strolled down the streets of both Old China Town and New China Town. Small red lanterns are strung along the streets which are very cute. We settled on some Kuching Laksa for lunch and I got an egg tart and pandan tart from Hong Kong Puff. They were still hot and the best egg tarts I have ever tried! India Street is a little more touristy and sold an assortment of clothing and foods… not many of which were Indian.

Dec 13, 2016 – Applied for my Indonesia Extended 60 Day Tourist Visa

All I needed was my:

My Passport

X1 Passport photo

X1 Copy of my passport

X1 Copy of my plane ticket out of Indonesia

X1 Copy of my bank account statement that included my name showing more than $1000 USD

X1 Letter describing why I wanted to extend my visa and where I would be travelling to

X1 Completed Application form that you fill out in person at the consulate

The Consulate of Indonesia in Kuching, Malaysia is quite close to the airport (about 20 min drive from the downtown core). I took an Uber there for about 10 RM. If you drop off all the paperwork before 12:00pm you can pick it up the same day at 4:00pm. The cost is 190 RM. From reading online anecdotes, this process is much easier than getting the visa extended while in Indonesia.

Dec 14, 2016 – The Sarawak Cultural Village – A Must See!

The Sarawak Cultural Village was much better than I had anticipated and I highly recommend any tourist or local to visit! It is also a great place to grasp the cultural of the aboriginal peoples of Malaysia before visiting other longhouse sites. The village features longhouses of the Bidayuh, Iban, Orang Ulu, Chinese, Melanau, and Malay. From talking to the staff it seemed that most or all of them were from one of the cultures featured in the village and were encouraged to practice and share their crafts, art, music, swords, spinning tops, and dances with tourists. Ranah, Franki, and I learned a dance where you have to jump in-between and around two moving bamboo poles. I also tried some fresh sugar cane juice. Yummy!!

Lastly, the dance performance that happens twice a day in the theatre was impressive. One performer blew darts over the audience to hit a balloon on the other side of the theatre. It was also interesting to see how intricate and detailed the foot movement was. The performers used the ball of their feet as well as their heels and the sides.

When the three of us got back to Kuching we went to the Top Spot food Court and tried ayam pansuh (a traditional cuisine of chicken cooked in bamboo) and a ginormous oyster omelette. Delish!

Dec 8-9, 2016 – Two Days in Sibu


The Central Market (the largest market in East Malaysia)

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The first day Franki, Ranah, and I arrived in Cebu, the Central Market was mostly closed because we it was already quite late in the afternoon. So instead, we visited a small Chinese Temple named Tua Pek Kong Temple. It is situated right on the on the water and had many detailed lanterns and figurines inside.

Afterwards, we headed to the Night Market for dinner. It was a triangular area in the middle of the city with a collection of food and goods vendors, barbecuers, and food stalls. Some stands even sold alcohol! It was great to see that the majority of people there were locals. Cebu looks a little grimy compared to Miri, but it definitely grew on us very quickly.

The following day, we got to sleep in! For breakfast we shared some rambutan fruit and leftover glutinous cake from the day before.

We stepped outside and explored the Central Market buzzing with people and products. The outside plaza area sold local fruit including the famous dabai (which tastes like a milky olive), durian, local ferns and plants, live eels, and more. Inside, stalls sold chickens and ducks wrapped in newspaper ready to-go. A famous layer cake (Kek lapis) was also available. They are rectangular and have many colourful patterns and designs in them.

Next we visited the Sibu Heritage Centre. Most (if not all) the museums in Malaysia are free, which is great! The museum was tiny, but did a good job displaying the history of Sarawak and the different peoples that have made it what it is today.

In the afternoon, we visited the Lau King Howe Hospital Memorial Museum. It was scary to see what implements were available in the 1900s for surgeries, operations, medical procedures, and dentistry.  Older machines that were on display included an old ECG Machine from 1981, CPR training equipment, a defibrillator from 1981, and a Bicycle Exercise Stress Test. It definitely gave me a greater appreciation of the advanced technologies and medical practices we have access to today.

Franki and I continued to explore and walked into a car dealership called Proton, an Izuki Malaysian car company. Although, we were clear that we didn’t need any help, a sales representative named Alex guided us around. He was very kind and provided us with tips on where to go and what to see in Sebu. He then decided to leave work early to drive Franki and I around town to try some famous local dishes. Some of the places were closed so we ended up at the 2nd floor of the Central Market. I got a Teh C Special – a sweet tea drink with condensed milk. Awong also shared some squid and tofu with us which was delicious! His generosity and actions will never be forgotten and are such a stark contrast to the cold unfriendly city I grew up in! I wish more people were like him.

For dinner we went back to the Night Market and tried the famous Kompia. It looks a bit like a tiny bagel with meat in the middle and is delicious. It reminds me of a slider. Traditionally, it was used by the Chinese during periods of war. They would string the hole through a holster or rope over their shoulder. They lasted incredibly long and were very accessible this way.

Dec 6-7, 2016 – Miri and the Niah Caves


The Niah Caves

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Arriving in Miri felt like a completely different world after spending time in Brunei. The oil town is bustling with people, lots of tasty affordable food, and a lively atmosphere.

Once we checked into our hostel, we headed to the famous Summit Café for lunch. It serves local indigenous foods and receives very high praise. I got some tapioca leaves, ferns, and pounded pork with rice. It was definitely one of the healthiest meals I’ve had on my trip so far and tasted wonderful!

In the evening, we went to the mall across the street from our guesthouse and watched the new Disney movie Moana. When purchasing your ticket you must also choose your seat, which is cool. We were the first ones in the theatre and got to look around. In the front row they had placed beanbag seat which looked very comfortable! Overall, Moana was fun, but not as good as Frozen.

The next morning Franki, Ranah, and I split a taxi to the Niah Caves, about an hour and a half away because the bus route to get there was longer and more complicated.

The park was fairly empty of people and it took about an hour and a half to reach the limestone caves by walking along a paved path and boardwalk. The forests of Borneo are always alive! Filled with the sounds of bugs, birds, and monkeys. Unfortunately, we did not see any animals from the board walk, but we did notice rustling in nearby trees several times.

The caves are vast and filled with bats and swiftlets. I’m glad I brought my headlamp. One of my favourite parts was walking along the wooden planks in the darkness and then looking up to see an inverted creator in the rock filled with bats. Unfortunately, the cave paintings were closed due to fallen trees on the path.

One of the most interesting things I learned is that the Iban and local tribes’ people still use these caves today to collect bat and swiftlet guano to fertilize their fields. Additionally, they scale up the walls of the caves and climb long bamboo poles to harvest edible bird nests for soup.

A small museum located in the park provides a history of the caves and its prehistoric human inhabitants. It is also the home of a 40,000 year old skull!

On a side note, Miri had some of the nicest taxi drivers I have ever come across. A female taxi driver taking us to our hostel started recommending restaurants and providing information about evening entertainment. The taxi driver who drove us to the caves bought us a snack to take with us, and then had some pastries and juice boxes ready for when we finished!

Nov 30, 2016 – Diving at Malbul Island


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Semporna is on the east coast of Borneo Malaysia and a jumping-off point for some of the best diving in the world. Ranah, Franki, and I dived at Malbul which is famous for macro life. We decided to book our diving with Scuba Junkies – the same company that we got our PADI Certifications from in KK – because they are professional, reputable, and well-priced.

Unfortunately, I could only participate in one of three dives because my ears were having trouble equalizing. As a result, I did both diving and snorkeling and saw a plethora of sea life including three turtles, stingrays, a crocodile fish, a moray eel, and amazing coral!

The town of Semporna itself, is not the nicest of places to visit. There is garbage everywhere and it seems slightly rougher than other parts of Malaysia. However, it did have an amazing roti restaurant right by our hostel (Borneo Global Backpackers) which we went to two nights in a row!

Nov 28, 2016 – Cruising Down the Kinabatangan River


A Wild Proboscis Monkey

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According to Lonely Planet, the Kinabatangan Rive is 560 km long and one of the best places in Southeast Asia to see jungle wildlife. Often there are one to three day tours from Kota Kinabalu or other towns. However, they are quite expensive, so Franki, Ranah, and I decided to travel to the source to find our own river cruise – the tiny village of Sukau. We stayed at the Sukau Evergreen Lodge which was right on the water and had the entire place to ourselves. The village consisted of one restaurant and a few shops positioned at the front of people’s homes. It was a very peaceful and relaxing place.

The caretaker recommended that we take a tour in the afternoon (which we did), and it only costed about 50 ringgit per person. The river cruise was great! We saw long tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, endangered hornbills, and more. Proboscis monkeys are ginormous and have a particularly large nose… kind of like the character Squidward from SpongeBob SqurePants. Unfortunately, we did not see any crocodiles or pygmy elephants.

Nov 27, 2016 – Sepilok’s Rainforest Discovery Centre


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I woke up naturally around 7:00am as the sun hit the side of our room which was half open to the outside. All you could hear were birds and bugs filling the morning air.

After breakfast, and running into a fellow traveller who we met in Kota Kinabalu, we ventured to Sepilok’s Rainforest Discovery Centre. It is absolutely stunning and is the botanical counterpart to the Orangutan Centre a minute’s drive away. We seemed to have the entire park to ourselves, as we barely saw anyone else.

We checked out the botanical gardens which held a multitude of plants. My favourites included a cocoa tree, cinnamon tree, red bamboo, pitcher plants, and orchids. We also saw some cool birds, butterflies, and bugs.

While on the canopy walkway, we heard some rustling in the trees and spotted a wild orangutan! We watched it for a long time, as it stared back at us calmly. After some time we slowly approached it to continue our walk and it swung away into the jungle. Later on we also spotted a giant ground squirrel.

Once we returned to our hostel, we took a van to Sukau on the Sungai Kinabatangan to do a famous river cruise.

Nov 26, 2016 – Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre & Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre


Photo by Ranah Chavoshi (

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We checked into the Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat Hostel and were very impressed! You truly are in the middle of the forest, with mosquito nets over your bed. The food is great, the staff are pleasant, and they drive you to several attractions for free! We even got watermelon as part of our free breakfast!

The orang-utan feedings are at 10:00am and 3:00pm so we went to both! During the first feeding we witnessed a mother orang-utan and her 6 month old baby eat the bounty of fruits and vegetables that were provided on a small platform. She was also joined by several macaque monkeys (who were actually stealing the food).

Then we went to the sun bear sanctuary!! They are the smallest bears in the world, about the size of a dog, and extremely adorable! I can definitely see the appeal of having one as a pet (which is very very illegal). Sun bears have been rescued and live out the remainder of their lives at the sanctuary. In captivity they can live up to 40 years.

After seeing about 5 sun bears eat, climb, walk, and play-fight. We returned to the Orang-Utan Sanctuary to watch the second feeding.

It was raining and thundering… it actually felt like that scene out of Jurassic Park where the kids are waiting for the tyrannosaurus rex to eat the goat… except bananas and other fruits were left on a platform. After about 20 minutes a mother and baby came along to enjoy the nutritious snack.

Then another one arrived, and another one with its baby. The rain lessened a bit. Then one orang-utan swung onto the watching platform and walkway where all the people where! I was literally an arm’s length away from an Orang-Utan!! It was also somewhat scary because they have incredible strength. Good thing the staff where there to control the situation and ensure everyone was safe. The orang-utan calmly walked away.

It was amazing to have such a close encounter!

Nov 25, 2016 – Poring Hot Springs and the Rafflesia Flower



The Raflessia Flower!

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The Poring Host Springs is a very popular local tourist destination. It was a spectacular day as it decided not to rain (surprisingly). Lea, a biology student staying at our hostel, joined us for the day.

Because there is no direct public transit to the hot springs, we split a 1 hour taxi ride between the 4 of us which worked out much cheaper. Luckily, the Hot Springs, Butterfly Farm, Canopy Walkway are all within the same vicinity. The Hot Springs are set up like a mini resort, featuring the lovely nature around it. The water from the hot springs was HOT and in areas it smelled very sulfurous. Most people only stick their feet in and I only stuck my hand in because it was already too hot outside.

A few steps away was the Butterfly Farm, which was beautiful and quaint! I hadn’t really seen any of the species there before and they had both an outdoor section and one area partitioned off with netting that you can walk through.

The Canopy Walkway provided a great view of the canopy and the landscape. It was a little short for my liking, but still nice.

Just outside the entrance to the Hot Springs, there was signs to a Rafflesia flower – the largest flower in the world and the national flower of Malaysia. They bloom very seldom so we were lucky to be there at the right time. The flower was about 80 cm across, but they can grow to about 120 cm in diameter.

The Rafflesia flower is endangered because locals will try to destroy them if found on their property (even though the fine is great and you can go to jail). If the government finds out that you have a Rafflesia, you must section off the area to protect the flower. If anything touches it, an animal or human hand, the spot will turn black to start to die, leaving what looks like a burn mark. Locals can charge money to see the flower, however it is not as much as they would make producing vegetables. Currently, scientists are not able to grow the Rafflesia flower in labs because it is so difficult to tend to and grow.