On a different kind of high.

Posted on March 24, 2012 by


Mount Kinabalu; tallest mountain in South East Asia

I have to say that one of the most interesting things about taking a gap year is how spontaneous it allows you to be.

I was sitting in for just another ordinary french class when one of my classmates told the teacher that he would not be coming in for lessons next week because he was going to climb Mount Kinabalu. Having missed an opportunity to go there during my high school years, I asked him whether there happened to be an additional slot left for a poor old fellow like myself. And there was!

So just like that, I took a 4 day leave off my job, paid my friend RM900 (out of my savings), and planned for my trip to Kota Kinabalu.

Note: For those of you who want to organize a trip yourself, it is not as impossible as people say it is. I have been told that you have to book at least months before your actual trip; however, my friend only booked about one month before the trip. He did stress however that you need to call the tour organization directly rather than book online to book a place in a short time. He booked our trip through: www.suteraharbour.com

Anyway, I thought I would provide a short travel log to share a few tips on what to do and what not to do during a trip to Mount Kinabalu.

DAY 1: 

Arrived at Kota Kinabalu airport (at around 11am) with the intention of getting to our lodge for the first night. Our initial plan was to take public transport to our accommodation. However, at the airport, we encountered numerous of car rental services, all surrounding us and trying to convince us to rent a car. We thought it would be a good idea to rent a car, since it did end up being cheaper than public transport and allowed us more freedom. However:

Tip 1 (Transportation): Renting a car is a good option if you are staying in Kota Kinabalu for a longer period of time, but if you are only staying in the city for a day, I would certainly advise people to take public transport to your accommodation. Almost everything around the city is within walking distance for most of the accommodations present, from the shops and restaurants to the beautiful view of the seaside.

Also, finding a car park in the city of Kota Kinabalu is no easy task. A car does give you the freedom to roam around the city, but since we were only in the city for a day, I personally think it was not worth it. Once we found a car park, we did not dare drive anywhere else, in case it would be occupied once we got back. We ended up walking everywhere – which was just as fun as driving. Kinabalu Park is also easily accessible by public transport .

Once we got the car, we drove straight to our accommodation at ‘Traveller’s Light’ (www.travellerslight.com) which was located in an area called ‘Australian’s Place’ (probably because the area consists of so many backpacker lodges). It only cost us RM60 a night for 4 people (so basically RM15 per person) and was a very decent place. Most importantly, it was extremely clean and had all the essentials; toilet, hot water and even provided breakfast (although it was just toast and jam, but I guess that is still pretty good for RM15 a night). The beds were comfortable and there was air conditioning. There was also a very cosy balcony outside of the corridor surrounded by a very dense jungle environment; perfect for enjoying the cool tropical weather whilst escaping inside a good book.

fellow friends on the trip

We decided to walk about in the city and find lunch. The city had a different feel from your typical Malaysian street. First of all, the surroundings were much cleaner, and there seem to be a greater integration amongst the different cultures in Malaysia. Never have I seen so many different looking people in one chicken rice stall. Even more surprising was the fact that drivers were extremely courteous! It was very easy for us as pedestrians to cross roads, despite the number of cars present.

Unfortunately, just as our luck would have it, after lunch, it rained for the rest of the afternoon. We were only able to roam around the city in the evening, to find dinner. Dinner, however, was delicious! Extremely fresh and juicy seafood, particularly the prawns; you could really taste the saltiness of the sea integrated with its natural sweet juices. Definitely a must try in Sabah. Funnily enough though, what I thought the best dish of the night turned out to be ‘Sabah Vegetables’. Probably cooked on a high flame with ‘belacan’.

Sabah vegetables.

Headed back to our lodge to get ready for tomorrow’s journey to Kinabalu Park. It was going to be a two hours trip uphill in a Viva; not something I was particularly looking forward to, being the official driver of the trip.

DAY 2:

Woke up, packed our things and made our way to Kinabalu Park.

Note: You do not want to drive a Viva uphill with four people plus some luggage. The minute the road got a little bit steeper, the fastest I could go was 40kmph. A good opportunity to take in the surrounding scenery, but once lorries start honking at you for being too slow; you know you should have taken a car with slightly more power.

The scenery was breathtaking though, and the looming presence of Mount Kinabalu was an exciting enough prospect for us.

Mount Kinabalu in the distance.

Once at Kinabalu Park, we paid the entrance fee (RM3) and headed towards the headquarters to register for a climbing permit.

Note: All climbers have to register and pay for the climbing permit before being able to climb Mount Kinabalu. Usually, if you are booking through a package deal, they include this in their fees, but do check just in case.

Then, we were assigned our porter (mountain guide) and were sent to one of the Kinabalu Park lodges to stay there for one night before starting our climb. Did a quick walk around the area, admiring the lush greenery and the cool temperature. There were huge trees there too.

Huge trees.

The lodge at Kinabalu Park was even better than the one in Traveller’s Light, although to be fair it was much more expensive. Most importantly, hot water and clean bathroom. We decided to go to head out to the hot springs near Kinabalu Park, however, a heavy rain shower minutes after the decision prevented us from going anywhere. My friends ended up sleeping the whole afternoon, while I went down to the lobby to finish the book I brought to the trip.

Unfortunately for us, it continued raining all the way until dinner. It was then that I figured out the importance of keeping clothes dry in cold weather.

Note: Keep your stuff as dry as possible at Kinabalu Park and throughout the climb up Mount Kinabalu. Also, because of the humidity, clothes and other wear do not dry well, if at all. Try to pack enough warm clothes; you do not want to re-use wet clothes climbing up Mount Kinabalu. Wet clothes = freezing body. 

Our buffet dinner was waiting for us in a restaurant which was about a 5 minute walk from our lodge. However, because it was raining, we had to grab our raincoats and run through the pouring rain. In the dark. With torchlights. Thats right, we worked hard to get to our food. Hot soup never tasted better.

Went back, in the rain, and prepared for bed. Raincoat was soaking, and so was one of my pants (both of these things did not dry for the remainder of the trip).We were going to have a 4-6 hour walk ahead of us tomorrow.

DAY 3:

Woke up at about 6.00am to be the first ones for the breakfast buffet. (Every meal provided from then on was a buffet). Decided to leave slightly earlier than the rest, so we headed out to Timpohon Gate at about 8.30 am.

Walking to Timpohon Gate.

Tip 2 (Supplies): Before leaving Timpohon Gate, make sure you have packed all of the essentials. Here are a few things you should pack before leaving for Timpohon Gate:

  1. A good supply of warm clothes and under-garments – Make sure you have at least two pairs for the climb to Laban Rata (one to wear climbing up and one to change into once you arrive because you will be drenched with sweat and cold), two pairs for the hike to Low’s Peak and one pair for the walk back down.
  2. A sweater – hoodie, long sleeved thick t-shirt etc.
  3. A wind-breaker – there will be heavy winds during the climb.
  4. A rain coat – absolutely essential to keep dry to prevent sickness later.
  5. Hand-towel(s) – for wiping away sweat to keep dry and warm; bring two just in case one gets really wet.
  6. Gloves – it is very cold on Low’s Peak, also to prevent hand-burns coming down with ropes.
  7. Thick socks – preferably as many pairs as you have clothes.
  8. Good walking shoes – Shoes with a firm grip; it would be even better if they were water-proof.
  9. Cap/scarf/hood/beannie – If you want to keep your ears, bring something to cover them.
  10. Torchlight – Needed to provide vision when climbing up to Low’s Peak at 2am in the morning. Bring extra batteries and ensure your torchlight can work for longer than 5 minutes (because mine did not).
  11. Sun Glasses – When you are that high up in the mountains, with the bright Malaysian Sun shining directly at you, you would want something to protect your eyes from those UV rays.
  12. Sunblock – refer to ‘Sun Glasses’. and replace ‘eyes’ with ‘skin’. 
  13. Water-bottle – Keeping hydrated is extremely important. There is a higher risk of muscle cramps, nausea and fatigue if you do not drink enough water.
  14. Snacks – Throughout the climb, any additional energy supply is always welcomed. Also, it can become something to distract you from your weary legs and knees.
  15. Plastic bags – As many as possible, simply because they are water-proof and can help protect your clothes from becoming damp. Extremely useful.
  16. Tissue paper – In case your plastic bag fails, your shoes get damp inside, always useful to absorb water and keep your items dry.
  17. Toothbrush/Toothpaste – I refuse to tell you the function of those.
  18. A Walking Stick – Extremely convenient for the climb down, especially if you have weak knees, to prevent excessive strain.
  19. Medicine/ Creams – Something to apply for muscle aches and pains. Also, you might want to consider bringing medicine for altitude sickness, nausea, diarrhea and colds. 
  20. A sturdy backpack – Unless you feel like carrying all of these items with your hands like a boss. Preferably a water-proof one.

The walk up to Laban Rata was breathtaking. If you are a fan of the outdoors, this experience is almost a must. It is amazing to witness the change of landscape from typical jungle transform into a mountain environment. To watch the surroundings change from huge, majestic and towering trees of the rainforest accompanied by the ridiculously thick vines falling from the sky, along with the lush bushes and muddy pathway slowly develop into mountain wilderness with shorter and stubbier trees, with thick, grey-coloured trunks, smaller leaves and rockier trails. There is a drastic temperature change as well as we ascended into the mist.

Rainforest trail.

...transforming into...

...a rocky, mountain environment!

There were about 7 little huts on the way to Laban Rata; necessary pit stops when climbing 6 km upwards. On the 5th pit-stop, we ate our packed lunches given to us at our lodge at Kinabalu Park.

Note: Do not forget to bring enough drinking water up to Laban Rata. Also, do not forget to keep drinking, at least at every rest stop. Dehydration causes dizziness, nausea and fatigue; stuff you do not want feel halfway through the climb. 

Met a lot of people coming down, having already climbed up to the peak the day before. Comments such as “…do not underestimate the cold winds up there, it was freezing!”, “…the view was amazing!”, to the sarcastic “…don’t worry once you get to Laban Rata, there will be a hot spa with steaming hot water with a first class buffet waiting for you…” all added to the suspense and motivated us to reach the top as soon as possible.

So after about 5 hours walking/climbing/crawling uphill, we finally reached Laban Rata, drenched in sweat, thirsty, cold to the bone, fatigued and jelly in the legs.

Laban Rata.

At the Reception Lodge, we ran to the hot water and drank like fish. Once we were warm enough again and our thirst was quenched, we checked in to our lodge. To our dismay, the warm and cosy Reception Lodge was not where we would be staying for the night.

“Your room is just another 250 metres walk from here. Unfortunately, the electricity we have is extremely limited, so there isn’t any hot water present there. Have a comfortable stay though!”

So, after a walk that seemed to take longer than our actual climb up, we arrived at our lodge for the night. It was rather cold and the bedrooms were rather cramped, but hey, we did get the trip for a relatively cheap price. We did have quite a nice outlook though.

the view.

the other. view.

So after checking-in, we decided it would be better to head back to the warmer Reception Lodge and wait there till dinner. Met quite a variety of travellers; some from Sweden, others from America a few from the United Kingdom and a couple from France, who had a little kid who spoke with me in French for a little while, laughing most of the way. Dinner was at about 5 in the evening, but we were all so hungry we could no care less about the awkward timing. Food was good. Either that or we were just that hungry.

After dinner, we decided to get an early sleep. Returned to our lodge at about 6pm, packed for the next day and went to bed.

DAY 4:

Woke up at 1am. Freezing. Cramped legs from the previous day climb. Heard what was rain outside; luckily it was only the wind. Or not. Generally uncomfortable. Ran up and down the corridor to warm myself up, put on at least 4 layers of clothes and headed to the Reception Lodge for a quick “supper” before the climb.

With the wind cutting through our faces like blades of ice, I put on my hoodie, pulled up my scarf up to my nose, switched on the torchlight and braced myself for the 300m climb ahead.

It was as dark as dawn could get and we were relying on our torchlights more than I would have liked. Looking up though, there was an amazing festival of lights, with stars scattered around the deep blue night sky. It was as if the sky was a black canvas simply sprinkled with salt; a lot of salt. Simply beautiful. This was something you could never get the chance to see in the city, let alone in many places in the world. The higher we walked, the closer we were to the stars; something that kept me going all the way to the top.

Most of the trail was the standard walking up rocks and stairs. However, as we got higher, we had to use ropes to prevent us from falling down the 4095m mountain. Even then, I felt it was not that steep, and most of the time I felt it was much easier climbing without having to hold on to the rope. But seriously guys, hold on to the rope. The wind was so strong I thought I might just have fallen down the 4095m mountain at one point. That would have been one long 4095m trip downwards.

Initially, it felt like a really bittersweet moment arriving at the top of “Low’s Peak”. On one hand, you knew that you had completed the challenge you had taken on,  and there was an amazing view just waiting to be seen once the sun was going to rise. Then you realise the sun is not going to rise for another half an hour and you are there sitting in the freezing cold, wind in abundance and you shiver until you can hear your teeth chattering.

So there we were, sitting in the cold, and after what felt like forever, we finally saw it. We witnessed the magnificent sun rise above the clouds, touching our faces with that precious little bit of warmth.







up high in the sky.

Breath-taking. Eye-opening. Beautiful. Amazing. Wonderful. And so many more positive adjectives to describe the feeling, the view, the outlook of a sun rise when you are 4905m above sea level. It was like discovering the Great Valley for the first time (for those of you who can remember the Land Before Time?). Choirs singing in the background and everything.

From then onwards, all the fatigue, the shivering, any negative thoughts we had throughout the trip simply disappeared and we were so happy we decided to take this trip.

on the way down.

down down.


Conclusion: If you are on a gap year and have the time, this trip is absolutely a must for anyone who is capable (and almost anyone is). It is challenging, boosts your confidence, and you get to meet people from around the world. It would be a really good break from (hopefully) your very busy gap year, and some fresh air is always good for your health. The view at the top is reason enough. So what are you waiting for? Grab a few friends and go!

Note: I would like to thank Yao for orqanizing this wonderful trip and Jin for the pictures. Good luck for both your gap years! 🙂

Posted in: Travel