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Kota-Kota-Kinabalu (to be sung in the voice of a 4 year old): Malaysia, Borneo

KK, as it is affectionately referred to, Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah in East Malaysia.  A short (under 3 hour), direct flight from Hong Kong, it’s a great destination for those wanting to escape the city without a huge flight commitment (something that I think most Chinese people have already figured out – Chinese tourists are probably the largest tourist demographic in KK).  We flew in and out of KK and what do you know, there is a HYATT! there (you can read here for my Hyatt disclaimer), so we opted to stay for a few nights on either side of our Mulu National Park excursion.

At first glance, the location of the Hyatt Kota Kinabalu seems kind of meh.  It’s surrounded by what seem to be obnoxious western bars (think Senor Frogs – though, we were asleep by 9pm so I can’t ENTIRELY vouch for that statement) and fairly generic shopping malls.  HOWEVER, if you get an ocean view room, you get to wake up to the sight of crystal clear water and a great view of the outlying Tunku Abdul Rahmen Marine Park.  The hotel seems a bit old and run down from the outside, but the rooms are all recently remodeled and pretty effing nice (see below photo of bathroom).  In addition, it’s a stone’s throw from the Jesselton Pier, where you can hop on a boat to one of the 5 islands in the marine park AND a mere block away from the KK Night Market.

One of the best moments of our trip was wandering around the food area of the night market (dozens of eateries cooking up fresh fish and other Malay delicacies), interacting with patrons and workers.  Our take away: Malaysian people are some of the warmest we’ve ever met.  Yes, our kids are novel in the same way that they are here in China and get attention as a result, but the attention was of a different sort.  No one wanted to take their picture, no one wanted to just touch them.  The kids (young and old) wanted to play (the photo below shows the moment the girl on the right gave Safari a sheet of stickers, to which Safari reciprocated and gave her a fairy) and the adults wanted to show them how to shake hands with crabs (no, not all of them).  All of our interactions felt genuine; it was so refreshing.  And it made me grateful to be traveling with our kids – they bring on the most positive energy.

Down from the night market is a HUGE indoor market area that looked AMAZING, but after the poop episode we didn’t have enough time to squeeze in a visit.  I mention it because YOU should go.  And then tell me about how great it was.

During our stay in KK, we joined the tourist circus at the Jesselton Pier (though I’m still not convinced hiring the random dude with a boat that we met while walking to the pier wouldn’t have been a better idea).  There are a dozen companies you can book your tour with (you make your own itinerary – you can visit 1 or all 5 of the islands) and they’ll also rent you snorkeling gear (all in, it’s about $40 for each adult).  We ended up booking with a company whose name I CAN NOT remember for the life of me, and boy do I wish I could because I want to tell you NOT to book with them.  Whatever you do, don’t base your decision on the salesman you like the best (it seemed like sound reasoning at the time).  My best advice is to book with a company who has their own boats, so perhaps one of the bigger ones.  Ours did not and because of this (who knew?), it was entirely confusing trying to figure out what boat to hitch a ride with between islands and we ended up wasting too much time roasting on piers in the blazing hot tropical sun.

Aside from the boat frustration, we had a lovely time on both Mamatik and Manukan Islands.  I researched and researched to try and figure out which two were the best for us to visit and ended up choosing these, but in retrospect, we should have gone to Sapi (even though the beach is apparently not as good) to see the Monitor Lizards.  Again, YOU should go.  And then tell me about how great it was.  The coral just off the shore at Mamutik was MUCH more impressive than we expected.  Because of the shear number of tourists, you definitely find more trash in the water than you’d like, but the beach was fairly clean as were the facilities.  Though we left Manukan early because of a storm, if you’re just going to lounge on the beach, it’s the one to hit.  The beach is big and nice, there are more food options, AND you can buy over-priced cans of Tiger (which were nowhere to be found on Mamutik).

As we delved more into Malaysian Borneo, we realized just how miraculous of a place it is and the vast number of places we’d still like to see.  What I’m hoping is that at some point in the near future, I’ll be writing another post about visiting wild Orangutans at Danum Valley Conservation Area and getting PADI Certified somewhere near Sipadan.

If you’re flying to East Malaysia from anywhere in Asia, consider using Air Asia.  While they make you pay for even water on board, they have a  great website interface, our flights were on time, and it was the cheapest deal we could find.   In addition, they have SUPER cheap flights within Malaysia and Indonesia.

All in all, if you get the chance, GO.  Even the little boys were polite and had super stylish haircuts.  And wore flip flops.  And were adorable.

Mulu National Park: Sarawak, Malaysia – Borneo

HOLY bats!  And caves.  And jungle.  A short flight from Kota Kinabalu, Mulu feels like a world away.  Only reachable by boat or plane, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is an absolute must when in Borneo.  And while there was literally only one other family there when we were, it’s totally doable with young kids.  You’ll have to set aside aspirations of adventure caving and canopy tours, but you’ll get to experience the largest cave system in the world WITH YOUR KIDS.  And, they’ll like it.  Sure, you might feel like your body is going to fail if you cram all four cave tours into one day like we did (because you’ll have covered over 11 miles of steps and stairs, most likely with a child on your back), but you’ll survive.  And so will the kids.

We arrived into Mulu on the afternoon flight and very easily hopped into a shuttle (a run down Toyota Landcruiser) for a whole 1.8 km ride to Mulu National Park Headquarters, where there are AWESOME accommodations.  You can also stay at the Royal Mulu Resort (which has been recently purchased by Marriott and is quite expensive), or a couple of cheaper home stay (basically B&B) options.  I would HANDS DOWN recommend foregoing both and booking a room at the national park.  We booked late and ended up in a room in one of the two “Long House”(es), but if you can plan early, there are both bungalows and chalets that looked FANTASTIC.  They are only marginally more expensive and much more modern (and the chalets are right on the river).  With that said, even our room was great.  It did, at times, feel more like a tent cabin, but had air conditioning and mostly sealed windows, which kept the bugs out almost entirely.

Speaking of bugs, I am a MAGNET when it comes to anything that likes the taste of human blood (of the insect varietal).  As such, I’ve had far too many miserable tropical traveling experiences at the hands of a few nasty mosquitoes and few more nasty no-see-um’s.  What’s worse is that they too like my little gal as much as they seem to like me.  What this boils down to is a paranoid me when bringing the kids to a tropical jungle.  I have historically been adamantly opposed to anything DEET, but have loosened my standards over the years, out of shear necessity.  SO, we used a mixture of natural and chemical insect repellants, not even religiously so, and the bugs stayed away for the most part.  My choice for “natural” is Herbal Armor and for the serious stuff is Ben’s.   I also had with me a mixture of California Baby Insect Repellant and REI’s Jungle Juice (100% DEET), just in case… paranoid of bites, I wasn’t kidding.  I’d almost suffice to say that, no thanks to my preparation, the biting bugs weren’t altogether an issue though, despite the fact that we were only 4 degrees north of the equator, in a dense rainforest.  Score another point for Mulu.

After being waylaid by a tropical downpour that evening, we were STARVING and had little expectation for the park restaurant.  However, after looking the menu over, we decided to give it a try.  And hot damn, it was delish.  I can’t say that it settled so peacefully in my large intestine that night (let me be clear though, that didn’t stop me from eating there again, twice), but it sure felt good going down.  It’s located directly by the river, has great vegetarian options,  is open and airy, and you are serenaded by the cooing of geckos while you eat.  All of this AND it’s very well priced (aside from the beer, which will put you back almost 4USD per can).

We booked two tours that would bring us to four caves, starting the following morning.  The first (Wind and Clearwater Caves) included an oh-so-lovely boat ride down the Mulu River, a visit to the local Penan Village, two billion stairs, INCREDIBLE scenery (which you should just google because my amateur photography does it NO justice), and a refreshing splash in the river when we were finished.  Our guide was great, our kids loved it.  After a quick power nap that afternoon, we headed out on our second tour (Deer and Long Caves) which included a 4km walk there and back (which was, truthfully, a bit arduous after the morning tour), the not-so-fragrant smells of guano, and literally, MILLIONS of bats.  After touring the caves, we waited to watch the 3 million bat residents exit Deer Cave for their nightly buffet, which was definitely worth the wait.  Deer Cave is the largest volume cave in the world and is  vast… and smelly (bat guano pretty much covers the entirety of its floor).

The kids fell asleep mimicing jungle noises,  we ate delicious Malay food, were immersed in great Malay culture, and mesmorized by absolutely amazing geological phenomena.  They may or may not remember it into their adulthood, but I trust that these experiences are imparting bits and pieces of themselves into our children’s lives.  The little one is still talking about Borneo-eo.



When You Realize That You Haven’t Listened To Music While Out And About For FOUR Years


You’re witnessing the exact moment, on Mother’s Day 2013, when I realized that I hadn’t put headphones on, just for the sake of adding a soundtrack to my day, for FOUR years.  Probably a bit over, if we’re really being honest here.  Sure I’ve listened to music while working out or put one earbud in to listen to a movie on a plane (where you put the earbud in the opposite ear of where your kid is and try to pretend that you’re childless and that watching the movie is actually an option, do you know what I’m talking about?).

On Mama’s Day, the baby’s Daddy gave me the day/what, in reality, turned out to be 4 hours, to galavant about Hong Kong BY MYSELF.  And so, for four hours, I walked and got lost and listened to music and stopped wherever I damn well pleased.  It was glorious.  I thought that perhaps it would make me regret the fact that this was indeed, NOT my reality, but truth be told, galavanting about with two toddlers is just as great.  Different, yes, but still great.

I realized something else while I was alone.  There are many things that one doesn’t, or isn’t able to notice, when exploring with kids.  Likely, I would have never noticed this muralists’ color palette painted on the wall if I would have been pushing a stroller/had a sweaty monkey on my back.  HOWEVER, there are an equal number of things that one doesn’t notice, for lack of a child-like perspective, when exploring WITHOUT kids.  Such as, the snail making its way across the road or how easy it is to make friends.

At the end of the day, while I do dream of a time when the kids are grown and I can ride off into the night footloose and fancy free, they add a texture to travel experiences that I would have never known existed.  And for that, I am a grateful mama.