Wrapping Up Borneo and Why It’s Southeast Asia’s Hidden Gem

By David

Day 1 in Borneo brought pleasant surprises and a strong feeling of, “why don’t more people visit this place?”

Day 2 in Borneo brought us up close and personal with baby orangutans and resort life.

Day 3 in Borneo was spent exploring secluded beaches and being terrified by giant lizards that desperately wanted to eat us.

Day 4 in Borneo offered us a chance to do a quick local hike and take it slow before sadly saying goodbye to Malaysia.

Signal Hill Observatory Platform

The Signal Hill Observatory Platform in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

Our activity for our last day in Borneo: A hike to The Signal Hill Observatory Platform in Kota Kinabalu

We had to be at the airport by 3:30 PM that afternoon to catch a flight to Bali, so we thought it would be best to stay in KK until then. We had read about a quick hike up to the Signal Hill Observatory Tower and figured this would be the perfect time to do that.

So we wrapped up breakfast at the North Borneo Cabin and headed out. Google Maps, as it often is in SE Asia, wasn’t completely accurate (although we found it to be much more accurate in Malaysia and Indonesia than in Thailand and Laos). We were given this as our walking route. 19 minutes, very doable.

Turns out though, in spite of selecting the walking man, this was the driving route. Hikers can take a much more direct route, one that would have only taken about 5 minutes from our hostel. To hike to the Signal Hill Observatory, follow this route instead. When you get to that corner, keep going straight into the parking lot (towards the green area on the map) and you’ll see a sign post and some stairs. Signal Hill Observatory hike trailheadTake those stairs up the hill and through the trees and you’ll get to the lookout in just a few minutes.

Once you get there, this will be your view: View of Kota Kinabalu from Signal Hill Observatory Platform

Borneo is way more developed than you thought, right? The video that we watched at the Rasa Ria Orangutan Sanctuary mentioned that Kota Kinabalu is one of the fastest developing cities in all of Malaysia, so I suppose it’s not fair to say all of Borneo is this developed.

Also, do yourself a favor and don’t eat at the restaurant at the lookout. Alexis got a chicken sandwich that tasted to her, and looked to me, like the most disgusting thing ever. It was a crappy frozen chicken patty smothered in way too much ketchup and mayonnaise. Just a mushy, disgusting mess.

I can’t be completely upset that we took the long way up to the lookout though because the road we were walking on was also the stomping grounds of some wild monkeys! First baby orangutans and now these little guys!

Monkeys on the way up to the Signal Hill Observatory Platform in KK

Monkeys on the way up to the Signal Hill Observatory Platform in KK

Sorry for the poor photo quality, the monkeys seemed a little temperamental, so I was kinda jittery.

We spent about half an hour at the observatory before heading back down into town so we could take a quick shower and check out of our room before noon.

Exiting the observation platform, walk down the road a few feet and you'll see the stairs heading back down the hill.

Exiting the observation platform, walk down the road a few feet and you’ll see the stairs heading back down the hill.

Coffee Shops in Kota Kinabalu

After we checked out, we had our bags with us, so we just wanted to grab some lunch (that was hopefully better than Alexis’ sandwich) and hang out in a coffee shop catching up on email and our blog.

We first went to OldTown White Coffee after eyeing it out for the past few days and thinking it looked like a proper English pub. It was a bust. The food was just so-so, it was more of a diner than a coffee shop, and they didn’t have wifi. We finished our food and headed out.

As lame and boring as this sounds, we went to the Coffee Bean next. Yes, it would have been cooler of us to find a fun local coffee shop, but we didn’t want to walk into another bust and we had our bags with us so walking around looking for one didn’t sound so enticing, so we just went with the safe option.

I think this is an important lesson when traveling: you don’t always need to do the cool, unique, local thing. The safe and comfortable bet is more than ok sometimes.

How to Get to the Kota Kinabalu Airport

After a couple hours at the Coffee Bean, it was time to head out. As Alexis wrote in the Day 1 post:

Make sure to take the airport shuttle bus in KK, as it’s significantly cheaper than a taxi. For only 5 Ringgit (about $1.50 USD), there is an air conditioned bus you can take from multiple stops downtown to the airport. The bus leaves every hour from about 9 AM to 7 PM. We caught it to the airport at the bus stop right outside the Horizon Hotel. There’s a big sign that says “Airport Shuttle” so it was easy to spot.

You don’t have to buy tickets beforehand or anything, just hand 5 Ringgit to the bus driver and he’ll give you a ticket to board. The other thing I should note is the bus didn’t arrive right on the hour. We wanted to catch the 3 PM bus, but it didn’t arrive until 3:15 PM or so. Luckily, the ride is really quick to the airport and we were there well before 3:30 PM. AirAsia operates out of terminal 1, so we hopped off the bus there.

And that was Borneo! It was fantastic. Much different than we expected, full of surprises, and the perfect start to our vacation. To wrap this all up..

Reasons We Loved Borneo

  1. It felt calmer, cleaner, and safer than other Southeast Asian countries. Traffic was much less crazy, and the infrastructure, like sidewalks and crosswalks and parks and bike paths, were great to see again.
  2. The sunsets every night were beautiful. The sun was so red and gigantic. It was the kind of sunset I had only pictured in African safaris.
  3. People were really nice. I’m not saying Thai people are mean, but for being called “The Land of Smiles,” I would have thought Thai people were head and shoulders nicer than everyone else. But we found Malaysians to be just as, if not more, friendly. Granted, this might have something to do with…
  4. Everyone speaks English really well in Borneo. It’s much easier to be friendly when you can speak the same language, while it’s much easier to appear aloof and standoffish when there’s a communication barrier.
  5. It felt like Hawaii in a lot of ways. From the moment we got into the taxi from the airport to our hostel, Alexis and I kept saying stuff to the effect of, “this looks like Hawaii,” or “if you told me we were in X town in Hawaii, I would believe you.” The vegetation was almost identical, and the roads and the developed-but-kinda-run-down look of a lot of the buildings in downtown KK had a distinct Kalihi or Kaimuki feel to it. Once we got out of downtown KK, it felt more like the Big Island. I’m sure that doesn’t mean much to most of you, but anyone from Hawaii would understand.
  6. You have access to such amazing and unique places. Borneo is one of the very few places in the world where you can only see wild orangutans. Their beaches are amazing and wild. Although we never did it, the diving is supposed to be spectacular. Borneo is just an amazingly ecologically diverse place.
  7. It was way less touristy than Chiang Mai and other places of Thailand and Laos that we had seen, as well as Indonesia which we were about to see.
  8. Overall, it just seemed like a nice mix of the East and West. Malaysia is definitely more developed than other Southeast Asian countries, but there is still the classic night markets and relatively cheap prices for Westerners. It was easy to see the people had more money and more free-time. We saw people outside jogging and biking, which is something I’ve never seen a Thai person do in Chiang Mai, at least not for the sake of exercise.

Feel free to post any questions or comments below!


4 thoughts on “Wrapping Up Borneo and Why It’s Southeast Asia’s Hidden Gem

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  4. Pingback: Back in Chiang Mai! | Roses on the Road

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