#51 – Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia


Mt. Kinabalu (UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2000) is in Kinabalu National Park located on the island of Borneo in the state of Sabah belonging to East Malaysia!  I haven’t ever heard of Mount Kinabalu, nor was I planning to visit East Malaysia at all.  However, I had been very intrigued since hearing and seeing pictures about this trek from my friend Bonnie whom I met in Cambodia. So, holding the title as the highest accessible peak in the South East Asia region, I looked a little bit into the climb, and decided to attempt it!

After taking some advice from some friends, there were a few places I seemed to have missed the last time I went through Malaysia, and although I don’t usually revisit a country unless of something special, this was really worth it.  My next destination… and visa run was basically set!

Standing at 4095.2 meters or (13435.7 feet), Mt. Kinabalu challenges you to face an approximate 8.5 kilometer trek, hike, scramble over the course of 2 days.  Of course, professionals can do it over a few hours… I’m an old man (but look 18, hair flip) so… I’ll take it easy and let others show off. =D


Sunrise at the Bangkok Don Muang International Airport, leaving for KL then switching to land in Kota Kinabalu, the city with the closest airport to the mountain in Sabah.



Trusty AirAsia.  Well, mostly.  This story is by far the worst experience I’ve ever had with this airline.  So I arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the morning with more than enough lead time to check-in and board the next flight to Kota Kinabalu (approx. 1 hour and 30 minutes lead-time).  However, the Bangkok to KL flight delayed for about 45 minutes and with how the KL LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) was designed, I was anxious with making the connection.  In the air, due to increased traffic, we were delayed to land for about another 20 minutes.  With the amount of time I was left, I was panicking and started to ask the crew if there was enough time to transfer.  They assured me that there would be no problem since I didn’t have checked luggage.

With that information, I was still on edge so I dashed out upon arrival heading for the nearest AirAsia desk.  However, with the pain of customs and running around LCCT, I was further delayed.  Once I got to the reception desk, the employee came to my assistance to check me in.  I had about 30 minutes left to board and leave, phew.. I made it… so I thought.

As he took my itinerary to check me in, he turned to me and said, sir, check-in is closed 30 minutes before departure.  I check the clock on the wall, it was 1 minute later (29 minutes left) so apparently the system locked him out of checking me in.  I was like WTF?!  I kindly asked him to see what he can do to go around it.  From just being in airports and dealing with airlines and booking so many tickets, I knew that from a carrier like AirAsia, as long as you can find a manager to bypass a few things, they’d be able to put me on a flight at the very last minute.  It happens all the time.  However, this guy said he couldn’t do anything and said the best he can do was to issue me a ticket on the next flight and the cost of what I already paid would be discounted off the total price.  Uh… fine, I’ll accept that I thought, how much could it be?

Seriously… I paid about $50 for the ticket in the first place.  To get a seat on this one, because it was last minute, it was $110, so the difference would be $60.  Jeez.  I had no choice, over 2x the original price… AIY.  I always took this experience as a lesson to leave much more than enough lead-times between flights especially for “low cost carriers” that have staff that aren’t the most helpful, nor go out of their way to help.


In the end, after a few hours of being delayed at LCCT, I was on my way.


Flight was very beautiful though.



In Kota Kinabalu, it’s easy to find out a bus station (all over the city) with signs of minivans and taxis to take you to spots all around the island.  I hopped into a shared taxi after some negotiations and I was on my way.



How the climb worked was that most climbers booked with a tour company.  However, most companies do packaged deals, whereas I only wanted to do the climb and not pay anything extra for ANYTHING.  It is well known that you can easily get scammed into a package to pay $100-$200 CAD more than you need to.  You may probably get a few things extra but completely not worth the money.

*TIP:  Book at least the climb 1 month ahead of schedule, preferably 2 months ahead.

There is only 1 company (www.suterasanctuarylodges.com) that serves as the official accommodation of Mount Kinabalu.  So if you are not a professional and are in reasonably fit shape, you would still be looking to spend at least 1 night up in the Laban Rata Resthouse before making the summit/peak.  With no choice of accommodations, they are able to charge a relatively high price with a lot of people keen to climb it.  Especially when the weather is good during high season, the bookings fill up fast.  Note: It costs a fraction of the price if you’re Malaysian (1/4-1/3).  I was lucky to be able to book within 3 weeks of the climb with only 1 spot left (I had to try several dates as it was booked solid) for a dorm room.  I recommend getting a quote via phone directly so you could adjust your options with an agent in real-time, or you it is completely possible to get date quotes and pay over email.  They all of English speaking staff so it was no problem.  It wasn’t cheap, here’s the breakdown.

1 night accommodation, 1 packed lunch, 1 buffet dinner, 1 buffet early supper, 1 buffet breakfast, 1 buffet tea break, 1 climbing permit, 1 climbing insurance = 577 RM (Malaysian Ringgit) = $188 CAD.

Furthermore, there’s a mandatory guide fee of 128 RM which could be split between 1-4 people, and recommended transport via minivan from the base of the mountain to Timpohon Gate (start of the trek) for 16.5 RM.  The cost of the certificate is also 10 RM.   In total, this climb cost me approximately $240 CAD not including transport to and from Kota Kinabalu, and flights and hostel etc.  Pricey, and I won’t know if it will be worth it until it was over.

Recommended gear:  Toque covering ears, a light scarf to protect neck, bright headlamp, waterproof gloves, waterproof hiking boots, base layer, thick thermal layer, waterproof jacket, breathable shorts and track pants, extra socks, and a climbing pole (optional).





Record board.  Only after doing the climb was I so astonished at how these people can achieve those times.  Crazy.


After about 30 minutes of asking around and wandering, I was super lucky to have bumped into Taro, a young Japanese guy looking to do the trek alone.  He didn’t know the guide could be shared so when I told him I would be able to cover half of the guide, he was down to split it 50-50.  Had I not met Taro, I would have had to pay for the cost of an entire guide myself!  So Taro, Rin (our Malaysian guide), and I took off at about 8am.

Note: the cost of the guide was 128 RM that could be split between 1-4 people.


At the start of the trek, a small waterfall marks the beginning of the journey.  Carson Falls.


Along the way you will pass these rest points that have untreated water, toilets, and seats available.  If you need to drink the water, you need to have water treatment tabs/gear.  Otherwise, you carry your own water up.  There is also a board with fun facts of the mountain, it’s geology, and the surrounding flora as it changes environments.

Natural vegetation covers approximately 93% of Kinabalu Park.  On the hillside, rainforests cover about 35% of the park while tropical forests covers another 37%.   Evergreen scrubs can be found once you reach higher elevations.



The view.


Local porters carrying up various food and supplies.  So many people do this every day for a living.  They get paid by the kilos they carry (3.5 RM per kilo, omg, for perspective: 3 RM = $1 CAD).  Here some is only doing 2 bags of rice.  It is possible to hire a porter to carry your bags for you, but then you’re kind of missing the point of the climb.  I saw a lot of intense people on the way up and they often jogged past me, leaving me feeling like a pig.  Oink.



The first 2 ish kilometers was relatively simple with the trek and some stairs mixed in.  Once we passed the 3 KM mark, things got a bit more difficult.



With our rate of ascent, with every 100-200 meters in elevation we climb, it drops about 1 degree Celsius.  It quickly got colder and colder and had to manage layers as we went up.


Don’t know what, but looks freaking heavy!


Canned food.


Packed lunch.  Energyyyyy.


Already changed into my Cold Gear.  This was UnderArmour 2.5 grade.



Once we get about cloud level, it started to get really cold and misty.


Couldn’t really see a thing.  Dem clouds.



Some of what the trail looks like.  Definitely recommend a decent pair of hiking boots.  I did it in a pair of Nike running shoes and although I came out alive, I slipped A LOT and landed on my bum multiple times.  Near the top when you hike and climb up wet rocks with no harness or fence, it’s really dangerous.  As I didn’t have any other option, I survived on my pair of running shoes and lucked out on the weather with it not being so wet on the trek.



After about 6 hours.  We reached the Laban Rata Resthouse.



I was SO tired.  The last stretch the terrain got much more difficult and from hearing the people coming down, the morning climb was even more difficult.  As the climb went further, the physical toll of climbing a mountain was really apparent.  Managing rest breaks and keeping focused on where you have your footing was constantly on my mind.  As the air got thinner, breathing became more difficult and the amount of oxygen to replenish energy to my muscles took much much longer.  I was thinking like wow, that was more difficult than I thought it would be.



Later in the afternoon, the mist subsided and the clouds got super fluffy and I was able to catch some really clear and amazing views.


The resthouse cafeteria.



Buffet supper served at about 3-4 pm.




It was a glorious meal.  The food was really really good where I finally felt it was one place I ate what I paid for.  Haha.


Road map. Laban Rata was at 3272.7 meters elevation.  The next day would involve about a 3.5 km climb with much much different terrain.



I did not welcome this news.  But I did expect this from research prior to coming.  Well, Myanmar had me prepared after showering so many times in cold water.




“Good enough facilities”



Ok, so I swear the water that came out of the shower was maybe 1 degree Celcius if it was on the warmer side.  That night, NOBODY in the resthouse showered.  At best I washed my face and almost froze to death.


First time I wore full body 2 layers to go to sleep with 2 blankets.  There was no heat anywhere to be found, period.  Fortunately, this was warm enough but with lights out at 6pm,  I only got about 1 hour of sleep before waking up at 2am breakfast.


Although yummy, eating at weird times really messes you up.  I wasn’t able to get too much down.


Geared up.  You MUST have a headlamp for the sunrise climb.  There were absolutely no lights on the mountain and some parts had to be semi-scaled with ropes.  Basically you had to be able to carry your own body weight and pull yourself up a near vertical hill.  With the conditions wet and running water everywhere, it was realistically very dangerous.  I often had to remind myself after seeing how dangerous it is that it was still climbing one of the highest mountains in the world and not just some bunny hill climb.





Only caught the signs with the help of my headlamp and the flash on my camera, otherwise, pitch black.  It felt like a race to the top when you see hints of light peeking through the horizon.

As I ascended, the air got thinner and thinner.  It was such a weird feeling when you go from rested to exhausted within about 1 minute of climbing.  Then you rest for another 2 minutes, then climb another minute.  Good thing I’m in decent shape and I made it to the top just in time to watch the sun rise and light up the mountain.



We couldn’t feel our faces or hands here, it hurt to take pictures.



So breathtaking.  Ironic, because the air was thin and difficult to breath.



The sunrise was fabulous and the cold mountain air was refreshing.  At the top, I was able to have a few moments to myself which was more than anything I could ask for as a result of deciding to do this climb.  It was something I didn’t expect, but I had a complete moment of clarity.  As if something inside me clicked.  I was able to have closure on certain things I’ve left on the side and a new light upon the a few people I’ve encountered thus far.  It put everything I did this year including the people currently in my life into perspective.  What I will do next in life became clear.  It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.



Known as King Kong Mountain.  Can you see him?



Low’s Peak.


Going down, the clouds cleared and the sun shone.  What a sight to behold.






We reached Laban Rata once more for our brunch.  We had a quick rest and wanted to descend quickly.


One of the rare plants our guide showed us, where we had to hike a little off the path to find.  Called Nepenthes Rajah also known as a pitcher plant which is classified as endangered.  Cool.  Another famous flower named Rafflesia is also found among these parts of Sabah but unfortunately none were in bloom on our route.





Buffet lunch.  Buffet-ed out.


Rin, Taro and I with our certs!  It was very nice to meet Taro as we had a lot of chats climbing up Mt. Kinabalu.  It was an awesome experience to share with a new friend and I hope I can visit you one day!



In the end, it wouldn’t mattered how much it cost to do this because the experience was priceless.  I will always have a soft spot for Mt. Kinabalu and will recommend anyone I come across to attempt it.

So this is the end of this giant of a post.  Since I couldn’t say it to everyone, MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEARS!  Tis, the season.

#51st post and last post for 2013!  It has been a year (+2 days) since I left Canada at the time of posting this.  What a year it has been.

The game (of life) has changed and so have what I wanted.  This year has been legen… wait for it.. dary!  What will become of 2014?  How will I spend it? =).

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Posted in Tips, Travel
8 comments on “#51 – Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
  1. Miss Becky says:

    A fantastic year of travelling! To many more trips in 2014 Kelvin!

  2. jeffw13 says:

    lol damnn.. 1 year already. good anniversary post.

    btw, u should’ve threw a pokeball at the victreebel

  3. mike says:

    Glad you could do some mountain climbing, good to see the pics too. It makes me miss it, you lucky guy getting to climb things haha.

  4. winkgurl says:

    Wow over a year now eh… Crazy how times fly!

    The view at the top looked amazing! Glad you’re having a good time.

  5. Roy says:

    so humbling. so majestic! so tiring too! haha

  6. Robin says:

    Kel!!! I just learned about mt Kinabalu in Singapore. It is a prime example of a “cloud forest”. Can’t imagine why…

    You’ve been to way more places than me in Malaysia, I don lay done port Dickson, KL, and Melaka. Awesome shots and stories! I hope my air Asia flight out to Bangkok is better lol

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