Three Days in Malaysian Borneo

We had been stuck in the bustling city for three months and we needed a break. We were scouring the internet for the cheapest flights to tropical destinations throughout Asia, and stumbled across Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Now, Malaysia had never really been a priority destination for either of us, but after some research, we realised it was the gate to Borneo. Orangutans, elephants and peaceful riverboat cruises? Done deal.

We flew to Kota Kinabalu straight from Hong Kong, and caught a connecting flight to Sandakan for our Bornean adventure. Sandakan is by no means a city with plenty to do, nevertheless, we decided to explore, so headed straight to the waterfront. We stumbled upon countless shops stocking bootlegged items and were overwhelmed with the smell of spices which filled the air. After a light dinner, it was time to return to the hotel and relax before our jungle adventure.

After breakfast, we were picked up by our tour company. A quick briefing later, we sped off towards the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This was such a wonderful experience. First, we headed to the Outdoor Nursery. Juvenile orangutans are fed here, and visitors are able to watch their feeding from behind sound-proof glass. We saw one small female swinging in to grab some fruit. She spent a little time hanging around but was soon off on her way back into the jungle. Next, it was feeding time for the adult orangutans. We made our way to the feeding stations, and much to our delight, there were already quite a few orangutans waiting around for their breakfast. We elbowed our way through the crowds and made our way to the front. It was a truly magical experience.

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After an hour or so, it was time to head next door, to the Sun Bear Conservation Centre. We spent an hour or so here, until we hopped back into the tour van and drove to our final destination: The Kinabatangan River. On arrival, we were filed onto a small boat so that we could cross the river to the lodge. After check in, we had some free time to relax. That evening, we went on our first river cruise. We were really lucky and saw an array of wildlife including proboscis monkeys, crocodiles and bird life. We saw countless other species of monkey whilst on our cruise, and got really close to some of them!

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At this point, we were utterly exhausted but still had one activity after dinner: the night trek. So, leech socks, wellies and loads of deet at hand, we descended down the path into the jungle. Equipped only with a flashlight, this is one of the most hair-raising activities I have ever experienced. Mammals, spiders, snakes, poisonous plants… it seemed everything in Borneo wanted to kill us! On and on we walked, knee-deep in bogs and rivers. Despite being really nerve-racking and eerie, it turned out to be an interesting evening. Covered in mud, mosquitoes and one could only pray not leeches, we sauntered off to our log cabin to get a good night’s rest.

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We were up with the birds, at 04:30AM. I had never been so eager to stay in bed in all my life. But, the jungle was not going to wait for us, so we had to hop to. Prepped and ready for our final cruise at the lodge, we eagerly boarded the boat. It was not long until we saw our first wildlife of the day. A huge crocodiles floating inconspicuously by, followed by troupes of monkeys and birdlife. After the cruise, we headed to the lodge for breakfast and check out. Despite being in the jungle for such a short period of time, we had seen so much and taken part in such wonderful activities. From the lodge, we headed to the famed Gomantong Cave, where many swiftlet nests are harvested to be made into soup.

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As we walked along the guano-stained walkways, we spotted plenty of insects. If you are afraid of insects, this is not the place to be. Spiders, centipedes, cockroaches and plenty of bats assault your senses from every direction. Upon exiting the cave, the true magic happened. A female orangutan and her baby were swinging in the branches above our heads. It was a dream come true, a wild orangutan! We all stood, awestruck, for what seemed like an eternity, staring at our closest relatives in their natural habitat. What an incredible way to end a getaway to the jungle.

 

 

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The Best Excursions in Moscow

 

 

 

If you do anything in Moscow, visit the Red Square. Most noteworthy sights can be found right here, in one convenient location. Catch the metro to Tealtranaya station and as you exit, bear left until you reach a small incline on your right. You will see the famous St. Basil’s in the distance.

 

 
The Kremlin
The Kremlin is a huge, imposing structure. It is difficult to miss this monolith building from the Red Square. It is possible to explore both the Red Square and the Kremlin in one journey – depending on how much time you have to spare. One can easily walk from the Red Square, through Alexandrovsky Sad to the Kremlin ticket offices. Here, you can buy tickets to see The Armoury and three beautiful cathedrals. The cathedrals are an absolute must-see, but if you are not interested in Russian History, I would give the Armoury a skip. From the cathedral square, you can catch a glimpse of the presidential palace and the grounds. As you exit, you will see an uncountable amount of guards. It is not possible to apporach the presidential palace, and you may not take any photographs.

 

 

St. Basil’s Cathedral
This famous monument was built on the order of Ivan the Terrible. Legend had it that the czar had the architect blinded after its construction, so that he could not construct a more beautiful church. It is worthwhile to see both the outside and inside of this church, although I found the cathedrals within the Kremlin to be more beautiful inside. If you have time, the entrance fee is rather inexpensive, so definitely go inside. The outside of St. Basil’s is absolutely breathtaking. I found myself staring at the structure for ages. One can walk around the entire church, and the views from the back are just as good (and less crowded!)

 

 

Café Pushkin
Café Pushkin is somewhat of a legendary restaurant in Moscow. I had made up my mind to visit this restaurant on my first trip to Moscow. I booked in advance on their website, and I am so glad that I did. This was one of my favourite experiences in Russia! The restaurant is divided into two main seating areas, the Pharmacy Hall and the Library. Which ever you choose depends on the vibe you’re looking for. Since we wanted something quiet and romantic, we opted for the Library upstairs. On arrival, you check in your coats downstairs and are ushered to your table. The staff are professional and posh, but not obnoxious. The food offered was of a large variety and there is something for everyone. I had the roast lamb, which was absolutely divine. A large array of wines and spirits are on offer at this establishment. The area around the Café is lovely in the evening, too.

 

 

Gorky Park
I have only ever visited this park in winter. It is absolutely huge, and there is a load to do. We went for an evening stroll and found a large ice-skating rink which had fun, energetic music playing. Scattered around the park are an array of food trucks and restaurants. When it’s -10 degrees outside, a hot chocolate or latté is necessary.

Layover in Moscow

 

 

 

Everyone wants to maximise their vacation time. What most people do not do – is think of their layover as a second holiday. As Aeroflot airlines has started operating an array of flights that pass through Moscow, this is a perfect opportunity to soak up the action in the Red Square or grab some trinkets in Arbatskaya.
Russia has started opening its doors to more and more countries lately, and Russia is very welcoming to tourists. Travellers from both the UK and USA will require a transit visa to get out of the airport.

 
1. Getting to the City Centre:

 
By Train:
Moscow Sheremetyevo is well connected to the city centre by Airport Express trains. These trains run like clockwork and are modern, safe and temperature controlled. A round-trip ticket costs 850RUB. The trains leave from the Sheremetyevo airport and transport you directly to Belorussky station. Belorussky train station is a short walk away from the metro station. As you exit the train station, follow the signs with the metro logo.
It is unlikely that if you are having a layover at Moscow you will land at either Domodevovo or Vnukovo. Both of these airports are also connected by airport express train, but I have never made use of these before.

 

By Taxi:Oftentimes, people assume that getting from the airport to the city centre is more convenient via taxi. This is true for many other cities, but not in Moscow. Moscow has crazy traffic conditions, where traffic jams are rife – especially at peak hours. Another caveat to taking a taxi in Moscow is the taxi scams. On one trip to Moscow, I was inappropriately dressed for the freezing weather having come from Hong Kong. I decided to just catch a taxi as I was absolutely freezing. The taxi driver and I agreed that he would make use of the meter, as he refused to agree on a price beforehand. Once he started driving, I noticed the meter was going up at a ridiculous rate. For a 10km drive, I ended up paying close to 700HKD, almost 10 times what the metro would have cost me.

 
Renting a car:
Once again, renting a car leaves you in a position where you are going to be stuck in traffic for hours, instead of enjoying the day exploring. All of the road signs and directions are in Cyrillic, so this is something to be mindful of.

 
Uber:
If you really do not want to make use of public transport, there are plenty of taxi apps to use in Moscow. I have made use of these on numerous occasions, but this will require a Russian cellphone number. Make sure that you preppay on the app using a credit card, or you can leave yourself open to being scammed.

 

 

2. Where to explore

 
Red Square
The fun part is deciding which area you would like to explore. As a reference point, most travellers will head straight to the Red Square. This is an excellent choice as there is plenty to do, and all of Moscow’s major sights are congregated here. To get to the Red Square, catch the train from Belorussky Metro station to Tealtranaya Station. As you exit the station, you will see the imposing TSUM department store ahead of you along with countless monuments and statues. Turn left and head around the corner. As you walk up the steady incline, you will see St Basil’s Cathedral in the distance. On your right, you will see Lenin’s mausoleum along with the mighty Kremlin. On your left will be the GUM department store and behind you a massive, red museum. The Red Square is overwhelmingly beautiful, it takes some time to take it all in. If you happen to visit this area in winter, you will be treated to the most beautiful Christmas display imaginable. Countless Christmas trees form a forest behind the entrance to the Square.

 
Arbatskaya square
Of course, The Red Square is not all that Moscow has to offer. Arbatskaya, a famous shopping street, is one of the oldest squares in Moscow. This Street is lined with restuarants, coffee shops, vendors and plenty souvenir shops. We found the souvenir shops on this street to be extremely affordable, especially if you buy a number of pieces. Despite not being as famous as the Red Square, Arbatskaya is a trendy and atmospheric place. It certainly has its own charm and is well worth the visit if you have extra time.

 

Getting back to the airport
To get back to the airport, all you have to do is backtrack your steps. Head back to Belorussky Station and hop on the airport express.

 

What to do in the aiport:
Sheremetyevo airport is not a very entertaining airport to be stuck in for a long time. There are a handful of duty-free shops and some (horrible) restaurants. The toilets are not very clean and, in general, nor is the airport. If you have to be stuck here for a while, I would suggest paying extra to get lounge access.
Domodevovo airport is a little more modern and has better facilities than Sheremetyevo airport. The shops and restaurants are a bit better, but the cleanliness is still not quite to standard.

How Expensive is Borneo?

After hearing time and time again that Borneo is extremely expensive, we were hesitant to put our hard-earned money on the line for a four day getaway. Along the way, however, we discovered that whilst certain tour packages might not be the cheapest, the region is not as expensive as many people make out. We spent a total of four days in Malaysian Borneo. One night in Sandakan, one night at a River Lodge and our final night in Kota Kinabalu. Out of these three nights, the only one that cost a significant amount of money was the night we spent at the river lodge, and even then, we did not find it to be too expensive.

Day 1:

Sandakan

We arrived in Sandakan around 16:00 and caught a taxi for 30MYR to our hotel. We booked a stay at the Sandakan Hotel which was tucked away a few streets from the waterfront promenade. Our hotel included breakfast and cost only 140MYR. We ordered room service for dinner which amounted to just 50MYR.

Total for day 1: 220MYR for two people.

Day 2:

Kinabatangan River

For our stay in the jungle, we purchased a package which included a visits to the orangutan and sun bear sanctuaries, a one-night stay in a private chalet at a Kinabatangan River Lodge, two river cruises, one night walk, a Gomantong Cave tour and all meals. Altogether this cost us 1750MYR for two people. Not bad at all, considering it is an all-inclusive package!

Total for day 2: 1750MYR

Day 3:

Kota Kinabatangan

The package we booked included an airport drop off service, so we did not need to pay for a taxi. At the airport we spend about 40MYR on a meal as we waited for our flight back to Kota Kinabalu. On arrival in Kota Kinabalu, we had to catch a taxi to our hotel, which is a flat rate of 30MYR. We stayed at the Dreamtel hotel which cost a mere 355MYR, including breakfast. From the hotel we caught another taxi to the City Mosque which cost 30MYR. From the Mosque, we walked along the Promenade until we reached the Saria Sabah Mall. Here, we ate a basic meal which cost us about 50MYR, including an appetizer and drinks.

Total for day 3: 505MYR

Day 4:

Kota Kinabalu

On this morning, we had a hearty breakfast and relaxed all morning before our afternoon flight. We spent about 100MYR at the airport on some coffee and snacks. Additionally, we spent 100MYR on a Bornean Tribe Mask as a souvenir.

Total for day 4: 200MYR

Total expenditure for four days: 2675MYR (around 620 USD!)

Borneo is definitely a destination which can cost a lot, but it needn’t be so. Careful spending and money management can make it a very memorable experience which doesn’t break the bank. Anyway, these views are worth it!

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24 Hours in Kota Kinabalu

 

When one thinks of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is the first place that springs to mind. On deeper inspection, however, Malaysia has far more to offer than a mere metropolis. Kota Kinabalu is an unstable mixing pot of natural, urban, modern, traditional downright shocking at times. There is just something incredibly captivating about this city. Kota Kinabalu is the easiest city to navigate Malaysian Borneo from. Apart from being a gateway to the jungles and wildlife, this city has so much to offer in its own rite. It is home to beautiful island resorts, world-renown diving sites and some truly glorious food.

We used Kota Kinabalu as our starting and ending point for exploring the wildlife and jungles of Borneo. Before we left Malaysia, we knew we needed to explore more of this beautiful city. After checking into our hotel, we dropped off our bags and headed straight out to begin exploring. Our first stop was the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. This is probably one of the most captivating buildings I have ever had the pleasure to witness. It is surrounded by water and appears to be floating. Visit at dusk as the prayers begin, for a spine-tingling and truly beautiful experience. After taking photographs of the Mosque at every angle, we strolled along the beachfront promenade, which was absolutely stunning at sunset. Ice-cream vendors, barbeques, and kiosks scatter the walkway if you need to stop for a snack or a drink. We ended our evening at the massive Suria Sabah Shopping Mall. The mall is filled with tons of souvenirs, great restaurants and just about every Western or Malay amenity you may need. At 11pm, we headed back to our hotel enjoyed the last few hours of serenity before landing back in bustling Hong Kong.

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