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Part 4: Kota Kinabalu, Mari Mari cultural village, Sandakan, Sepilok

9.8-10.8: Munich -> Dubai -> KL
11.8: KL
12.8: KL
13.8: KL -> Khao Lak
20.8: Bangkok -> Kuala Lumpur -> Kota Kinabalu
21.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Garama river -> Kota Kinabalu
22.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Pulau Tiga -> Kota Kinabalu
23.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Mari Mari cultural village -> Sandakan
24.8: Sandakan -> Sepilok -> Sandakan
25.8: Sandakan -> Pulau Berhala -> Lahad Datu
26.8: Lahad Datu -> Tabin wildlife reserve -> Lahad Datu
27.8: Lahad Datu -> KK -> Mamutik and Sapi -> KK
28.8: KK -> Mantanani island
29.8: Mantanani -> KK -> KL
30.8: KL -> Singapore
31.8: Singapore -> KL
1.9: KL -> Munich via Dubai

23.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Mari Mari cultural village -> Sandakan
Hotel Swiss Inn Waterfront, Sandakan. RM 124 for a nice room, 3-4 stars feeling at a very moderate price. Adjustable A/C, not hard bed, ironing board and iron, tea making equipment, phone, LCD TV on wall, table+chair, attached bathroom with shower, electronic safe. No cupboard. Free WLAN internet, but for some reason the Internet access doesn't work. Breakfast included. Best value so far.
Weather: mostly sunny, blue sky the whole day. Thin clouds layer for most of the day (no deep blue sky). Some clouds every now and then. No rain.
In Sandakan good weather until about 5pm, after that storm and rain until late in the evening. Heavy rain in the evening.

For some reason this morning my smartphone has no Internet connectivity. Makes me feel a bit lost, as suddenly I have no access to a lot of information I use when travelling.

At 9:20am the minivan of Traverse Tours picks me up in front of the hotel. We drive to the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Initially we drive to the north, passing by the Likas mosque, and then turn right at some point. At 9:55am we reach the village.

The Mari Mari cultural village overall gets glowing reviews on Tripadvisor and for this reason I was expecting something similar to the Sarawak cultural village near Kuching. But compared to the Sarawak cultural centre, this Mari Mari cultural village is a disappointment. It's much smaller (there are only six traditional houses), the houses are not built as nicely as the ones of the Sarawak cultural village and the staff is not as competent and authentic as the one of the Sarawak counterpart.

For instance one of the tourist guides of the Mari Mari village, dressed up as a local, at some point starts chit-chatting in Chinese, which makes me wonder if she really belongs to a local tribe. By contrast the Sarawak cultural centre has genuine staff of the local Sarawak tribes, even some real Penan.

In any case, the Mari Mari village has houses of the following Sabah tribes: Dusun, Murut, Rungus, Lundayeh and Bajau. The tour starts with a demonstration of cooking in pieces of bamboo, followed by tasting of locally made rice wine (distilled and non-distilled type).

Then we visit the Dusun house, the Rungus longhouse and the Lundayeh house. After this there is demonstration of rope making with tree bark. Then we visit the Bajau house, which has a wedding scene inside. The next thing is a demo of cooking rice paste sweets.

Finally we visit the Murut longhouse. To get inside there we must pass a gate and are "screened" by Murut tribespeople. Inside the house there is sort of a trampolin on which local tribesmen jump to the roof.

After this, starting at 12pm, there is a music and dance show in the local theatre. A similar show also takes place at the Sarawak cultural centre, but is higher end: it's inside an airconditionned building (while here the theatre is open-air), and the performers are more professional.

In 2003 the tour to the Sarawak cultural village cost RM 55 (including transportation from Kuching) while now this tour costs RM 160, i.e. three times as much.

After the performance we have lunch (buffet-type). At 1:15pm we drive back to Kota Kinabalu.

I'm back at the hotel at 1:55pm. I head to a Maxis shop (my Malaysian mobile phone operator) and have the Internet connectivity of my mobile phone fixed. That takes about half an hour, because there is some queue.

Then I take a taxi (RM 12, very pricey for just 1km) to Suria Sabah, a big shopping mall in KK. After some time there I walk to the harbour.

I check for tours to Mantanani with an operator (Chau's Nature). Mantanani is fully booked with this operator, but daytrips to Mengalum are available for RM 430. Quite pricey, but if you stay in the resort, it's RM 980 for 2D/1N (i.e. over RM 500/night). Sabah is quite an expensive place where to have a holiday.

Then I check if there is a way to make it to an island, for instance Sapi. No way, it's almost 3pm and there are no more boats leaving the harbour. I could charter one, but it would cost me RM 250 (to get to Sapi).

So I walk back to Suria Sabah and have some food in a Pizza Hut restaurant. While there I call  Tabin Wildlife Holidays Sdn Bhd, the operator of the Tabin resort, and ask if daytrips to Tabin from Lahad Datu are possible. They are indeed possible and cost RM 280/person, minimum 2 people (i.e. RM 560 for a single traveller).

Still very expensive, but less than the RM 1700 an overnight trip to Tabin costs if you go there as a single person. However the lady says that these daytrips can only be done if there is availability and in August they are fully booked. Not clear which availability she is referring to, because for such a daytrip a room is not needed. Perhaps she is referring to the availability of cars and drivers.

After the meal I walk to the Marudu tour operator, planning to book a tour to Mantanani island.

August 29th is available, but when I ask what time in the evening we are back (so that I know which flight to KL to book) I'm being told that the return times are highly variable. It might even happen that I cannot return on the same day, due to the rough seas and have to spend an unplanned night on the island.

This apparently happened to a group of 70-80 tourists the other day. In fact a guy who is sitting in the office of this tour operator tells me it happened to him.

This information makes me a bit hesitant, because I can't spend days in KK waiting for the right time to get to Mantanani island and on the other hand I cannot run the risk of being stuck on this island and (in the worst case) miss the return flight to Germany (was thinking of doing Mantanani as my last tour in Sabah before getting back to KL).

Mengalum island apparently also has the same problem (according to the guy who is sitting in this tour operator office). Quite far from the mainland (2 hours by boat), and you can get stuck there in case the seas are rough.

It's almost 5pm when I get out of the tour operator's office. I slowly walk back to the hotel, eating something on the way, then fetch my bags and take a taxi to the airport (RM 30).

I check in at 6pm (could even have booked the earlier 6:35pm flight, insted of the 8:15pm one) and proceeed to the gate.

THe flight takes off with about 10 minutes of delay (plane is an ATR-72). Everything proceedds smoothly until we are about to land in Sandakan.

Heavy winds prevent us from landing initially. The captain ragains altitude and makes a second landing attempt about 15 minutes later.

Again the plane shakes heavily as it tries to approach the runway and has to regain altitude again. Finally at the third attempt, with 50 minutes of delay, the plane finally lands. I was really afraid the plane would either crash or run out of fuel.

After landing it takes a long time to retrieve the luggage. Then I take a taxi (RM 26.50, coupon system) to the hotel.

24.8: Sandakan -> Sepilok -> Sandakan
Hotel Swiss Inn Waterfront, Sandakan.
Weather: good weather the whole day. The sky is mostly blue with a thin clouds layer, which during the day becomes thinner and thicker. No rain the whole day, but in the late evening at 10:40pm it suddenly starts raining heavily.

I have a breakfast around 10am in the cafe near the hotel (which perhaps belongs to the hotel). Then I explore Sandakan a bit.

First of all, the location of the hotel is great. It's immediately next to the waterfront, a very nice area with a view of the Sandakan bay.

Next to it is a new huge building, which contains the Sandakan Convention Centre, the Harbour Mall and the Four Points hotel (probably a 4-5 star hotel, Sheraton group). The entire area looks quite stylish and modern. What a change since my last visit to Sandakan in December 2008.

Then I walk to the Sandakan tourist office, planning to get information about interesting places around Sandakan (and whether it is possible to do daytrips to the islands). Bad luck, the tourist office is only open from Monday to Friday and today is Saturday.

So I walk towards the harbour with the idea to ask the boatsmen whether trips to the islands are possible. And indeed they are possible. Immediately when I reach the boats area somebody approaches me and says "Berhala?". Berhala is one of the islands of the Sandakan archipelago, very close to Sandakan.

I'm probably not the first tourist who has tried to get to Berhala. He asks how long I want to stay on Berhala (I say one hour), then asks for RM 150, which seems a bit pricey, given that the island is not that far away. When I hesitate, he asks how much I'm willing to pay. Good question, I don't know.

I'm a bit undecided what to do today, because there is also the option to visit the new sunbear centre near Sepilok, but I don't know if it's open already (the LP guide writes it is going to open in 2013) and what the visiting times are.

It's almost 12pm noon, so I walk away for the moment. I have some food in a KFC restaurant, then briefly walk along the streets. A taxi driver offers to bring me to Sepilok for RM 40. This seems to be the price.

I briefly check with the smartphone and find out that the sunbear centre only opens in 2014.

I head to a travel agency, where I want to ask about trips to Tabin. Daytrips to Tabin are avaiable for RM 320, min 2 people. You leave 7:30am from Lahad Datu, return after lunch at 2pm from Tabin.

I walk back to the harbour, ask again about the boat. It's a boat without a roof, and I might get sunburnt. A boat with a roof apparently costs RM 200. In addition right now the sky is a bit overcast, so the pictures won't be that good. So I decide to skip Berhala for today and will instead visit Sepilok.

The taxi trip lasts a bit over half an hour (we leave at 12:30pm and arrive after 1pm).

Essentially Sepilok (the headquarter, visitor centre and facilities) is still the same since my last visit in January 2001. The afternoon feeding time is 3pm. Still a long time to go. Having a walk in the rainforest is not allowed, they only let visitors in at 2pm.

I'd have to walk to the rainforest conservation centre which is about 1-2km away and I'm not that keen to do that in the heat.

So I wait until 2pm, then I walk in. I'm sent back because visitors are not allowed to go in with their bags (apparently orang utans will steal them). I get rid of the bag, ending up with all pockets of my shorts full with stuff. Then I get in and walk towards the viewing platform.

I was originally thinking that there is a path you can take and have a walk in the rainforest. But it turns out that the plankway is circular and quite short (you only can walk for about 5-10 minutes).

When I reach the viewing platform at 2:15pm there are already some orangutans orbiting around the platform. That is, they are moving above us, using the ropes and the trees. One of the fellows is throwing tree branches at us.

I see only three individual orang utans. Somehow I remember that the last time I visited Sepilok in January 2001 there were more orang utans, although when looking again at my pictures of 2001 I don't have a shot showing more orang utans.

But this means that at the moment the Semenggoh centre in Sarawak is a better place where to spot orang utans, because during ma last visit there, I saw more orang utans.

Anyway, the feeding session starts punctually at 3pm and at 3:15pm I slowly walk back to the tourist facilities. It's still a bit early, so I go into the showroom and watch the movie about the centre.

At 3:45pm the movie is finished and I get out. Somehow I can't find a taxi to get back to Sandakan. Then a guy approaches me and introduces a 4pm bus to Sandakan (RM 5).

I end up taking that and later regret I didn't get a taxi. The bus is very hot, has no A/C, is slow, makes many stops and only reaches Sandakan at 5:25pm.

I make it back to the hotel and take a shower. Then I get out again.

I check again the Manila option: flying KK-Manila, spending three nights in Manila, then getting back to Malaysia. I end up discarding this option, when I read that Manila at the moment is flooded.

But I find the travelogue of a guy who visited the Tabin reserve as a half-day trip from Lahad Datu with his car (or a rented car). So I decide to try to do the same, i.e. get to Ladad Datu tomorrow and then try to charter a car+driver or rent a self-drive car.

In the evening I have a dinner on the waterfront. Quite inexpensive food (only RM 13 for a dinner and a fresh fruit juice).

Copyright 2013 Alfred Molon