With a mid-morning flight from Heathrow it’s definitely worth staying overnight at the airport – no rush hour traffic, or wondering if you’ll make it on time!
It’s been a while since I last flew with Malaysian Airlines and I was worried that they wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, but I needn’t have been concerned at all. Check in was smooth, the plane was a new A380 and the crew were as great as the food – which is saying something! The connection in Kuala Lumpur was easy and all I had to do was take the sky train one stop from Terminal C to Terminal B and wait for my connecting flight.
On arrival at Sandakan (a relatively small regional airport in Borneo) I passed through immigration really quickly and was met by our local agent and then transferred to the Sabah Hotel, roughly a 20-minute drive away. Check-in was really easy and both my luggage and I were escorted up to my room on the fourth floor, overlooking the pool with the jungle in the distance. My room is a great size with a kingsize bed, a desk and chair, plus two easy chairs to relax on after a full day sightseeing and – thank goodness – the essential air conditioning! The bathroom is also a good size with a separate bath and shower, which I make a note of as I know that’s something our guests like. Time now for an inspection of the hotel and its facilities, dinner at one of the two restaurants on site and then an early night for me!
First stop today is the Sepilok Orang-Utan Centre to see the amazing work done by the workers in rescuing these amazing animals and the long process of trying to return them to the wild. You have the chance to watch them eat and see them play as you walk through the jungle and watch the youngsters learning essential tricks at their gym! If you like what you see you can adopt one of the youngsters for a year, but sadly, you’re not allowed to take them home with you…
Across the road in the rainforest is the Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where you can view rescued sun bears in their natural habitat as they search around for food or get a little shuteye halfway up a tree! While we were here I learn exactly why it’s called a rainforest as we had a monsoonal rain shower (thankfully there is a shelter) but rather putting a dampener on things it turned into a positive as the bears love to play when it rains, and did they play!
Our next stop was the Rainforest Discovery Centre where you can learn all about the flora and fauna of Borneo, including the pigmy elephants and the clouded leopards – not that you’re likely to bump into either but it’s nice to know what they are, just in case you do!
The final stop of the day was the Sandikan POW Memorial. It was from here that the infamous Death Marches took place towards the end of the Second World War. They claimed the lives of over 2500 men, mainly from Australia and the UK – only six survived and they only managed that by escaping.
Back to the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes before dinner at the on-site Chinese restaurant. I enjoyed fantastic service and fantastic seafood (other food types are available) before heading up to my room to catch up on the day’s emails and – of course – my blog!
Our first stop today is the Labuk Bay Sanctuary where we witnessed the feeding of two families of proboscis monkeys. They come in each morning for some additional fruit and then disappear back into trees for the rest of the day.
We then continue our journey to Sukau at the Kinabatangan River where we have to take a boat to our accommodation for the night, the Melapi Proboscis Lodge. Although the cabins are rustic, they have everything that you need; the location and peace and quiet more than make up for anything you might miss. After a delicious lunch at the lodge we rejoin the boat for cruise along the river. This is a bird lover’s treat – the kingfishers in particular stick in my mind. You will also see and hear plenty of monkeys as they come to the riverside to rest up for the evening. When the river is low you can see crocodiles and – if you’re really lucky – pygmy elephants!
An early start this morning for a sunrise cruise along the river to the Oxbow Lake where en route we are lucky enough to see a wild orang utan sat in one of the trees munching away on fruit. Our guide tells us that it’s a fully grown male of around 20 years of age and that they spend most of their lives on their own except for the mating season.
After the Malaysian version of the ‘Full English’ it’s back on the boat to the main island to continue our trip. Our first stop is the Gomanting Caves. After we park up it’s around a 1/2 km walk to the cave entrance along a wooden boardwalk through the forest. As soon as you get close to the massive cave you start to see the bats and the swiftlets and then you get the smell! The caves are most famous for the nests of the swiftlets; these are what the Chinese use for their bird nest soup and are incredibly valuable. On your walk through the cave on a boardwalk you can see the ladders and equipment they use to reach the nests and marvel at how they do it. One small tip, if you think you might need to use the handrail as you walk round, take an old pair of gloves that you won’t mind throwing away straight after your visit!
We then continue up into the mountains past the shops selling ‘winter vegetables’ to our next stop, the Hill Lodge in Kinabalu National Park. On a clear day you get the most amazing views of Mount Kinabalu. Again the rooms are basic but you have everything that you need and the views of the mountain are amazing. Enjoy dinner in the restaurant this evening and if you’re in luck you might get to meet some people who are either about to make the climb to the summit the following day, or those who have just got back.
This morning we took a walk along one of the mountain trails; they’re beautiful, but also quite sombre, as they give you an idea of the trails that the soldiers had to walk during the Second World War. We then made our way to Poring Hot Springs where we took the amazing canopy walk through the treetops, and although we didn’t have time, our guests will have the chance to swim in either the hot springs, the cooler mountain water, a combination of the two or to just have a little paddle to cool their feet. There is also a butterfly farm there where you will see some of the most colourful butterflies that you are ever likely to see.
Today we headed into the interior of Malaysia where there are some stunning views back across to Mount Kinabalu. Our first stop was at Ranau to see the memorial to all the solders who died, a very humbling experience. Next we visited the 17-metre high Mahua Waterfalls. After parking up you walk for approximately 1/2 km along wooden boardwalks to the bottom of the falls; those feeling brave can have a little paddle and those feeling very brave can have a swim! Our final stop for the day was the Sabah Agricultural Park, which I can only describe as a theme park for gardeners. The gardens are beautiful and on a short tour we got to see more types of orchids than I believed possible, as well as countless other types of flora. We only had time for a couple of hours here but thankfully for our customers they have most of the day here to enjoy the sights. For us it was time to get back in the car for the long drive (three hours or so) over the mountains to Kota Kinabalu and the Magellan Hotel.
Another early start this morning so I can see and learn more about the city of Kota Kinabalu with a guided tour that includes a lookout over the harbour, the museum and the floating mosque. It’s then time for a full hotel inspection at the Magellan before jumping on a boat for the 15 minute voyage across to Manukan Island to have a look at all their facilities and their renovated rooms. Before I know it, it’s time to pack up again ready for another flight tomorrow and back to the Malaysian peninsula!
Yet another early start today as we had to get the boat back to Kota Kinabalu and then transfer to the airport for a mid-morning flight to Kuala Lumpur. On the flight I managed to have a bit of time to think about all the wonderful places I had seen and stayed at and also all the amazing animals that I had been fortunate enough to see. Then reality kicked in and I started to think about how the tour could be improved for the Saga customers; a few things have already started formulating in my mind so watch this space!
On arrival into Kuala Lumpur it was into another car for the two-hour drive to Malacca and boy is it worth the drive! It’s such a mix of cultures: British and Dutch influences from centuries past and more recently from the Chinese and the Indians. On the new Colonial Malaysia tour Saga guests will see all the main sights on a guided tour (some by coach, some by boat and some walking) including Jonker Street in Chinatown, the Chinese Cemetery (apparently the largest outside of China) and a cruise along the river.
It was then time for an inspection of the Equatorial Hotel where I got to see the rooms, restaurants, the pool and the spa. It’s everything our customers need and all within a ten-minute walk of Chinatown. Finally it was time for dinner and I chose to eat in one of the hotels restaurants which serves a cross between Chinese and Malay food, definitely something to try, it’s delicious!
From Malacca we head back via Kuala Lumpur to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre. Here we watch a video explaining that the elephants’ natural environment is being reduced due to farming and the planting of palm plantations, and how they capture and transfer the elephants to Taman Negara where they are released into a national park. We went outside to be introduced to some of the elephants, where we were told these elephants are used to help calm the wild elephants down when they are being transported. If you’re feeling brave you can feed the elephants before watching them have a bath in the river!
Sadly we had to leave the elephants and head back to Kuala Lumpur where we had a short city tour on arrival before heading for the Renaissance Hotel to check in and for an inspection. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got up to my room and looked out of the window, as what seemed like only metres away, I could see the Petronas Towers, the famous twin skyscrapers.
Today we took the long drive up into the Cameron Highlands stopping occasionally to admire the views and to take some photos. Our first stop was the Strawberry Resort right at the top of the highlands. Surrounded by trees this resort is so peaceful and beautiful that after the hotel inspection we decided to stay and have some lunch!
In the afternoon we headed to the Boh Tea Plantation for a guided tour of the factory where they explained the process in full from picking to cup. While very interesting, it was very difficult for me as I dislike tea enormously – especially the smell! The plantation however was beautiful with tea trees as far as you can see and if you’re lucky you can see the leaves being picked.
Finally we made our way down to Ipoh and the Weil Hotel where thankfully we arrived just before an amazing storm. Whilst it was great to watch from my 10th floor room with the lightening and hail, I was just so pleased to be able to do it from the inside! Just time for an inspection of the hotel, then dinner, then an early night after so much driving – served us right for doing two days of the tour in one!
What a brilliant day! We left Ipoh and drove for just over an hour and took a boat across to the Oranguan Island where we were fortunate enough to see six of these amazing creatures at relatively close quarters. It’s a great experience as you walk through because it feels as though it’s you who’s in the cage! The orangutans look at you and pull faces; my only piece of advice – other than to just enjoy the experience –is be careful never to stand directly beneath one of them, as it’s not just fruit that might be dropped on you!
We then continued down to Penang and the Eastern & Oriental hotel, a 5-star property set in a prime location in Georgetown right by the ocean. If that’s not enough for you then maybe when you hear that it was designed and built by the same people who built Raffles in Singapore, and has been lovingly restored to truly reflect Penang’s colonial past, then I’m sure you’ll agree it’s the perfect place to finish the Colonial Malaysia tour.
In the evening I took a suggestion from the concierge and tried the China House restaurant, it’s just a five-minute taxi ride from the hotel and serves amazing food at amazing prices. I thinks it’s also one of the longest restaurants that I have ever been to; it was explained to me that it used to be half the size but because of its success they bought the property behind and expanded the restaurant, so it’s now about 30 metres long! If you make it there then make sure you save room for pudding as they have the most incredible range of homemade cakes – they assured me they were all calorie free!
After a delightful outdoor breakfast we headed to the base of Penang Hill and took the train to the summit for some amazing views over Georgetown and across the ocean to the mainland with the Cameron Highlands in the distance. There’s also a temple and a mosque up there you can visit, and plenty of places to get a coffee or a cold drink and enjoy the cool breeze as you take in the views.
It was then off to the Lone Pine hotel at Ferringhi Beach which is where our clients can extend their Malaysian holiday. With its lovely Lind sandy beach and gorgeous pool, it’s a great way to relax after the tour; no such luck for me though as even though I have a couple of hours free time I have to catch up on my emails! One nice thing though is that the manager tells me that they’ve already had some people book the extended stay and have asked whether its possible to pay a bit extra and have a slightly more luxurious room. Some people just know a good thing when they see it!
The Last Day
Well it’s my last day today and I’ll be flying home tonight. For the first time on this trip I don’t have anything planned, so it’s time to catch up on some emails and to reflect on my time in both Borneo and Peninsula Malaysia.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this tour to anyone, there is some walking involved and you have to have a bit of a sense of adventure, but what a tour it is! It has so many highlights; from stunning views of Mount Kinabalu to the orchids at the agricultural park, from sulphur springs to river cruises and not forgetting the orang-utans and bears, every day is a highlight.
Colonial Malaysia is a brand new tour; it’s not quite as adventurous but it’s still full of highlights. From the history of Malacca to the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, from the elephant conservation centre to the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, from the orang-utans to the beaches of Batu Feringghi and not forgetting the amazing E&O Hotel in Georgetown which truly epitomises the colonial theme, this tour is a fantastic mix of culture and wildlife.
For those really wanting to experience Malaysia then combine both tours, if you’re anything like me, you’ll love every minute!