Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Kinabalu National Park - Page 2

Celyn Hotel was located high on the top of a hill far from the main road. The branch road lead to the hotel was too small and too steep for our bus. So, we could only reach the hotel by another 10 minutes' trip using smaller and lighter transit van prepared by the hotel.

Our trip to the hotel was turned into 40 minutes of waiting as the hotel could only provide only one small transit van for us. The van took 3 turns before we were brought to the hotel. Celyn Hotel was a terrible choice for those came in a big group with big bulky bus. The slow transit from the main road to the hotel diminished the good holiday mood.

Small, steep, and winding Semuruh Kinondusun Road lead to Celyn Hotel (upper left). The hotel provides small transit van for those who comes in big bulky bus (upper left). We couldn't leave our luggage unattended (lower right). So, the scenario which people went first and luggage followed later was out.

The room for double with mountain view (upper left). The family suite that we stayed (upper right and lower right) was completed with second floor. The path led to our room was built without cover. It would be very inconvenient to access to the room in rain.

 Good highland view is the only good thing that Celyn Hotel could offer.

Mount Kinabalu couldn't be seen during our stay. The peak was covered by the clouds.

Second day, we departed from the hotel early at 7:30 am to Poring Hot Spring at the foot of the mountain. Poring means bamboo in local. The bus took around 30 minutes to travel from our hotel to the hot spring.

As a part of the heritage site, the conservation fee was required. For MyKad holders, the fees were RM 3 for adult, RM 1 for kid and senior citizen, and free for those below 6 years old. Without MyKad, the fees were RM 15 for adult, RM 10 for kid and senior citizen, and again, it is free for those below 6 years old.

In fact, the whole area around Poring Hot Spring is big with many attractions. We can spend a full day, discovering not only the hot spring, but the butterfly farm, the canopy walk, and Kipungit and Langanan waterfalls as well. However, due to time constraint (as arranged by the tour company), we stayed there for only an hour. What a waste. We will definitely come and stay for longer time in future. By the way, Poring Hot Spring is a must visit site in the national park.

The road lead to Poring Hot Spring was well-maintained (upper left). Floats and tubes were sold at shops opposite of the hot spring (upper right). A bridge (lower right) was built to connect the entrance (lower left) to the bathing area.

The bathing area of Poring Hot Spring (upper left). Rock pool beside the bathing area offered super cooling water from the highlands (upper right). The water from the hot spring was channelled to the public bathing tubs where visitors could enjoy the warm water.

We have only one hour to spare at the hot spring, so we decided to get our feet dipped. Together with us was our tour guide Catherine.

The source of the hot spring. The water gushed out within the stones.

As the hot spring has been named Poring, then the site should has some bamboo trees. Yes, we could see some very old bamboo trees somewhere near the bridge.

Then, we went back to Ranau, where we visited Kampung Luanti Baru. The village is a part of the river conservation programme where "Tagal" is practiced. Tagal is a traditional Kadazan Dusun practice to ensure the sustainable production of the river, which the fish can only be caught during certain seasons. The catch then will be distributed among the villagers. Tagal means no fishing in local dialect.

In Luanti Baru, Tagal had turned the polluted river into natural attraction where the Pelian fish were trained to provide natural fish spa to the visitors. That should be the biggest natural fish massage pool in the world. What we need to do is, dipping our feet into the river, and the tame fish will come and bite our feet.

Painful? A bit. The fishes were too big for a gentle foot massage. We personally don't believe about the treatment or health value of fish spa, however, that was the once in a lifetime experience. The fish spa opens daily from 8:30 am - 5 pm. The fees for 15 minutes of spa, for MyKad holders- RM 5 for adult and RM 2 for kid. For those without MyKad, the fee is RM 10 per person.

More information about this huge fish spa river can be found at SabahTourism.com website.

The entrance of the natural fish spa was marked by a giant fish (upper left). A few stalls were set to sell drinks and snacks along the way to the river (upper right). The food and drink were sold with reasonable prices. We had to register at the counter by the river before we could walk into the river (lower right). The guard at the counter was the time keeper as well. Some facilities at the site were built by bamboo.

The members of our group at the river.

We had to use fish food to lure the fish to our feet. The fish food was sold separately from the registration counter with cheap price.

From Luanti Baru Village, we travelled back to Ranau for lunch at Restaurant Double Luck at 11:45 am. The food, fair taste with fair price. As our tour members were scheduled to fly back to Sibu at 7:30 pm, we headed back to Kota Kinabalu airport right after the lunch.

Ranau is the biggest town between Tuaran and Sandakan, with at least a few grocery shops, a supermarket (Milimewa), a few banks, and of course, many eateries. It is close to many attractions as well. To our surprise, we didn't see many hotels within the town area. In our opinion, more hotels should be set up at Ranau for its convenience and strategic location. By the way, Ranau means flat land in local.

Street of Ranau.

Many shops are operational at the fourth day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The streets were full with people and cars.

Wild boar meat is available. Our lunch with four dishes- stir fried wild boar meat with onion and ginger, steamed chicken, and two vegetables cost around RM 12 per person, including drinks.

We stopped by Kundasang market on our way back to Kota Kinabalu for last minute shopping. Local fruits and vegetables were sold with remarkable cheap price. The market is located along the main road. It always causes traffic jam for the double parking and slow moving vehicles.

Various types of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and other products from the highlands were sold in Kundasang Market. This market could be easily identified as a belt of single storey wooden structure by the main road.

Various types of honey (upper left), super hot yellow chili (upper right), and highlands rice were something that we found interesting. Flowers were available too.

Ha, try if you dare! Left photo shows Tuhao- a mixture of wild ginger and chilli, pickled in salt and vinegar. Jeruk Bambangan is showed at the middle- wild mango preserved with chili and salt. The right is a mixture of Kepayang fermented with raw fish, rice and chili. All these authentic Sabah food can be found in the markets at Kundasang and Pekan Nabalu. You can find more information about these only-at-Sabah Food here with recipe. Photo of Bambangan is available here.

Flowers and other highlands plants were sold in the nursery.

Overall, our two days' trip was concluded as "too rushy". Kinabalu Park deserves more exploration, even for someone who has no intention to go above 4000 meters. The public transportation in the park was next to zero. The taxi was the second best option, if you don't dare to drive by yourself (a rental car from KK Airport is from RM 160 a day, you can get even better deal at KK town). 

"Minibus" operated by the local individuals basically helped a bit to bring tourists from a place to another. However, the operation goes without fixed schedule, and the fare was determined according to the number of passengers (the more the cheaper). According to our tour guide, the fee for the minibus from Kinabalu Park Headquarters to KK city was around RM 17 - RM 20 per person if the bus was fully loaded.

About the food, according to our observation, many restaurants were attached to the hotels, and the hotels were far from each other. Dine in your hotel might be the only option that you have without own transport. Basically, the food that we had were quite nice, except the steamboat dinner that we had at Celyn Hotel. The steamboat dinner was too expensive and not worth the money paid- RM 38 for a dinner full of noodles and fish balls (and other types of processed food).

As we were much adapted to free-and-easy and back pack style of travelling, we were not used to the itinerary arranged by the tourism company. However, we had to take it, or leave it. Of course, next time, we will drive. 

Kinabalu National Park is the place we will definitely go back for more exploration. We would like to take our opportunity to thank our freelance tour guide, Miss Catherine for her dedicated assistance, and Borneo Legend for arranging the bus for us. Catherine can be reached at cathtyy@gmail.com.

For more information about Kinabalu National Park, you can visit SabahTourism.com, Sabahparks.org, and ClimbKinabalu.com

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The Kinabalu National Park - Page 1

There are four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malaysia. George Town of Penang, Bandar Hilir in Malacca, Mulu National Park in Sarawak, and Kinabalu National Park in Sabah.

Mount Kinabalu, with the height of 4095 m, is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and the Snow Mountain of New Guinea. In 1964, the park was established as state park. Then in 2000, the area which is bigger than Singapore Island was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its mega biodiversity and the value to the world.

We both visited Kinabalu National Park around 20 years ago, when we were still kids, long before we met each other. Our recent two days trip to the park refreshed our old memories. Really, not much had changed. We should said the park was well preserved. The development took place here and there by the indigenous Dusun people, but basically, the nature beauty of the Crocker Range was remain untouched. Together with us, our parents and 25 other members from Sibu Peace Methodist Church.

Our bus departed from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah at around 10:30 am. We took 20 minutes to reach Tamparuli. From there, we started the ascending. We reached our first stop on the highlands, Pekan Nabalu at 12 noon. The town was not very attractive, except for the souvenir shops. If you wish to get some souvenirs somewhere on the top of Borneo, Pekan Nabalu is the place for you. We found that not much we could see from the observation tower at the middle of the town. We stopped at Pekan Nabalu for 30 minutes to shop for a while.

Pekan Nabalu is not far from Kinabalu Park Headquarters and Kundasang. We took our lunch at Fairy Garden Resort- Chinese style, 8 dishes, big portion for a table of 10 person. The price, RM 18 (USD 6) per person. The taste, not too bad for hungry visitors.

Panoramic view from observation tower at Pekan Nabalu. Click the photo for larger view.
 A few rows of single storey shops at Pekan Nabalu.

Fairy Garden Resort by the road (upper left). The seat arrangement in the restaurant (upper right). The dishes served were quite nice- roasted chicken, curry chicken, tofu, sweet sour chicken, soup, and vegetables.

 Nice view from Fairy Garden Resort.

In just a few seconds, the view is blocked by clouds. This is the magic show of Kinabalu National Park- Now you see, now you don't.

Then, we travelled further east to Pekan Kundasang. Kundasang Town was even smaller compared to Pekan Nabalu. But it was well-known for its Kundasang War Memorial Park. The memorial was built in 1962 to commemorate 2,428 soldiers who died during the World War 2, when they were transferred from Sandakan to Ranau in 1945, by foot. Their journey from Sandakan to Ranau was the last for all but six survivals, who lived to tell their horrific story- the Dead March.

The park was designed by J. C. Robinson, with 4 interlinking gardens- Australian Garden, England Garden, Borneo Garden and a contemplation garden engraved with all the names of the fallen soldiers. The memorial is now maintained by a devoted volunteer- Mr. Sevee Charuruks from Thailand. A minimal maintenance fee was collected- RM 2 for locals with MyKad, RM 10 for the visitors without MyKad, and RM 1 for students with uniforms and children under 12.

We reached the memorial park around 1:30 pm. The strong wind and shrubs in the park cooled us down in the middle of the day. We spent more than 1 hour in the park. By the way, the park was easy to locate- just behind the only concrete shop lots beside the main road in Kundasang Town.

Kundasang Town in fact consists of two rows of concrete shop lots. The war memorial is at the back of the shop lots. Please click on the photo for larger view.

The white gate marks the entrance of the war memorial can be clearly seen from the road. We don't have to speak "Friend" to enter, but we need to pay a minimal fee of RM 2 per person. Awaiting behind the gate are the stairs.

First stop, a small hut with the newspaper cutting, reports, and the photos of the memorial park. From the hut, we turned left and walked upstairs to reach the gardens.

The Australia Garden is the first garden on our left (upper row), followed by the English Garden. The gardens are not big but well-maintained. According to our tour guide, the grass in Australia Garden was imported from Australia. The park has been recognized by Australian Government with grants allocated for maintenance.

Borneo Garden can be assessed through English Garden. Borneo Garden was planted with rare local orchids.

Contemplation garden is decorated with pillars and a pool. This is the place where we paid our respect to the fallen soldiers.  We can see the stone plates engraved with the names on the right. For all the visitors, we would like to advise that we should be quiet and be respectful in this garden.

Several of the fallen soldiers were brothers, twins, and father and son.

We had the privilege to meet Sevee Charuruk. He restored the memorial in 2005, which made the park to be known to the world as it is today. He received recognition from both England and Australian Governments for his commitment in restoring the memorial. You still can meet him at the memorial if you are lucky enough. "Sabah is a good place, you two should come back." This was his message to both of us before we left the memorial.

Then, we continued our trip to Desa Farm, 20 minutes from Kundasang War Memorial. The farm was located along Kundasang Kauluan Road and Cinta Mata Mesilau Road. With light green grassland lined by white wooden fences, and the dark Mount Kinabalu at the back, The view at the farm was stunning! The cooling strong wind blew away the heat from the sun. We visited the farm by looking at the milking process and how the calves were brought up from the nursery. We bought some dairy products too. However, we spent most of the time walking around, enjoying the nice view and the cooling air.

The farm was not big. Not many places were opened to visitors as well. However, in a squeezing room, we observed how the automatic milking process was done (upper left). Calve raising nursery was located in another building in the farm (upper right). While the cattle were lined up to be milked, visitors lined up to buy the dairy products.

Mount Kinabalu showed its face when we were at the dairy farm. Clear view of this mysterious mountain was really treasured.

Our photo at the farm.

Photo of the grassland.

You won't get bored by staring at the pictureque scenery like this for one hour.

Grazing cattle.

Even the workers' quarters look nice from the farm.

We stayed at Desa Farm for two hours until 4 pm. We took 20 minutes to go back to Kinabalu Park Headquarters for a quick visit. As the sky turned dark under the raining clouds, we didn't stay long in the park.

Our journey turned disastrous when we came to the smaller road lead to our hotel. Stay with us as our journey continued.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Getting Around Bagan

Taking Flight to Bagan
The most concerning question about Bagan- how to get there? Flying within Myanmar is expensive. We tried to be early in booking the ticket. We contacted our hotel manager in Yangon a month before our departure from Malaysia. We got a simple reply by email- they would handle the tickets for us.

Without being asked for the information such as our full names, nationality, passport number, etc. we had wondered how exactly they could "handle" our booking.

Not to our surprise, our tickets were not ready upon our arrival at Yangon. The manager told us that in Myanmar, it was "normal" to book the flight ticket a day before the departure. Well, that's what we learnt in Myanmar.

As the tickets were not ready, we decided to scout for several airline agents in Yangon for the best deal- Air KBZ, with the price USD110 per person per trip was what we got. The fare was expensive compared to the domestic flights in Malaysia. However, that's the best deal we could get.

We found that the domestic airport in Yangon was really modest. Of course, we found out later that Bagan Airport was even worse. However, to our relieve, the aeroplanes used by KBZ Airline were in good condition, with remarkable good service.

The departure hall of the Yangon Domestic Airport is small, with a few stalls selling local souvenirs (upper left). Check in counters (upper right) with the eye-catching red analog weights (lower right) in the airport. These nostalgic analog weights has gone extinct in our country 20 years ago. The departure hall was quite crowdy when we were waiting for our flight.

The inflight service was better than what we had expected. The air cabin was clean and tidy (upper left). The food was served together with wet tower.

Bagan Airport was small. The building was well maintained from the outside (upper row). However, the arrival hall and baggage reclaim room were basically in a same small room (lower left). The waiting area, check in counter, toilets, money changer, airline representatives, souvenir shops, a small cafe, and everything else were located in a same area (lower right). The counter selling admission ticket to Bagan Archaeological Park can be seen on the right of the photo.

Most of people in Bagan couldn't understand English, except for those who work in tourism and related industries. They were friendly, as when we greeted them, they replied in a polite way. A few young monks asked us for "donation" at Shwezigon, while several vendors approached us to sell their products. We could easily turned them away through a soft and polite refusal.

One of the vendors that we met at Thatbyinnyu asked us many things about our country. He had friends working in Malaysia. Our first night at Bagan, we found two villagers singing and playing guitar ouside of our eatery. They were happy enough to take photo with us. Then, our hotel's manager talked to us regarding the education and future of kids in Bagan. We enjoyed talking to these friendly people.

Currency and Exchange
Money changing was available in Nyaung U. USD 1 to 930 Kyat at KBZ Bank. That was the best deal we had in Myanmar. Hawkers and vendors by the road offered money changing as well, with one problem- terrible rate.

In Bagan, Kyat was more convenient to be used than US Dollar. In fact, we used Kyat all the time in Bagan. US Dollar was used only for entrance fees (USD10 for Bagan Archaeological Park and USD5 for the museum).

Place to Stay
We stayed in Thiri Marlar Hotel in New Bagan. New Bagan is around 8 km south of Nyaung U. Most of the hotels are available in New Bagan and Nyaung U. Nyaung U is a small town, while New Bagan is like a small village. Thiri Marlar Hotel was located at Thiri Marlar Street at New Bagan.

Thiri Marlar Hotel was a good hotel. Ranked high in Tripadvisor, the hotel provided good services with just USD45 per night for a double room. Well, it worth every single cent that we had paid. The breakfast on the roof level of the hotel was an amazing experience- looking over the old temple structures while enjoying our breakfast. The room came with water heater in the bathroom, air conditioner, nice bed, mini bar and wooden floor. The room service was punctual and satisfying as well.

The down side, there were no water boiler and coffee making facilities (maybe the tap water was not safe for drinking), the water pressure was not powerful enough, and no tv.

Thiri Marlar Hotel was a nice place to stay. The two-storey building has a very unique design (upper left). Taking breakfast on the roof was a wonderful experience (upper right). However, we had to be early to avoid torturing sun ray and heat. The lobby where we could connect to internet (lower right). The connection was terrible, but we were grateful to get connected, especially at the place where the hand phone receiver was unstable. We were satisfied with the room.

The surrounding area from the roof top of the hotel.

In our opinion, both Nyaung U and New Bagan can be a good place to stay. However, if you wish to stay at somewhere a bit closer to "civilization", then Nyaung U will be a better choice. Well, at least we could find general post office, banks, clinic, and police station in Nyaung U. 

However, for us, staying in New Bagan was all right. At least, the place was far from being a no man's land.

Traffic and Transportation
Mention about the road, uh, we should put it in this way- only a few roads in Bagan, which connected the major villages were built by asphalt, the rest, could only be considered as sand paths. The sand paths were not friendly to bicycle and motorcycle riders, and it turned worse in rain.

So, if you are not planning to take a bicycle, then you have less choices- either the horse cart or taxi. Hot, dry, and filled with sands. This was what we could feel with the air in Bagan. So, if you wish to have a nice enjoyable trip, cooling air conditioning taxi with full protection against the sandy wind might be the only choice you have. For us, we took taxi for all our trips around Bagan.

Price for taxi, 7000 Kyat was charged for New Bagan to Nyaung U trip, and from airport to New Bagan. However, the rental for one day was 40,000 Kyat, and 23,000 Kyat for half day. Haggling will help to reduce the price a bit. By the way, the rental for a bicycle was 1500 Kyat per day. For the horse cart, the rental was more or less similar to taxi.

Sand path with the shoulder of gravel (upper left). Our taxi driver for the first day was good in English (upper right). We used the service from our hotel to get the taxi services. The fee can be negotiated through the phone. Bicycle is good to be used on the main asphalt road (lower right). Horse cart provides minimal protection to the weather and sandy wind.

 Some of the asphalt road was narrow.

 Bigger and better road connecting New Bagan to Old Bagan.

 Bicycle for rent.

Street in New Bagan
The street was safe and quiet, day and night. Cars and anything with four wheels were not many. Motorbikes were the most commonly used vehicles by the locals. The streets in New Bagan were covered by a thick layer of sand, bringing the feel like walking on a sandy beach.The houses were rare, which most of them had their own compound.

At night, the streets turned quiet after 10 pm. Lack of illumination, a torch light was required to move around without being tripped by stones, or stepped on a sleeping dog. By the way, dogs were roaming freely within the village area. Lucky, these beasts were tame and friendly to the visitors.

 One of the house beside the street in New Bagan.

 Sign for internet service.

Whole stretch of night street with no human activity at all. This photo was taken around 8:30 pm at the street where we had our dinner.
Lucky, the food was nice in Bagan (just a bit oily). We found that the food served were quite similar to Chinese food, with a little bit different with the spices that we used. Some traditional Myanmar food could be found too. A few shop that we would like to recommend- San Carlo Restaurant and The Golden Bagan Restaurant.

San Carlo Restaurant was a combination of a restaurant, art gallery, and a place to rent a bicycle, the restaurant was located 50 meters away from our hotel. We dined there for two consecutive nights.

Food served at San Carlo Restaurant. The price was around 2000 Kyat per person (RM7, USD2.30), including the drinks.

Golden Myanmar 121 was located around 200 meters north of Tharabar Gate (if we follow the main road). What attracted us was the Myanmar cuisine served in special buffet style.

The special buffet- we had more than 10 traditional Myanmar food, which we could refill once we had finished it. Some of the food were quite oily, as overall, it was OK. The price was quite cheap- 3000 Kyat per person (RM10.50, USD3.45).

 Our group photo at Golden Bagan 121.

Sarabha Restaurant was located 50 meters north of Tharabar gate. It was nicely decorated, good food, and polite waiters, but the flies were intolerable.

We had a lunch at A Little Bit of Bagan at Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4 Street. It was a famous restaurant at the famous street in Nyaung U. However, we found the price was a bit expensive with the taste, a bit overrated.

What to Buy
Lacquerware is something that you need to see with your own eyes to appreciate. Made by bamboo and wood, the lacquerware required excellent craftsmanship and time for the lacquer to dry up. We visited Bagan House which was located at Sabae Street, New Bagan, some 50 meters away from our hotel. Click here to visit official website of Bagan House.

How about supermarket? Forget about it. As far as we could see, there was not even a grocery shop in New Bagan.

The sign board of lacquerware workshop could be easily spotted from the road.

The raw material for lacquerware- natural colouring powder, bamboo, wood, lacquer from the tree, ash of buffalo's bone, etc.

The pattern displayed on lacquerware was 100% hand drawn.

 Lacquerware with amazingly fine hand drawn pattern

Lacquerware were available at the vendors scattered around the temples. Beside lacquerware, sculptures and other small decorative items are available too. Our experience, these items were not cheap, and the prices were more or less the same across Bagan.

We don't know what to recommend beside this unique lacquerware. The lacquerware is not cheap. A small piece of cup can easily cost USD3, and a small tray, USD10. So, if you wish to get a special souvenir at Bagan, you can pick one small lacquerware. Well, for us, we picked a small tray to be displayed in our living room.

Overall Remark
Bagan is a place for old temple lovers. If you don't have a special interest in these relics of the old kingdom,then Bagan is not a place for you. Frankly speaking, a place without even a convenient shop, an eatery with air conditioner, and a pub or coffee house that people can drink and talk is not suitable for everyone.

Internet access connection and hand phone signal were limited during our visit as well. Plus, the temperature soared to 38 degree Celsius (in May) and we had to take our shoes and socks off and walking barefoot in boiling hot temple compound, the trip was simply had nothing to do with "pleasant" or "enjoyable".

So, if you are interested to see some of the scenery as shown in our blog and have no intention to go deep into the history part of these temples, two days trip should be more than enough. You can take off on the evening of day 2, or early morning in day 3.

The environment was harsh to tourists. However, Bagan depicted to us the living where constant provision of electricity and water were not an obligation, where cars were rare and limited, where the roads were filled with sands and horse carts, where the locks were not required on a bicycle, and where people were still smile and greet the strangers. In Bagan, we saw the relationship between human beings, which the language was the only barrier. 

By the way, please bear in mind that the temples in Bagan, all of them are considered as tiny and small compare to the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. The exquisite architecture of the Angkor's temples is far beyond the Bagan's counterparts. We visited Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2010. Our sharing is available here.