Tuesday, December 27, 2016

First Driving Experience to Kinabalu National Park

We took the opportunity to drive to Kinabalu National Park and the surrounding area middle of this year, bringing Ling Shing's parents, sister, and brother in-law for a two-day-one-night trip. Our brief itinerary- Upside down house at Tamparuli, Pekan Nabalu, Kinabalu National Park, and Ranau Town on the first day. Poring Hot Spring, Kundasang Town, and Desa Dairy Farm, before we went back to Kota Kinabalu on the second day.

Driving by our own to Kinabalu Park and the surrounding area was enjoyable. We could travel with our own pace, with our own way. Well-maintained road and clear signage made the driving easier, compared to Cameron Highlands. Although Waze couldn't be used at high altitude area, Google Map could be accessed all the time.

We rented a Toyota Innova 2.0. The MPV was big enough for a comfortable trip, but a bit under-power at some sloppy area. Anyway, the car managed to travel at 40 kmph, but we needed to use low gear and press the accelerator way down to the bottom.

We got our car rented online. The rate was cheap- RM250 per day for Toyota Innova 2.0. The car was delivered to our hotel at Kota Kinabalu 1 hour late. We checked the car on the spot and found that the third braking light (stop light) was not functioning. One of the tire was punctured as well. The staff apologized and advised us to repair the car before we departed to Kinabalu Park. Well, the car was repaired at one of the workshops along the way, with the charges paid by the car rental company. Issue solved in 30 minutes.

Our first stop- the Upside Down House at Tamparuli. It is the first upside down house in Malaysia and has been listed in Malaysia Book of Record.  The house is located right on our route from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabalu National Park. The entrance fees were RM10.60 for adult with MyKad, RM19.10 for adult without MyKad, while flat rate of RM5.30 applied for child below 12 years old.

It was an interesting place to visit, but it was not a must. It might not be a place that worth driving a long way to visit, but since we would pass by it, then why not? We reached the house at around 10:45 am, and stayed there for around 1 hour. More information about the house can be found at the Official Website.

We had been to Kinabalu Park and its surrounding area for many times. This time, we would like to share the photos of the places that we had visited.

10:45 am. We reached the Upside-down House. Ample of parking space provided by the management of the Upside Down House (upper left) next to the ticketing counter (upper right). The souvenir shop was comfy, but the items sold was quite expensive (lower right). Was the place a hot tourism spot? We could find the answer by looking at the buses parked in front of the ticketing area.

An upside-down rumah kampung (village house) with a nicely decorated garden. Luckily the coffee shop next to the house was not upside down, or it would be too bad for the coffee served.
Our group photo. The staff there were well-trained photographers. They were friendly and helpful.

Some upside-down mind-blowing scenery around the house. These photos were taken with absolutely zero Photoshop special effect.

Upside-down car park with an upside-down car.

We left the Upside Down House at around 11:30 am, and reached our next stop- Pekan Nabalu one hour later. We took our opportunity to hunt for souvenirs there. Pekan Nabalu was the best place for souvenirs- T-shirts, pants, scarfs, key-chains, wood crafts, hats, caps, etc. The best part was- the price could be bargained. We could get at 20 - 30% off if we bought in bulk. Read more about our experience there on our previous posts.

The condition of the road was good. The area for overtaking were built along the road. The Peak of Mt Kinabalu can be seen from afar.

Pekan Nabalu was still the best place to get our souvenir.

A nice view of Mount Kinabalu from Pekan Nabalu.

We took a 15-minute drive from Pekan Nabalu to Kinabalu National Park. Tickets were required and could be bought at the entrance. With our own car, we could explore more by driving to Timpohon gate- the deepest point reachable by car, some 20 minutes by car from  Liwagu Restaurant and Kinabalu Park Hotel. Timpohon gate is not accessible by big bus, thus not been included in most of the tour packages. We passed by the memorial built for the victims of the earthquake on our way to Timpohon. Several part of the road to Timpohon was narrow, steep, and with sharp corner. But the nice view worth the 20-minute drive from Liwagu Restaurant.

"In memory of eighteen; mountain guides and climbers, who lost their lives on Mt. Kinabalu during the Kinabalu Earthquake at 7:15 am, June 05, 2015", names of the victims follows.

Cooling temperature with lush green environment brought peace in mind.

The observation area at Timpohon was surrounded by clouds. Visitors could bring their snacks, coffee, or tea for an afternoon rest at the observation area.

Tame critters around Timpohon. These squirrels would come very close to humans, hoping to get some peanuts or fruits.

A few stretches of road to Timpohon were steep and narrow.

We took our lunch at Liwagu Restaurant, Kinabalu National Park before we went to our hotel at Ranau. We reached our hotel at around 5 pm. Ranau is a small town with some 21 km away from Kinabalu National Park. We took almost 1 hour to reach there due to the heavy rain.

We stayed in MK Hotel, with only 4 rooms. The hotel was located at the heart of the town, behind the petrol stations beside Ranau-Tamparuli Road. Although the hotel was small, the room was big and comfortable with LCD flat screen, coffee making facility, water heater, air-conditioner, and room service (upper row). A shared balcony with town view was available as well. The owner of the hotel was very friendly and helpful. He recommended nice food around Ranau to us. If you are looking for a place just to stay overnight, this hotel is the best around Ranau.

Ranau is a small town with 100 km away from Kota Kinabalu. It is a town that serves the locals rather than tourists. So we shouldn't expecting top hotels, international franchise fast food and eateries, and shopping malls to be found there. There were a few convenient shops, local banks, a small supermarket, local eateries and food court, to carter our needs. By the way, we found KFC there. The town was not busy at all, day and night. Most of the shops opened till 10 pm. A few eateries operated till mid night.

At night, we tried some food at one local Chinese restaurant not far away from our hotel. There were many local customers there. However, the food was served in small portion with average taste. We personally think that the price was a bit expensive as well. Unsatisfied with the food, we decided to drive a bit further to Ranau Hakka Food Court, as recommended by MK Hotel's owner.

Ranau Hakka Food Court was located at Ranau Tambunan Road, opposite to the hospitals and clinics. It was a distance away from our hotel. Well, we could drive there by ourselves.

Ranau Hakka Food Court was big (upper left) with stalls providing many choices of food. Clay pot noodle (upper right), pork noodle (lower right), and satay were a few types that we tried. All of them tasted good. We took our breakfast the next day at this food court as well. With wide range of choices and fair price, the food court is a good place to get local dishes.

Poring is a beautiful park located at the foot of Mt. Kinabalu. We departed to Poring at around 8:40 am. We drove for 30 minutes to reach there. Poring is well-known for its hot spring and nature beauty. Without much time constraint, we decided to explore the nature beauty of Poring by visiting the butterfly garden and canopy walk. The tickets for butterfly garden and canopy walk could be bought at the entrance. More information about Poring is available in our previous sharing.

With less constraint of time, we visited the butterfly farm at Poring. The farm was just some 3 minutes walk from the bathing area.

We couldn't see much butterflies in the garden, as they released the butterfly to the surrounding environment. The garden was not big. We completed a quick round in about 15 minutes. Frankly, nothing interesting to see in the garden except some knowledge about butterfly.

The entrance to the canopy walkway is around 50 meters away from the butterfly garden.

Some jungle walk was required to reach the canopy walk. The stairs might be challenging physically.

After 10 minutes climbing up the hill, we reached the first station of canopy walk.

Walking on top of the trees was a great experience. The whole trip at the canopy walk took around 30 minutes.

Back to the bathing area, we found a big beautiful swimming pool with entrance fee was built.
Well, if we don't want to pay extra, we can enjoy the hot water from the spring at one of the bath tub prepared. We stayed at Poring until 11:00 am. Bathroom and changing rooms were prepared for us, but we need to bring our own soap, shampoo, and towel.

We took a brief stop at the road-side market at Kundasang, before continued our trip to Kundasang War Memorial.

On our way back to Kota Kinabalu, we stopped at Kundasang to visit the war memorial there. The memorial is dedicated to the the prisoners of 2nd World War who lost their lives in the death marches to Ranau. The entrance of the memorial is located on the foot of the hill beside Kundasang Town (upper left). The memorial consists of several beautiful gardens.

There was an observatory platform on top of the hill. More information about the memorial is available in our previous post.
On the clear day, we can see nice view like this from the observatory platform.

After lunch at KFC, Kundasang, we continued our trip to Desa Farm. It was located around 15 minutes away from Kundasang Town. There was a stretch of steep road in between the farm and the town.

We were really lucky to see the peak of Mt. Kinabalu, every time we visited Desa Farm. The view there was really good. Cooling temperature and strong wind made our stay comfortable. The milk and the ice-cream could be bought from the farm. Must try? Definitely.

We started our descending at around 4:15 pm, and reached our hotel at Kota Kinabalu at 5:30 pm. We travelled during Hari Raya holiday in Malaysia, the traffic however was not heavy. We only used a full tank of petrol, which we filled at the beginning of our trip. The petrol stations are available at the Kundasang and Ranau. We were advised to drive carefully to avoid getting traffic ticket. We need to get the contact in case of emergency or car break down from the car rental company as well.

Drive by our own to Kinabalu Park and the surrounding area? That's a good idea to travel and sight see on our own pace. More about our previous experience in Sabah are available at:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City- Accommodation, Food, Shopping and Transportation

Ho Chi Minh City is a metropolis with population exceeds 10 millions. Most of the attractions are located around District 1 in the city. To be more specific, the old French Colonial buildings are scattered around Ho Chi Minh City Hall at Nguyen Hue Road. It is the place where modern sky scrapers erect as well. As the mass-transportation system is still developing, it is always better for us to stay at a spot which we in vicinity of shopping complexes, eateries, and the heritage area.

We have two choices- Somewhere nearby Pham Ngu Lao Road or Nguyen Hue Road. After a deep consideration, we chose to stay at Saigon Pink 3 Hotel. The hotel located at Ho Tung Mau Street- a block away from Nguyen Hue Road. The hotel is located on the same street with Bitexco Tower, which by foot, 10 minutes to the city hall, another 15 minutes to Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, 10 minutes to Saigon Square and Ben Thanh Market, and it is surrounded with local and international eateries.

Saigon Pink 3 Hotel is a small hotel at the middle of shop lots. The room was small, but with enough amenity for a comfortable stay- coffee making facilities, LCD flat screen with international programs, safe box, air-conditioner, fan, and water heater in bathroom. The room service was punctual and the staff were friendly. Anyway, we found only two of them could speak fluency English. The issue of communication was the only downside of the hotel. Frankly, with the room rate offered, the service given was beyond our expectation. 

Saigon Pink 3 Hotel from the roadside. As the name suggested, there were Pink 1 and Pink 2 as well. So, we brought the name card of the hotel with address stated in Vietnamese language, just in case we need to return to the hotel by taxi.

The staircase (upper left) leads to the lobby of the hotel (upper right). The room was nicely decorated with wooden furniture (lower row). The fan was useful in extreme hot weather.

The hotel was located along a quiet street, in a neighbourhood with plenty eateries and convenient shops.

Nguyen Hue Road is a block away from the hotel.

No doubt, both Phan Ngu Lao and Nguyen Hue areas are strategic, but for us, Nguyen Hue Road and the area in vicinity are the better one. Next, we would like to share about the food.

No doubt beef noodle or pho is the must try food in Ho Chi Minh City (as in many other places in Vietnam).  Then comes banh mi- the Vietnamese wheat bread, or sandwich is something special available in the city. The bread was introduced by French during colonial period, and now is becoming one of the most widely found food in Ho Chi Minh City. The bread is light and airy, with crunchy crust. It is always filled with mixture of meat, fish, egg, and vegetable. Other traditional Vietnamese food can be found in Ho Chi Minh City as well.

We took our first breakfast in Ho Chi Minh City at Bun Bo Hue 44 not far away from our hotel (upper left). The shop was operated by local, with mostly local customers (upper right). The pho was nice (lower right), and served with free flow of raw vegetable.  The taste was more spicy, and a bit more sour than the pho we tried in Hanoi. The price for a portion was VND55,000, approximately MYR8 (USD2). Not cheap, but worth a try.

After a few days strolling around, we found cheaper pho- the roadside stall a few steps away from our hotel (upper left). The price for the noodle with fried chicken was VND25,000 (upper right), and pho with pork was VND30,000 each (lower row). The taste, very nice, with much cheaper price.

Just like other places in Vietnam, people in Ho Chi Minh City like to dine beside the road with their small chairs and tables.

Choose the noodle, choose the way of cooking (dry or soup, and the meat), and find a place to sit. Well, the best way to choose the dish- look around the bowls in front of the customers, find one we wish to have, and point it to the cook. 

We were not big fan of baguette. But banh mi was something that so special in HCMC that we had no choice but to take a try. Our took our first banh mi at Hoppy, an eatery on the same street with Bun Bo Hue 44 (upper left). The shop was fully air-conditioned, so it was a nice place for a meal in hot afternoon. The banh mi was cheap, with special discount at VND29,000 (lower right), but the drinks were quite expensive.

We bought banh mi at the roadside stalls like this one as well. Cheaper price (VND15,000). Tasted just like any other banh mi we could find in the city.

Ben Thanh Market is one of the best place for us to get local Vietnamese food. There was a problem with that place- very hot in the afternoon.

The food stalls in Ben Thanh Market were clean.

We tried several traditional Vietnamese dishes in Ben Thanh Market, including beef pho (upper left), fried chicken rice (upper right), shrimp and pork spring roll (lower right), and shredded pork spring roll. The prices were between VND40,000 - VND65,000 per dish. Reasonable as the portion was big. Pho and chicken rice tasted average, while the spring rolls were good.

Vincom Center was a good place for food. We went there everyday, looking for food, souvenirs, and to escape from extreme heat outside. The food court and eateries were located at the lowest level of the mall (upper left). Again, beef pho (upper right) and spring rolls (lower right). We tried the Japanese BBQ buffet as well. The food over there were a little bit more expensive than Ben Thanh, with average taste. The price for Japanese buffet was around VND300,000 per person.

Mon Hue could be a good place to "sweep" many Vietnamese traditional dishes in one round, only if they had English-speaking staff (upper left). We had a bad experience there- delayed order, wrong order, wrong food served, and at last, wrong bill, all might caused by ineffective communication. We tried the spring roll (upper right), the pork rice with pickled shrimp (lower right), and the steamed rice pancake with fish. Portion was small, but the taste was good.

We bought food and beverages from convenient shops as well. The price was a bit expensive, but conveniently available!

Freshly brewed Vietnam coffee was available in the convenient shop. The price- VND15,000. The taste was surprisingly good.

We visited Nguyen Trung Coffee House for a sip of Vietnam coffee. The taste was just like old time.

Ho Chi Minh City is not a great place for shopping. You might disagree with us. But no doubt, if compared to other shopping heavens in SEA countries, things in HCMC were more expensive, even for the fake or rejected international branded products. Some local branded products were reasonable in pricing, but not widely available. 

We visited Saigon Square, Ben Thanh Market, Vincom Center, Bitexco Tower, Parkson, Diamond Plaza, and a few shopping streets around District 1. The cheapest souvenirs were hunted along Le Loi Street, while bargained clothes were purchased from Ben Thanh Market. The famous dried fruits were available at Ben Thanh and Vincom Center.

Bargaining in Saigon Square was hard. For street shops and Ben Thanh Market, we could get discounts up to 60%. But it was highly depending on our luck. Vincom Center, Parkson, Bitexco and Diamond Plaza offered fixed price items only. So unless we could endure the hot weather and walk down the streets, or else hunting for bargained items would be very difficult.

Saigon Square is a small mall, with stalls selling food, clothes, coffee powder, bags, watches, and souvenirs under one roof. Be aware that most of the branded products which are sold with extremely high prices, are suspected fake (from our point of view). Bargaining was difficult. The only good thing about the mall- it was fully air-conditioned. The mall from the outside (upper left), the entrance (upper right), and stalls inside the mall (lower right). There were some stalls selling local food like dried fruits and coffee powder. But we would advise to buy these products from Ben Thanh Market just at the other side of Le Loi Street.

Ben Thanh Market was the best place for shopping local products and souvenirs, of course only if we could visit it before the blazing sun turned the market into a big hot oven. Anyway, bargaining was easier than Saigon Square- 10% off for food and up to 60% off for clothes. We would recommend dried fruits- mango, lotus seed, and coconut were good.

Souvenir shops are scattered around the streets (upper row). We need to survey the price one by one. Bargain was hard, unless we bought in a bulk. Le Loi Street was a good place to hunt for souvenirs (lower right). Stalls selling souvenirs were available along the street.

The best air-conditioned shopping mall in HCMC- Vincom Center. We bought some dried fruits as souvenir at Vincom Center. Diamond Plaza and Bitexco were a bit too small for shopping.

We would like to share about our experience with taxi in Ho Chi Minh City.  We took taxi a few times in HCMC. To us, taxi was the most convenient transportation available, when walking was not a choice. We read many articles and reports regarding taxi scams, as highlighted in Scam Free Ride. So, the best way to avoid the scam is to take the taxi from two companies only- MaiLinh (green colour) or Vinasun (white colour). The taxi from these two companies were strictly run on meter, taxi drivers were polite and professional as well.

The taxi from the airport to District 1 was fixed around VND170,000. We had a night ride on arrival, so we paid extra VND20,000 at the taxi counter. From hotel to airport, we paid VND140,000. Within District 1, the fare was not more than VND40,000.

Both our travel mates took their chance to travel by bus from airport to district 1. According to them, the bus service was punctual. The bus was clean with and air conditioned.

"Green Taxi" in HCMC.

Ho Chi Minh City is a beautiful and clean city. With the development is still blooming, we expect to see more sky-scrapers and shopping centers in near future. The city was easy to navigate with travel map. The lack of public transportation like LRT, makes taxi the most convenient choice for the moment. Staying in District 1 is great as most of the tourist's attraction are there. For food, the price is a bit high, but, we can always go for the cheaper choices- street food. HCMC is definitely not our shopping heaven. Still, our choice for shopping- Ben Thanh Market and Vincom Center. 

This is our last post on our trip to Ho Chi Minh City. More about our experiences in Ho Chi Minh City and other places in Vietnam are available:

Danang, City of Hue, Hoi An, & My Son
Hanoi & Halong Bay