28.03.2013 - 31.03.2013
We have just come back from a few days around and near Mt Kinabalu, a two to three hour drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu. At over 4000 meters, it is the highest peak in Southeast Asia. We gave some thought to climbing it, but the steep price tag put us off, as well as time restraints. It is a fairly serious undertaking, though not technical, with some 8000 feet of vert. Most people complete it in two days, although we met some young bucks who had managed it in one, partly in order to save money. It is also a bit dicey with the weather, as it is often socked in by rain and clouds that rise up from the tropical south China Sea.
The area around it is very lush, as it is more or less a rain forest that sees precipitation on many days. It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with tree ferns, enormous dipterocarp trees, many variety of orchids, rhododendrons, and even carnivorous Pitcher plants. One of these almost got my friend Debbie on the way in. (just kidding)
The four of us took some short hikes through the very dense forest around the perimeter.
We also had a bit of an adventure with our rental car. Bill tossed me the key, which I missed, and it fell to the ground. It had been taped together, and the two parts separated with the fall. After putting it back together, the car refused to start. It was getting dark and starting to rain. At first, we couldn't figure out the problem, but then realized it must have something to do with the "smart" key, which had become stupid, because of the tiny chip which had fallen out. With the help of park staff, we were able to call the rental car company in the city, who agreed to send someone to drive up into the mountains with the only spare. In the meantime, we were able to walk the mile back to the main road, where, just outside the park entrance, was a decent restaurant. After warming and filling up, we then walked to our guest house, luckily just a few hundred meters down the road.
Sure enough, later that evening our man showed up with the key, and gave us a lift back to the car. The next day, Nanette and Debbie returned to the scene, avoiding the Pitcher plants, and surprisingly, managed to find the chip. It worked fine after we reinserted it, but we noticed that the spare key was also taped together. Obviously, although the car itself was fine, the keys were not. Perhaps this was why the rental car company didn't give us an argument about having to drive up with another one. It had happened before.
Getting the car started enabled Bill and I to drive part way around the mountain to the Mesilou trail, which sees much less traffic than the main route. Our plan was to go for a long day hike and see how far we would get.
Bill on a bridge on the trail
On the Mesilou trail
It is very steep and muddy, with many ups and downs in both directions, gaining and then losing vertical, until the final pitch to a trail junction, where it meets the more heavily traveled path from the other side. Sensibly, with the near constant rain, Bill turned back before I did. I continued on through the gloomy cloud forest, which became increasingly stunted as I gained altitude. I made it most of the way up to the junction, before being turned back by drenching rains, and near white out like fog. On the return, I met a number of local kids who seemed like they had no business being on the mountain, given their lack of equipment, obvious inexperience, and hypothermia inducing weather.
A rare sunny moment
Mt. Kinabalu at sunset from a viewpoint near park entrance
Before returning to Kota Kinabalu, we were fortunate to get a glimpse at the world's largest flower, the rafflesia. It blooms infrequently, and then only for a few days before decomposing. We just happened to be there at the right time.
For our last day in Kota Kinabalu, Nanette and I went out to Sapi, a small offshore island, to do some snorkeling. Sitting next to us on the beach was a mother and her daughter, who are Chinese-Americans. The daughter, a lawyer, lives in Hong Kong, while her mother, a very spunky lady, our age, remains in Michigan. We quickly hit it off, and later went out to dinner with them and our friends, in the large, outdoor food market.
Vendors were furiously barbecuing everything imaginable, and an aromatic cloud of smoke hung over the market and extended out to the adjacent harbor. In very Chinese fashion, the mother quickly took charge, told us where to go, and which fish looked the best, even arguing with the cook about the exact ones she wanted and how fresh they were.
Malaise in Malaysia
Overall, Malaysia has been a mixed experience. Perhaps this is because of the ethnic and religious divisions that are so much a part of life here. The Straits Chinese, roughly 20% of the population, tend to control much of the economy, and are largely Buddhist. Seven to eight percent of the population is Indian and Hindu, and they also have an outsize impact on the economy. Ethnic Malays, a somewhat diverse group themselves, are roughly 60% of the population. They are increasingly religious Muslims, and though they control the government, seem to resent the other two groups because they are generally poorer. In 1969 there were race riots in which several thousand people were killed.
On an individual basis, the Chinese and Indian Malayasians, seem to be reasonably cordial, if not that interested in getting to know us. However at a number of hotels, and not necessarily the cheapest, the service has been sorely lacking. Maybe this is because of ethnic tensions, but often the staff never offer to help with bags, and don't seem to have a clue as to how to treat guests. Our present hotel, Eden 54, in Kota Kinabalu, is a delightful exception, possibly because the owner was educated in the states.
Even some Malays have confirmed that the service industry is lacking. There seems to be some kind of problem with the work ethic and the educational system. One young man that I met while hiking on Mt. Kinabalu, an educated, ethnic Malay, told me he thought it had something to do with the colonial past, but I said to him that certainly the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians have even more reasons to be resentful, and yet they don't appear to be. Of course, they don't have the same ethnic divisions as Malaysia. He didn't respond to my comment, though he was very friendly and generous, and insisted on giving me a sandwich, because I had a long walk back and very little food.
These recent quotes illustrate some of the problems.
"The Malays have been left behind as they lack feelings of shame, discipline and are not hardworking, charged former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad today. (Malaysian Insider, January 7, 2014.)
"The raid (of a Methodist church charity dinner) may reflect tensions that undercut Malaysian society, which is divided along both religious and ethnic lines. Sixty percent of the country is Muslim, and just over half are ethnic Malay.
According to the constitution, citizens claiming Malay ethnicity must be practicing Muslims, speak the Malay language, and adhere to Malay cultural values. The conditions are in place to ensure that only the Malays may claim protection under special laws that reserve jobs and other benefits for the ethnic majority. Although they are an ethnic majority in the country, the Malays have been historically disadvantaged, advocates say, because of ethnic Chinese and Indians’ advantageous roles in trade and commerce.
As a result, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the civil service, universities, and at other institutions. (Al Jazeera, Aug 25th 2013.)
A note to my loyal readers: This marks the end of last year's excursion, but stay tuned, because we leave for southern India on February 20th. I will be gone for three months, and as usual, will blog on my return, after taking copious notes and photos.