Posted by: facetothewind | November 11, 2015

A Last Minute Trip to Sabah, Baby-zillas in Borneo, and Granny Gets Abducted While the Family is Texting


Kinda sad when you go to Borneo and this is the best photograph you come home with. It’s not a bad photo, really. It’s actually a lovely photo, in my humble opinion. It’s calm, soothing, a little melancholy — a sort of diner still life with a very tiny nod to Edward Hopper.

But if you’re going to Borneo, you’d expect to come home with pictures of little purple starfishes gleaming under crystalline waters, orange orangutans jumping from tree to tree in their mountainous rain forest habitats. Well dear reader, I’m sorry to report it didn’t happen. After a failed attempt to get to Bali (due to volcanic eruptions closing the airports), we went home from the KL airport in a bit of a daze not knowing what to do with the time off and the airline credit. We had hoped that the next day we would be able to get to Bali but no, the flight was cancelled again that day as well.

So we quickly checked AirAsia’s flight availability and flipped through a Malaysian National Parks booklet I happened to have. We decided on a marine park as we really wanted to go swim with da fishies. So we chose Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia, checked the flights and at 10:30 am we left the house for a 2:30 pm flight hoping we could get on at the last minute.

In our haste we forgot to bring the underwater housing for the camera, an umbrella, and I even forgot to turn off the aircon. Dern it. In the taxi to the bus station, I texted a few friends to let them know where we were headed and they all warned me about kidnappings in Sabah, the Malaysian state where we were headed. I quickly did my research on my phone and in fact there are US State Department advisories warning tourists about potential kidnappers who take tourists at gunpoint and then demand ransom for their release. My friend said white people fetch higher prices. Like I don’t have enough worries in Malaysia with typhoid and crazy drivers and people throwing shit out their high floor windows — now add to that the possibility of being kidnapped and secreted away in a jungle while my parents try to come up with a million dollars. Whoopee, Sabah, here we come!


Where the hell is Borneo? Well, it’s a giant island in the South China Sea that has 3 different countries sharing it: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.

The trip started with the SkyBus driver surfing the Internet on his phone the entire time. He was weaving over the lines and turning without signaling and signaling without turning. So I filmed him and sent it to SPAD (the federal authorities) and called the bus company who was quite upset with the news and phoned him immediately. This is the second time I’ve been on a bus in Malaysia with the driver paying no attention at all to the road. (You can see this in the video below.)  I get it that driving a bus isn’t that interesting but it could be worse. I’ve had dull and boring jobs myself. You don’t know boredom until you’ve had to type up loan papers for a bank. So count the lines on the road or the minutes ’til you’re home or what you want to do to do Emilia Clarke…anything. Devote yourself to customer service and the endless possibilities of ordering suitcases in the luggage hold. But look Mister Malaysian Bus Driver, you’re probably not hired for your genius or the fact that you’re a very important person, so just deal with your station in life and 45 minutes of boredom and do your friggin job. Your own personal life is probably not that important for you to be risking the lives of 50 people so you can check Facebook.

There’s something about Southeast Asia — about doing as little as possible and trying to cheat the system with no regard for the effect on others or the environment. There’s a prevailing attitude here of seeing what one can get away with, not how one could do better or improve things. I see it everywhere from people dropping rubbish off their 18th floor balcony into the pool to people running red lights. Do you see how one can go sour on life in Malaysia when there’s so little common sense, adherence to health and safety laws, and basic integrity that a simple bus ride or a meal cooked with unwashed hands turns into a fight for your life? No one knows this more than Dianna (a regular reader of this blog). It’s this mentality that keeps this and other nations in the region isolated and perpetually stuck. The cheating comes all the way from the top down. Next time I will take the train and hope that the driver of THAT isn’t texting…dream on. I know America has its share of irresponsible people and cheaters, but not to the extent that it exists here. If that bus was seen weaving like that in the US, there would be police helicopters tailing it and shooting out the tires while being broadcast live on CNN. Several lawsuits would follow.

ANYWAY I DIGRESS, sorry. We had a great ticket agent at the AirAsia desk (a special treat!) and we got booked on the flight with the credit we had from our failed Bali trip. With boarding passes in hand and an hour to spare, off we went to Starbucks to use the Internet to find a hotel, dine and dash for the plane. No time to research the trip or plan a great mountain excursion with orangutans and kidnappers which may be indistinguishable.


Three hours later and one in-flight chicken in cream sauce, and we arrive in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah…BORNEO baby!


We got a nice expensive 2 minute taxi ride for 25 ringgit to the hotel. Guess we didn’t know that we could have walked it…25 ringgit, really people?!

The hotel was quite nice but Agoda’s price was considerably higher than the price promotion offered at the hotel front desk. Chuan notices these things and said Agoda will refund if it’s not the cheapest rate — what a great travel companion my hubby is — and so I got on the laptop and phoned customer service and got a full refund and re-booked the hotel at a lower price. Off to town for dinner with the savings!


This is downtown Kota Kinabalu also known as KK. Not very charming in my opinion. Full of unsightly shop lots and choked with traffic…unfortunately, that’s the look of most of Malaysia. But there’s some great seafood to be had. By the time we arrived in KK, Chuan had a list of top rated restaurants picked out and so we dove in. First meal was outdoors at an Italian place on the waterfront where I witnessed someone pointing a pocket laser beam at a flight leaving the airport nearby (a federal offense in America). Do they do that to impress a girl? Did they think about the devastating consequences of blinding a pilot?


This is the night fish market downtown. Entering the market, Chuan and I saw a whole family of rats scurrying through the parking lot on their way home from the market with their takeaway dinner. What can I say about rats and Malaysia that I haven’t already said? Just make sure you wash everything before you put it in your mouth. With all the above I found my spirit slowly sinking into the South China Sea. I feel bad for Chuan when this happens because he always keeps on the sunny side of life and either doesn’t notice all the offenses I do or he just isn’t weighed down by them. Lucky for me, he isn’t pulled down by my gravitas. And so the trip went on with him leading the way.


Above is a locally caught lobster (not ours) which is a spectacular creature — too spectacular to kill for a meal. In general I won’t eat cute, cuddly, or beautiful animals. And I really abhor looking into a tank and picking out the animal to be killed for my meal. Yep, I’m a weak person. I just prefer that be done by someone else and hopefully they won’t choose the fish floating belly up.


We did eat a LOT of shrimp on this trip. Above is the char kway teow (my favorite) at a restaurant on Manukan Island. Chuan was delighted how much seafood he could eat for so cheap compared to Kuala Lumpur’s prices. So we ate a lot of seafood including steamed fish with ginger sauce and crabs with me crying UNCLE one night and insisting we give the ocean a break and eat vegetarian…with a side of shrimp.


We spent one really lovely evening watching a sort of sunset at the Shangri-La Resort. We each had a pricey piña colada which seemed to contain no alcohol — typical of bars here. This time even Chuan complained, to which the staff said, “Hee hee hee. Sorry,” the stock response for all complaints. Here’s what happens inside the Asian brain when you lodge any complaint: First there’s a smile mechanism that’s immediately triggered to defuse any tension. If you press the issue, then there’s a big yellow internal button that gets depressed. It’s called the “Save Face” button. Once that button is depressed, you will no longer be seen. You become completely invisible and inaudible. You’re saying, “I’m not happy with this cocktail!” and what the Asian person is hearing is: huminuh huminuh huminuh. If you don’t immediately apologize profusely for your complaint, the the levers of inaction will be pulled. That causes an instant neuromuscular retardant to be released into the Asian’s bloodstream that disables any remedial action. It has essentially the opposite effect of adrenaline. We can only feel sorry for the Asian person at this point because they are completely incapacitated and useful to no one.

Chuan declared that from now on we’re ordering the half-priced “mocktail” version and producing a small bottle of rum from our backpack to juice it up. As long as we’re in a country of rule breaking we might as well…when in Rome, do as the Romans. Don’t attempt this, ever, in the US (but at least in the US, you can get a good strong and cheap drink so you don’t need to). Here you order a glass of wine for the US equivalent of $8 + 6% tax and 10% service charge which brings it to around $10 and it’s really a half glass. So in effect, a full glass of wine is $20. In the US, you’d get 4 full glasses for that price. Malaysia taxes the hell out of alcohol, literally. It’s an artifact of living in a Muslim country. It’s called a “sin tax.” And so I’m certain that establishments simply add water to their booze bottles. Sigh.

But we didn’t come here to drink. We came here…wait…why did we come here? Oh yeah, snorkeling!


We took a couple day trips by boat to some of the surrounding islands. It’s only about 7-10 minutes by speedboat to any number of small islands in the national marine park where you can hop off and immerse yourself in the underwater world of colorful fishes.


Click to enlarge panorama of Manukan Island. It’s monsoon season so the skies were stormy and it rained heavily every afternoon.

Once you get away from the groups of mainland Chinese tour groups who cling to the shore, even eating in restaurants in their lifejackets, it’s a great and fascinating adventure beneath the surface. We quietly slipped outside the barriers (lifeguards are too busy texting to notice) and swam the entire circumference of Mamutik Island. There, away from the frantic crowds screaming and scaring away the fish, we saw fantastic corals, unpuffed pufferfishes, big lipped triggerfish, turquoise and pink parrotfish, and feisty clown fish guarding their anemones.

We hold hands while snorkeling, partly as a form of affection but more to just keep track of each other without having to always be looking. And with a squeeze of the hand we could point out something like the pipefish lurking at the surface or the black tipped shark that came by to see what we were up to. This sighting was particularly exciting for me because in all the years of snorkeling, I’ve never seen a shark. Its visit was quite peaceful but even more surprising that Chuan didn’t scream into his snorkel. I tried to mouth the words, “Stay calm. Don’t panic,” through my snorkel which sounded something like “mmmay mmmalm mmont manit.” He was very calm and didn’t crush my fingers. He told me later he’d seen sharks before. Meh. Big, strong, fearless me, telling him not to panic, huh?


What’s up with the babies in Malaysia? There’s clearly a baby boom going on (in a place that doesn’t need one). You’re never far from screaming kids wreaking havoc on a place. And parents here have no hesitation bringing their kids to a place where they clearly don’t belong, like late at night at a cocktail bar. Really? We had many a meal skewered with wailing babies having meltdowns at or near the table, usually followed by the silverware banging on the table while parents are texting. (I swear aliens could visit Asia and pluck granny from the table and give her the anal probe and no one would notice because they’re all face down in their devices.)

One baby-zilla in KK we witnessed twice on a rampage walking on the furniture, ripping leaves off potted plants and brochures off the rack in the hotel lobby, and then hitting his mother while she just put up with it silently. And then on the airplane home, for 2 hours babies were kicking my chair. There were 3 kids and a helpless mother in 3 seats with the father seated somewhere else. An accident? I don’t think so. AirAsia is like the flying “kampung” (village).

At first I tried to imagine I was getting a lower back massage in one of those fancy high-tech massage chairs you see in airports and malls. Mmm. Nice and relaxing, yeah work the lumbar please. Great. When it causes my glasses to unseat themselves from my face I figure it’s gone far enough. Then the tray table slamming started. Up down. Up down. Up down and then followed by some more jabs at my tailbone. At one point I reached behind and grabbed the child by the ankle and threw it off the back of my chair. That would be enough to stop most kids in their tracks and file a lawsuit for inappropriate touching. But not in Malaysia. Pushing, shoving and grabbing is just par for the course.

Four more times I grabbed and pushed her feet off my seat. At one point I stood up and talked to the mother and asked her to please control her children. It continued. Then I asked again. Each time it was “Sorry. Sorry.” But no action. Finally I jumped up towered over the child who had her seat belt buckle all the way in her mouth, “STOP IT NOW! YOU STOP! STOP IT.” I was having a bonafide, undignified, characteristically Caucasian, hissy fit. I noticed Chuan looking at me from 3 rows back nodding his head like, “Yeah Hubby, give it to them.” He knew what was going on. It was a clash of cultures that would result in nothing. It was gay vs breeder. Caucasian vs Asian. Atheist vs Muslim. West vs East which = stand up and fight for your rights vs do nothing and save face. And then before there was going to be a quadruple homicide at 33,000 feet I asked to be reseated and the flight attendant obliged thereby avoiding an international incident and a sudden water landing.

Here’s the short video of the trip. You can see the Chinese mainlanders doing a wefie at the beach and listen to the babies screaming at various locales…


This basically says, “Caucasian Street.” Mat Salleh comes from the old days of British occupation of the Malay Kingdom when locals saw what they called Mad Sailors — drunk no doubt — and their term for drunk sailors was applied to all white folk.

In the end I didn’t get kidnapped so I guess the trip to Borneo was a success though it wasn’t exactly the Balinese paradise we had planned on. We will try Bali again in the coming months. We weren’t prepared on this last minute trip to do Mt. Kinabalu and I didn’t want to go chasing orangutans on the east side of Sabah where it’s kidnapping territory. So in a way we really didn’t get to see the best of Borneo. Maybe when I’m rich enough to have armed security detail I can go. Honestly, I’d rather see orangutans on TV than watching them being fed bananas in a sad rescue camp after losing their habitat to Indonesian deforestation. That’s just depressing. I wanna see happy simians in their native environments and that’s just not so easy in this world of dwindling forests.

I have only 80 days left in Southeast Asia, but who’s counting? ME. I AM! I am counting the days ’til I am on the ANA 787 Dreamliner bound for fresh air and emissions standards and good pizza and goat cheese and pecorino Romano and kalamata olive spread and cheap wine and hefeweizen beer and law and order and blue skies and bike lanes and crosswalks and sidewalks and noise ordinances and laws restricting fireworks and only one new year per year and museums and art openings and street musicians and thrift stores and farmer’s markets and recycling and composting and food labels. I’d rather face being gunned down on a sidewalk than not having a sidewalk to walk on or air that I can breathe.

What a difference a year and half has made.

Next stop: Langkawi in the Andaman Sea where alcohol doesn’t have the sin tax applied…not that cheap alcohol is the only draw, though it may very well be.



  1. “So in effect, a full glass of wine is $20. In the US, you’d get 4 full glasses for that price.”


    Don’t know where you get your alcohol in the U.S., but that price is news to me.

    Otherwise, lovely pictures, once again, even if Borneo wasn’t the tropical paradise you’d hoped for.

    On a brighter note, we saw THE BOOK OF MORMON last night and laughed our asses off. Brilliant, hilarious, and wacky beyond words. I can see why it was such a hit on Broadway and beyond.

    Oh, and I booked our next QM2 crossing. For some reason it’s 8 nights instead of 7, but that’s fine by me!

  2. Hi David, I finally got the time and the internet signal to properly read about this trip. (Yesterday, Mink and Jake’s hi-tech nerdy friend Chris hooked me up with a new almost-exclusive router mounted on my house so that internet signal is mostly good.)

    I read your most recent story and beautiful memorial to your student first. It did make me cry. You probably know, Thailand ranks second in the world for most traffic fatalities.

    Did I tell you about my reporting of the bus driver who talked on his cell all the way from CM to Pai? I received a response the next day saying the guy is being disciplined and talking on a cell phone is definitely not allowed! I could not believe this level of customer service! in Thailand?

    Wow! KK is not a place I’d want to visit, for sure. Even an abundance of fish couldn’t persuade me. (Is Edward Hopper one of your favorite artists?) You are so lucky to have Chuan for balance. You are both lucky to have each other. Good for both of you for getting the hotel rate lowered!

    Your story of the kicking kid behind you made me laugh, thank you! So today you made me cry and laugh.

    This life in Pai is so crazy. Last week a farang woman raped by a guy who offered her a ride home on his motorbike. Police blamed the woman for drinking too much, prompting the authorities to issue statement that they will increase(???) enforcement of bar closing time. The people in charge here seem to get stupider every time they open their mouths.

    If tourists knew what it was really like here, I think few of them would come. Although the caliber of tourists that do come is not great. For instance, four young men beat up a Thai shop owner at Sompet market (next to where I stay in CM) because he told them to stop jumping on his fruit cart in the middle of the night.

    Here in Pai, the crazies continue to come seeking enlightenment. The NY woman who was here last week, obviously in need of psychiatric help, was finally arrested for being naked in another guest house. Her wealthy parents came to see her in hospital in CM. My friend Jean coincidentally met the father in the pool at 4 Seasons. She said he, too, seems to be not wound too tight(ly). I envy you for being able to count the days! My friend Jean will also be moving back to the US in a few months. However, she will return here to see her son and grandson.

    I hope your meeting with your student’s parents goes well. And, remember, it’s OK to cry!

    Love, Dianna

  3. GEEZ!  David, PLEASE stay away from dangerous areas…I even think you are in danger living where you are.  I just hope you get back to this country in one piece and in the future limit your travels to safe havens.  There is a lot of beauty to be seen right here in the US and Canada and Alaska, which you haven’t explored.  Trying to come up with a large ransom would wipe us out.  All our assets are no where a million bucks. Please stay safe and well.Love,Mom 

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