Return to Sabah — Kundasang, Part 2: Mountains & Valleys

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a challenge for all mountain climbers to try out. It’s not a particularly difficult climb, according to Baby Crab, who climbed to Low’s Peak, to top of Mount Kinabalu, a few years ago. The first day involves climbing stairs for 5 hours long. You rest at Laban Rata Guesthouse at 7pm, and then at 2am the next day, your mountain guide wakes you up to climb up to the peak, reaching just in time to see the sun rise.

Prior to your 5-hour long stair climbing, you will register yourself at the Kinabalu Park Headquarters, which tracks all mountain climbers ascending Mount Kinabalu. The entrance to Kinabalu National Park is located just 2km away from Mountain Valley Resort mentioned in the previous post. Inside the National Park are some villas and lodges that you can stay here as well, instead of staying at Kundasang. For those who are not climbing the mountain, you can also explore this National Park with its own set of trails.

We didn’t have the time to walk these trails during our time in Sabah, so we simply drove around the National Park to have a look. As with all national parks, there is an entrance fee to pay. Local Malaysians pay a much lower fee as compared to international visitors. After our drive around the cloudy National Park, we headed to our destination 6km away.

Kundasang

Welcome to Kundasang!

Our first order of business was to secure a hotel for the night. We don’t usually book hotels in advance, because we don’t always know where we will end up on any given day, even if we do have a plan.

Kundasang lies in a valley of the same name. Besides being the town closest to Mount Kinabalu, it is also a town whose primary economy is not tourism, but vegetables. There are many, many vegetables grown in Kundasang, and these are transported via pick-up to the vegetable wholesale market in the centre of town, marked by the 3 roundabouts there. Wholesale buyers come from all over East Malaysia and Brunei to purchase fresh vegetables from Kundasang.

So many fresh vegetables!

Before we could explore the town, we first had to get a hotel. Staying in Kundasang offers the best view of Mount Kinabalu, so Baby Crab specified the conditions for a hotel — it must have a view of both Kundasang Town and Mount Kinabalu. With these conditions, Baby Tilapia got down to work.

We pulled up Google Maps to take a look, and turned on ‘terrain view’. This allowed us to see where the hills and valleys were. In order to fulfil Baby Crab’s conditions, we needed to select a hotel that (a) faced both the town and the mountain; and (ii) is on a hill that faces that direction. Looking at the map, it was clear that there was only one area that met the conditions. Baby Tilapia marked out several possibilities, and then navigated the way to the first choice.

Crystal Hill

A signboard beside a treacherous road that tells you to keep going.

It was called Crystal Hill R, named after the hill it was on. There are many hotels on this hill, but Crystal Hill R has one of the best views, if not the best.

The road to the hotel is treacherous though, and if your car doesn’t have enough horsepower, it’s not going to be able to make it to the car park without the driver asking the passengers to get off. Luckily we were driving a Mazda CX-5 with a turbo engine, and we made it up easily with Baby Crab as our skilful driver.

The hotel reception is located below the rooms. It is from balcony of the hotel reception that you will get the most awesome view of not just Mount Kinabalu in the background, but also Kundasang town in the foreground.

The most amazing view of Kundasang. Too bad the mountain is covered with clouds.

The hotel rooms are a row of wooden units higher up from the reception area. You can either drive up there, or take a short hike up a slope. The view from the rooms is nothing special, even though there is a balcony there where you can hang out. The reason why is that there are trees blocked the view, so you can only get a small glimpse of Mount Kinabalu from the rooms. It is far, far, far better to go down to the reception area to see the amazing view there.

Hiking from our unit to the reception area.

We had only one unit left when we reached, because we didn’t reserve a room. The 2-storey unit had 3 rooms with king-sized beds and attached toilets in each, which was more than enough for the four of us. It also had a common area with a sofa and dining table. We paid RM300 for the stay there.

More than anything, the thing we remembered most from the rooms here was the constant sound of wind blowing through the trees.

It’s so windy here, and the view is just awesome!

Fruits & food

The orange roofs are the circular market where locals go to eat.

With our accommodation for the night settled, we headed back to the local market in town to try out some of Kundasang’s unusual fruits. Baby Tilapia’s favourite here is the canistel or eggfruit. But in Kundasang it is called ‘buah lemak manis’, or ‘avocado cheese’, which is weird because it neither looks or tastes like avocado or cheese.

Avocado cheese, also known as canistel, and ‘buah lemak manis’.

‘Buah cinta’ on the right, also known as lovefruit, tree tomato, and tamarillo.

When ripe, it tastes like roasted chestnuts, but if it is unripe, it has an astringent (‘siap’) taste that is not pleasant. At the market, they sell both cut and uncut fruits. If it is uncut, then you have to cut it yourself, which can be a hassle if you don’t have a knife. So Baby Tilapia decided to buy the cut fruits. They were selling at RM2 a piece, or 3 for RM5. When selecting, go for the softer ones. The softer it is, the more ripe, and hence, more delicious.

We also got to try tarap, which is similar to jackfruit and cempadak, but not quite. And we also tried ‘buah cinta’ (love fruit), which is actually tamarillo, or tree tomato.

By the time we were done, it was time for dinner. We ate at a Chinese restaurant called SS Chinese Restaurant 神山中餐厅. ‘SS’ stands for ‘sheng shan’, the Chinese name for Mount Kinabalu. There’s a whole story behind this restaurant and the people who own it, which we will tell you about in a separate post.

It was only 6.30pm when we were done, but the sky and surroundings were completely dark already. The sun sets early in Sabah, and even earlier in Kundasang, which is in a valley. So once the sun disappears behind the mountains in the distance, darkness falls across the land. As the night was still young, we decided to go get some dessert from a cafe we passed earlier.

It’s called Hooga Cafe @ Kundasang Farm Ville. It’s probably the largest cafe in Kundasang area, and is quite popular. There are not many cafes here, but as cafes go, it’s quite average, even with the live band.

There’s a live band here!

Behind the cafe is a large hydroponic farm that you can visit (after you pay the entrance fee). Lots of things in Kundasang requires you to pay a fee to visit. In the centre of town are some structures that are very Instagrammable, but to take photos there, you need to pay a RM2 fee. Outside of town, there are wonderful hill peaks you can climb to with amazing viewpoints. But to go there, you need to pay a RM3 entrance fee. Everything here is starting to get commercialised.

After we are done with cheesecake, we head back to the central part of town, to Bataras Superstore, the biggest supermarket in Kundasang. It has 3 levels. The top level sells sundries. The centre level sells dry food items, and the bottom level sells fresh and frozen food. We got some snacks and beer from here, and some cup noodles.

All you need can be found at Bataras Superstore. Even warmth.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by the vegetable market which is now selling drains. We made friends with a ‘makcik’ (auntie), who operates a vegetable and fruits shop in the day time, and we bought some durians from her. We got to try a couple of wild ones with only one seed inside each, and a D24.

Local wild durian. One seed each.

D24. Durians here not cheap. More expensive than in Singapore. But got craving lah.

Lights out

When we went back to the hotel, we first went to the reception area to take some night photos of the little lights of Kundasang down below. We stayed there until our hands and faces became numb from the wind chill, then we climb the small hill back to our hotel room. We had just made it up the hill when we were suddenly plunged into complete darkness. All the ambient lights suddenly went off. Baby Crab and Baby Tilapia asked Greg and Sook Yeen to go back to the room first, while we headed to the reception area to find out when the power will come back on.

At the reception area, the staff told us that the whole of Kundasang town has no power. We took a look from the balcony area and indeed the whole town was dark, except for a few solar-powered lights that remained operational. We climbed up the hill in the dark back to the hotel and as we entered, we suddenly realised that no electricity means no heater either.

Kundasang before the blackout.

Welcome to Sabah, where sometimes whole towns have no electricity. Or no water, like our experience in Telipok earlier the same day.

Having no choice and not knowing when the electricity will come back on, we each took our turns having showers in icy cold water. The water was so cold that the moment your hand touched the water, it goes numb. Baby Tilapia was the last one to take a shower, because he was delaying the unpleasant for as long as possible. But since the electricity didn’t come back on, Baby Tilapia just had to suck it up and shower with icy water. Just as Baby Tilapia was towelling himself dry, the lights came back on. 🤬🤬🤬 If Baby Tilapia waited for 15 minutes more, there would have been warm water to shower with.

Still freezing cold, we all gathered around the dining table downstairs to eat hot cup noodles, chat, and plan what we do the next day.

Metal spiral staircase inside our hotel unit.

Morning view

View from hotel room.

The next morning, we woke up early. Partly because we’ve got a long drive ahead of us, but more because we wanted to see the morning view of the town and the mountain. We quickly packed our bags and drove down to the reception area to take some photos. Not only did we get some lovely photos of 云海 (sea of clouds), but also lenticular clouds forming above Mount Kinabalu.

Lenticular clouds above Mount Kinabalu

Movement of clouds above Mount Kinabalu

A longer time lapse of the cloud movement.

云海

Mount Kinabalu and Kundasang

Kundasang town and farms

While we hoped that the clouds would clear up so that we could see a full view of the mountain, that was not to be today. We stayed as long as we could, but then, we had to get going.

Bye for now!

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