Christmas above the clouds: December 2016 trip to Malaysia

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About a week after I traveled to Thailand, I was yet again in the Bandaranaike International Airport fighting through crowds to get to my gate. This time I was flying to Kuala Lumpur, then on to Kota Kinabalu for some Christmas holiday adventures in Malaysian Borneo. After a not-at-all-fun overnight flight from Colombo (turns out Air Asia flights are never fun), I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport around 6AM. I paid to store my backpack in the terminal so I didn’t have to carry it around the city with me and then I spent the day exploring before my evening flight to Kota Kinabalu.

I found myself a train ticket to get me to the famous Batu Caves, which house Hindu temples. I climbed the billion stairs to the top and then explored inside the main cave. Even though it wasn’t the most breathtaking place, it was nonetheless a very unique worshipping space and I’m glad I took the time to visit. After, I hopped in an Uber and visited the nearby Kanching Falls. It’s a series of seven waterfalls in a lovely park could have used a cleaning (although I have a feeling that the monkeys were responsible for spreading trash from the bins). I climbed all the way to the top waterfall (all the while hoping that the rumours I’d heard about purse-snatching up there were unfounded). It was extremely hot and humid and pretty soon sweat was pouring off me, which made me long to swim in the falls like some of the other visitors. Sadly, I didn’t have a swimsuit so I just wandered about and took in the scenery (and spent my time mostly dodging the monkeys…).

To get back to city centre, I took a local bus that picked me up from the highway. I had some time so I figured this wouldn’t be an issue even if it took a long time. I was right, thankfully, and I eventually made my way into KL central area, with the help of some of the free shuttles sponsored by the government (if you go to KL, be sure to check them out because they are quite convenient!). While I waited for my friend Julia to arrive in KL – she had been traveling in southeast asia for a month so was meeting me in Malaysia – I also visited the famous Petronas Towers and one of the markets in the area.

Julia and I finally met at the bottom of Kuala Lumpur Tower. We paid the (exorbitant) fee to ride the elevator to the top to see the city of KL laid out beneath us and tried to catch up on all that we had missed since seeing each other last about three weeks before. At the top of KL tower, we had both expected the viewing platforms to be very secure, with cages keeping people from throwing things down below or even falling from the top like what you would see at the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada… but there was none of that at the top of this very tall tower. Instead, there were just simple glass barrier walls that seemed secure enough for use at a mall but not safe enough for what is (I repeat) a very tall tower. We nonetheless explored the viewing platforms but neither of us could truly brave the glass boxes with glass floors that jutted out from either side of the tower. We spent enough time at the top to take in the view and take some photos and then we hurried down because there was a rather large thunderstorm approaching from one side, the lightning threatening to strike anything very tall in the area (like, perhaps, the tower we were standing on…).

By that point in the afternoon, it was time for us to venture back to the airport. We collected our bags from the luggage storage service and then boarded our flight to Kota Kinabalu. After a short flight, we arrived in Kota Kinabalu quite late on Christmas Eve and collapsed into bed at Borneo Backpackers. We needed our sleep because we were climbing a mountain the next day! We woke up around 5AM on Christmas morning, grumbling that we definitely didn’t get enough sleep for the long hike ahead of us. We groggily pulled on our hiking clothes, ate a quick breakfast, and were met at the front of our hostel by a van.

The van took us to the base of Mount Kinabalu, which we would climb over the next two days. Mount Kinabalu is 4095 metres tall and can be summitted in two days. On Christmas day, we hiked up and up and up on a simple path for about five hours. We stopped a couple of times for snacks, lunch, and some water but we always missed the views on the way up because of the mist. (We prayed it would not be misty the next day for our summit so we could get a clear sunrise and pretty views for our descent.) The hike was challenging but not too strenuous and it was fun to greet all the hikers with a smile and “Merry Christmas!” Certainly a Christmas day to remember.

When we reached the hostel that we would rest at before summitting, we were a bit tired but more hungry than anything else. Thankfully, the hostel has some excellent food and comfy beds. And, in celebration of Christmas, Julia and I bought a beer apiece and said “Cheers!” as a man dressed as Santa Claus gave all us weary hikers candy. It was fun and silly and kept everyone’s spirits up for the holiday. The hostel didn’t have hot water that day because the sun wasn’t out enough for the solar panels to warm the water so we each only had a very short shower before climbing into bed and resting until about 1:30AM, when we awoke to begin our summit.

The summit started out with lots and lots and lots of stairs then slowly morphed into a hike on rock. Again, we climbed up and up and up. Julia and I felt strong and we eventually made it towards the front of the pack. When we looked down, we could see a trail of lights beneath us from the headlamps of everyone climbing up that morning. The air was a bit thinner up there but I still felt pretty solid and felt thankful I was hiking with Julia because it was nice to have someone to push with. We reached the summit just around quarter to five in the morning… and we were the first team at the top!

It felt like such an accomplishment… but it meant that we had to wait in the freezing wind for longer than everyone else. I wish I had brought with me warmer clothes but I survived (and Julia survived my complaining with a remarkable amount of patience – thank you!). Thankfully, the sunrise was worth the frigid wait! We knew the skies were clear because we saw the stars on the way up and so we were lucky enough to see the full sunrise from the summit of the mountain. It was beautiful and such a great atmosphere because everyone at the top was congratulating each other on making it up to the top. I’ve never done anything like that before so it felt like such a rewarding moment.

Once it was light enough, we began the descent back to the hostel. It was fun seeing where we had hiked a couple of hours before in the dark. With the sun up, we could see everything and it was extraordinarily beautiful! We kept repeating, “This is the best Christmas ever!” (Side-note for family reading this: I missed you, I promise!) and we took approximately ninety million photos (even though our phones kept shutting down because of the cold!).

At the hostel again, we ate a huge breakfast (our third meal in about twelve hours because we had eaten before the summit, at around 2AM), then grabbed our things and headed back down. When we reached the bottom, I was truly exhausted but also exhilarated. The whole hike was a very cool experience! (But I needed about 24 hours of sleep by the end of it.)

The next day back in Kota Kinabalu, Julia set off for her Open Water PADI diving course and, since I had decided not to do my PADI this time, I set off to do other things. Over the next few days, Julia successfully completed her PADI and fell in love with diving and, even though I kind of regret not completing it with her, I still did some pretty cool things with my time there. I paraglided from Kokol Hill, ziplined between two islands, snorkeled with sea turtles and so many kinds of fish and coral in the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park, and spent an afternoon hiking around one of the islands in the area.

After this short time in Kota Kinabalu, we flew back to KL, where we met our friend Maree, who had flown in from Australia. We all took a bus and then ferry to Pangkor Island, where we met Maree’s friend who had flown in from Nepal and her aunt from Australia. We spent just a couple of nights there and during this time, we mostly hung out on the beach, ate delicious curries and soups, and watched the sun set in bursts of yellow, orange, and red. It was a lot of travel to get there and back but I’m still glad we went because it was a pretty cool place to ring in the New Year before flying back to our respective homes in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Australia.

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The main temple at Batu Caves

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Photobomb-ing the Petronas Towers

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On top of KL Tower, inside the glass box

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Thunderstorm approaching! On top of KL Tower

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Sunrise at the summit of Mount Kinabalu

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Sunrise part 2!

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Amazing views from the top

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So beautiful up there!

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One of the ferries that brings people from Kota Kinabalu to the TAR marine park islands

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Shallow clear waters between two of the TAR marine park islands

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End of the island-to-island zipline

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View from the top of Kokol Hill before paragliding

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Paragliding! (with pilot Chris)

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Beautiful beach on Pangkor Island

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Sunset on Pangkor

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Merry Christmas! (I know… I know… it’s March! Took me a while to write this… oops!)

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