Kota Kinabalu: Stayed at Zara’s Boutique Hotel, near the Wawisan minibus station in a building called Harbour City. Surprisingly it was not always on the taxi driver’s radar, so carrying a tourist map was very useful. Wifi is free and best on the 2nd floor (equal to third floor in the US) near the elevator (rooms 5 to 9). The parking lot side of the building has a view toward a heron roost and a picturesque neighborhood on stilts. The hotel will store luggage in an unlocked closet within sight of the front desk. Mine stayed there for a month with no problem. Across the street from the hotel is the Sutera Harbor Resort and golf course. A good place to bird, but watch for tiny, voracious red ants in the lawn!
Kota Kinabalu, or KK as it is affectionately called, is the shopping hub for Sabah. Two shops stand out. First, the Tang Market on a corner about 3 blocks north of the KK tourist information center and one block north of HSBC. For those getting tired of fried noodles and rice, it mercifully carries European cheeses, meats, fruit, pasta, and condiments. The other shopping highlight is Borneo Books in the Wisma Shopping Mall (ground floor) which carries bird books (both Meyers and Phillipps &Phillipps) plus a variety of natural history and anthropology books and monographs at surprisingly decent rates. I saw some desirable out of print books there too.
Mount Kinabalu: Travel by minibus to Mt Kinabalu is from the downtown KK minibus station, near Merdeka Field (20MR o/w). Buses leave when full and at 7 am we waited about 30 minutes to fill. Alternatively, you can pick up a scheduled express bus from Inanam station (35MR taxi ride from hotel, not sure the bus rate). Either bus takes 90 minutes to reach the park entrance. Since all the hotels outside the park are along the highway, they will drop you in front if you ask, or at the park entrance. Be aware that hotels on the highway will have a lot of road noise, all night long. Dorms in the park are expensive (roughly twice or more times rooms outside), and though very clean, are not always quiet due to late arrivals etc. Dorm rooms in Sabah are generally mixed male and female. Upon request, hotels were happy to supply a “woman only” room; lucky for me, this always turned out to be a whole dorm room to myself!
Poring: Picked up the express bus to Sandakan by standing on the highway at Mt. Kinabalu (10RM). It dropped me at the Poring exit where I flagged (thumbed) a pirate taxi to Poring (5RM). As luck would have it, a couple in the taxi knew of a blooming Rafflesia. These 80cm flowers last about 7 days and take nearly a year to form. We stopped at the roadside banner advertising “Rafflesia in bloom only 3 minutes walk.” Sounds a bit touristy, but tending the parasitic Rafflesia keithii flowers and its host vine is a Poring Road cottage industry. We paid an entry fee of about 20RM for which we got an English speaking guide who was able to answer our questions about the plant’s natural history. Because of the transient nature of the flower, I highly recommend if you see a sign for Rafflesia in bloom, you stop and take a look. This was the only one I noticed in my two month stay.
Near Poring, I stayed at Lupa Masa Ecolodge, a 40 minute walk from town (no road). It was clean, if a bit primitive, lots of birds, good food, clean drinking water, and a fantastic atmosphere, (bring your own beer). One of the highlights of the trip was bathing in the creek while watching birdwing butterflies. Call ahead so the hosts can meet you in town and guide you to the lodge. I also birded the Poring Hot Spring resort’s canopy walk, and Langanan waterfall trail. Note the Hot Spring resort opens at 9am to outside visitors, so if you want to start early, you’ll have to stay inside. The canopy walk (birdless when I was there at 9:15am) opened at 9am.
Sepilok: Took the express bus from KK to Sandakan (40 RM, 5 hours) and was dropped at the Sepilok turn (14 miles short of Sandakan). From there I picked up a pirate taxi to Sepilok B&B located 400 m from the Rainforest Discovery Center (15RM?). Sepilok B&B was great and I highly recommend it, particularly the Hornbill rooms, or the newly opened Pitta room. It was clean and comfortable with a/c, hot and clean showers, and free drinking water. They have a restaurant on site (with beer). The RDC also has a café, and I found their lunch buffet contained more interesting Malaysian food like fern fronds and squid. Breakfast at the B&B (toast and fried noodle) was included, starting at 7am. There was good birding in the yard of the hotel with Black and Oriental pied hornbills outside my room each morning. The Orangutan Center is a 15 minute walk, but its trails were closed for repair (indefinitely?), so I exclusively birded the RDC.
Kinabatangan River: Got a lift to Sukau (2 hours) where I spent one night at the Greenview B&B in a dark, smelly, rather dirty room with cold water only and plenty of 6-legged wildlife. The hotels in this area cater to tourists buying package deals where boat cruises, meals, and room are included. I wasn’t keen on the boats with 15 loud tourists and lucked upon an independent guide with a small boat and excellent knowledge of the wildlife (sorry, no name). Upon my return at 7:15pm, I was unable to get food at the hotel because dinner was officially over at 7pm. This was in spite of the fact the kitchen staff were still there and presumably had food in the pantry. Other hotels nearby were also unwilling to give me food since I wasn’t their guest. Rather an awkward set up for independent travelers.
The next morning I moved to the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge that does exclusively packaged tours. It felt a bit like a wildlife Disneyworld for young European tourists, though the busy schedule and early morning wake-up kept the place quiet. The 4-bed dorms were clean and quiet; the communal bathrooms clean if with cold water; and the food plentiful (beer available). The guides here were good, well studied, and did a great job of making the experience fresh. Though their focus is on animals more than birds, we were able to see many of the local specialties. Admittedly, in this group environment where most people don’t carry binoculars (what is with that?), many of the smaller birds along the river were skipped. There were lots of trails around the Lodge where I birded (note, this is strictly forbidden). Do be sure that the pygmy elephants are elsewhere before trying this. They may be pygmy, but they still weigh a few tons and can be aggressive. Though committed to a 2 night package, I extended by two nights for the blazingly cheap price of 50 RM/night. This got me 5 additional boat trips, 2 night walks, and meals.
Tabin Wildlife Refuge: The Kinabatangan Nature Lodge shuttle dropped me at the Sukau Road – Highway 13 junction in time to catch the bus toward Semporna. On the way I called the Tabin Wildlife Refuge and booked a two night package. The bus dropped me in Lahad Datu at the Shell station near the airport terminal. There is a bank with an ATM across the street. The Tabin WR office is 200m south of here, toward Semporna, in the airport terminal building. The Danum Field Station office is about 100m in the opposite direction on the main road.
They gave me Hill Top cabin #6 which was run down, dirty, and more than 100 stairs from reception. That’s probably what I get for talking them out of the single supplement (additional 50% on room price!). Riverside cabins looked newer and cleaner and were close to reception. In my opinion, the settling was lovely but the food was mediocre and guides pretty average. Granted, several guides were on vacation and since my visit I heard that the top Danum Valley bird guide moved to Tabin, so this may be improved.
Birding opportunities were limited at Tabin due to pygmy elephant presence and the fact that last year a very unfortunate woman was trampled to death. The only trails we were allowed to walk were to the mud volcano where we had an advance party of 4 young men with loud walky-talkies traipsing down the trail to look for elephants, and to the waterfall at midday. Birding was pretty much all from the back of a truck or around the lodge. I would not recommend staying here without bringing an outside guide, or ensuring they assign you a birding guide. That said, wildlife viewing was great, and is particularly accessible for those that are less mobile.
Semporna and Islands: Stayed at both Sipadan Inns in Semporna which I recommend as clean and comfortable hotels. At the Sipadan Inn 2, deluxe rooms overlooking the water are good for frigate birds, but terrible for boat and restaurant noise well into the wee hours. I birded Sipadan and Pom Pom Islands while there for scuba diving.
Tawau Hills Park: Took minibus to Tawau from Semporna (10MR), then taxi to Tawau Hills Park (40MR). Note, the locals call this park “Bukit Bombalai” and won’t know where you are going if you say Tawau Hills Park. Stayed in the dorm which was clean, quiet, and comfortable, though cold water only showers and no kitchen facilities. The canteen at the entrance serves good food 9 to 5 daily (no beer) and will pack food to go. Mr. Richie (?) who handles room reservation and payment has a bird list compiled by a Cornell group dating to July of 2012. The dorms were mostly empty, but filled up on weekends with school groups, as did the park itself.