With a dairy farm, tea garden and fish that nibble your feet, the countryside around Kota Kinabalu has plenty to offer the visitor
SEPARATED by the South China Sea, Malaysia comprises two very distinct regions – the Peninsula abutting Thailand’s southern provinces and Borneo Island, which it shares with Indonesia and Brunei.
Some 3,700 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur, the resort of Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah State, is a popular destination with tourists thanks to its verdant mountain ranges, massive farmlands and beautiful beaches. It’s also a bustling business hub and easily accessible for Thai visitors thanks to regular three-hour direct flights from Bangkok.
The Desa Cattle Dairy stands in the middle of the valley.
Spread over 73,000 square kilometres, this city of 450,000 people has everything you’d expect to find in a modern capital including such leading hotel chains as Hilton, Shangri-La, Le Meridien, Mercure, Hyatt Regency and ibis.
Many visitors, though, prefer to head out of town and discovered the state’s many rural charms. Located some 80km from KK, as the city is known locally, the village of Lingkubang is a paradise for the adventurous sort. Most come for the white water rafting along a 10km stretch of the Kadamain River, which flows down from Mount Kinabalu.
The land is blanketed with black sands and volcanic rocks and the waterway is full of twists and turns. Small stone dikes are built by the locals during the summer months to enhance catches in the bamboo traps they craft for fishing.
The rafting routes are divided into four levels ranging from beginners to veterans and everyone is provided with a life jacket and helmet. Hemmed in by a lush tropical jungle on the sides, we spend two hours paddling and rafting along the river –jumping into the cold water when the levels are low and floating to our heart’s content. Those wanting more extreme experiences can head south to Beaufort and enjoy a full day of rafting along the Padas River.
Tourists stop to take a picture with Mount Kinabalu during a rafting adventure.
Leaving the river behind, we head to Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site designated by Unesco in 2000 for its “outstanding universal values”. Covering 754sqkm, it boasts four climate zones ranging from tropical rainforest to sub-alpine, and is home more than 5,000 plant species of Himalayan, Indo-Malay and Australian origin, plus more than 4,000 species of birds and wild animals.
Perched at 1,563 metres above sea level, the average temperature here is about 20 degrees Celsius and the rain falls year round, making it a popular holiday escape. The park offers a selection of 10 trekking trails and visitors of all ages can enjoy strolling through the lush jungle and learning about ecology and the life cycle of animals.
Mount Kinabalu itself stands high above the national park at an altitude of 4,095 metres. The temperature on the peak drops to minus 8 to 10 degree Celsius and it gets its name from the Kadazan word “Aki Nabalu” meaning “the revered place of the dead”. Locals believe that this summit is a sanctuary for their ancestors’ spirits.
Luxurious but surprisingly affordable bungalow style accommodation in the park along with a restaurant serving a variety of local delicacies.
Kinabalu National Park offers a collection of comfortable accommodation at reasonable prices for tourists.
And staying overnight is a good idea as we discover the next morning on a visit to the Desa Cattle Dairy in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu and just 10km from the national park. Dubbed “Little New Zealand”, it was set up in 1980 and is today a popular setting for pre-wedding photography, with grassland spreading out over 199 hectares and the mountains as the backdrop. The farm specialises in breeding Holstein Friesian cattle, the world’s highest-production dairy animals whose origins can be found in Northern Holland and Northern Germany, and which each year produce some 90,00 litres of milk.
Recognising the potential for agro-tourism, the dairy underwent a major refurbishment between 2007 and 2009, adding a sheep farm to expand the range of dairy products to include home-made yoghurt, ice cream and cheese. The operation is high-tech so visitors expecting to have a go at milking will be disappointed.
Visitors have fun feeding cattle.
Another popular stop is Luanti, a small kampong on the banks of Moroli River and home is a fish spa. The fish here cannot be caught – only nibble feet – and the kampong itself is the proud holder of the 2006 Malaysia River Care Award.
The Sabah Tea Garden, the only organic tea farm in Borneo, is just up the road and offers an eco-friendly tour through the terraced rainforest along with tea tasting and several recreational activities such as obstacle-crossing and trekking to the peak of Kamunsu Hill. Visitors should make time to sample the home-made tea pancakes at the garden’s cafe.
Sore muscles from the climb are quickly relieved with a mineral bath at Poring Hot Spring, where the water is a glorious 80 to 90 degrees Celsius followed by a vertiginous stroll along the 40-metre-high Canopy Walk to see the jungle from above.
Rafflesia flowers in full bloom.
As the sun sets, we head to the nearby botanical site to admire the rafflesia flowers, a kind of parasitic flowering plant of Tetrastigma vines that can be found in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Billed as the biggest flowers in the world, they take six months to grow then die within 48 hours of blooming.
The writer travelled courtesy of AirAsia and Sabah Tourism Board.
IF YOU GO
>> AirAsia operates three direct flights weekly (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) between Bangkok and Kota Kinabalu.
>> Check out the best rates at www.AirAsia.com.