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Friday, November 26, 2010

Exploring Gunung Kinabalu, Southeast Asia's Tallest Mountain

Southeast Asia's Tallest Mountain

Mount Kinabalu, Tallest Mountain in Southeast Asia
In case you want temporary respite from the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia, you should consider that Mount Kinabalu retains ice at its summit much of the year, and while the trip up may be exhausting, it is certainly rewarding. It is one that requires advance planning and reservations, however, so be aware a spur-of-the-moment mountain climbing trip might result in disappointment.

Preparing to Climb Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu is the capitol of Sabah, the eastern side of Malaysian north Borneo, and most people pass through it in their way to Kota Kinabalu National Park, home of Gunung Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and tallest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua at 13,435 feet above sea level.  It is also a good place to pick up some mountain climbing gear. 

Before you go shopping for gear, however, you must make a reservation to climb the mountain.  While it sounds silly, there are two ways to climb--an overnight stay at a lodge near the summit, or a single-day up and down climb.  For the overnight stay, reservations are required for the lodge, and often it is fully booked for three or four weeks in advance and particularly during Malaysian or Singaporean holidays.  In fact, some travelers have reported that they've not been able to book even 6-8 weeks in advance.

Mount Kinabalu Accommodation

If you are traveling as a group, it is especially important you book your stay ahead of time. The Park is managed by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.  You can make online reservations here.  You can also call them at 60 88-243629 or 60 88-245742.  There are also a variety of fees, including an extrance fee to the park, and if you climb, there is the lodging, guide, and an insurance fee.  These add up to around 200RM for the climb.  You can see a full list of fees here.  They no longer list the prices of accomodation at Laban Rata, the rest place for the night, but there are four different places to stay--you would need to call for the up-to-the-minute pricing:
  1. Laban Rata Resthouse itself, which the only accommodation at Laban Rata which has heated room.
  2. Gunting Lagadan, non-heated.
  3. Waras Hut, non-heated.
  4. Panar Laban Hut, non-heated.
For those who are especially fit, and up-and-down in a day trip can be arranged, but be aware that only 4-8 people a day are allowed to do this as each group must go with a guide, and each group is limited to four people.  Also, if you haven't made good progress and reached the summit by the early afternoon, you will be forced to turn around and descend.  So, unless you are really in exceptional physical condition, you shouldn't plan this, and even if you are, you should plan on relaxing the following day because you will likely be very sore.

Mountain Climbing "Gear"
Gunung Kinabalu is not a particularly difficult mountain to climb as mountains go although there are places where you will need to use a rope to scale up steep rocks.  That is not to say it isn't an exertion, and it does require that you be in good physical condition.  However, given that the park itself is at a very high elevation and quite cool--even cold after one has spent a few weeks in the steamy jungles--it is a good idea to pick up gloves, a jacket, and a rain slick, the former two not necessarily being items you packed for your Southeast Asian Adventure. You might also consider bringing yourself a snack, but keep everything in sealed plastic bags, and I suggest you bring a change of clothes as well.  Misty rains are very common, so be particularly aware of any electronics you may have such as a cell phone or digital cameras.

How to Get to Kota Kinabalu National Park

Getting to Kota Kinabalu National Park is simple.  The main minibus and minivan station is opposite Wisma Wawasan Plaza at the southern end of the city.  You will recognize it immediately as there will be minibuses and touts announcing the destinations.  Generally, you should go fairly early in the morning.  Minivans leave as they fill up, so you may find yourself waiting for a little while before you are able to depart.  The fare is generally under 50 RM (ringgit Malaysia).  The ride is generally about two hours long to the National Park, although more than once travelers have reported accidents delaying their trip by an hour or more.

You can also choose to take a private taxi.  The fair will be about RM 180 to the National Park, but plan on paying 200 RM for a taxi back, particularly if you arrange it through the Park head quarters.  You can also get the handphone number of your driver and arrange a time for your return.  In case you have an early morning flight, you should definitely arrange to return by a private car, and let your driver know at least 24 hours in advance.  You can see more on fares in Kota Kinabalu at AboutSabah.Com.

There is fierce debate as to whether it is better to stay within the park or in some of the surrounding lodges, and ultimately in comes down to price versus convenience.  It can be very expensive to stay within the park itself, with dorm rooms running between RM290 - RM360 per night for quite spartan accommodation, but with nice showers with steamy hot water.  Outside the park, places like D'Villa Rina Ria Lodge (phone: 60 88 889282)--only a few hundred meters from the park entrance--offer dorm rooms for as little as 30 RM.  The Mountain Lodge (60 16-2084909) is another accommodation, about 1 km from the park entrance.  Often times your guesthouse in Kota Kinabalu will have special arrangements with these other accommodations outside the park and can sometimes secure small discounts for you.  Kinabalu Rose Cabin (60 88-888233) is another not-so-far away option, slightly pricier with rooms beginning around 75 RM.

While in the park, there are plenty of hiking trails to explore, as well as other summits that might interest one. And again, the escape from the heat--the nights are downright cold--can be a welcome change before you descend once again to continue your adventure.  


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