Tag Archives: Malaysia

Shoe shopping in Kota Kinabalu

Five days in Kota Kinabalu is a long time. I had to leave Indonesia before my visa expired and joining a tour through Borneo I thought I would get there early. Time to catch up with e-mails, blog, dive and chance to explore Sabah’s capital city.

Arriving at the airport tired from a day’s travelling and wishing (not for the first time) I had applied for that extra long visa for Bali, I emerged in arrivals to an odd dance that I joined in trying to read the name on the piece of paper being held in front of me. There weren’t many other people around and Martin had clearly spotted me long before I was able to read that it was my name scribbled out on an A4 sheet of paper he was holding aloft. Born and raised in Kota Kinabalu the taxi driver assigned to collect me quickly established who I was, along with a surprising amount of personal information before we’d even got to the car. He continued to peer around behind me to check that I really was travelling alone, this seemed to have come as a genuine surprise. Along with age, employment history, family history, where I’ve come from, where I’m going to, siblings – age and employment history and so on, Martin seemed satisfied. Don’t get me wrong this was a two way conversation and he told me just as much about his own family, upbringing and the city I was visiting, I just hadn’t experienced quite such a pace of exchange. The journey to the city was ten minutes. In that time I learned most of the history of Kota Kinabalu, how he grew up in a house on stilts in the water to a Chinese father and Malaysian mother, when most of what now exists of KK did not exist. Ninety percent of the city is built on reclaimed land from the sea. It wasn’t there 30 years ago. There were many more details I’m sorry to have forgotten but it left me with a renewed energy for Sabah and set the scene for what unravelled to become my experience of Malaysian Borneo.

How much of this translates out of context I’m not sure but into this sleepy city in the middle of the night I went and, after establishing that I wasn’t in the hotel I was booked in, I was taken to one I’d never heard of but it seems they were expecting me. The full sized horse in reception with a lampshade on its head and Chinese New Year celebrations a full 10 days before Chinese New Year softened my landing as I thought I should probably just go with it, it made it all a lot easier.

The following morning I went downstairs just to check the horse was still there and it hadn’t been imagined. Nope, still there. Apart from a couple of small children, no one else seemed to notice. Even other people I later met on the tour replied that they also had not noticed and weren’t sure how, once it was pointed out to them. For much of the week there seemed to also always be a small gathering of people waiting in reception. This might not sound peculiar, but day and night a clutch of people waiting were ever present. I never saw them arrive or leave. I was also staying on a floor level that didn’t exist. None of this did anything to ground me in any familiar sense of reality.

imageWhile this tells you little of my trip it does I hope set the scene for my later shoe buying excursion.

I spent a long time planning and preparing for my trip. One of the most important parts was selecting the things I would take with me. A great deal of research went into finding things that were light weight, multi functional and likely to last the course. In particular shoes. I have always had trouble buying shoes. I am taller than average and thus have feet which are larger than average. A source of trying weekend excursions as a child and endless internet shopping as an adult. I knew this was an item that would be especially important for me and was delighted to have found and purchased a pair of ‘Keen’ sandals, robust and comfortable they have been brilliant in hot weather and cold, trekking mountains and rivers. Alas, after several days hiking in Thailand through rivers what I didn’t expect was that drying them by the camp fire might lead to them melting. Not by very much, I kept an eye on them not to perish, just enough for the shoe to develop lumpy pointy bits along the edges. This was a bit of a blow. Not to be disheartened, I trimmed said ‘pointy bits’ and bandaged them with plasters, good as new. I had the fabric mended in Chiang Mai as the stitching had come a little loose as well and gave them a bit of a clean with the sponge that had been dropped once too often in the open showers in the mountains. They would be fine.


These shoes have taken me along the edge of Lake Baikal in Siberia, climbed the Great Wall of China and hiked the mountains of Northern Thailand following elephants in the wild. I really can’t replace them.


It came as something of a surprise to learn that locally, Kota Kinabalu is the place many many people come to shop. There are very many ‘shopping centres’ granted but all look decidedly unlikely places many would actually come to ‘shop’. More akin to a collection of dodgy market stalls with a roof. They all seem to sell the same things, mostly small electricals, endless arrays of plastic things, ‘souvenirs’, multi coloured polyester clothing and pre packed food stuffs of similar colours. None of which looks especially interesting. I was not surprised to later learn that everything sold is imported. So no little fair trade shops selling locally produced handicrafts. The ‘handicraft market’ sadly seeming to be a collection of mass produced items imported from the Philippines and China and more worryingly several with objects of ‘decoration’ made with shells and coral, and large signs saying ‘no photo’!

So wandering around KK after the tour ended I wasn’t expecting very much. An unlikely looking shoe shop drew me in, however, and (while no true replacement for my beloved Keens) I spotted some shoes that I thought might be a good alternative.

Expecting to be told ‘no’ I asked for my size. The first was a ‘no’ but the second a possible. The sales assistant disappeared and returned with one shoe. I tried the shoe on and asked for the other. I also (as I am used to doing) asked for another size. She returned with one shoe. We spend some time doing this before I realised she was also disappearing with the shoes already presented to me as soon as I took them off. As you might expect this made the whole ordeal somewhat more long winded and she became increasingly frustrated with me as I wanted to keep hold of them and insisted on trying two shoes at a time (one on each foot). I looked around me to see how this was being done in other parts of the shop but learned little. Never had I encountered a sales assistant so apparently intent on not assisting me in sales, disinterested yes, but not actively preventing me from buying something. This did not need to take very long. There were essentially three options. Not for the first time I lost any sense of time passing. This really is a peculiar place. There were many other people in the shop, although I don’t think I actually witnessed anyone else buying any. There were no windows or natural light. The stock room was in the attic I later saw, with arms and boxes emerging from the ceiling at intervals. Thus each time a shoe was returned, it then had to be re found and delivered if requested again (ie to try on the other half of the pair).

I did find this trying but it became something of a quest to master the technique of shoe buying in Borneo. At last, a pair of shoes were passed to me and fitted, almost delirious I asked to buy them. Anticipating more hurdles at this point, aside from the confusion that I didn’t want the box (or a plastic bag) it became surprisingly straight forward. I handed over money and the shoes were mine! Bordering on the hysterical I exit left.


New shoes have a lot to live up to.

Trains and tiffin

Back on the trail of Annie Brassey, and I’ve made a brief diversion to Borneo. It has temporarily taken me further away from Australia, but having heard a little about Annie’s time here made it a place not to miss. Annie visited the Darvel Valley area (of what was then North Borneo) in search of bird’s nests. It had also been thought that this search through caves had been the place she contracted malaria (surely I had to visit).

The prized bird’s nests of the swiftlets in Borneo are now harvested with a little more attention to health and safety and sustainability than might have been the case when Annie visited. Her photos and journal indicate that the harvesting of bird’s nests was something of a high risk and precarious activity. Albeit for high returns. Darvel Valley is now an area of significant scientific interest and conservation. The white bird’s nest that Annie collected from her visit to the Madai caves is now held at Bexhill Museum. She had also wanted to visit another cave, the Gomantong caves which, after sending a couple of people from the voyage off to do ‘a reckie’ she was eventually persuaded that these were not accessible, she wouldn’t be able to visit. The two men in question having waded arm pit deep through swamps, hacked through jungle and swum not inconsiderable distances to find the caves before turning around to report back some days later. For me, alas, it is the Madai caves which are proving a little more elusive. I have, however, been able to arrange to visit the Gomantong caves later this week. I think Annie would be pleased.

North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward 2014)

North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward 2014)

In the mean time, while spending time in Sabah’s capital of Kota Kinabalu I have also been able to get back on the train. A tourist train, it is nonetheless the only stretch of railway in Borneo. It is also advertised as serving breakfast and tiffin. For this alone it is worth the trip. Annie talks a great deal about tiffin. Understandably two of her greatest concerns seem to be where to eat, when, and who with, and where she will be spending the night. I have never ‘taken tiffin’ so am intrigued and looked forward to it with great anticipation.


Vulcan Locomotive, Lancashire (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Vulcan Locomotive, Lancashire (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Arriving at Stesen Tanjung Aru I am greeted by a number of members of staff dressed in pressed cream outfits, long shorts and knee high socks for the men and pith helmets all round. The 1950’s and 1960’s music of the Everly Brothers, The Chordettes ‘Mr Sandman’ and Danny and the Juniors ‘At the hop’ emitting in and around the turn of the century steam engine from ¬†Lancashire (and Japanese carriages) only adds to the slightly surreal sense of time and place. It is not for the first time I consider Kota Kinabalu to be slightly off centre (I was greeted by a life sized horse with a lampshade on its head in my hotel). We are issued with passports, menus and fans before sitting down at designated tables and wait to depart. The tables are all set for breakfast and iced lemon tea is served. As we pull out of the station, a selection of pastries and tea and coffee is distributed. The scenery as we leave the city behind changes to a coastal view with wooden houses on stilts in the sea, before returning inland and watching the change from greenery and rivers to small collections of wooden houses, interspersed with new constructions of brick and metal. Most of Kota Kinabalu is built on reclaimed land, almost 90% in the last 30 years.

Kinarut )Louise Kenward, 2014)

Kinarut (Louise Kenward, 2014)

The first place we stop is Kinarut, a small town which is mostly made up of old wooden buildings and a variety of shops. It all looks a little ramshackle and only adds to the sense of another time. After a short stop we return to the train and our final destination, where we get out again for a stroll around Papar and it’s market. The locals greet us rather bemused. The layers of references to different times, places and periods in history makes it feel slightly disorientating and perhaps the kind of place and time when I might even have bumped into Annie.


Papar, the end of the North Borneo Railway line.


 Passports are stamped and iced tea is served.


Tiffin! Four fabulous dishes served as we leave Papar on the return journey to Kota Kinabalu.

Menu on board North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Menu on board North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Border crossings

I’ve just crossed my 15th border, from Malaysia into Singapore. Not necessarily any more remarkable than many others but worthy of a note as the fifteenth. The first and only time I have been asked to unpack everything in my bags was before even leaving the UK at Ashford International. A couple of borders through Europe were crossed without my knowledge, it is difficult to judge border crossings when there are no distinguishable markers. But from entering Belarus onwards, each has had its own inimitable style and ranged from taking a matter of minutes (although this is exceptional) to the best part of a day. Arriving at Singapore overland I took a bus journey across the bridge from Malaysia. Leaving Malaysia is straight forward enough, get off the bus, queue up, passport shown and stamped, but arriving at Singapore involved something of a Christmas shopping/early sales dash off the bus (while it is still queueing in traffic heading to the border) grabbing all luggage stowed away under the coach and running headlong for immigration (safe in the knowledge that the bus will leave without you if you take more than 20 minutes). Queues quickly stack up before you can register which of the many lines are for ‘Singapore only’ and which ‘all passports’. That fail to win strategy of guessing which is the best queue to join. Then the prolonged period of anxiously waiting, watching as each person is checked in ahead, taking what seems to be a laboriously long time, while all the other lines seemingly move more quickly. There are ten people ahead of me and the man in the blue shirt is looking increasingly nervous, waiting at the desk. The woman the other side of the desk stands up, takes a drink of water and seems to be none the wiser to the chaos around her. As his wait goes on it appears that the computer has broken. Someone comes to ‘assist’, followed by someone else. I surreptitiously inch my way along to the next line. Nothing happens for what seems like a very long time. As I get to the next queue, predictably enough, the first line starts to move again. The queue I now find myself in is now waiting twice as long as the staff scan both lines of passports.

After a good deal of internal cursing and desperate looks to the customs area, willing myself ever closer, I finally reach the hallowed place where my passport and arrival card is examined and stamped – taking just long enough to make you doubt who you are and where you are from and that you might actually be some major drugs baron or similar. Bags are then hurled on to the conveyor belt that takes everything through to be scanned and dumps it unceremoniously in a heap muddled up with everyone else’s suff. No idea of how long has now passed, but sure it is more than twenty minutes I take my chances and head to where the bus would be…success, it seems he waited for everyone after all (even the person caught with chewing gum, yes chewing gum is illegal in Singapore), why not make it a more interesting event and threaten to leave the poor lost travellers stranded? Ah those tricksy bus drivers and their cunning sense of humour. Next time I’m taking the train.

Singapore skyline (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Singapore skyline (Louise Kenward, 2013)

There are no tuk tuks in Penang

The sign says 327km to Kuala Lumpar. The landscape is greener, with a greater variety of trees and shrubs. Increasingly colourful, flowers can be seen in reds, oranges, yellows and now purples too. Leaving the island of Penang and heading for Kuala Lumpar, I have arrived in Malaysia. Another shift in culture, language and infrastructure. The roads are densely packed with cars, the roads are densely packed, and initially suggest that I could be on the A21 or the M25, housing estates along the road leave me thinking I could be in Eastbourne.

I have been travelling by bus through Malaysia, so am missing the trains. It has meant I can visit places not on the train lines though (like Melaka which is lovely).

Chew Jetty, Penang (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Chew Jetty, Penang (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Chew Jetty, Penang (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Chew Jetty, Penang (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Since Annie Brassey visited in 1879, Penang has grown and been heavily developed. Staying in Georgetown, however (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) much of what she saw is still intact. The large colonial buildings can still be seen, like city hall. Chew jetty has been preserved and Penang Hill remains, although the view rather different from Annie’s.

Funicular Railway, Penang Hill (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Funicular Railway, Penang Hill (Louise Kenward, 2013)

View from the top of Penang Hill (Louise Kenward, 2013)

View from the top of Penang Hill (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Leaving another country takes a while to get used to. Adjusting to a new place and noticing the differences. Venturing into an increasingly ‘developed’ world I’m missing the haggling and contact with people at market stalls and hawker stands. Venturing back down Penang Hill, on the super new funicular/venicular train I arrive to a dark and quiet spot, half an hour’s drive from Georgetown. Teksi’s are all booked and awaiting customers and there are no tuk tuks in Penang.

After some time, the 204 bus arrives and I’m once again reminded of the kindness of strangers.