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Monday, February 2, 2009

Mount of Kinabalu, highly unreachable

Since 2008, the cost of climbing Mt Kinabalu has skyrocketed, and if you’re lucky, you may get a confirmed booking . . . five months down the line. What’s the deal with Malaysia’s iconic mountain? Here’s the irony — climbing Sabah’s Mount of Kinabalu, whose majestic peak tops out at 4,085m, is relatively easy; trying to wrangle a spot to climb, however, requires a fair bit of doggedness, an open schedule and, yes, money.

In the past year, regular climbers and tourists, both foreign and local, have been flooding the blogosphere, travel forums and media with complaints. Their main gripes are that the climbing cost is astronomical, the waiting list long and the service and infrastructure, substandard.

To climb Mount of Kinabalu, the average person takes about four to six hours to reach about three-quarters of the way to Panar Laban (3,270m), stays overnight at Laban Rata, and then completes the summit push before dawn the next day. Unless you’re super-fit and can dart up the peak like the local porters, you’ll need to book a dormitory bed or a room at the Laban Rata guesthouse, since camping isn’t allowed.

All the lodges on the mountain — the Laban Rata Resthouse, Gunting Lagadan and Sayat-Sayat huts — are owned by the Sabah government under Sabah Parks. In 1998, Sabah privatised the management of the properties, and in 2002, private company Sutera Harbour Resort was appointed to co-manage under the name Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (SSL), with Sabah Parks handling the park administration and collection of fees for conservation, guide, porter and climbing.

To prevent the mountain from being overrun, Sabah Parks limits the number of climbers to 192 people a day. Plus, park rangers enforce the rules on the mountain.

Drastic increase - The problem is the cost of climbing has now increased dramatically. In 2007, a dorm bed in Laban Rata cost only RM30, but in January 2008, the cost with meals included (a packed box, buffet lunch, dinner and breakfast) jumped to RM188, an increase of some 500%.

“Most return climbers to Kinabalu don’t think the price increase is justifiable,” says Ruhaizad Daud of Johor, an avid climber.

“Prior to this, we had the option of booking only the beds without meals. Also, the packed lunch using polystyrene boxes and plastic bags are producing more rubbish on the mountain.”

Apparently, the price increase hasn’t translated into better maintenance, either.

“Interrupted hot water, electricity and plumbing leaks are common. Leaks from the bathrooms trickle down to the restaurant below the sleeping quarters,” adds Ruhaizad, 32, a Kota Kinabalu-based doctor.

This year, the cost of the package (dorm and meals) has escalated to RM330 per person.
One of a Malaysian traveller from Puchong, Selangor, used to pay about RM250 for a three-day/two-night trip to Kinabalu, covering return air ticket, transportation to Kinabalu Park, climbing fees, guide, certificate and insurance.

“AirAsia has made it so affordable for us to fly to KK. But now the cost of climbing the mountain has risen so much that it makes better sense to travel to other countries for a holiday,” writes Tan, who has climbed Kinabalu four times.

Malaysian Budget climbers, had to book his climb at least six months in advance. “Even then, bookings are snapped up quickly as only a few seats are allocated for non-hotel climbers. Preference is given to guests who can afford the pricey packages, which include an additional one-night stay at the foot of the mountain in Kinabalu Park or Mesilau Resort (Mesilau has an alternative route to the peak)”.

“If Sabah Parks is aiming for conservation by limiting the number of people, then they should do it, but not by allowing a monopoly to increase the lodging rates in the name of conservation. Kinabalu is for all, not just the paying few”.

Some bloggers have set up a Facebook petition called “Mount of Kinabalu — Belongs to No-one Else” to boycott SSL accommodation. So far 1,223 people have signed the petition.

On the first week of January, I called SSL to reserve a spot on the mountain for a group of two climbers. After throwing out a few optional dates, the earliest booking I could get was for May 14. The total cost for this two-day climb and an AirAsia promotional return flight ticket for KL-KK is about RM800 per person. Trouble is, not everybody has a flexible schedule and it’s not every day you get to buy cheap AirAsia flights with the dates of your choice.

And for the average Sabahan, paying RM500 (dorm, meals, climbing fee, guide and porter) to climb a mountain in their own backyard seems quite exorbitant.

What the operators say - The Kinabalu issues are also drawing a lot of flak from Sabahan and foreign tour operators. TYK Adventures, one of the pioneer adventure tour operators in Sabah, recently lost about 300 Singapore student clients due to the cost. The group headed to a neighbouring country instead.

“The increase is unbelievable, and surely locals will think it’s cheaper to climb Fansifan in Vietnam,” says Tham Yau Kong, the director of TYK Adventures. Tham himself has climbed Kinabalu about 500 times since the 80s.

“Privatisation is OK if it provides better service but the increase is too much in light of this recession worldwide.”

Some high-end guests don’t mind the price hike if the standard of service and infrastructure has improved, Borneo Eco Tours’ (BET) assistant general manager Susan Soong adds. BET caters to mostly high-end clients from Europe.

“But this year, with the financial downturn, the demand from international tourists are starting to drop. And if domestic tourists can’t afford to climb, it’s just unfortunate,” says Soong.

Foreign operators like UK-based Robert Jones, who specialises in selling Borneo holiday packages, agrees that the Kinabalu pricing is getting out of control.

“We have clients from Europe and the US who want to climb the mountain as a highlight to their trip to Sabah but are put off by the cost and are travelling to Java and Vietnam instead,” says Jones whose company, The Travel Trading Company, has been around for 20 years.

The current reservation system for booking a climb on the mountain also irks some foreign operators.

“On a few occasions, we were told that the mountain and accommodation have been fully booked, only to find out later that it was, in fact, not fully booked at all, and that there was plenty of space for more clients,” adds Will Bolsover, managing director of UK-based World Primate Safaris, who caters mostly for mid- to high-end clients in the 30-70 age group.

“In order to book Mount of Kinabalu for set group departures, they require us to pay the full amount six months in advance!”

However, some operators agree that since the privatisation of the lodgings on the mountain, the service and standard of food and lodging have improved tremendously.

“Also, in the past, travel agents were able to block out the rooms with a small fee and deprive other climbers of a space even when their clients don’t show up. Now there’s a new ruling whereby you have to pay in full one week after reservation, and there’s no refund for cancellation,” says David De La Harpe, the Sabah chapter chairman for Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta).

“Maybe Mount of Kinabalu has been oversold and the carrying capacity is limited, hence the long waiting list. Maybe there’s a need to look at other attractions,” De La Harpe sums up.

However, the Sabahan agrees that it has become expensive to climb the mountain.

Kinabalu is a Unesco World Heritage site and a one of a kind attraction, so every Malaysian should be able, if they so choose, to climb the mountain at least once in their lifetime.

Though the climbing cost may be pittance for some and abominable for others, the key issue here is perhaps that we need to hear the rationale for what’s happening from Sabah Parks and the private company in question.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cameron Hingland the Touch Of Colonial

Fill your senses with nostalgia as you bask in the warmth of a real burning fireplace, plantation shutters and impeccable service.TOUCH OF COLONIAL CHARM: A chilly wind, burning logs, four-poster beds, plantation shutters and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. All these add up to a nostalgic experience in the hill resort of Cameron Highlands. TOUCH OF COLONIAL CHARM: A chilly wind, burning logs, four-poster beds, plantation shutters and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. All these add up to a nostalgic experience in the hill resort of Cameron Highlands.

HOW about grilling sweet potatoes over the fire? “Can they do that?” A resort manager Ben Quah who looks rather amused at that question. “I’ve never had anyone make that request before and we wouldn’t encourage it,” he replies honestly, explaining that the sparks from the log fire may be dangerous. He agrees though, that the dancing tongues of flames in the real fireplace in such an English setting proves absolutely irresistible with promises of a different sort, especially to locals. This really sums up Cameron Highlands Resort, a 56-room award-winning boutique hotel run by YTL Hotels.

Fireplace Ritual-In keeping alive the traditions of the past era, the resort management invites the guests to light the fireplace every evening at 7pm. This is not merely symbolic as the fireplaces have real logs that burn with crackling flames. There are two such fireplaces, in the library outside The Dining Room restaurant and in the Highland Bar near the Jim Thompson Tea Room. Curl up on one of the deep hued leather chairs near the fire and one can pretend to be in faraway England. It’s a warmth that penetrates both skin and soul, especially with the chilly wind whistling through the tall pines outside the main entrance.

Colonial Setting-Use of dark wood and white gives the hotel a very old English ambience. Tall French windows, timber-ceilings and plantation manor shutters add a touch of rustic nostalgia to the rooms. In some rooms, grand four-poster beds evoke the sense of stepping into another time, another place. The resort is designed to evoke the genteel colonial lifestyle, an era that fuses English tradition with Asian hospitality. All rooms of the two-storey building face the golf course right across the road. And unless he is away. Check-in is quick and painless and though there are no lifts, you needn’t worry about having to lug your heavy luggage up the flight of stairs to the reception or to rooms on the upper floor as all is taken care of even as you sign on the dotted line. The hotel is only two storeys high.

Take A Swing - And tempting though it is to luxuriate in doing nothing in the comfortable rooms, there is a whole world of activities waiting outside. For those who enjoy swinging an iron, the golf course is conveniently across the road. The terrain of the 18-hole course is in itself a challenge as are water hazards and bunkers. Equipment is available for rent.

In The Steps Of Jim Thompson - For me though, the Jim Thompson Mystery Trail offered by the resort, beckons. The 73-year-old naturalist is a walking encyclopedia on all things wild in Cameron Highlands and he helped cut the trail when the resort first opened. Board a van to the starting point near the Lutheran Trail where the church caretaker claimed to have seen Thompson waving on the fateful Sunday that he disappeared in March 1967. Till today, the Jim Thompson disappearance remains a mystery. There are two walks organised each day for the light trail that lasts about two hours - at 10am and at 3pm. On Sundays, however, the walk starts only at 3pm. The time is to coincide with the precise hour that Thompson was said to start off on his walk. Though there are a few mildly challenging slopes, the walk covers mostly even ground and crosses a couple of small streams. All along the way, Uncle Yip stops to point out the various species of plants, flowers, fungi, insects and birds. It’s most eye-opening as the untrained would have simply strolled past these without a thought. For the more adventurous in the mood for more challenging trails, the management can help make arrangements for a wild time.

Spa Indulgence - One end of the resort is totally dedicated to the Spa Village, with treatments ranging from healing therapies based on ingredients from the surrounding jungles to time-tested recipes of the Orang Asli. The spa is open from 9am to 8pm. One can have the full treatment or opt for specific treatments and massages. The Semai is a his-&-her treatment based on the practices of the Semai Orang Asli. Then there is the Rose Garden, Cameron Mint and Chrysanthemum and Avocado Escape as well as the favourite Fresh Strawberry Escapade. After all, strawberries, so evocative of English summers, tie in very well with the whole Cameron Highlands Resort experience. After a cup of tea and changing into a sarung, the treatment begins with a strawberry tea bath. Slipping into the hot water infused with tea leaves and slices of fresh strawberries is totally blissful. A tray across the bath holds sugar crystal for scrubbing, slices of lime for softening the skin around elbows and knees, a tea and honey poultice to soothe the facial skin and a glass of honey lime juice to refresh the palate. Tea bags are offered for the eyes. The aroma of strawberries waft up from the hot water and one is tempted — almost — to pick up a slice of fruit floating in the water and munch on it. After the bath comes the strawberry body polish. Contrary to expectations, this is not a scrub. Instead, a combination of oatmeal, yoghurt and strawberry puree is slathered all over the body and you find yourself encased in an aluminium blanket with hot towels to open the pores and let the ingredients soften and refine the skin texture. And the 20 minutes pass by so fast it feels like just five. You will told to go shower and wash off the body buff. The third part of the treatment trilogy is a massage with strawberry scented oils.

Dining Delights - The boutique hotel serves meals at The Dining Room, Jim Thompson Tea Room and Gonbei Japanese restaurant but private dining is offered in the garden gazebo or out on the terrace for steamboat, nabemono or a barbecue. Drinks are available at the Highlands Bar, a really “setengah, tuan” experience complete with crackling fireplace in the evenings and a snooker table. A resident pianist tinkles the ivory keys in the evenings. The Dining Room is where guests have breakfast and dinner. Overlooking the golf course and an outdoor terrace, the specialty here is colonial cuisine like warm truffle eggs with smoked salmon, French onion soup, fish and chips, panfried seabass, beef medallions, braised lamb shank and more. At the Jim Thompson Tea Room, tiffin lunch and English afternoon tea are time-honoured traditions from the days of plantation owners. The afternoon tea offers a wide selection of teas with sandwiches, pastries and freshly-baked scones with clotted cream and home-made preserves. For a really special picnic, ask for the Tea Plantation Picnic and the hotel will arrange to have it in the middle of the Sungai Palas Tea Plantation. It’s an experience like none other.

Places of interest - Cameron Highlands is made up of three townships — Ringlet, Tanah Rata and Brinchang. The highest point of Gunung Brinchang is 2,031m (6,666ft) above sea level. One can climb up a Telekoms observation tower at the top and, on a clear day, see the rolling hills for miles around. Tea plantations, flower gardens and pick-your-own strawberry farms form the main attractions here as well as butterfly and honey bee farm. At the Sungai Palas Boh Plantation ( and the Bharat Plantation (, visitors can relax and unwind with a cup of tea while enjoying the breath-taking view of sculptured tea bushes grown on the undulating hillsides. They can also visit the tea factories and learn how tea is processed, from the picking of the tea leaves to the final product in tea bags. To visit vegetable farms, join the agro-tours and visit the various vegetable farms and end with a visit to the vegetable market. For nature lovers, there are plenty of jungle activities including jungle walks, mountain climbing, forest trails, bird-watching, 4WD adventures, camping and visits to aboriginal settlements. Several local companies there organise localised tours. Check with your hotel reception for availability. You can also participate in the Cameron Highlands Plant-A-Tree reforestation project that started in July 2007, with the aim of educating visitors on the importance of highland forests. To take part, check details at A relatively new interest is Time Tunnel, a collector’s gallery that opened in mid-2007. Visitors step into a page from the past of not only Cameron Highlands but the country in general. Here, the older generation indulges in mega-doses of nostalgia while taking delight in pointing out to the younger generations things that no longer exist today, like old cash registers, tiffin carriers, school desks, old toys and other stuff from the 50s and 60s. Call 013-524 7120 or check out On Fridays, Saturdays and school holidays, head for the night market in Brinchang opposite the police station and browse around the many stalls selling all kinds of things from fresh fruit and vegetables to clothes and local delicacies.

How To Get There - Cameron Highlands Resort is located in Tanah Rata, opposite the Golf Course. You can’t miss the imposing structure with its unmistakably English ambience. From the north, exit at the Simpang Pulai toll and follow directions to Brinchang and from there to Tanah Rata. From the south, exit at Tapah interchange and follow directions to Cameron Highlands. The resort is just a little way uphill from Tanah Rata. To contact the resort, call 06-491 1100 or logon to

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