From one of the world’s old­est rain­forests to the high­est moun­tain in Malaysia, Sabah is home to a di­verse punch of habi­tats. As a first timer in Bor­neo, I opted for a tran­quil and au­then­tic re­treat with Sutera Sanc­tu­ary Lodges

Marie Claire (Malaysia) - - News - Pho­to­graphs & Text By Daphne Ng

A tran­quil and au­then­tic re­treat ex­pe­ri­ence in Sabah with Sutera Sanc­tu­ary Lodges.


“Are you go­ing to climb the moun­tain?” My driver Gondu asked, 30 min­utes af­ter my touch­down flight at Kota Kin­a­balu air­port and five min­utes into our jour­ney to Kin­a­balu Park. I meekly shook my head, telling him I had thought about it but de­cid­ing I sim­ply did not (yet) have the stamina. Con­quer­ing Mount Kin­a­balu seems to be the unspoken, unchecked box on ev­ery Malaysian’s bucket list – the closer you are to the UNESCO World Her­itage Site ge­o­graph­i­cally, the more you are ex­pected to have climbed it. Born out of per­sonal goals or nab­bing brag­ging rights – I wasn’t sure – but what I did know was that I could barely climb Se­menyih’s Broga Hill with­out gasp­ing for breath (or life).

Bury­ing mixed feel­ings of re­gret and re­lief, I was ush­ered into my ac­com­mo­da­tion for the next two nights at Kin­a­balu Park – a quaint lit­tle hexag­o­nal hill lodge sit­u­ated high up on a slope with a misty view of the mon­tane alpine mead­ows. At the bot­tom of the slope sits Li­wagu Restau­rant, one of the two restau­rants in the park. A short 15-minute walk away is Bal­sam Buf­fet Restau­rant, where avid moun­tain trekkers would fuel up with break­fast be­fore mak­ing their way to La­ban Rata, the mid­point rest house be­fore mak­ing their fi­nal climb to the moun­tain. Around Kin­a­balu Park where there is only one shut­tle van for the plethora of guests they host, ev­ery­one is en­cour­aged to walk – I noted as I ob­served a gag­gle of Ja­panese tourists armed with vi­sors and sun­glasses mak­ing their way to the Botan­i­cal Gar­den.

Aside from reg­u­lar staff, Sutera Sanc­tu­ary Lodges has a se­lected team of nat­u­ral­ists in each re­treat. Un­der my ap­pointed nat­u­ral­ist Fred­die’s guid­ance, I passed through Tim­po­hon Gate which op­er­ates un­der a strict climber’s per­mit-only en­trance. For those who pre­fer to view the sum­mit from a dis­tance, climb the stairs that lead to a view­ing deck. Since the 6.0 mag­ni­tude earth­quake that rocked Kin­a­balu in 2015, Tim­po­hon has be­come the sole trail that leads to the sum­mit. The quake tragedy caused the de­struc­tion of the more ad­vanced Me­si­lau Trail and took 18 lives; tourists, moun­tain guides, and pri­mary school kids. As I stood and con­tem­plated the brass plaque that was erected in hon­our of th­ese 18 in­di­vid­u­als, a pang of sad­ness washed over me when I over­heard another vis­i­tor re­gal­ing the story of how a 12-year-old vic­tim’s fam­ily de­cided to con­quer Mount Kin­a­balu in her hon­our on the an­niver­sary of her death.

The short trek from Tim­po­hon led me to a 10-me­tre tall wa­ter­fall with a wooden sign­post that read ‘Car­son Fall’ in yel­low staked into the ground. As I took in the sight of the small re­ward for a few min­utes of trekking, a few moun­tain trekkers made their way back from the sum­mit, sweat plas­tered to fore­head but full of gump­tion and care­free grins that one wears even when your mus­cles ache or scream in pain.

I made my way back with the group, pass­ing the gate and the arch which con­grat­u­lated, or in my case, mocked me with ‘Wel­come back, you are suc­cess­ful climbers’. RAIN­FOR­EST RE­COV­ERY

Tourists and lo­cals flock to Mount Kin­a­balu for its world-fa­mous attraction – but some 40 min­utes away, nes­tled fur­ther deeper in Ranau is Por­ing Hot Springs. Out of the four re­treat des­ti­na­tions Sutera Sanc­tu­ary plays host to, Por­ing Hot Springs is its most re­mote. Here’s why you should not dis­miss this – af­ter the chilly moun­tain air, a re­lax­ing dip in the park’s all-nat­u­ral sul­phur hot springs soothes the mus­cles and a ca­sual stroll among the park’s highly dense and hu­mid low­land rain­for­est is a wel­come breath of fresh air.

The ac­com­mo­da­tions of­fered were noth­ing short of lux­u­ri­ous and cosy, rang­ing from Seren­dit Hos­tel; a dor­mi­tory that boasts a lovely com­mu­nal area in the heart of the park, to Palm Vil­las; pri­vate pre­mium dou­ble-storey lodges that evoke the feel­ing of Scan­di­na­vian houses with large win­dows that ex­tend all the way to its gabled roofs.

The only restau­rant in Por­ing Hot Springs is the Rain­for­est Restau­rant where I opted for din­ner on a rainy night. I wasn’t the only one who was ex­cited about

hav­ing my din­ner at 7pm – due to the pres­ence of a bat cave in the park, the crea­tures of the night swooped in and out of the restau­rant to feast on fly­ing night bugs – mak­ing it an un­usual sight for a city girl like me. Rain­for­est Restau­rant’s Head Chef Minin was ex­tremely en­thu­si­as­tic about the lo­cal del­i­ca­cies he had pre­pared for me in small dishes: fish mack­erel sim­mered in co­conut milk, fried chicken with lo­cal tuhau, banana heart with shal­lot and gar­lic, fern shoot tossed with an­chovies, and my favourite – prawn with Thai chilli and young mango. Th­ese dishes were com­fort food for the heart. Chef Minin takes pride in the fact that ev­ery­thing is cooked with fresh lo­cal hand-picked high­land veg­eta­bles. If you were to wan­der into the restau­rant and ex­pect to or­der this right off the menu, you would be dis­ap­pointed. In­stead, Chef Minin told me he likes to get to know ev­ery cus­tomer, tai­lor­ing the dishes de­pend­ing on the taste and pref­er­ence of each guest.

With so many nat­u­ral at­trac­tions in Por­ing Hot Springs (a but­ter­fly farm, or­chid con­ser­va­tion cen­tre, wa­ter­fall trails, bat cave hikes) I was spoilt for choice. I’d heard about the canopy walk among the trees and de­cided to give it a try. At the en­trance of the gate was a sign­board that warned vis­i­tors with heart ail­ment, fear of heights, and hy­per­ten­sion. Given that I had at­tempted bungee jump­ing three years ago and was con­vinced noth­ing could beat the heart-stop­ping fear of div­ing off the edge of a plat­form, I en­tered. With my tote bag slung over one shoul­der and my phone clutched in my hand to doc­u­ment the ex­pe­ri­ence, I con­fi­dently placed my right foot for­ward on the nar­row plank – which was barely wide enough for the width of my two feet pressed to­gether. My heart sank and jolted along with the plank as I rethought my ear­lier lack of height­fear­ing con­vic­tion. Linked from one tree to another like a long ham­mock, the plank is only sup­ported by tight ropes and nets. It felt very much like walk­ing an elas­tic tightrope – it wasn’t taut but the walk­way swayed and bounced with ev­ery step I took. Tow­er­ing above the lush rain­for­est canopy, I was at least eight storeys high. Five wob­bly steps in, I mut­tered “I can’t do this,” to my phone, stopped the record­ing and stowed the de­vice away in my bag.

There are re­stric­tions placed on th­ese man-made walk­ways – only six vis­i­tors are al­lowed on one plank at a time, and the walk­ways are checked for safety thrice daily. Re­gard­less of acro­pho­bia, I def­i­nitely rec­om­mend this jaunt through the tree tops – it’s equally thrilling and ter­ri­fy­ing; else choose a more cer­ti­fi­ably grounded walk to the Kipun­git or Lan­ganan wa­ter­falls.

One of the high­lights of my stay at Por­ing was see­ing a Raf­fle­sia flower up close. I had only ever seen pho­tos of the red spot­ted par­a­sitic flower in large ‘World’s Strangest Nat­u­ral Won­ders’ pictorial books. The bloom­ing of a Raf­fle­sia flower is ex­tremely un­pre­dictable and rare, the park’s nat­u­ral­ist told me, as she pointed out a dark cab­bage-like bud while we were Raf­fle­si­ahunt­ing in Vi­viane’s Raf­fle­sia Gar­den. The Raf­fle­sia bud lies dor­mant for up to 16 months un­til it reaches ma­tu­rity, then it un­curls at night and blooms over 12 to 48 hours into the world’s largest par­a­sitic flower. From then on, it’s only a mat­ter of five days – six if you’re lucky – be­fore the Raf­fle­sia slowly withers away into a black shriv­eled state, rem­i­nis­cent of its for­mer glory. SEA’S GREET­ING

I wouldn’t be able to call this a true va­ca­tion with­out a beach get­away. I made my way down to Sutera Har­bour, and a 10 minute breezy speed­boat ride later, I set foot on Manukan Is­land. It de­rives its name from a chicken

(manuk as the lo­cals call it), and the is­land is one out of the five that make up Tunku Ab­dul Rahman Na­tional Park – the first ma­rine na­tional park in Malaysia.

The only ac­com­mo­da­tion on the is­land is Manukan

Is­land Re­sort, yet another life­style re­treat pro­vided un­der Sutera Sanc­tu­ary Lodges. Although the is­land it­self can­not be fully claimed as a pri­vate is­land (the first pub­lic boat ar­rives at 8.30am, and from then on the crowd comes pour­ing in) Manukan Is­land Re­sort of­fers the next best thing – a pri­vate beach right in front of its hill­side chalets. Lo­cated just a few flights of steps away from the chalets, in-house guests can en­joy the pris­tine white beach sand and crys­tal clear waters on a sunny day. I found the easy ac­ces­si­bil­ity ex­tremely help­ful, if I for­got my sun­screen or felt like hav­ing a snack on the beach, all I had to do was trudge back up the stairs to my dou­ble-storey chalet. The re­sort staff is out­stand­ingly at­ten­tive, con­stantly an­tic­i­pat­ing my needs be­fore I even knew what I needed: a bas­ket of wel­come fruits; room-tem­per­a­ture wa­ter in­stead of cold wa­ter (I re­called men­tion­ing in ca­sual pass­ing con­ver­sa­tion I felt a sore throat com­ing on); and the wa­ter heater switch con­ve­niently turned on by house­keep­ing af­ter a long day at the beach (it takes 30 min­utes for the wa­ter to be fully heated). Th­ese may seem like in­con­se­quen­tial de­tails, but I ap­pre­ci­ated the lit­tle at­ten­tive af­ter­thoughts and thought it added to my ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter set­tling into my room which over­looked the sandy beaches and frothy gush­ing waves, I headed down to the beach, armed with snorkelling gear and a beach towel.

For those who don’t want the mess and grit of sand, ham­mocks are strung up be­tween palm trees – just enough shade for a good spot of read­ing while en­joy­ing the sooth­ing sound of ebbing waves wash­ing over sand. For the ad­ven­tur­ous and rest­less, a 1.5km sun­set point trail and a jun­gle trekking trail will not dis­ap­point – on my trek to sun­set point, I had the plea­sure of be­ing ser­e­naded by a song­bird and the heart-thud­ding shock of a life­time when I stum­bled across a two-me­tre long mon­i­tor lizard. I hov­ered be­tween whip­ping my phone out to Google if they were dan­ger­ous (point­less, since re­cep­tion on the is­land was at best wonky) or turn­ing around to make my way back. Sev­eral heart­beats later, the huge rep­til­ian crea­ture seemed to no­tice my pres­ence, and it rus­tled away among the fallen leaves with a slow, walk­ing gait, be­ing com­pletely at ease in its en­vi­ron­ment. I gin­gerly con­tin­ued on my way un­til I reached a shel­ter and a sign­board – Wel­come to Sun­set Point, Manukan Sabah. Be­ing sur­rounded by dense fo­liage, the view might not look like much, un­til you ven­ture down the steep nar­row path through the fo­liage – you get a post­card per­fect view of the sparkling sea and a con­ve­niently placed Pan­danus tree, grow­ing di­rectly to­wards the sun­set. Brave the steep de­scend down, and you’ll be greeted by strong waves as they roll and crash into the boul­ders. Look fur­ther to your left, and you’ll see a pair of beau­ti­ful rare man­grove trees, called Berus Mata Buaya by the lo­cals.

At 5pm, the boat­men started their last calls for boat trans­fers back to Kota Kin­a­balu city. Day-trip­pers piled into speed­boats, leav­ing the is­land in a tran­quil state. Con­tented, I chose a spot on one of the boul­ders that es­caped the wrath of the sea, and kicked back to bask in the warm set­ting sun wash over cot­ton candy clouds.


One of the bed­rooms in Palm Villa, Por­ing Hot Springs

Cross­ing the canopy walk­way, Por­ing Hot Springs

See­ing a Raf­fle­sia up close, Por­ing Hot Springs

Brass plaque memo­rial for the 18 lives that were taken in the June 2015 earth­quake, Kin­a­balu Park

Car­son Falls, a fiveminute trek from Tim­po­hon Gate, Kin­a­balu Park

Pan­danus trees greet­ing the sun­set at Sun­set Point, Manukan Is­land

The Amaz­ing Love sun­set cruise INTO THE SUN­SET Hop on board the Amaz­ing Love cata­ma­ran for a three­hour lux­ury sun­set cruise. Be­gin­ning at Sutera Har­bour, it brings its guests around Gaya Is­land, cir­cling Su­lug Is­land, Ma­mu­tik Is­land, and Manukan Is­land.

Ca­bana din­ner set up, Manukan Is­land WIN­ING & DIN­ING For the ro­man­tic cou­ple, Per­ahu Restau­rant of­fers a ca­bana din­ner upon re­quest. Set up with tents and fairy lights by the beach front, a live band is also avail­able. Prices start from RM250 pax.

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