Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

Indonesia_map
Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks in the west coast cities of Peninsular Malaysia were enjoyable, thanks to the wonderful YMCA staff in Penang and Ipoh who took me around. It seemed like we ate constantly – with great food everywhere, and with a distinctive Chinese influence. A fairly large Indian population is present as well, along with the majority ethnic Malay population.

Tea Plantations, Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia By Will Ellis CC BY 2.0

On to Cameron Highlands in central Peninsular Malaysia. Taking in the cool, fresh mountain air, I hiked among the tall pines, through thick, moist bush and along the valleys and high rolling hills planted in neat rows of tea. Moving on to the capital Kuala Lumpur I stayed at the YMCA, which is located near more delicious food options in the section of town known as “Little India.”

But after a few days of the city’s hectic pace and noisy shopping centers, it was a welcome relief to wake up in my bungalow by the sea, with a cool stream gurgling nearby for bathing and monkeys in the trees trying to nail any passersby with well-aimed mangoes.

Pulau Tioman is a delightfully unspoiled island four hours by fishing boat from the southwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The people are gentle and wonderfully open to talk to. Based on the regionally unifying “Malayan” language, both Malaysian and Indonesian languages are basically the same, so I was able to practice my recently acquired Indonesian language skills while in Malaysia.

Pulau Tioman By Ferrazo Wikipedia – Public Domain

It was one of most beautiful and mysterious islands I had seen since leaving the South Pacific — the forest is so old, massive, and exciting.  Just to stand in a wide empty bay, clear water ringed with golden sands and granite boulders, and an ancient forest as the backdrop. Alone in the sunshine under the open sky with just the monotonous buzz of insects in the trees. Hiking over a jungle-clad mountain to the far side of the island and down through breezy coconut plantations and the traditional village flavor was like walking back into the South Seas Island lifestyle.

On the cross-island trail — moving through the thick jungle with sweat pouring out, great monitor lizards swaggering off the trail, pythons in the trees, monkeys screeching and birds fussing – startled by an enormous cobra at close range. Cool waterfalls along the ridge refreshing an overheated body, and with lots of swim time in the sea – manta rays, sharks, schools of brilliantly colored fish and corals. And after each full day, returning home for supper with my delightful home-stay family – it was the perfect refuge.

Summiting Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

At 4,095 meters (13,435 feet) above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s highest peak. The two-day climb requires one night on the mountain, then a predawn scramble up ropes and ladders to the summit for the sunrise over Borneo’s steamy mountains and valleys.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mountain and its surroundings in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, are among the most important biological sites in the world, with thousands of species of flora and fauna, including the endangered Orangutan and many rare carnivorous (insect-eating) plant and orchid species.

From the mountain, I retreated to Pulau Sipadon off the east coast of Sabah, for some world class diving in one of the richest marine habitats in the world. Rising 600 meters (2000 feet) from the ocean floor, coral reef life abounds along with deep sea fauna, such as manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and is a protected nesting site for sea turtles.

Pulau Sipadon, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Singapore — where West meets East – a pleasant blend of Indian, Malay, Chinese and Western cultures in a modern and rapidly developing regional center of commerce. Happy, friendly people living in a clean, safe environment, with all the modern conveniences of the West, yet rich in the variety of cultures, and with endless choices of cheap and tasty food. The YMCA was ultra-modern with a nice swimming pool on the roof, and served as a destination for my shipment of personal medical supplies from the States.

Affordable accommodation, great food, and fun and interesting new friends from a variety of cultural backgrounds made the time fly, and nearly a month had slid by before I knew it. Pam and five other lovely Indian girls decked out in elegant saris escorted me to a traditional Hindu wedding. Jamaliah, a Chinese-Malay, took me to Sentosa Island Resort and Singapore’s Botanic Gardens — the only tropical garden to be honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Catherine, an ethnic Chinese and I enjoyed swimming, playing squash, and warm evenings in the park watching the Christmas lights under a full moon.

A stunning presentation of traditional Indian saris

Someone told me there was a shortage of Caucasian models in town, and that the agencies were hiring. Many of the regular models had gone home for the Christmas holidays. So I had some photos taken and was soon out doing shoots for a modeling agency. It brought in a few extra bucks, but once again, sadly it had come time to leave – and I was on my way to Thailand!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Thailand and Burma – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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