It’s a short halt at Kota Kinabalu, but Harshini Vakkalanka finds plenty to do

There was a sudden screech and then fireworks, straight out of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Just as we were about to leap out of our seats the sparks headed out into the sky and burst into golden droplets. More fireworks followed and for a few minutes, we were transported to Hogwarts.

We were in Malaysia at the official launch of Visit Malaysia Year 2014. After a night of music, dance and celebration, we took a connecting flight to Kota Kinabalu. Early next morning, we set off for the Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s known to be bigger than Singapore. The focal point of the park is Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia. It is wise to carry a light jacket since it is quite chilly (and often, drizzly) on the mountain, a pleasant contrast to the hot and humid weather in Kota Kinabalu.

After an hour’s walk through the botanical gardens, we head towards Poring Hot Springs, named after a species of bamboo that grows here.

For most enjoyment, it’s a good idea (for those who can climb a little and are not afraid of heights) to attempt the canopy walk over the tropical jungle. Adventure lovers can also do the trek to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu.

It’s about a half-hour climb to the canopy bridges, which are basically rope-bridges or walkways inter-connecting the canopy of the Menggaris tree that grows in the rainforest. The bridge is about 41m high and narrow, allowing you to only go single-file. As more people came up to the bridge, it began to shake a lot, so we held on real tight to the rope railings (and tried not to look down)!

Crossing the bridges took about 10 to 20 minutes, and then it was a downward climb of about 20 minutes to the hot springs. And if you thought these were simply open pools of bubbling, hot water, think again. Civilisation has somewhat dampened the experience of these rare pleasures by helpfully, I’m sure, constructing open-air bathtubs over the natural pipeline so you have to wait for the tap to fill the tub before you indulge.

There are open pools also, but these were closed to the public, at least while we were there. Private bathtubs are available for a price. Still, a dip is really invigorating and the sulphurous water left our feet all pink and shiny.

The last day in Kota Kinabalu was spent island-hopping. First stop: Sapi Island. Remember the Tourism Malaysia advertisement where a woman walks down a long wooden bridge overlooking clear, blue waters? Here it seemingly was; every bit as beautiful as the ad. All calm azure waters and pleasant waves lapping at a white-sand beach lined with shady trees under which you can simply sit and drink it all in. Or you could go snorkelling in the limpid waters full of colourful fish.

We took the ferry to all five islands that surround the city — Sapi, Gaya, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug. These islands constitute the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. We finished off at the Mari Mari cultural village, which houses life-size indigenous houses of the five local tribes, Dusun, Rungus Longhouse, Bajau, Murut and Lundayeh. Our tour ended with some local rice wine, a henna tattoo, and a tribal dance.

(The writer was in Malaysia at the invitation of Air Asia)