Labuan Island to Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan, Borneo

The look on Di’s face was priceless as she passed through Brunei’ Immigration and headed towards the ferry – the seas were calm. The joy on her face was equivalent to the first lick into a melting macadamia, caramel and white chocolate Norgen-Vaaz Ice cream on a stinking hot summers’ day – she nearly cried with delight – the sea was flat. I put the plastic bags away.

The ferry left Muara, Brunei at 8.30am and the cost was $17BND each for the two hour crossing to Labuan.

The crossing to Labuan was like sliding on glass, it was that smooth.

I found the journey quite interesting as the ferry sails past dozens of oil rigs off in the distance. There are many large research vessels moored along the way also. I would have thought the ocean would have had a dirtiness to it all being close to the rigs but the water looked pristine and unpolluted.

Di and I were staying overnight in the capital of Labuan Island, Victoria, mainly because we could – we were in no hurry. It appeared that most of the other ferry passengers were going on to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo on the afternoon ferry.  As it was only 10.30am, Di and I decided to walk the 1.2 kilometres to our hotel as check in was not until 1pm. What started out as a simple walk turned into a humid and sweaty zig-zag through the city centre. Sometimes Google Maps can be a pain in the rear end. First, it took us one way and when reached that spot and found no hotel it took us an additional couple of kilometres in a different direction. There was a direct correlation between the distance walked, the weight of my backpack, the sweat on my shirt and shorts and the use of Google Maps – the more we followed Google Map, the more we walked, the heavier my backpack became and the sweatier my clothing became.

We stayed at a lovely hotel, though it was a ‘long’ walk from the ferry jetty, called the Labuan Point Hotel. The hotel was pretty good and cost 160RM for the night or AUD$48. The hotel is right next door to the main mosque of the town centre but, the daily call to prayer throughout the day, was rather pleasing than annoying.

The mosque at night

Alcohol is the cheapest of any other place in Malaysia as it is duty-free in Labuan. Labuan Island is a day trip from Brunei and really caters for this, as all around the ferry jetty there are duty free stores and car hire places where you can hire a car for 70RM for the day. It is easy to drive around as it is only 90 square kilometres in size.

Labuan Island, also services the oil rigs which means there is a large area with bars, karaoke lounges, KTV (which means Karaoke TV) lounges and such – all selling cheap alcohol amongst other things!

Di and I walked along the beach area, which was empty of people but had a huge flotilla of various ships moored just off shore, that probably explained why no one was there.

The horde of vessels off the beach, hence no swimming!

We ate at an outdoor food court and ordered some delicious fried rice, two different chicken meals and a vegetable dish, all for less than AUD$9 for the two of us – it was a real bargain. The only drawback was that it was hot and you sweat a lot, by a lot I mean drenched.

In WW2 the Japanese occupied Labuan Island for four years. The Island was the first island of Borneo to be recaptured by the allies due to its military significance for both air and sea forces.

Di and I were never going to walk back to the jetty the next day, even though we knew the direct route now and not the wibbly wobbly route we took the previous day. The hotel took us for free in a lovely, air-conditioned minivan – the simple things in life are truly the best.

The ferry to Kota Kinabalu left at 1pm and was a three hour journey. We had read online that the seas can get rough and it can be an extremely unpleasant experience.  We indulged on First Class tickets which were 44RM each or about AUD$14 each.

This trip was not so good scenic wise as there is little to see as you are a far way from the coast. The seas were choppy and the ferry did bounce around a bit – Di had the plastic bags ready but never needed them – personally, I think she is getting used to it now. Di says it’s because she takes seasick tablets. I think she was relieved to arrive at Jesselton Pier in Kota Kinabalu when we did and was thankful as the seas could have been worse.

Travelling by these two ferries from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu appears to be the better option than taking the bus from Brunei. The reason is there is only ONE bus per day and that leaves Brunei at 8am. There is no designated Bus Station in Brunei and the bus picks up passengers on the roadside as it goes. The journey takes eight hours with several border crossings along the way, ie, leaving Brunei, entering Sabah, leaving Sabah again to re-enter Brunei and then leaving Brunei again to re-enter Sabah.

It was pouring rain in Kota Kinabalu so Di and I took the taxi to our hotel, no wibbly wobbly walks today, which was only 1 kilometre from the jetty and it cost 15RM (under AUD$5).

We stayed at the Dreamtel Hotel, which was a reasonable hotel, for 165RM per night (AUD$49).

Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah. It was formerly known as Jesselton and Sabah was formerly known as North Borneo. The town has a significant WW2 history and was heavily bombed by the allies towards the end of the war. After the war only three structures remained intact in the city of Jesselton, one being a clock tower, the rest of the city was obliterated. The city was rebuilt after the war and renamed Kota Kinabalu (KK). In recent times KK has become one of the fastest growing cities in Malaysia.

The clock tower

The entrance to the ferry terminal

Whilst wandering the streets of KK two things struck me. Firstly, the local people smile and say hello, this is such a pleasure as those saying hello are not trying to scam you, or steal from you, or sell you something, they are just being polite. The second thing is that KK is full of many modern large malls, with several larger more modern malls under construction nearby – but these malls are basically empty of people as the population of KK is only 450,000. You get the feeling the old adage from the movie, ‘Field of Dreams’, “build it and they shall come”, is at play here and the malls are being built with the hope that the tourists will come……..maybe!!!

What KK does have is seafood, lots and lots of seafood restaurants and some very cheap seafood restaurants. On the waterfront a car park by day is turned into a hustling and bustling seafood connoisseur’s delight in the evening. Di and I wandered through the multitude of small restaurants all with large water aquariums with prawns, lobster, different fish, muscles, the list is mind-boggling.

We sat by the ocean on charming plastic chairs with a plastic cover over a wobbly table and ate seafood fried rice, which contained several large prawns, butter prawns (half a kilo worth) and fried squid and a serve of mixed vegetables, with two bottles of mineral water all for 61RM (AUD$20) for the two of us – a delicious bargain!!!!!!!!

All around us fishing boats bobbed up and down as they were moored right next to us, it was a great evening. KK is full of cheap food courts and the food, especially the seafood, is quality at bargain prices.

The main attraction for KK is Mount Kinabalu and five islands just off the coast of KK. I did not think my knee was ready yet for a two day climb up Mount Kinabalu, and Di and I will be going to an island near Sandakan soon so we stayed in KK itself.  It did rain a lot and the humidity was always in the mid 90’s, so I was continually wet.

Leaving KK for Ranau, 100 kilometres to the East, you have basically three options, bus, minivan or taxi. Di and I had considered staying in Ranau for a few days. We chose a minivan as the minivan pick up was right in front of the Dreamtel Hotel. This turned out to be a bad decision and at 9.45am we clambered in to a minivan.

Firstly, the cost is 25RM (less than AUD$8) each for the two-hour trip in a minivan. To make it viable, financially, the minivan operators will not let a minivan depart unless it is completely full – that means EVERY seat occupied – so you wait until that occurs, no matter how long it takes! Secondly, the minivans are smaller and the luggage is packed around you – hence NO room at all to move. When Di and I got in, there were five people already in it and still five empty seats. Our bags were stacked around us and we waited. One Malay passenger came after about 15 minutes and then we waited for the next four people. After twenty five minutes of sitting in a minivan waiting in the humidity, I thought ‘F@##@# this’. It was time to weigh up comfort, time and cost. I sent Di (because for me to get out of the van I had to climb over a wall of bags) to ask a taxi ‘how much to Ranau?’ I thought 150RM (AUD$44) or less and we are out of here. Di came back and said ‘150RM leaving now and takes 90 minutes’ – ‘lets go’, I said. Di graciously asked if any other passenger wanted to share a taxi, but they all declined. The other passengers did though look at us as if we were on a lifeboat moving away from the Titanic and they were still on board – life is all about choices!

Crammed in the minivan surrounded by bags with FOUR more passengers still to come – time to get out of here!!!

The journey to Ranau is a long a windy and steep ascent. The taxi had no trouble with the mountain but I could see why the minivan takes two hours to complete the uphill journey.

Ranau became a problem for us when the taxi dropped us off at the hotel we had booked. The problem was that the accommodation was pretty basic and was a long way from anywhere. Ranau is close to where Mount Kinabalu is, in Kinabalu National Park. As we were not climbing the mountain, to stay in the Park near the mountain trail is expensive. Another tourist attraction ‘near’ Ranau is at Poring. However, the Poring Hot Springs was over 40 kilometres away and we were told it is only a swimming pool with warm local water flowing in to it and the place was full of bus loads of Chinese tourists on a day trip from KK. We felt the place we booked was in the middle of nowhere and we needed a vehicle at our disposal to get around. The hotel asked us to pay, in full, in cash – cash we did not have. Di and I had a two-minute ‘cone of silence’ discussion and made a quick decision to move on away from Ranau. The hotel was happy to cancel our booking without a penalty and we rang for another taxi.

I love that people in other countries try to speak English and I have a healthy respect for them, however it does lead to some ‘lost in translation moments’. We asked how much to Ranau, he said 10RM. The driver then took us to Kundansang, a small nothing town near Ranau. It seemed as though Di and I were not pronouncing Ranau correctly and this was confusing him and he just took us to the nearest town. Eventually, we got the word Ranau across and off we went, but now the price was 40RM, it was about 17 kilometres away. Di asked the driver to put his window up, so he lowered it, we had to be very animated by touching the window and raising our hand to the top for him to close the window. Then he wanted to know where in Ranau, at first I said take us to a good hotel, he said there was no hotels called Good Hotel. Then I said take us to the bus station. He took us to a minivan stop. I said no a bus, he pointed at a minivan and said ‘bus’. Di asked a lady walking past if she could help translate as the driver was removing our bags from the taxi. The lady had a conversation with the driver and then said to us ‘you want bus or big bus?’ We replied ‘big bus’! Lots of nodding and chatter ensued and our bags were put back in the taxi and we drove to the highway and a ‘bus stop’. ‘Wave bus down when it comes.’ The taxi driver said as he drove off. We asked a man in a small store there when did the bus come? He said 12.30pm. This was interesting as it was now 12.50pm. A Malay lady was also waiting for the bus. She said the bus may come at 1pm or 2pm. So we waited.

Waiting, waiting…..

A British backpacker turned up and asked us if this was where he could catch the bus to Sandakan and what time the bus will arrive? We, being experienced big bus people, had all the wishy-washy answers for him. The bus arrived at 2.05pm. Again, broken English and we understood that the bus went near Sandakan and we would be dropped close and would have to catch another bus the final 30 kilometres. Okay, good enough. It cost 30RM each for the four hour trip through the mountains and the jungle.

The scenery here was real jungle stuff. We hardly saw a town and we followed a swollen fast flowing river for most of the journey. I really enjoyed sitting back and watching the Borneo jungle fly past.

Hard to take a decent photo from a moving bus

The distance from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu is 260 kilometres so I guess this four-hour trip covered 150 kilometres of it.

The big bus stopped at the side of the road and one of the drivers said ‘Sandakan’. We got off the bus and got our bags and the big bus driver pointed to a minivan and said ‘Sandakan’. Oh great a minivan – we love minivans! The English guy, Di and I got into the minivan along with the minivan driver’s wife and four children, we picked up three other Malays and had a thirty kilometre trip to Sandakan. The minivan driver dropped us off at our hotel at 6.30pm, we were absolutely knackered after the most exhausting of days.

Let the adventure continue…..


  1. Margot and John Bains

    Good to hear your latest news. May all your buses arrive on time and be ‘big ones’!

    Best wishes

    Margot and John


      Thanks Margot and John 🙂


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