The biggest, baddest, most famous and brutal mountain in SE Asia is Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah. The Lonely Planet says “The mountain is quite unlike any other on Earth, rising almost twice as high as its Crocker Range neighbors and sporting a crown of granite towers that demand your attention.” In the two-day hike you will climb a 4095 meter mountain, hike through tropical rainforest, oak and pine forests, possibly see proboscis monkeys and other wildlife, and, good weather permitting, have a majestic view.
It also requires the fortune of a raja to climb. When you add up the park entries,climbing permits, guide fees, and extortionate room rates, even the meanest backpacker has to park with a minimum of 1000 ringgit (333 USD), all told. (330 dollars goes a long way in Malaysia; it’s maybe 12 days of food, accommodation and travel.) To fully understand just how preposterous that is, consider what it cost for us to hike for 2 weeks in the Himalayas. (About 220 bucks each, all told).
Luckily for those without much cash, there is another choice. It’s not exactly the same thing; no overnight stay, no sunrise views, and far fewer people (especially foreigners) climb it. But if hiking up a mountain in Borneo is on your list, there’s a much more budget friendly-option. Located down in Sarawak (which is pretty much better than Sabah in all ways), there is a mountain called Santubong just outside the pretty, chilled-out town of Kuching.
Santubong is a killer, too. It’s prettying much straight up, with lots of rock faces and ad-hoc ladders to be climbed. I haven’t ever climbed a mountain with as many genuinely frightening moments as were found here. Many people do turn back, but it’s worth a few terrify moments.
Depending on your pace, it can take up to 8 hours to climb to the top and back down again. It took us just over 4, but it was foggy at the top and we didn’t hang around for long. With nicer weather, you could hang out for a few hours pretty happily.
The hike was challenging enough that we were both still quite sore 3 or 4 days later. But manageable enough that a bunch of college kids, including several Muslim ladies not exactly wearing the latest hiking gear, made it up and back without any serious problems.
You can allegedly take a city bus for 5 ringgit (less than 2 bucks), but were told three different buses and three different times and after waiting an hour and 45 minutes we gave up and caught a mini-bus for 10 ringgit each way. You have to arrange for when the bus takes you back, but if you finish early there’s a beach close by. The ticket station also sells water and soft drinks if you’re thirsty (it was smotheringly hot the day we climbed it.)
So…Santubong. Well worth your time.