After the beautiful posh hotel I had in Kota Kinabalu, (link) I had to downgrade a tad so opted for a beachside cheapo. Well not necessarily the right thing to do as it transpired. I wanted somewhere that I could just hang and prep my trip to the orangutan rehabilitation centre and needed to book flights and make plans for onward movement after.

Ghost resort with its polluted beach

I had visited the fabulous night market in the centre on my second day after my first day of running all over town for their amazing mosques and quirky museums (link)

The spot I was going for had a famous promontory sunset bar in walking distance, it all looked well and good, but my luck is always hit and miss. I had done no research for this trip as I hadn’t realised that Philippines only allowed you in if you had a flight out which I had had to panically book in the wee hours of the morning two weeks previously. Kota Kinabalu hadn’t even been on my radar. I sketchily thought ‘well I wanted to go over there at some point to go to this famous centre and see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat but never further on than that as I had planned at least three weeks in the Philippines.

Walk up towards where I had my sunset cocktails

Solo travel is all about dealing with sudden changes in the twisted plot of your story. That’s why it’s a good idea to be very flexible. If your plans, of having no plans in my case, are forcibly altered well try to be happy hippy rather than screaming hysterical two year old.

The New Hotel

Nice room shame about the area

When I check with my journal, I see that I was at first,a cup-half-full kinda old bird, to ‘oh shit, the cup needs mad optimism to even be half full’ This was because although the hotel was OK and had wonderfully fierce air con and a lovely little terrace looking over a beautiful garden, when I ventured out however, it was a creepy kind of area. Abandoned hotels were all around and there was rather a horrible Chinese restaurant next door. Also the beach looked very polluted and indeed I found a big raw sewage pipeline entering straight into it about half a mile away. Yuk! No swim swims for this old bird.

The beach had some strange creatures loving under that grubby looking sand that exuded wiggly worms of sand above surface in huge abundance and there was the usual large amount of plastic and old junk. Even to walk along what looked like a lovely beach from a distance made my nose crinkle with distaste.

Ghost park with empty pond

Worryingly, what looked like a beautiful municipal park nearby was in fact a sad forlorn thing of the past, abandoned except for the occasional young couple courting at the more private end. The playground was defunct and a little bridge crossed an almost empty pond. The lavish plants were the only thing that had enjoyed the solitude after the exodus of people from this area.

I tried my best by walking up to the Sunset Bar there at a posh but ghastly hotel to see the beautiful setting of the sun only to realise my road back was very scary and dark. Never do that old birds, especially when solo because in that kind of area you have a target on your back. I had been very foolish and sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time I made terrible judgement choices in Malaysia. You must remember there that in a lot of areas it is devoutly Muslim and you can be disapproved of. Mostly they are lovely people but in more remote areas of towns and country they ain’t so keen on you. As with all my advice this was hard learned and better safe than sorry!

Fabulous Americana shot at Sunset Bar
Waiting for sunset at the bar
Slowly dawning on me that I would be bricking it getting back to mine later

Anyhoo! I had plenty of time to book my flight to Sandakan and chose another very cheap place to stay for the night before going onto the orangutans! Therefore I have no excuse for that particular cockup.

Wild skies


I blissfully flew to Sandakan early in the morning, unaware of the horror interlude to follow, and cabbed it to my very rough hostel. It was a nightmare. It was in a very shady and dodgy area and the room was awful. I had hit a patch of bad luck that seemed to be spiralling out of control. After leaving my things in that grim abode I tried to shake off my gloom and checked out the area around. I sat and had a miserable overly sweet ‘juice’ and checked the route into the centre by foot. It seemed to have some local markets en route and I thought that although they didn’t sell any alcohol here, I would be able to purchase my standard icy cold beer there to lift my spirits and quench my thirst.

Americana view from Sandakan Hilton roof bar

That didn’t happen. The markets were full of grim and menacing people and although I was suitably dressed my blond hair caught attention everywhere (I would finally dye it all brown) and not to the good. Finally I found the Hilton and went onto the roof terrace which seemingly was the only place us sinners could buy a drop of the hard stuff. It of course was very Westernised and I gulped a very expensive beer down while deciding what I could do for the rest of the day. It looked bleak. The views from here were fabulous and indeed in this haven you could happily just chill and relax. Not in my case. I was running at a tight budget at that point. I wanted a long trip and had many other places I wanted to see, so I got silly stingy and regretted it afterwards. As it transpired the next day, I was a lot closer to the orangutans than I had realised, I could have gone straight there from the airport and cut out this terrible twenty four hours of fear and trepidation.

When I got back to my slum I tried sitting at the little cafe and planning lovely things and reading my book but it really was impossible. Despite chatting to one traveller I felt really isolated and miserable. Although only round the corner from my place it was a dangerous place and so I couldn’t relax for fear eyes were watching me and danger was all around. Sandakan is a grim place.

That night I had about ten minutes sleep.

Top Tip: Always research these kinds of places very carefully. In Kuala Lumur I made this mistake again at the airport hotel there which had the added misery of them trying to fob me off in a coffin-like windowless room. This cutting of corners and cavalier attitude is really not worth it. Be ready with your connection hotels. They care little about sleeping in super noisy places, it seems the norm, but I for one need silence and not to feel terror and anger through the night. They say save your tears for your pillow, believe me these tears will be bitter if you fuck up.

I got out of that shithole as soon as the sun rose. My cab ride was only about half an hour with a stop to buy bits, and when I arrived at my jungle resort in Sepilok I finally breathed a sigh of relief. It was magnificent. Wild and beautiful with a beautiful room and jungle gardens. At last I could experience the wild life I had been waiting for since London.

Next time at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: