I am in Kota Kinabalu in the Sabah province of Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. The easiest way to get to Sandakan is to simple take a plane, but the most adventurous and cheapest way is to find your way by bus.
Taxis are cheap in Borneo. If you’ve got a few Ringgit to spare, save yourself the trouble of walking to the minibus stations. I can tell you from experience that this is a pain in the ass in the humidity of this country. The minibus station is in the north of KK. It is not just a tiny bus station, but a station for minibusses.
I can’t find my way around and ask for some help. The old man starts shouting: “Inanam!” He walk to a few guys and directs me into their minivan. I really hope this thing will take me to the right place. The driver looks at my bag and then he gives me a look. It’s as if he wants to say I should pay extra for this humongus thing.
Fifteen minutes later the door is thrown shut. I suddenly realise the van is in a horrible condition. With a heavy lever the driver can open and close the door. Bam! Ready to go. The rusty old van squeaks as we enter the road. Every time we hit a bump I’m afraid my feet are going to fall through the floor. I get visions of a driver who has dropped off everybody, drives to a deserted place and leaves me there… without my stuff. That’s if the bus arrives anywhere of course. The rest of the drive I hold on tight to the iron bars.
In The Netherlands you just press a button to let the driver know you want to stop. In Malta there is a rope you have to pull. It leads to a loud bell. Here, I suddenly here someone banging on the metal of the car. The driver stops. After a few bangs I see a place with lots of busses. Real busses! I’m here! And I am in time. This has cost me only 3 ringgit.
The hostel had advised me not to buy a ticket in advance since it wouldn’t be very busy. My advise: buy a ticket in advance! I had wanted to take the 12.30 bus, but had to wait until 3 PM. This would mean I would arrive late at night which is not my idea of fun in a country I don’t know. Waiting at the bus station I only see a few other travelers. Most people are locals. I see busses leaving with big boxes on board, probably food for relatives in the country.
When the bus arrives I can’t wait to get in. Five minutes later the boy working for the bus company is laughing at me because I am in someone’s seat. Apparently ‘tempat duduk’ means seat number and I am in seat 20, nest to a friendly but quiet man. Just before we leave someone walks in and sprays the whole bus with air freshener. I start coughing but it seems to be necessary to do this. When we are driving the air conditioning seems to be blowing the air that comes straight from the toilet. On an old school TV a film is started. It’s in Bahasa.
The road to Sandakan is a sealed road, but it is busy, winding its way through the mountains and goes up and down. Our bus can’t go very fast. After two hours we still see the peaks of Mount Kinabalu. It is surrounded by clouds, but every now and then we get a peek at its magnificent top, grey and sharp rock. It is fascinating. Then darkness falls. Occasionally I see a house that is lit. People are outside. Most of the houses are on stilts and laundry is drying underneath them.
The bus keeps maneouvring around the potholes until we have a stop for dinner. A bit later the bus stopped again. There was a road block. A man with a big machine gun entered the bus. He had to see our passports but barely looked at mine. Meanwhile I was getting nervous. The trip took much longer than anticipated. I had no clue when we would be arriving and if my hostel would still be open that late. My phone was dead so there was no way of finding out.
When we finally arrived in Sandakan it was 10.30 PM. I had to get into a taxi. A man tried to give me his phone number but I quickly declined and made my way to the taxi. It dropped me off at the hostel, Harbourside Backpackers, and I was just in time. The reception would close at 11 PM.
Later I would find out why exactly the man with the machine gun had entered the bus. The were looking for rebels. This was why my stay in Sandakan was cut short.