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Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden of Kinabalu Park

Kinabalu Balsam

Kinabalu Park has one of the richest assemblage of flora in the world, with an estimate of 5,000 to 6,000 vascular plant species that cover the habitat from warm lowland forest up to cold alpine mountain zone inside a park area of 754 KM2. Though Kinabalu Park has become the most popular destination of Sabah, most tourists can’t even name 3 plant after a trip there. A short visit to its Botanical Garden will improve their travel experience considerably when they learn the wonders of our flora kingdom.

Mount Kinabalu and forest
Pic: Kinabalu Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its mega flora diversity

“The interest, and uniqueness of Kinabalu lies largely with its mountain flora.” -van Steenis, plant geographer

Liwagu Restaurant of Kinabalu Park
Pic: Liwagu Restaurant

direction sign to Botanical Garden
Pic: the direction sign to Mountain Garden

Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden (a.k.a. Mountain Garden) is completely concealed by dense trees and pretty much neglected by tourists. The “secret” entrance is located in the wood between Liwagu Restaurant and Kinabalu Hall (Dewan Kinabalu). Just follow a small trail to the forest from road side and look for the direction sign. Some locals may have visited the park a dozen time, but they never discover this garden. Like my father, he was so surprised to see this “hidden garden” and didn’t know it has existed since 1981.

entrance of Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden
Pic: entrance and ticket counter of Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden

The garden is about 50 Meters away from the sign and you will see the long stairway leading to the entrance and ticket counter. The surrounding here is quiet, in contrast to other park areas full with noisy tourists. I heard many bird’s chirping and squirrels skulking behind the leaves. The air is cooling and refreshing too, as the garden is about 1,520 Meters above sea level, with a mountain stream named Silau-Silau River (the mean temperature of the water is 16°C) running through it.

layout map of Botanical Garden in Kinabalu Park
Pic: layout map of Botanical Garden

The garden is only 1.4 hectares in size and there is a 700 Meters garden trail (see map above) with labels, so you can explore the garden on your own (but not so advisable). I strongly recommend you to join the 1-hour guided tour (at 9am, 12pm and 3pm daily) for a very small fee, or you will be disappointed and give it a thumbs down in TripAdvisor. Even botanists have difficulty to identify 25% of the flora in Kinabalu Park, so normal visitors won’t have much fun if they wander on their own.

umbrella tree
Pic: umbrella tree

Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden is not only about flowers, it also shows the endemic flora, fruits, ornamental plant, trees, local herbs and other special plant from Kinabalu Park. Though most plants are green, they are not made the same. A guide from Interpretative & Education Unit of Kinabalu Park will provide a 1-hour interpretive walking tour in the garden, in English or Malaysia language (depending on the nationality of the audiences). I forgot the name of my guide. Let’s call her Sumandak here. The first interesting plant that Sumandak presented was an Umbrella Tree, which is used by locals for birth control (female).

trees in Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden
The garden trail is paved by concrete and boardwalk. The place looks more like a natural forest than garden. While listening to the guide, we couldn’t help to turn our heads around to appreciate the beautiful lush environment of lower montane forest.

wild banana tree
Pic: wild banana tree

There are five wild banana species in Kinabalu Park. Their fruits are edible but contain plenty of oversized seeds, unlike the seedless banana that we buy from supermarket.

fruits of Medinilla Speciosa
Pic: Medinilla Speciosa, with pink pendulous inflorescences

Nicknamed as Showy Asian Grapes, Medinilla Speciosa fruits all year round and its ripe berry (in dark purple) is an important food for birds and wildlife. The fruit is edible with sweet taste and might protect you from eye diseases. Medinilla is also a popular landscaping plant in highland.

orchid nursery
It’s an enjoyable experience to hear Sumandak to explain the features of interesting plants. Everything said is in plain English, she didn’t use much scientific names and jargons that only botanists could comprehend (unless you request). You can ask questions too. Many plants are not pretty but very useful. Without an introduction from the guide, you won’t know the awesome things it does. It’s like knowing a new friend who looks low-key from outside but has charming personality.

orchid and pitcher plant in flower pot
Then we came to the nursery area of the rarest orchids and pitcher plants of Kinabalu Park. To prevent people to pluck them, the nursery is fenced, but you still can have a good look of them through the wire mesh. These fully protected species are highly sought-after items in black market.

Low's slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum lowii)
Pic: Low’s slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum lowii) is the only epiphytic slipper orchid of Borneo.

Sabah is well-known among orchid mania, because more than 1,200 orchid species are found in Kinabalu Park. In general, the blooming months for most orchids are between Sep and Dec. However, whatever day you visit, you won’t see them all blooms at the same time.

Rotchcild's Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum)
Pic: Rotchcild’s Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum) is the State Flower of Sabah and has many names such as “Aristocrat of all slipper orchids”, Gold of Kinabalu and Sumazau Orchid. It’s endemic to Sabah and a highly endangered species. You have better chance to see it flowering if you visit in Oct or Nov.

Laughing Orchid (Bulbophyllum lobbii)
Pic: Laughing Orchid (Bulbophyllum lobbii)

When gently shaken by breeze, the moving lip of Laughing Orchid appears like a naughty boy sticking out his tongue repeatedly. Actually the “tongue” is called labellum, which serves as a landing platform for visiting insects (pollinator). The blooming months of Laughing Orchid are Jan, May and Jun.

Sexy Lady Orchid - Stikorchidis sp.
Pic: The Sexy Lady Orchid or Dancing Lady Orchid (Stikorchis species). I guess you can see how it gets this name lol.

pinhead orchid (Podochilus tenuis)
One of the highlight of this tour is sighting of Pinhead Orchid (Podochilus tenuis), the smallest orchid in Borneo (some says it can be the smallest in the world). Its tiny flower is about 2 MM across (note my finger next to it). The funny thing is – it grows on a tree near the entrance but none of us notices it. See, that’s why you need a guide or you will miss many things.

Besides the amazing orchids above, Jewel Orchid (Macodes sp.), Rabbit Orchid (Stikorchis sp.), Necklace Orchid (Coelogyne sp.), Phaius subtrilobus and many other orchids also grow in this garden.

flower of Begonia
Pic: Begonia has the most variable form of leaves in plant kingdom. Researchers estimate that there should be at least 600 species of Begonia in Borneo but only 194 are scientifically described at present.

Begonia sp.
Pic: Begonia

Sumandak also showed us some Begonia flowers. There have been many publications about Begonia in recent years because over 50% of Sabah Begonia are unnamed and all Bornean species are endemic. It is an exciting botany territory filled with new discovery and surprise.

flower buds of ginger
Pic: flower buds of Alpinia havilandii, a ginger endemic to Mt. Kinabalu and Crocker Range

Who would relate colorful flower with pungent ginger? I’ve been hiking in many forest of Sabah and always impressed by variety of colors and shapes of ginger flowers in the wild. Without ginger flowers, the view of rainforest will be less spiced up. 30 species of non-edible ginger are planted in Mountain Garden.

hybrid of Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana
Pic: hybrid of Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana

We entered the pitcher plant section. Suddenly a tour guide broke the silence with a 50-Watt megaphone and introduced a hybrid of Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana to her tour group. Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana have highly localized distribution. To see them in the wild, you need to climb Mt. Tambuyukon (a dreadful long climb), so it’s something worth to shout about.

Nepenthes burbidgeae
Pic: bloated Nepenthes burbidgeae, the least common species in Kinabalu Park

Pitcher plant (or Monkey Cup) is a peculiar carnivorous plant which traps insects as food. Its genus name, Nepenthes is a Greek word meaning “removing all sorrow” (Go figure). The Mountain Garden has 5 species of them (all endemic to Sabah), including the most magnificent Nepenthes edwardsiana that has the most developed ribs on its peristome (rim), and Nepenthes rajah, the largest pitcher plant in the world (can hold up to 3.5 litres of water. Sometimes rat, lizard or frog is found drowned inside).

Tristaniopsis tree
The exposed smooth orange-brown trunk of “naked” Tristaniopsis tree will catch your attention. It is endemic to Kinabalu Park and its bark peels in scrolls constantly. Villagers use its bark as mosquito repellent.

mossy stick insect
Then Sumandak spotted something moving on the floor. It’s a well-camouflaged stick insect that blends perfectly into mosses. It was busy pressing its tail to the ground to lay eggs. Nobody would see it if it stayed motionless. You may see it in action in following video:

thorny rattan
Pic: thorny rattan

The largest of the mountain rattan is Plectocomia elongata (see photo above). Its thorns look so nasty that I want to stay 10 feet away from it. This rattan only flowers once in its life and it’s one of the 40 rattan species live in Kinabalu Park. Malaysian parents like to whip naughty kids with rattan, luckily they don’t use the species that has thorns.

yellow flower of Rhododendron
Pic: yellow flower of Rhododendron retivenium

Rhododendron is also called wild rose. There are 24 species of Rhododendron in Kinabalu Park (5 are endemic to Borneo). Observant climbers of Mt. Kinabalu would see at least 6 species along the trail to the summit, if they are keen to stop and smell the roses.

Bird Nest Fern / Crown Fern
Pic: Bird’s Nest Fern / Crown Fern, a common ornamental plant in Sabah.

608 species of fern are found in Kinabalu Park. Most ferns at or above the altitude of this garden are not found in other parts of Malaysia.

Other remarkable plants you can check out in Mountain Garden are Dawsonia Giant Hairy-cap Moss (world’s tallest land moss), fig, lipstick flower (Aeschynanthus), Kinabalu Balsam, bamboo, Kerosene tree (with combustible oily seeds), aroids (with heart-shaped leaf), wild raspberry, etc. As plants have different flowering and fruiting seasons, you won’t see exactly the same things every month. What I mention here is just a very small fraction of what Mountain Garden has.

Ticket & Info

Ticket Fee: RM5 (≈US$1.50) for Non-Malaysian, RM4 for Malaysian, (50% discount for visitor below 18 years old)
Opening Hours: 9am-1pm and 2pm-4pm daily (Last entry: 3:40pm, Gate closes at 4pm sharp)
Guided Tour: 9am, 12pm and 3pm daily
Location: Kinabalu Park HQ in Kundasang (see Location Map)
Tel: +60 88-8889103
Website: www.sabahparks.org.my

Other Tour

Near to Mountain Garden, there is another nature tour starts at 11am daily. A guide will take you for a 1-hour walk in Silau-Silau Trail nearby, a great bird-watching area. If you are interested, you may purchase ticket and wait at Kinabalu Hall before 11am. The fee is RM3 (≈US$0.90) for Non-Malaysian and RM2 for Malaysian (50% discount for visitor below 18 years old).

There is a Video Show at the theater in ground floor of Liwagu Restaurant at 2pm every day (and 7:30pm on Fri-Mon & Public Holiday). Ticket fee is RM2 (≈US$0.60) for Non-Malaysian and RM1 for Malaysian.

Photos taken in Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Loop Trail of Mt. Kinabalu, the Best Hiking Route of Sabah

Loop trail of Mt. Kinabalu

(Update: Mesilau Trail is permanently closed, and day hike to both Timpohon and Mesilau trails is no longer allowed) The space to climb Mt. Kinabalu is always full, so many tourists don’t have the chance to climb the highest mountain of Malaysia. Don’t be disappointed if you are one of them, because you still can try Loop Trail, which allows you to hike up to 2,745 Meters asl (asl = Above Sea Level), about half the height of Mt. Kinabalu (4,095M). The height of Mt. Kinabalu is not the reason why it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The real treasure of Kinabalu Park is its high density of endemic flora & fauna, which you can see along the Loop Trail. I would say it’s one of the Best Hiking Trails in Malaysia.

The Loop Trail

Loop Trail is a day-trip easy to arrange and you won’t be under pressure to conquer the mountain. You only need to hire a Mountain Guide and pay a small fee. More on this later. Please note the Loop Trail (in orange color) in the 2D trail map below:
Loop trail map of Mount Kinabalu
You can pick one of the starting points for Loop Trail, namely, Timpohon Gate and Mesilau Gate, and both trails join at Layang-Layang after 4 KM (2.5 Miles) and 6.2 KM (3.9 Miles) respectively. At Layang-Layang, Loop Trail visitors have two options, (1) turn back to where they begin, or (2) proceed to another Gate. Loop Trail visitors are forbidden to take the Summit Trail after Layang-Layang, and no, you can’t camp in the shelter.

Timpohon Vs. Mesilau Trails

Timpohon Trail is shorter and easier, Mesilau Trail is longer but the view along this trail is more beautiful (EVERYONE says that). Timpohon Trail is mostly uphill trail so descending is fast and easy. In contrast, Mesilau Trail is a series of ascending and descending trails, so turning back is almost as challenging as going up. Anyway, it’s not mandatory to finish the loop trail. You are free to stop at any time and head home.

Below is a table that shows you 3 types of route you can do in Loop Trail:

Route Distance Remark
Timpohon Gate → Layang-Layang → Timpohon Gate 8KM (5 Miles) The Easiest route, take 3 to 5 hours.
Mesilau Gate → Layang-Layang → Timpohon Gate 10.2KM (6.34 Miles) Recommended route to get the most of Loop Trail. Take 5 to 7 hours. Tip: start the climb from Mesilau in the morning, for clear view of Mt. Kinabalu (would be covered by fog after 9am)
Mesilau Gate → Layang-Layang → Mesilau Gate 12.4KM (7.7 Miles) Hardest route. May need over 7 hours. You have to be very fit. Some trail runners do this loop as a training.

*The number of hours taken is highly dependent on your physical fitness.

Though Loop Trail ends at the altitude of 2,745 M (9,006 feet), you already reach a height taller than the second and third highest mountains of Malaysia, i.e. Mt. Trus Madi (2,642M) and Mt. Tambuyukon (2,579M)! Overall, along the trail there are shelters with toilet, water tank to refill water (it’s untreated water from mountain stream, use water purification tablet if you have sensitive stomach) and support such as stairway, hand rail and wooden plank. The trail is well-marked and there is no leech (a blood sucking critter), bear and Bigfoot.

view of forest

Things to Do

Besides hiking, the following are some fun activities to keep yourselves entertained during the walk:

  • Birdwatching: 17 endemic montane birds of Borneo live in Kinabalu Park, e.g. Chestnut-hooded Laughing Thrush, Friendly Bush Warbler
  • Flora & Fauna Watching: you will find exotic orchids and pitcher plant next to the trail. Some plant may look ordinary but they can’t be found in other parts of the world. Don’t pluck or collect anything. It’s an offense in national park.
  • Photography: The majestic landscape, lush forest, pretty flowers, etc. are good subjects for photo taking.
  • Or just sit and watch, enjoy the nature. A few squirrels will come near to you.

Temperature drops every 1°C for every ascending of 100M, so it’s cooler the more you move up. The temperature ranges from 16 to 25°C (61-77°F), but it can be quite warm in daytime, especially in a vigorous walk. Be warned though, the trail would turn into creek during heavy rain and the experience could be quite awful.

Registration and Fees

The climbing fee for Loop Trail is RM5 for Malaysian and RM10 (≈US$3) for foreigner. You MUST hire a Mountain Guide (from Sabah Parks) to go with you. The service of a Mountain Guide costs RM203 (≈US$57, rate of year 2015) per day and he can bring up to 6 climbers, which means you can share the guide fee with other hikers. For example, there is a group of 6 foreigners, each of them needs to pay RM10 climbing fee and share the cost (about RM34) of hiring one Mountain Guide, so each person only spends RM44 (≈US$12.22). If you go solo, you still have to pay the full amount.

visitor pass for loop trail trip
Pic: This is the tag (permit) for Loop Trail visitor. The tag for Summit Climber has photo of Mt. Kinabalu imprinted.

Kinabalu Park HQ
Pic: Kinabalu Park HQ. The registration and payment counter is behind this building, and you can hire transport to Timpohon Gate in the small office at the left.

If you start your Loop Trail from Timpohon Gate, you can register and hire your Mountain Guide at Kinabalu Park HQ. Passport or MyKad is required for the registration. Please note Timpohon Gate is 3.4 KM (2.1 Mile) away from Kinabalu Park HQ (by asphalt road) so you may want to hire a (one-way or return) transport to send you there. The phone number of Kinabalu Park HQ is +60 88-889888 in case you have more questions.

Mesilau - Kinabalu Park
Pic: Mesilau Gate and Sabah Parks are in Mesilau Nature Resort

If you plan to depart from Mesilau Gate, you better inform the Sabah Parks office there by phone (+60 88-871550) so your Mountain Guide will wait for you at Mesilau (as most of them stations in park HQ).

For those who can afford to pay more for a better experience, you may hire tour guide (from travel agent, someone who has good knowledge on flora & fauna). Please note all payment is by Cash Only.

Below are some photo walk-through so you know what to expect.

Timpohon Gate → Layang-Layang (4KM one way)

Timpohon Gate is the trailhead for Timpohon Trail, which is busier and shorter than Mesilau Trail. You will see many climbers start their summit trail here. Porters also use this path to carry supplies (e.g. tourist’s luggage, rice bag, gas tank, water tank) to the accommodation on mountain.

Pondok Timpohon
Pic: Timpohon Gate. You can buy snacks, drink and basic supplies (e.g. raincoat) in the building.

check point of Timpohon Gate
Pic: You need to show your tag (permit) to the Checkpoint at the left, before you hit the trail.

Carson Waterfall
After 300M, you will see Carson Waterfall at your left. If you see large volume of water, it might be raining in higher ground.

Kandis Shelter
Pic: the first shelter you will reach is Pondok Kandis (Pondok = Shelter), which is named after an edible but sour mangosteen (in Dusun language). At 1,981.7M asl, you are in the transition zone between lowland rainforest and montane cloud forest, where you start to see mosses, ferns, orchids, etc. Most of the time you will walk on the ground mainly consists of metamorphic rocks from here to Mempening Shelter.

Ubah Shelter
Pic: Ubah Shelter, the 2nd shelter at 2,081.4M asl, it’s named after wild guava tree. The signage says red leaf monkey could be spotted around there, but I never see one.

nature trail of Kinabalu Park
You can enjoy the scenery better than other climbers as you are not in a hurry to conquer the mountain. Just relax and enjoy the beautiful surrounding.

Lowii Shelter
Pic: 3rd Shelter, Lowii Shelter at 2,267.4M asl, which is named after Nepenthes lowii pitcher plant. You would see some pitcher plant such as Nepenthes tentaculata if you explore the bush next to this shelter.

distance marker along the trail
Pic: distance marker (in Kilometer) and trail map to show your current location.

Mempening Shelter
Pic: Mempening Shelter (2,515M asl), named after a species of Oak (family Fagaceae). In this shelter, you will hear many climbers start mumbling about the exhausting hike. You can tell them they are not even half way yet LOL.

mossy montane forest
At this point, you have entered the Montane Forest (Cloud Forest) above 2,500M, the surrounding will look misty and mossy, and so distinctly different from vegetation in lowland.

giant earthworm of Kinabalu Park
Pic: To survive the long trek, you have to to eat whatever you find along the trail, like the giant earthworm that comes out after heavy rain. Just kidding. If you are very lucky, you will spot Kinabalu Giant Leech, the predator of giant earthworm.

Layang-Layang Hut
Pic: The last shelter of Timpohon Trail, Layang-Layang Shelter at 2,702M asl, it’s named after a Bornean swiftlet (Collocalia dodgei). This is also where ultrabasic forest begins, which is made up of orange soil that is high in acidity, with high concentration of magnesium and zinc while low in phosphorus. You will see a lot of endemic plant from now on. Unfortunately, you will reach Layang-Layang junction within 10 minutes, where you need to turn back to Timpohon Gate or proceed to Mesilau Gate.

Mesilau Gate → Layang-Layang (6.2KM one way)

Mesilau Gate is 1,933M asl and located in Mesilau Nature Resort. This trail is longer and more challenging than Timpohon Trail, but you will be paid off by nicer view. Only a small number of climbers taking this trail to the summit, so it’s more pristine. The trail is also narrower and not that well labeled. A few sections are steep and slippery (after rain). You will be fine if you are careful.

Mesilau Nature Resort
Pic: Sabah Parks office and Mesilau Gate in Mesilau Nature Resort

Sabah Parks office in Mesilau
Pic: the registration and payment office is just next to Mesilau Gate

summit trail from Mesilau
Pic: start of Mesilau Trail. Enjoy the 6.2 KM hike!

mountain in fog
Pic: mountain and forest in fog

I only tried Mesilau Trail once and it was raining. It was so misty that I wasn’t able to take some good photos to show you. Please believe me that the scenery along Mesilau Trail is better than Timpohon Trail.

Schima Shelter
Pic: Schima Shelter, the 1st Shelter.

Bambu Shelter
Pic: Bambu Shelter, the 2nd shelter.

In average, there is one shelter for every one KM. All the shelters on Mesilau Trail are smaller and less developed than those on Timophon Trail.

bridge over West Mesilau River
Pic: bridge over West Mesilau River

Tikalod Shelter
Pic: Tikalod Shelter

trail marker
Pic: Don’t ask your guide how many KM left. You will always get the same answer, “We are near”. Read the distance marker.

Lompoyou Shelter
Pic: Lompoyou Shelter

nature trail in the forest
Pic: There are some viewpoints in open area. Too bad the view was obstructed by dense fog during my visit.

Magnolia Shelter
Pic: Magnolia Shelter

After 6KM, you will reach the Layang-Layang junction, where you should descend to Timpohon Gate or turn back to Mesilau Gate.

Layang-Layang

Layang-Layang is the meeting point of Timpohon and Mesilau Trails. The summit trail beyond this junction is off limit for Loop Trail visitors.

Layang-Layang Staff Quarters
Pic: Layang-Layang Shelter (left) and Staff Quarters

warning notice
Pic: warning to visitors without permit.

Layang-Layang Shelter
Pic: Layang-Layang Shelter. The Layang-Layang junction is less than 10-minute walk further up.

meeting point of Timpohon and Mesilau Trail
Pic: Layang-Layang junction

notice to non-summit climbers
Pic: final warning to climbers at Layang-Layang junction. You are not allowed to move further up if you don’t have the permit to climb Mt. Kinabalu.

signage at Layang-Layang junction
Pic: signage at Layang-Layang junction (Laban Rata and Gunting Lagadan Hut are the accommodation on the mountain)

Things to Bring

The following is a list of items you should bring. Try to pack light. When you climb a mountain, you can feel every Kilo of the weight. Also, wearing comfortable hiking shoes will help a lot (best if it’s water-proof).

  • Backpack (preferably with rain cover)
  • Water bottle (with water of course)
  • Pack lunch and snacks (no restaurant available on the trail)
  • Fleece or Windbreaker (It can be cold when it’s windy)
  • Raincoat (a Must-Have)
  • Sunblock lotion (UV on mountain is higher)
  • Walking pole
  • Camera (with spare batteries & memory cards)
  • Extra socks
  • Pain killer (for altitude sickness or knee problem)
  • Torchlight or LED Headlamp (just in case the sky turns dark before your trip ends)
  • Cash

Photos taken on Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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