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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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Climbing Mt. Silam with Sabah Crabs

Land crab of Mt. Silam

After enjoying the nice view of Darvel Bay on Tower of Heaven, I went to climb Mount Silam. With a height of 884 Meters, Mount Silam is one of the highest mountains in Lahad Datu. Plant and animal enthusiasts will find that a hike on Mt. Silam is filled with pleasure surprises, due to rich variety of unique and endemic flora and fauna here. Thanks to Sabah Forestry Department, who keeps this mountain pristine in its 698-Hectare Sapagaya fully protected forest reserve.

Tower of Heaven (Menara Kayangan)
Pic: Mt. Silam and its Tower of Heaven (Menara Kayangan)

Mt. Silam is classified as an Ultramafic Coastal Mountain. In layman’s terms, the soil in Ultramafic environment is reddish brown in color and formed by ultrabasic rock. The soil has high concentration of heavy metals such as magnesium, iron, nickel, chromium and cobalt, but poor in plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The ultramafic substrates are “toxic” so the plants which can survive here are very different from other vegetations. That’s what makes Mt. Silam so special.

The Summit Trails

Climbing a 884-Meter mountain may sound taxing. But no worry, I started the climb at 620 Meter elevation (near the Tower of Heaven), so going up and down Mt. Silam took me less than 6 hours. Do bring raincoat, water and energy bars with you, as there is no shelter and water station along the way. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, and a trekking pole would help, though the climb is not tough.

trail to the peak
Pic: the start of the summit trail is just behind the Tower of Heaven.

signage and trail map of Mt. Silam
Pic: the trail signage. The dig-a-hole instruction makes me laugh. There is no toilet on the mountain.

As shown on the signage above, there are two trails to the summit, i.e. the easy but longer Kalung-Kalungan Trail (estimated 2.5 KM), and the shorter but difficult Kayangan Trail (estimated 1.5 KM). To get the most out of this climb, I did a “loop” climb by ascending via easy Kalung-Kalungan Trail and descending via Kayangan Trail.

The Kalung-Kalungan Trail is fairly easy and I spend most of the time walking. Kayangan Trail is steep and narrow, a bit challenging and it is quite slippery after rain, you need to climb and get dirty, so I only recommend Kayangan Trail to experienced hikers.

cement walkway
Pic: the paved walkway and lower montane forest (cloud forest) at the start of summit trail.

My climb starts at the lower montane forest zone (altitude: 540M – 770M asl), the trees here have relatively shorter and thinner stature than lowland forest. They get even smaller (but denser) when you move up to higher altitude.

Silam Crabs

If you pay attention to the forest floor near the tower, you will see some cute and orange-red Silam crabs foraging among leaf litters. This land crab is endemic to Sabah and only confined to ultramafic forest of Mt. Silam. Personally I call it the “Ruby of Mt. Silam” or you can call it the Sabahan Crab, haha, whatever.

Silam Crab
Pic: Silam Crab (Species: Geosesarma aurantium)

endemic land crab on Mt. Silam
Silam Crab can be found up to the peak of Mt. Silam. Isn’t it weird to see seafood living on mountain? The red-orange shell (carapace) of this crab also reminds me of the color of steamed crab served on dish. Most of them are shy and flee to crevices before I can photograph them. A few are bold to face my lens. When threatened, they tap the ground with legs, making sound to warn the invaders.

boardwalk under construction
Pic: boardwalk under construction, watch your steps.

Mt. Silam is open to public in year 2012 so it is still new. Sabah Forestry Department is busy improving the amenities and accommodation.

nature trail of Mt. Silam
After 100 Meters of paved walkway and boardwalk, I came to the nature trail, no more man-made structure and support after this point. The air is as cooling as air-cond and I was wearing a thin T-shirt, but I still sweated a lot due to the long hike. The trail is well-maintained and the route is clear, so you won’t lose in the jungle, even without the trail markers. There was no forest leech during my visit. Though the trail is not tourist-friendly, most people won’t find it too hard to hike Kalung-Kalungan trail.

The Animals

Besides Silam Crab, there are some wildlife living in Mt. Silam. However, most of them are small animals.

wild boar - bearded pig
There are 23 mammal species such as Sambar Deer, Banteng (Wild Ox), Giant Flying Fox, Slow Loris and Bornean Gibbon on Mt. Silam. Bearded pig (wild boar) is the easiest one to spot as they seem to eat day and night. I saw a few groups of macaques on the trees too.

forest snail
Pic: forest snail that looks like a trumpet

big millipede
Pic: giant millipede

If you like birdwatching, there is a mix of lowland, sub-montane and coastal birds in this area. A few noteworthy birds are Black-backed Kingfisher, Rufous Piculet, Chestnut-crested Yuhina and Red-bearded Bee Eater. I saw Emerald Dove, Leaf Warbler and Blyth’s Hawk Eagle.

Black and yellow Broadbill
Pic: Black and yellow Broadbill

“Hi!” from a curious warbler.

tiger beetle
Pic: Tiger Beetle that looks like an ant

Tiger Beetle is the Olympian runner of insect world. If human is as fast as a Tiger Beetle, he can run at 770 KM per hour, meaning he can run from LA and reach New York within 6 hours on feet.

Pic: an unknown spider

The Plant

The plant biodiversity of Mt. Silam is amazing, as there are 374 tree species in four main forest types on different altitudes of this small mountain, each has its unique characteristics:

  1. 200M – 300M: Lowland ultramafic forest
  2. 330M – 540M: Upland ultramafic forest
  3. 540M – 770M: Lower montane ultramafic forest
  4. 770M+: Upper montana ultramafic forest (Mossy Forest)

Keep your eyes on the grass, flowers, bamboo, trees, etc., they can be endemic plant of Sabah and Borneo.

strange leaves
Pic: strange leaves

unknown plant

plant of Mt. Silam
Pic: (left) Poisonous berries of Flax Lily, (right) Bangkau-Bangkau, the Enigmatic Bornean Tree endemic to Sabah.

weird leaf


Orchids are everywhere, especially around the ridge area at 800M and above. Many orchids here are epiphytic, which means they live on trees that provide them support and more sunlight on higher spot.

orchid next to the trail

They grow on the tree, mossy carpet, slope… Too bad I didn’t visit during the blooming months of orchid, which usually occurs in Feb and Mar after rainy season. Anyway, a few were generous to give us a showtime.

native orchid
Pic: this orchid grows high on top.

endemic orchid
Unlike the flamboyant big commercial orchids, native orchids are generally very small and not easy to spot.

orchid on Mt. Silam

jewel orchid
Pic: this heart-shaped Jewel Orchid (Species: Corybas serpentinus) is only found in Sabah and the one I want to see the most, but sadly no blooming.. So I only can show its photo from poster. Another tiny orchid that I want to see is Porpax borneensis, which is also endemic to Sabah.

Pitcher Plants

Pitcher plant is abundant on Mt. Silam, you have to be blind to miss it. Some species such as Nepenthes reinwardtiana, Nepenthes tentaculata, Nepenthes macrovulgaris and Nepenthes stenophylla are endemic to Sabah or Borneo.

pitcher plant
Pic: pitcher plant in the garden near the Tower of Heaven.

Nepenthes tentaculata
Pic: The top of Mt. Silam is blanketed by this small Nepenthes tentaculata, the most common montane species in Borneo. Note the hairs on its lid.

Nepenthes macrovulgaris
Pic: the upper pitcher of Nepenthes macrovulgaris (endemic to Sabah)

pitcher plant
Pic: the lower pitcher of Nepenthes macrovulgaris in red color

pitcher plant of Mt. Silam
Pic: just to show you how big is the pitcher plant on Mt. Silam.

frog inside pitcher plant
Pic: some frog species live and grow inside the pitcher plant. Scientists still try to find out why.

Upper Montane Forest (Mossy Forest)

Mossy forest is normally found from 2,000M up to 2,700M above sea level, but you can find Mossy Forest after 770M elevation on Mt. Silam. Mt. Silam is experiencing Massenerhebung effect, a natural phenomenon that different vegetation zonation “compressed” on a small and isolated mountain.

montane forest
Pic: the mossy forest of Mt. Silam on higher altitude.

The Mossy Forest is characterized by small pole trees and mossy ground. Cushion moss is important for the water balance of ecosystems in the forests by storing large amounts of water. Such wet environment is important for orchids.

montane forest of Mt. Silam
Pic: Vivian, our guide standing next to the the trees full of epiphytes.

The ground, tree trunks and branches of Mossy Forest are covered by thick humus layer and enveloped with mosses.

mossy stick insect
Pic: a mossy stick insect blends into the mossy environment perfectly.

ultramafic rocks of Mt. Silam
Pic: walking on the ridge near the summit. You can see the exposed reddish-brown ultrabaisc soil. The fern in the photo is Dicranopteris curranii (local name: paku resam), the most abundant fern species, it is ecologically important for moderating harsh surface temperature environment.

For more reading on natural wonders of Mount Silam, you may download the pamphlet below (published by Sabah Forestry Department):
Download Pamphlet of Mt. Silam

Personally, for hikers in Sabah’s East Coast, I think Mount Silam is the best mountain for an enjoyable half-day climb, because it is easy and rich in flora and fauna. For more info (accommodation, direction, etc.) about Mt. Silam, you may read my earlier post about Tower of Heaven.

Photos taken in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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