I climbed the highest mountain in South East Asia yesterday. I can’t feel my legs. 4,095m up in the sky, all the pain was worth it.
Mountain shadow – sunrise at the summit
I wasn’t always sure I’d get the chance to climb Kinabalu due to different things I’d heard about cost and availability but when I stayed at the lovely North Borneo Cabin in Kota Kinabalu the owner told me about the deal at Jungle Jack’s and so I jumped at the chance and left the next day.
Jungle Jack’s is just outside the National Park. Jack is an absolute diamond and completely runs the show. We were provided with steaming hot showers, kitchen and food supplies as well as dinner in a local restaurant. Cute dogs for company – always an added bonus. 420 ringgit (£110) included 3 nights accommodation (the second night is spent in a lodge on the mountain), all food, entrance to the park and trekking guides – bargain.
After 6 months on the road and next to no exercise I wasn’t sure how my body was going to respond to climbing over 8km and 2,000m. It was tough but worth every step. The first 6km to the lodge for the night weren’t too bad especially as you can take your time. No rush to get to the lodge where you have dinner and get some kip before an early start for the summit at 1.30am the next day. Despite getting up at such an unearthly hour this was by far the most fun part as you literally get to scramble up rock faces, pull yourself along cliff edges with rope and battle through ice cold winds in the dark. Adrenaline is a fine wonder.
I cannot describe how cold it was at the summit. We just about managed to stick around for half an hour to make the most of the incredible colour changing skies as the sun came up. It didn’t take long to get back to the lodge for a rest and second breakfast before we faced what I hadn’t realised would be the most challenging part. The decent was horrible. The first few kilometres weren’t so bad as you’re still running off the high of your achievement. But the last 3 nearly killed me. I felt like my legs were detached from my body and simply refusing to work. Even though I’m still walking like an old lady I wouldn’t change it for the world.
So having travelled down Vietnam and back up again, I had a couple of weeks left on my visa to use and I knew there was still plenty of this unravelling country to explore. Having got sucked into Hanoi’s backpacker party scene for a few days I needed to escape to greener pastures so decided to take the easy option and book a tour to Mai Chau with an agency in the backpacker area near the Hanoi Backpackers Original Hostel. A tour, always a risk as you can never be sure what you’ll get, but this time it paid off…
Mai Chau valley is home to the White Tai hill tribe who live in stilt houses that sprinkle the area, built to provide natural ventilation through the bamboo flooring and protection from the damp and nature’s creepy crawlies. We stayed in a lovely guest house/home stay style accommodation surrounded by verdant paddy fields and dramatic limestone cliffs. I was instantly captivated by the litter of puppies playing in the yard!
Taking the bikes out for a spin near our guesthouse
A stilt house in Mai Chau
Nothing like seven 20 day old puppies to add some fun to your accommodation!
The highlight of the trip was the bike ride and trek up to a remote village at the top of the valley. I was expecting to find swarms of tourists and local people waiting to sell us their handicrafts, but it was quite the opposite – I was relieved to find we were the only ones. On the way we saw the villagers collecting wood to construct a new community building: the men worked in pairs to carry huge trunks on their shoulders whilst the women carried heavy baskets on their backs secured around their foreheads with a band of fabric. It was serious work. The strength of the tribal people here continues to amaze me.
White Tai women carrying their load on their foreheads
Some villagers own cattle that can do the hard work for them
It doesn’t matter how remote you get, mobile phones are everywhere!
Although it’s not top of everyone’s list in Vietnam, Mai Chau really is a beautiful place and makes a good, perhaps more low-key but less touristy alternative to the heights of Sapa in the north. Personally I think it’s worth it if only to see the green of the rice paddies!