Mount Kinabalu: Spiritual peak of Borneo

Story highlights

  • UNESCO-listed Mount Kinabalu is one of Malaysian Borneo's most popular tourist attractions
  • Mount Kinabalu climbers are required by law to have a guide and hiking permit
  • Dry season of March to August are the best months to climb

Before Christianity and Islam became the dominant religions of the island of Borneo, Animist beliefs dictated that when a person died, their spirit rose to the peak of Mount Kinabalu.

At 4,095 meters above sea level, it's one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia.

Today, UNESCO-listed Mount Kinabalu National Park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, with visitors forced to book two to three months in advance to secure one of 196 daily allocated hiking permits.

Though Sabah is developing at pace, villagers living at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu continue to perform Animist rituals to appease spirits residing at the cloud-ringed peak so no harm comes to those who scale it.

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The above images were taken on the rock-strewn 8.7-kilometer trail to the summit with Evan Conrad, a guide with Amazing Borneo Tours who first climbed Mount Kinabalu 20 years ago.

"I've climbed the mountains maybe 100 times," Conrad said.

Porters earn 128 Malaysian Ringgit (US$40) for two days' work on Mount Kinabalu.

"But I never get bored of it. Every time I see something new that excites me, and the view at sunrise is never, ever the same."

More information is available from the Mount Kinabalu Official Climb & Booking Information Centre, which says March to August are the best months to visit as it's the dry season.

There are multiple options for those wanting to hit the summit, ranging from from one-day to two-night climbs.

The pros recommend beginners do the three-day, two-night option. It allows them to acclimatize to the altitude. Only the super fit should try to get to the summit in a day.

Guides and permits are required by law.

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Getting there

From Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, a number of flights to Sabah capital Kota Kinabalu are available. The flight time is about two and a half hours. The drive from Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu takes about two hours.

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