A Day or Two in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, seemingly a place that you fly in and out of, but not a place that many folks recommend lingering in… I beg to differ.

As I sit at my second story window watching the people set up for the nightly market that occurs outside our hotel, it is like I have my very own window into another life. And as a matter of fact, I do. During the day, the space outside of our hotel is a parking lot, a few shops and a bank – nothing special. But at night this simple lot is transformed into a glowing night market which never seems to attract all that many people. In our few days in this very different place, we have seen very few Western tourists. Chinese tourists are plentiful, but ‘why not’ when you live so close to the paradise that is Borneo. I know I would spend a lot more time here if I could. 

The guide books will tell you that Kota Kinabalu is a growing metropolis and judging by the developments we have seen, they are not wrong in that fact. But what we have seen here is a place that has existed for many many years on its own time and has developed its own special idiosyncrasies which separate it from the rest of Malaysia. When we arrived the signs posted in many places saying ‘No Spitting’ intrigued us, but after a couple of days, I can see why. It is not uncommon to walk by a man hocking a lugie in the street, here no one even bats an eyelid – it’s perfectly normal! Smoking inside is A-OK and you can buy alcohol here 24 hours a day. Not bad for a country which consists of at least a third of people who don’t drink! Another thing that surprised me is how interested the local people seem to be in us. Something as simple as standing outside of our hotel attracts quite a bit of attention, and not always good attention… I spent no more than 2 minutes alone yesterday, just to have a quick cigarette out the front and this resulted in a man following me to my floor and asking if he should follow me to my room! I’m not sure if I did anything out of place to attract this, but needless to say Dave is at my side 24/7 now!

I don’t doubt that some Westerners come here any only see the gleaming waterfront and tourist district, but I would encourage them to spend some time in the Kampung Air district, within 10 minutes you can literally walk into an entirely different world. No giant new shopping malls here, in fact there is no new development at all. Here when you walk down the street people stare at you openly, which is both cute and disconcerting at the same time. The area is poor and you can tell very easily that they don’t see many tourists in these parts, but at the same time it is an opportunity for us to get a glimpse into the everyday lives of the real people of Kota Kinabalu. The people who aren’t trained to be nice to you and who seem to be just as wary of us as we are of them.    

The islands just off the West coast of Kinabalu are just as beautiful as everyone says they are. Turquoise waters, white sandy beaches and formidable jungle interiors. We spent a few hours on Palau Mamutik today and it was one of the best snorkelling locations I have ever visited. Once we strayed away from the day-tripping crowds it got even better. The good ol’ Lonely Planet guide provided us with directions to a sensational snorkelling spot on the South side of the island which had the goods. A short hike up a steep and crumbling trail followed by a slow climb down an even worse trail landed us on some large boulders and out into the water. Our resident guide for the day was a Monitor Lizard about 1m long who was ambling up the trail in front of us… Nothing short of amazing! The marine life surrounding these islands is plentiful. We saw a couple of small crabs on the rocks before making it into the water and then proceeded to find Parrot Fish of all sizes, some spectacular coral gardens (the first Dave has ever seen) and so many other species that we cannot name until the internet in the hotel is working again! 

The day trips to the islands are advertised at some pretty steep prices and include a BBQ lunch with the pitch that if you don’t book early then you will miss out. This is so far from the truth! We waltzed into the ticket office at Jesselton Pier at 10am this morning and got ourselves on a return boat trip for 4 hours at a grand total of 30MYR each. Most tours that are advertised start at around 90MYR per person and are exactly the same thing… Every ticket booth will try to sell you a BBQ lunch inclusion, but what they don’t tell you is that there is a staff co-op restaurant and small convenience store on the island or you can take food over with you, so you are never going to starve! We only saw one of the 4 islands that you can visit and I am wishing that we had time to see more of them. But the plans are already forming to return on an island camping trip in the near future!

All in all, Kota Kinabalu has been an inspiring introduction to Borneo and the best is still to come…
Transformation of the night market in 3 hours

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