Kota Kinabalu: A ‘Lonely Planet’ Experience

Everyone needs a holiday. And when you do, you’ll be swamped by dozens of travel agents telling you the most popular, exotic (and expensive) places to go. However, if you want to go beyond the glitz and glamour of the ‘Go Singapore’ or ‘Explore Ireland’ campaigns and spend time somewhere off the beaten track, Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia would be a good place to go. Located in East Malaysia, the capital of the Sabah district, Kota Kinabalu is a thriving industrial and commercial centre. The ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ campaign may not mention much about this place, but KK, as it is popularly called is the capital of Sabah, Malaysia, and is quickly becoming a popular tourist spot. It’s a good destination for the entire family. Three to four days should be enough to get a taste of the mixed culture it is famous for. This place is for someone looking for and willing to try new things.

Getting there

Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah is located in East Malaysia, and flights will have to be taken through Bangkok or Sarawak (West Malaysia), Manila ( Phillipines), Brunei, Taipei or Singapore. Tiger Airways from Singapore to KK has the cheapest fare.

Once in KK, taxis are readily available charging RM 10 ( 1 Ringgit Malaysia = Rs13.8) minimum fare. Buses from the airport to the main town are available. Most hotels have hired car services.


KK has about accomadation to suit any pockets. Backpacker hostels, mid-range hotels and five star resorts are all available. From RM 28 a day to RM 400, one has plenty of choice. Check online, where bookings are easily available at various tariffs. June-September is peak tourist season so browse to get the best value for your money. Take accommodation in the centre of the city since most attractions are located about half an hour away from the city centre, and transport is easily available.

Sights to See:

Kota Kinabalu has something for everyone: the adventure enthusiast, the shopaholic and the harried 9-to-5er who just wants a peaceful retreat.

Located about half an hour away from KK by taxi, a distance factor which has prevented it from being deluged by hoards of tourists, Lok Kawi is a must see for wildlife enthusiasts. Entrance is 20 ringgits for adults, 10 for children. The animal show is extremely popular, bringing visitors up close and personal with the orang-utan, the very animal that symbolises Malaysia. The tiger enclosure is beautifully constructed, allowing visitors to view the magnificent creatures through a two way mirror. When a tiger is strolling just five feet away from you, it’s better than any safari. Lok Kawi’s enclosures are designed to bring you as close to the animals as possible. The botanical garden is well laid out, and though the iconic rafflesia may not be blooming, pitcher plants growing wild are a fascinating sight. Amusingly, as you pass the aviary on the way out, a ‘wild’ raven may wolf-whistle at you or scream ‘Goodbye!’! Keep your taxis waiting, because there is no transport from the park back to KK.

If you want a picture perfect experience, you must try what travel-brochures call ‘island-hopping’.  The Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is an attraction that boasts of white sand beaches, clear blue waters and adventure sports. Surprisingly, it lives up to its claims. There are five islands off the coast of KK, a ten-minute drive from the city, Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug. Manukan is the most popular , a totally picture-book island resort.  Attempts at snorkelling may be foiled due to the strong currents. However, spotting colourful fish is possible. Watch out for strings of pink in the sea, the jellyfish are not poisonous but they sting like red ant bites. The resort offers scuba diving, parasailing and rooms on the island. Manukan also has a showcase of remnants of the bombs that fell on the island during World War II. Outdoor barbecues and traditional music all contribute to the easy going atmosphere. The best experience is sitting on the pier and feeding bread (RM 3 a pack) to the tropical fish. There are hundreds of them crowding around the pier . Daring people try to feed them using their feet, hoping for a free fish pedicure, but watch out, their teeth are sharp! After hectic holidaying , the islands are a good destination to lie in the sun and just relax. The boat ride will cost RM 15 to 40, depending on the island.

For those uncomfortable with travelling without guidance, many hotels have tour groups to take you around the main attractions in and around KK. Mount Kinabalu National Park is a must-see. For RM 350 a head, the day-long tour covers the journey to the park, lunch  and a trip to the Poring Hot Springs. The tour guide was friendly, even if her English was marred by her thick accent. The two hour journey will take you to a viewing point with a small handicrafts market, then onto the national park. Take a light jacket, the temperature drops suddenly and there are chances of sudden showers. Mt. Kinabalu is Borneo’s tallest mountain (4,095 m above sea level). 20,000 ambitious souls try to climb it every year, since it is one of the most accessible and relatively easy mountains to climb. However, if you do not consider toiling up a mountain side only to climb back down again a worthy feat, then the botanical gardens are for you. The guide will lead you through the Kinabalu museum with the historic information about the area and an hour’s walk through the botanical gardens. It is important to have a guide who can explain the different species of the area which include the frequently occurring pitcher plants and a number of varieties of orchids, since the folk tales associated with them are interesting. The walk is pleasant in the shade of a canopy of trees and with the sound of running water in the background. It’s a real taste of the Borneo rainforest.

The Poring hot springs should be your last stop. Before you take a dip in the sulphur springs, thought to have healing and youthful properties, take the canopy walk which is 157.8 metres long, 41 metres off the ground. Climbing up to that level is not an easy feat, though steps have been hewn out of the mountainside. Stray branches will threaten to trip you, but keep going; the view from the top and walking along the rope bridges is a one-of-a-kind experience. Note: They do wobble treacherously, but officials assure us they are tested everyday. Just enjoy the view! When your feet are screaming in protest, (which they probably will) head to the sulphur springs, where tubs of warm and hot water will soothe your aching soles. The sulphur springs are popular with foreigners and amenities such as bath houses are available.

The KK Sunday Market at Gaya Street is a big attraction and stays open till 1p.m. , a quick taxi ride from the city centre . There, you will find stalls selling vegetables and fruit, fake designer bags and clothes and may appear like any other bazaar. However, a little deeper into the market emerge pet stores with dachshund puppies, mini-turtles and aquariums on sale. The chatter and noise is infectious, the handicrafts are cheap and families gather here, to catch up as well as to shop. The congenial atmosphere, the smell of fresh cooking and sugarcane juice and the good-natured bargaining make it an ideal lazy-Sunday experience. For the inexperienced India traveller, local restaurants close by offer parathas and dal, especially for vegetarians. Ask before you eat, because the menu is in Malaysian.

Other attractions include the Sabah State Mosque with a beautiful blue-and-gold inlayed dome. The mosque is open to visitors on all days except Fridays, taking prior permission and adhering to the dress code is a necessity. The Monsopiad Cultural Village, 16 km from KK  is a living museum dedicated to Monsopiad, a Kadzan warrior. The traditions and way of life of the Kadzans are on display to visitors and the House of Skulls containing the 42 skulls of Monsopiad will both fascinate and horrify you.

Matters of the Stomach

Food in a foreign country is an adventure that should not be missed. Try dinner at a parking-lot, converted into a food court. There are many of them in the shadows of big hotels. Don’t worry about hygiene issues, the crockery may not be five star, but the food is fresh, hot and cheap. Eating local is a big part of any holiday. Those who are not as adventurous can take advantage of the familiar McDonald’s located on the sea front in Centre Point Mall. Malaysian variations of dal and roti are available, but the choice for vegetarians is limited.

If you want to go totally local on your last night out, head to the seafront. The fish market in front sells absolutely fresh fish, clams and squid, along with sea shells and seaweed. A little further ahead will be the food stalls where you can choose your fish and watch it cooked right in front of you. It’s a dining experience straight out of Discovery Channel. However, it’s not for the faint hearted or weak stomached or those excessively concerned with hygiene. Vegetarians, be warned. There are no frills, none at all. Long tables, plastic stools, happy European tourists and the smell of  grilling fish make it a memorable dining experience. At 10-15 ringgits per plate of fish and rice, it’s a lot cheaper than the other seafood restaurants. Food isn’t just a business here, it’s a family enterprise. The men of the family do the cooking, the women wash the plates while the children take orders. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. The locals are always ready to make small talk and the minute they realize you’re Indian, they’ll be giving you their gyaan on Bollywood!

To sum up the evening, after your rigorous days out, pamper your feet at one of the several massage parlours in KK. Offering everything from foot to full-body massages, the parlours charge about 50 to 200 ringgits. It might be a bit painful but after the foot massage, you feel that climbing Mt. Kinabalu would be a piece of cake.
Souvenirs Galore:

Shopping for souvenirs in KK is a bargain-hunter’s delight. There are three malls along the seafront, Wisma Square and Wawasan Plaza are the most popular. Here, you will find fake designer clothes, fake CDs and lots of computer stores. Not very interesting. If you dig a little deeper though, you will find souvenir stores galore, with all the attractions of KK printed on T-Shirts, keychains, pencils and all. For the kids, orang-utan soft toys are available in every size. The branded shops are fixed price, but souvenir stores will bring down prices after some good-natured haggling. The best handicraft store was located in Wisma Square, with the most beautiful shell jewellery and ethnic wooden masks. The saleswoman and owner is an extremely smooth talker, so be prepared to turn out your wallets. Outside the air-conditioned malls, night markets are popular and they sell semiprecious stone jewellery and strings of pearls cheaper than the main stores.

Spend some time in KK and you will realise, like we did, that the place grows on you. A destination with minimum tourist gimmicks, it’s a real travel experience. Leaving the easygoing, unhurried atmosphere and coming back to life’s frantic pace won’t be easy, but the photographs and souvenirs will surely remind you of a holiday well spent.

Vrinda Manocha

[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joschmaltz/2921513038/]