Kota Kinabalu in 24 Hours
Formerly called Jesselton, this humid, tropical city on the western coast of Borneo is a main transit point for travelers going off to explore Southeast Asia’s fifth tallest peak (and Malaysia’s tallest) – Mount Kinabalu which is located just 90 Kilometers away as well as a jump-off point to the islands around it as well as a convenient and cheaper alternative to enter Brunei Darussalam (via the international port in Labuan). Rather than a destination on its own, Kota Kinabalu serves as a major international gateway to those who want to explore the myriad jungles and cultures, not only of Sabah but Borneo – so if you are in town – here is the best way to see and experience KK, as Kota Kinabalu is fondly called, all done in 24 hours.
Shop! Shop! Shop!
While most locals would tell you to head out to Centre Point (Lebuh Raya Pantai Baru corner Jl. Duapuluh) to get your fill of great bargains for souvenirs, do not go there – you’d be lucky if you can actually see an actual store selling souvenirs at Centre Point otherwise this huge building, with a pretty messed up, complicated layout houses pretty much cheap (and of doubtful quality) knock-offs of every kind. We had no choice but get our luggage at the Centre Point, after our old luggage, a veteran of many international travels, just broke apart the moment we arrived at our hotel. The luggage is about RM 160 – pretty cheap for one big suitcase and an extra medium-sized suitcase (we will see how it is going to measure up on my future international travels).
Whilst in Centre Point, beware of scam artists operating in the area- I had the misfortune of being accosted by two men (not in uniform) flashing two little cards, just moments after I stepped out of a money changer and demanding that (in broken English) I needed to come with them (to where, I do not know so I resisted)- it was about 9:45AM on a street just outside Centre Point (on the Wisma Square side). One of the guys told me that I littered, but the funny part was there was litter all around the area and I asked for a sign that says No Littering and they both pointed on a badly tattered old sign in Bahasa and then afterwards asked me for RM 20. I told them, I needed Ringgits so I needed to go back in the building and buy more Ringgits. This time the messed up layout of Centre Point worked to my advantage and I deliberately lost them and went straight to the Sabah Tourism Board to file a complaint. Apparently, I learned later on that these scam artists prey on unsuspecting tourists and basically extort or mug them outright even in broad daylight. Thank heavens that I was also not traveling alone, as I was with another travel writer from the Tourism Paradise Philippine site that time but that shook me a fair bit.
So where to buy? The answer is actually not too far away from Centre Point. For best value shopping, nothing beats the souvenir stalls at Asia City, a mall just across Centre Point. We got great discounts from the traditional Sabah weaving, a Murut tribe mask, fridge magnets and even a copy of the Holy Quran. We basically did our entire souvenir shopping at Asia City and were quite happy with the heaps of discounts that we got compared to getting it from any other place. Haggling is expected here (the Filipinos who man the stores there gave me tons of discounts which I don’t think would be given to other people), and as common sense dictates – start very low and work your way to a compromise. The stuff at Asia City is even generally cheaper than those that you could find at the Handicraft Market (Jl. Tun Fuad Stephens) although the Handicraft Market does have a lot of choice- the prices here are pretty much touristy- therefore, way more expensive..
There are little stores that dot all over the Kota Kinabalu city that also have quite good selection of yards and yards and yards of great quality sarongs, malongs and sampings (the traditional Malay men wrap-around skirt).
Also do not forget to check the Sunday Market at Jl. Gaya for more souvenirs and handicrafts, however, get there in the morning- as the place folds up early.
Average time spent- 3 hours.
A Taste of Sabah
Whenever I travel, I also make it a point to try the local fare, and being a fan of Malay food; I was curious how different Kota Kinabalu was from the rest of the more popular Penang flavors. The more expensive Evening Food Stall at Sedco Square (Jl. Sapuluh) is a small square with seafood restaurants with big aquariums lining its sides. The Old Village Seafood Restaurant is one of the cheapest around – and the soft-shell crab cooked any way you liked it is just wonderful – the shell was so soft that you can actually eat it as well. I had mine cooked chilli crab style, it wasn’t too bad at all since I had to pay about $100 SGD for a plate of black pepper crab in Singapore’s Chinatown plus we got a heap of discounts plus a free fruit platter for dessert from our waiter (who was also Filipino). The Evening Food Stall has a Fried Ice Cream stall, the batter was very underwhelming but the luscious Durian Ice Cream inside it saved the day.
In my opinion, the best place to eat is by the Filipino Market – food stalls that resemble a complicated mini-tent city right next to the Handicraft Market by the Waterfront. Food is pretty inexpensive here but very savory. Check out the Martabak (RM 1.50); Pisang Goreng (RM 1.00); Ubi Manis (RM 1.00) but our most favorite is a steamy bowl of Soto Ayam for a mere RM 3.00 and delicious Cendol (similar to Filipino’s Coconut-Pandan on Milk and Shaved Ice) for RM 2.Extremely yummy and the best meal we ever had in Kota Kinabalu, hands down.
Before leaving Kota Kinabalu, I had some Kwey Tyao at Sri Melaka Restaurant. It was not quite as good as the Kwey Tyao I had in other countries before though. One thing of note if you are dining in Kota Kinabalu, make sure that you do not touch the peanuts served nor the table napkin – you will be charged extra for it. Those peanuts are not for free. Knowing this, as I had the same experience in Singapore, I skipped the peanuts and using the table napkins. I checked our receipt and we got overcharged several times- it took the waiter three times to finally give me the correct bill.
Average time spent – 3 hours.
Kota Kinabalu has some interesting sights that one can check out by just walking around the city center. The city’s most famous landmark would be of course the Atkinson Clock Tower by Bandaran Berjaya (a very short walk from the city centre) was built in 1905 and used to be the navigational aid but is now dwarfed by the taller buildings in the area. One can also trek up the Signal Hill (which can use a little bit of cleaning as well – we spied a big pile of trash going up near the Merdeka Field) to view the other side of the hills and do a little trek to get a taste of the Bornean jungles (especially near the Istana can be quite lush and green and a refreshing respite away from the dusty city centre). On a clear day, one can see as far as the peak of Malaysia’s most famous mountain – Mt. Kinabalu.
Other great places to check out would be the State Museum, Sabah Art Gallery and the Heritage Village – however opening times are sketchy and going there is a bit of a stretch – one needs to get a cab at a taxi queue at Centre Point – one way is about RM 10. The cabbies in Kota Kinabalu does not use any meter or at least not in any of the cabs that we took while we were there. If you are heading away from the city centre, one should know that it is very hard to get around Kota Kinabalu if you do not have your own transport – taxis are hard to come by anywhere – be prepared to walk a long bit to get one like we did when we went by the State Mosque at Sembulan).
Average time spent – 3 Hours.
Relax and play
Whilst not exactly a stunning beach, Tanjung Aru Beach was a passable and a good short escape from the city centre with al-fresco dining that lines parts of beach. If one cannot hop on to the several islands off Kota Kinabalu like the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park nor Pulau Tiga, Tanjung Aru Beach is the cheap and the most accessible option to hang around by the beach. Be careful, however, of the rip tides that are common all throughout this area. We did not see any lifeguards on patrol, so you swim at your own risk.
Tanjung Aru Beach is about 15 minute walk from the Kota Kinabalu International Airport so if you want to drop by just before your flight out, you may do so and grab a few drinks and catch some sea-wind and sun before leaving Borneo.
Tanjung Aru Beach is also close to the Kinabalu Golf Club and the local Race Course and the Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club.
Average time spent – 2-3 hours.
Kota Kinabalu has different characters thrown in together, mainly because of its very multicultural nature. Kota Kinabalu and Sabah in general is home to the many indigenous peoples as well as the Malays, Indians, Chinese and Filipinos which makes this tiny city a curious, interesting and at the same time complicated melting pot of cultures. A step into the real Kota Kinabalu is a step into the region’s underbelly- so go on, walk and see the real Kota Kinabalu and experience Malaysia like nothing that is on any hyped guidebooks.