Who knew that Kota Kinabalu would be one of the most special places I would ever visit? The week spent in the city famously referred to by locals and travelers alike as “KK” has been one of the most enjoyable in recent memory, thanks to the charm of the place itself, its people, and the company of someone who would eventually claim a special place in my heart (perhaps, my heart itself).
Thanks to the peak travel season in the Philippines in the summer, especially during and right after Easter/Holy Week, everything cost nearly twice as much, particularly airfare and hotel. And so on top of wanting to avoid crowds, this only encouraged us to consider other destinations in Southeast Asia.
Thus, upon recommendations on the Web and from friends alike, we decided on KK, a convenient, tourist-friendly, and very affordable destination. Kota Kinabalu is this little nook on the northwest coast of Sabah, Malaysia, facing the South China sea. Whilst it was one of the more popular gateways to Malaysia, Borneo or the rest of Southeast Asia, KK after Easter was not teeming with too many tourist. We were informed by locals that the city did host a considerable number of visitors a few weeks prior, so I guess the timing for our holiday was just right.
Cebu Pacific and Air Asia fly most days between Manila and KK, and so the best option in terms of schedule and price for me was a red eye on Good Friday evening. My flight took off from NAIA3 at 11:30PM andwe landed a little over 1:00 AM at Kota Kinabalu International Airport.
From Airport to Hotel
A quick processing at Immigration that required visitors to scan finger prints and baggage retrieval later, I was on my way to the hotel via Airport Taxi.
Tickets for taxi can be bought straight from the Airport Taxi booth where visitors can also purchase local currency; tickets are sold at RM30 per taxi, which is good for up to 3 passengers. The commute from airport to hotel or downtown took roughly 15 minutes, but it was past 2:00 AM when I finished checking in.
Relying on Internet reviews, my partner and I chose the Grandis Hotel located on the outskirts of downtown KK (a.k.a., Jesselton), but conveniently so, as the hotel itself is attached to the Suriah Sabah shopping mall and is just a couple of blocks away from local mom and pop shops, cafes, and the backpacking districts, Gaya Street and Australia Lane.
Grandis is perfect if you wish great customer service, breakfast buffet, massive hotel room, rooftop swimming pool, functional gym, and best of all, watching the sunset whilst sipping your Chardonnay. We could not have chosen a better hotel for price and convenience.
Sunday Market on Gaya Street
Sunday found us amongst the throng of people out for knickknacks, food, souvenir items, and exotic produce sold at the Sunday Market on Gaya Street. Open until noon, this weekly fair popular amongst locals and visitors also offers arts and crafts from local artists.
The city’s lively party scene is catered to by various local and foreign cover bands, mostly from Philippines. There are pubs, clubs, and karaoke bars across town, but the entertainment centre is still the waterfront and its surrounding blocks. On weekends, drop by the only karaoke bar on the boardwalk and be fascinated by different Asian groups vying for their turn at the mic to sing their favourite tunes in their own languages.
Temples and Retro Buildings
Amongst various attractions in the city and nearby districts are temples and buildings built around the decades Malaysia gained its independence from British rule. As the city expanded beyond the main district of former Jesselton, new structures were built to cater to commercial, residential and cultural purposes.
The cylindrical Tun Mustapha tower is one such structure. Built in 1977, the 122-foot structure features a museum, shops, and a revolving restaurant on its top floor. A quick ride from Tun Mustapha along the coastal highway is the grand city mosque, while on the old district one could find KK’s version of the Flatiron Buildings and the historical clock tower.
We chanced upon the Che Sui Khor Moral Uplifting Society temple and pagoda, which seemed to have been removed from tourist maps on purpose. It’s not necessarily open to public, but visitors can look around the grounds.
No visit to KK is complete without going to the Tunku Abdul Raham National Park, a group of five islands just off the coast of the city. Visitors can choose to visit all five islands — Gaya, Mamutik, Sapi, Manukan and Sulug — or select just a few by arranging for tours at the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal. Boats that take guests to the islands leave as early 8:00 in the morning, and all trips going back to the city pick up passengers until 5:00 in the afternoon.
With a quick enquiry at any of the tour operators’ booths at the terminal in the afternoon, we were able to secure tickets for a three-island tour of the marine park for the following day. First stop was nearby Sapi Island, and getting there early proved rather useful as we were able to reserve a spot to set up our beach mats and snorkel before the place became very crowded.
It was also while we were on the island that my partner decided to get tickets for the seawalk; it is a way to go underwater without the need for scuba equipment. It was more fun than I expected, and the crew that managed the seawalk made sure we all had a great time interacting with marine life, and that the whole experience was very safe. Guests received CDs containing photos taken during their walk. For about RM100++ per person, it was a great experience!
Just as Sapi was getting crowded, we hopped onto the boat that took us to the much larger Manukan Island where we also had lunch. For only RM16 for the both of us, lunch included massive servings of rice, curry, veggies, and fried noodles, plus drinks.
I had a better time snorkeling at Manukan, which was probably another reason why we missed our boat that would have taken us to Sapi. (Oooops, sorry babe!) But then again, we couldn’t contact our tour guide and had delays getting to the floating jetty from which we could get onto a rented jet ski. It was another first for me and my partner and it all proved to be a lot of fun. After the initial fear of getting thrown off the jetski (and all sorts of imaginary horrible scenarios), 30 minutes of powering through wave after wave just off the coast of Shangri-La seemed too short.
Our last stop was Mamutik, from which we caught the last boat that would take us back to the Ferry Terminal.
Two Flat Whites, please
I loved the fact that in addition to having a very varied food scene, KK also boasts of independent cafes. It was obvious that Starbucks was the go-to coffee shop amongst the younger crowd, but for those who were after something out of the ordinary, it was best to give local coffee houses a go.
It was during this trip that I eventually got used to the idea of Flat White, which was served in nearly every independent cafe in KK. Party Play on Gaya Street is an eclectic joint at the heart of the backpacking district that serves great coffee and pastries, but our favourite easily became October Coffee House on the other end of Gaya, or what must be also named Australia Lane. Not only does October serve amazing flat white, but the place itself is Instagram-friendly.
We stopped by October for our fave brew before venturing out to the city ou its outskirts on a number of occasions; it easily became a habit, no matter how short our stay was in Kota Kinabalu.
Getting to know Sabah’s natural beauty
Six days into the holiday, I started thinking how much time I still had to truly enjoy the whole experience. It was an amazing week because of the many attractions that KK offered, its friendly locals, and most especially, my company. It’s very rare to be able to travel with someone whose curiosity and sense of wonder about places, things, and experiences resembles that of a child’s, and I could not be any happier to be in his company as we discovered the rest of Sabah’s natural attractions.
An hour-and-a half’s bus ride from KK took us east of the city for the Klias River Cruise to spot proboscis monkeys in their natural habitat (they’re cute!) and allowed us to watch thousands of fireflies in the evening. Even though spotting proboscis monkeys, macaques, monitor lizards, and wild birds was an amazing experience on its own, watching fireflies was the highlight of the cruise for me, as it had been over a decade since the last time I saw fireflies, whilst it was his first time to see these wonderful creatures.
Those who wish to take the cruise can purchase tickets at Centre Point shopping mall. Prices vary for the half-day tour, which includes bus rides (buses or vans pick up and drop off guests at their hotels), 2-hour river cruise to spot rare fauna, afternoon snacks/tea, dinner buffet, and watching fireflies. Be sure to shop around for the best prices, as there are no standard rates. We were very lucky to discover an operator that sold tickets at half the price as those sold by others for the same package.
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park was among the more prominent destinations mentioned in websites, leaflets and travel brochures, so we decided to give it a shot. Thanks to my terrible sense of direction and distance, I didn’t realise just how far it was from the city until we were tracking it on the iPhone map.
Located up in the mountains at least 30 minutes’ drive/motorbike ride from Kota Kinabalu, the park looked awfully in need of an upgrade. I had the impression that the zoo’s management was taking care of the animals as much as they could, but the zoo could do well with a bit more funding to maintain some of its attractions and facilities. However, for the experience of exploring out of KK, the trip was worth taking at least for a couple out to discover whatever Sabah had to offer.
Apart from us, there were two families visiting the zoo, so it felt like we had the massive place all to ourselves. Entrance fee is RM20 for non-Malaysians, and the park is open daily from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM.
An Afternoon at the Museum
Appreciating Kota Kinabalu and Sabah also meant getting to know its natural and cultural heritage. An afternoon at the Sabah Museum introduced us to the state’s history — the native population’s origins, its many years under British rule, the Japanese invasion, and its modern history after Malaysia declared independence. Sections of the museum are also dedicated to Sabah’s flora and fauna, and culture expressed through arts, crafts, and hunting implements.
The grounds around the main museum building is dedicated to various tribal groups (which we skipped) and transportation. There was a train that was used in plantations during British rule, as well as old cars used in business and state functions. The time we spent inspecting the locomotive started to give me an idea of just how much he loved trains, thus, one highlight of the trip was a day trip aboard the North Borneo Railways, which I will cover in another entry.
Sunsets and food stops
Choosing Grandis afforded us the privilege of watching the sunset at the rooftop to cap off one great day after another. There was nothing like finishing a glass (or two) of white wine or a good beer as the afternoon sky turned from blue to gold, and then burst into different colours. It was amazing to watch it from the boardwalk, and more so on the 12th floor.
Sky Blu bar at the Grandis Hotel rooftop serves local and continental cuisine, as well as cocktails. My favourite, of course, is their chicken satay.
No visit to Malaysia is complete without having a steaming bowl of Laksa. As a rule of thumb, it is best to go to places most popular amongst locals, and so it was nothing else but Yee Fung for us. Located on Gaya Street, Yee Fung serves the yummiest laksa in town for only RM7.00.
For great Korean food and friendly customer service, Buga Korean Restaurant down by the waterfront is a good bet for pork barbecue and of course, bibimbap.
This place is also another proof of Pinoy diaspora, if not of the sheer huge number of Filipinos living, working, or born in Malaysia. It had become a guessing game for me whether a waiter or attendant was Pinoy, and so after hearing a few attendants converse in one of Philippines’ many dialects, I talked to one of them in Tagalog. The good kid answered in very formal Pilipino, and shared that he was of Pinoy and Chinese descent, but was born in KK.
Surprisingly, the best Italian meal away from Italy is probably in this tiny part of the world. Also on the waterfront, Gusto Food & Wine is easy to miss for its unassuming, nothing-fancy setup: an open kitchen managed by its Italian Chef and a few tables on the boardwalk. But anybody who has tried anything from their menu will surely recommend the place.
I wish I could extend our visit in KK, as the fun of exploring a place that was equally exotic and modern, meeting people from various cultures who co-existed peacefully, and the bliss of spending time with a loved one was nothing but my very idea of a great holiday.
I’m not done with you yet, Kota Kinabalu.