Best Holiday Ever! Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu


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 travellers 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 and we 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.

Grandis Hotel

Relying on Internet reviews, my partner and I chose the Grandis Hotel located conveniently on the outskirts of downtown KK (a.k.a., Jesselton). Whilst the hotel is attached to the Suriah Sabah shopping mall, it is also just a few blocks away from local mom and pop shops, cafes, and the backpacking districts composed of Gaya Street and Australia Lane.

Grandis is perfect if you wish great customer service, pan-Asian and continental breakfast buffet, a massive hotel room, rooftop swimming pool, functional gym, and best of all, watching the sunset while sipping your favourite drink. 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 knick-knacks, 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 Boardwalk

The city’s lively party scene is catered to by various local and foreign cover bands, mostly from Philippines. There are other music bars and clubs in other parts of town, the entertainment centre is still the waterfront and its surrounding blocks. On weekends, drop by the only karaoke place on the boardwalk and be fascinated by different Asian groups vying for their turn at the mic to belt their favourite tunes in their own languages.

On the other hand, if karaoke is not your thing, then go to one of the sports bars for something refreshing while watching your favourite teams and athletes on TV. As my partner is a big fan of Fremantle Dockers, an Aussie Rules football team based in Western Australia, we opted to spend the late afternoon at the Aussie Barbeque and Bar whose manager was kind enough to switch the channel to the Australia network that was showing the match between the Dockers and Port Adelaide. Fremantle surged in the third quarter for a comfortable win against the team from South Australia.

As the match ended towards sundown, the boardwalk proved to be an ideal spot for watching the sunset.

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.

Island Hopping

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 with any of the tour operators at the terminal, we were able to secure tickets for a three-island tour of the marine park for the following day. Our 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 for 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 we had delays getting to the floating jetty for the 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 counting the time left to enjoy the whole experience with my partner. It was an amazing week because of the many attractions that KK offered, its friendly locals, and most especially, the company. It’s 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 all sorts of refreshments.

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 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 any item on 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.

Tales of El Nido

el nido, philippines

I first visited El Nido three years ago upon the invitation of a friend whom I dated very briefly. I must have been living in a bubble all my life for I never knew how relationships with visitors worked. Since then, I treasured a hate/hate relationship with this destination popular amongst backpackers.

And so excited to visit a place that I only knew about from travel magazines, I booked tickets to the nearest major airport, not knowing full well about the harrowing land transfer between Puerto Princesa and this tiny town sitting on the edge of nowhere: six hours of commute on some of the roughest roads I knew. If you asked me now, I would pay anything to avoid spending a total of twelve hours that I could never get back on a backbreaking road trip.

By the time we reached El Nido town in the middle of the night looking for someplace to sleep, everyone was in a foul mood. I think that our group was taken advantage of by the booking agent who found a non-air conditioned van for us without informing us about the miles of rugged and dusty road ahead. We were lucky to find a place that was still open and accepted guests who didn’t have pre-booking.

Two days of roughing it on small boats that took us on “island hopping” followed. Island hopping tours are the backbone of El Nido tourism, and most tour operators make money from the island hopping packages that go for a few hours or overnight any of the major islands that make up El Nido. It has its charms and the islands themselves were nothing short of amazing if you are not the sort whose idea of a great time is wading in calm waters or getting a tan somewhere by the shores of Boracay, some fancy private resort, or a party island.

Let me tell you what I learned then and what I still know now: El Nido is rough. You have to be brave to cross patches of West Philippine Sea and channels between islands as your tiny boat is tossed around large wave after large wave. Pray that the outrigger you were sailing in stays intact or you might as well call it a life, then go. 

(Please, banca owners, make sure your boats are in tip-top shaping before taking in guests. It’s not imaginary if everyone looks towards the same direction whenever your outriggers are making cracking sound as if your vessels were begging to disintegrate in the middle of the sea.)

Always wear aqua shoes so you can walk on dead corals and shells that are always present at every cove, lagoon, or beach. Your buns of steel are no match to unpadded boat seats where you have to sit for hours. This makes me wonder how padded banca seats are still not a thing. Just asking. Those life vests are heaven-sent if your backside starts to go sore. On the other hand, those vests are meant to be worn, not seated on.

You would be lucky to find a comfort room or lavatory on the islands. And if you ever got lucky to find one, there was no assurance that it was clean or had proper running water. Brush up on your swimming skills, because not all stops are done on shallow waters.

If you are not a strong swimmer, ask your tour guide for a life vest. It doesn’t look cool, but at least you will live for another day. If you want a fuss-free El Nido experience, go fancy and spend a month’s paycheck to stay at the private resorts on the islands. Otherwise, you have to be open to the idea that it’s a popular destination mostly for backpackers, and not without a good reason.

The night scene was not promising either if you do not know where to go. Back then, if we had only walked a couple of blocks further, or made the right turn, maybe we would have discovered that there was a thriving party and music scene amongst restaurants and pubs fronting the beach.

It is definitely not Boracay or any of those fancy beach destinations around the globe, so nightlife was rather limited. It is still limited as of this writing, but at least there are a number of places to enjoy good music or a couple of drinks, such as the famous Pukka bar. It was overcrowded when I got there around midnight in my last visit; rhum Coke was okay (hindi pa uso ang sliced lemon). Amoy backpacker din :)

Three years ago, because we stayed on the town’s outskirts, we hardly knew of any decent restaurant apart from one that took all of 45 minutes to serve anything. At least now, there are some places that serve basic fare based on which country their owners come from or whichever place their chefs took inspiration. On the other hand, one cannot help but have the impression that whatever was served had that ersatz quality to it.

Alcohol is very expensive. I thought of getting a bottle of red from some of the liquor stores found around town, but had to change my mind when I realised just how much resellers had to jack up prices: roughly double that of liquors sold in Manila. That’s one disadvantage of being in a remote town, I suppose–you need to cover your investment around transportation, time, and effort in bringing in some basic necessities just to break even.

Customer service left much to be desired at many establishments back then. I thought the staff were either too shy, too tired, or just didn’t care. We were so clueless about the town, we ended up at the most depressing karaoke bar I had ever seen in my life. It was so depressing, not even the few drunk locals at the place were in the mood to sing and that was saying a lot because there was no one on this planet that could possibly out-karaoke Filipinos. The Japanese invented it, but we took karaoke singing to a whole new phenomenon.

Power was out at least six hours a day, and it only switched back on mid-afternoon. At least nowadays, six-hour blackouts are replaced by random short brownouts or none at all. There was no ATM either, so I had to watch my spending closely.  Towards the end of the trip, I couldn’t be happier to leave El Nido.

Three years ago, I swore to never visit El Nido again. There had been places that I enjoyed so much that I didn’t mind visiting them many times over. This little pocket of Palawan, Puerto Princesa itself, left me despairing to no end with its remoteness, the never-ending bumpy roads, the tendency of a few locals to take advantage of tourists, and my company’s foul disposition.

Since then, a few things seems to have changed. It doesn’t look too remote at all on my second visit, I could fly in with just my wallet and mobile in tow. I thought there would’t be anywhere to buy decent clothes or supplies, so I ended up packing twice of everything for the next trip. Two of everything and a little fear in my heart that it would be just as bad an experience as three years ago.

Travel Is a Lot Like Life

Air Travel
Somewhere over the West Philippine Sea

“Travel is little beds and cramped bathrooms. It’s old television sets and slow Internet connections. Travel is extraordinary conversations with ordinary people. It’s waiters, gas station attendants, and housekeepers becoming the most interesting people in the world. It’s churches that are compelling enough to enter. It’s McDonald’s being a luxury. It’s the realisation that you may have been born in the wrong country.

Travel is a smile that leads to a conversation in broken English. It’s the epiphany that pretty girls smile the same way all over the world.

Travel is… a street full of bearded backpackers looking down at maps. Travel is wishing for one more bite of whatever that just was. It’s the rediscovery of walking somewhere. It’s sharing a bottle of liquor on an overnight train with a new friend. Travel is “Maybe I don’t have to do it that way when I get back home.” 

— Nick Miller, New Girl

Last year was the only one in the past six that I didn’t leave the country. Maybe it’s time to get a new visa or use up what’s remaining of what I still have. Or maybe it’s time to dust off my old camera and drive hundreds of miles to capture the beauty that my country is known for: its rich traditions, its people, the kindness of strangers whose languages I don’t even speak.

Travel brings out the worst and the best in us. In it, we find ourselves and realise how strong and brave and patient we can be. Along the way, we find friends and along the way, I may find what and who I have been searching for.

Travel opens our eyes to certain truths: are we there for the whole journey or are we just tagging along until the next pit-stop, the next station? Are we travelling with the right companion and going in the right direction? Travel has its perils, too: wasted time, false promises of a good adventure, lost resources, physical threats, heartbreak.

Sometimes, these pitfalls make me wonder if some travels are worth taking. Not all travels are equal, and we cannot keep on making reckless decisions with our limited time and resources. Maybe some journeys are better taken towards other directions.

Take the next or the first step; bring out the map; take with you only what is necessary. Keep it simple. Follow your inner compass. Sing if you are afraid, dance when you are happy. Meet fellow travellers; treat them kindly and respectfully.

Travel is life. Have faith. Find your courage. Travel is why I don’t have nice things. But oh, I would not want it any other way!

Thoughts on the year that was

Last year has had its ups and downs, but it was one that I could recall with fondness, thanks to new-found friendships, new goals reached, and big decisions made.

It was a quiet year for the most part, and it was just what I needed regardless of where I sat on the introvert/extrovert divide. There comes a point in one’s life when drama loses its meaning; there are bigger things than oneself out there. Be part of what is good; look ahead. Life is easier and often more fulfilling if we just focus on things that are within our control–ourselves, our performance, our attitudes–instead of things that depend on the decisions and feelings of others. It’s tiring, it’s draining, and I don’t have the time, energy, nor the brain space to deal with negativity and everything that goes with it. In this, I succeeded for the most part. Most. (more…)

A Sony Experia Z2 review of sorts

sonyz2I have been very lucky to be working for an organisation that provides everything that an employee could ask for. In the connected age, there is just no excuse to be unreachable through any electronic means, and so even small fries like myself enjoy the benefits of “sponsored” connectivity and best of all–gadgets!

After ending my two-year love affair with work BlackBerry, I opted to get an Android phone to supplement my semi-personal iPhone 5s, and asked for the best yet most reasonable item on the list of gadgets I could choose from.  Having been let down by Samsung in the past, I chose Sony Xperia Z2, the purple one. Life in full colour, shall we say?

A few things attracted me to Z2–screen size, battery life, and powerful camera that packs a 20.7 MP that can capture 4K video. And have I mentioned that the Z2 is also waterproof?

With a 5.2-inch screen, it gives enough real estate for reading or editing documents, spreadshhets or slides that I need to access on the go. For an occasional road warrior, this is valuable, next only to carrying around a tablet. For personal use, using social media apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram is much better, granted they do not have bugs that typically plague Android versions.

Sony knows a good deal about cameras, and it shows with the Z2 that also comes with a variety of apps to make taking and editing photos easier. My favourite is the background defocus, which allows for taking photos with blurred backgrounds as if with a DSLR.

Speaking of display, the Z2’s IPD LCD screen makes viewing better no matter the angle, whilst the  Live Colour LED technology makes colours come alive on screen. Suffice it to say that I have also been enjoying watching movies and series on this phone.

Where it works best for me is that should I wish to view media files on a bigger screen, the Throw features of both its native video player and Walkman music app makes sharing files on smart TV or wifi-enabled speakers very easy. In this, I am just happy to have subscribed to PLDT Home broadband, landline, and internet TV bundle which runs on Android too.

System-wise, the Z2 still runs on Android 4.2.2 Kitkat and boasts of 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor. This translates to almost fluid multitasking and fuss-free navigation between apps. Speaking of which, the phone allows you to sort app display alphabetically, by use, or whether they were installed or native to Xperia.

Lastly, waking up the phone is as easy as double-tapping the screen, which is rather convenient for checking any notifications or just the time on your still-locked phone. Unfortunately, double-tapping only works to wake up the phone and not to put it on sleep mode.

Overall, this phone is no slouch across performance, display, entertainment, media capture, and conectivity departments.