Tag: Malaysia

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.

Malaysia 2010 Part 2: Buildings, infrastructure and signage

Malaysia’s infrastructure and road networks are pretty impressive, and because much of the country is “seismically stable,” its capital, Kuala Lumpur, enjoys having taller, larger buildings. Suffice it to say that its skyscrapers dwarf those tiny things in Manila masquerading as towers.


When they’re not driving at 100 kph on their fine highways, Kuala Lumpur residents are stuck in rush-hour traffic. Notice the lush greenery in the background, however. It’s as if all the city’s highways are lined with rain forests.

Putrajaya is a city that’s still pretty much under construction. Being planned as the administrative centre of Malaysia, it is host to the site of key government buildings, such as those of the justice ministry, finance ministry, and the residence of the country’s Prime Minister. The best way to get around Putrajaya for sightseeing is by taxi and van rentals. Forget about trying to walk around the place; while everywhere is picturesque, the city is infernally hot.

The Putrajaya Convention centre’s roof looks like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. The structure looks formidable up close.

The Prime Minister’s building

The Ministry of Justice Building… I think.

I believe this is a telecoms company’s building.
Peace is possible, it is.

They just know how to build beautiful bridges. This district in Putrajaya showcases a number of awe-inspiring bridges that are a mix of good engineering and modern design. Just look at the angles on this structure.

Seri Saujana Bridge’s steel girders, up close


I saw the signs 

 


 Public display of affection is generally frowned upon. You can’t make out at this park in a KL suburb.

These dress codes are strictly followed in mosques, unlike those dress codes posted on Catholic and denominational churches in RP.

 Malaysia is a fine country 🙂 You can bring, but not consume, food and drinks in public vehicles.

 Don’t hassle the bus driver by giving large notes and expecting him to give your change ASAP. He’s driving at 100 kph.

If you don’t line up early enough for tickets at Petronas, this message will welcome you. Be there before 8 or 9, to be safe.


Queuing up at the ladies’ loos.

No, I’m not!

ablution n. A washing or cleansing of the body, especially as part of a religious rite. (Answers.com)

UPDATED: Malaysia 2010 Part 1–Romancing Petronas, haggling for scarves, and engaging in much debauchery

It was a great four-day frantic tour of Kuala Lumpur, Putra Jaya, Genting Highlands, and Selangor in Malaysia, and the newly opened Universal Studios on Sentosa Island in Singapore with badminton friends. I’m still too tired to be coherent, so I’m only posting photos of the trip that used up much of my energy but I would most likely take again if or when given the chance. It’s been years since I went on a trip with the Titans, and I’m crossing my fingers that we’d have more of this again…though I hope in a less frenetic fashion.

Inside the KLIA Express, which took us from KL Central Station to Putra Jaya in 20 minutes. The train was very clean, comfortable, and mighty fast.
Malaysia’s preferred mode of transportation is still driving, therefore although it has very decent railroad and subway networks, more people are going around in their compact cars. And yes, there are more compacts than your typical sedan in Malaysia; more people are driving national car brands than foreign ones, as well. 
The first impression that Malaysia gave me was that it’s infrastructure was top-notch, it’s highways were nothing but impressive. Still, because of the massive number of motorists it hosts, KL is far from being traffic-free. We got stuck for an hour in rush-hour traffic, going from Sogo mall to Petaling Jaya.
Doing cougar-y stuff at Petronas Twin Towers
The steel work on this building is very impressive.
Inside the Skybridge
 Romancing the twin towers, where works the handsomest security guard in the world. Is it time to feel cougar-y yet?

View of the park from Skybridge. It’s pretty, no?

Just below the towers is the upscale six-level mall, Suria KLCC.
Of course, Petronas is grand. It’s pretty, it’s famous, it’s fantabulous! We all know these things already. But what the ladies didn’t know was that the men who made sure that all visitors behaved as they should were just nearly as pretty as the national symbols of might that they guarded.

This guy was scanning visitors’ bags as our batch was lining up for the lift to the 41st level. I thought he would stay by his x-ray scanner, but alas, after everybody entered the lift, he got in, trying to look as if he was about to clobber any misbehaving fool within his sight. But us fools noticed he was tall, and had nice cheekbones, and nice eyes and eyelashes that stretch to out theeeeere!, and that looking stern never looked sexy. Purrr!

And then we all ended up giggling like high schoolers. And then we kept telling, whispering to each other that the man in uniform could give Piolo Pascual a run for his money (plus that he is most unlikely gay). And then we just kept looking at him. And then I couldn’t help it anymore, so I asked Rodel with his hi-tech camera to take my photo with Manong Guard. And then everybody wanted to to have their photos taken with him as well. Bah, nauna ako kay Manong Guard ha?

And then he just didn’t know what to do. Dealing with silly misbehaving women maybe wasn’t part of his “looking stern” conditioning. And then he was helpless; these cougars are fierce!

And then this sort-of smile. The poor man’s shift is 2:00 in the afternoon on weekdays.

Food, food, food and more food!

One of the highlights of the trip was food. Malaysia offers among the best fusion of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisine.  I like my food zingy, but after days of taking in unheard of flavors (and smells) that vary from hot to super hot prior to taking this trip, I began to crave for good old McDonald’s pancakes and fried chicken. Still, for a newbie, Malaysia is a flavor haven, and everything that you could buy is worth a try. I enjoyed our breakfast of spicy rice and sweet-and-spicy chicken at a stall just outside the Asia Jaya MTR station.

Nando’s on the concourse level of Suria KLCC serves good food. Too bad, the waitress that served our food was awfully rude. 

 Breakfast at Nando’s: bread, sausages, eggs, and grilled tomatoes. Not mine, though. I bought a blueberry and chocolate muffin from Starbucks to go with my usual latte. Coffee is not a popular drink in Malaysia, but they have really good milk teas.

Lamb kebab set served at a Persian restaurant at central station. The kebabs were drier than I was used to, but were super filling, no less.

I could have five of this super delish pistachio yogurt ice cream in one go.

A pork-and-tofu soup dish that went well with steamed rice. The pork used tasted like luncheon meat, but how did they know that I loved the flavor of cilantro?


Our best and biggest meal was at the buffet shabu-shabu restaurant in Selangor. Here, we were waiting for the broths to boil before adding crabs, shrimps, veggies, noodles, shomai, and seaweeds.

You need to get there as early as possible to avoid the long line. We waited for more than an hour to get a table, but the food was well worth the wait.
 


Something familiar: meatballs and fries in overflowing gravy and blueberry sauce, cheesecake, chocolate chip muffin, and bottomless cherry soda at the Ikea food court. I must have paid only RM16 for these. I’d love to go there again!

Carbonated Benadryl never tasted this refreshing! This Poly Strawberry-flavoured soda was bought at a stall in front of the mosque in Putra Jaya.

Now this, I am used to. Even their MickeyD coffee cups are prettier.

Haggling for shawls and scarves

I wasn’t planning to buy scarves, but seeing the girls going gaga over the pretty things at this old shopping district that sold modesty stuff made me lose my resolve and gave in to the colorful lovelies that were a coral pink glossy pashmina shawl and a marine and aqua blue silk scarf, all for only RM18, or roughly P200. The Pakistani stall owner was no match to our haggling charms.