Kota Kinabalu: In a Nutshell

Having seen much of Peninsula Malaysia, it was high time that I came to the Malaysian portions of Borneo, and specifically Sabah (maybe Sarawak in the future). I had been to tiny Brunei, but never either of the Malaysian states that sandwich the Kingdom. So I took a cheap Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, which is the capital city of Sabah, and one of the fastest-growing cities in all of Malaysia. The city is named after the fabled volcano Mount Kinabalu that stands tall nearby.

Sunday Market at Gaya Street, Kota Kinabalu
Sunday Market at Gaya Street, Kota Kinabalu

One of the first stops on my itinerary was Gaya Street Market, which I was told was part of the historic past of KK. Traders from yesteryear would come here and sell their ware, in the hope of making a few Ringgit. Even today, at least once a week, the entire area gets cordoned off from traffic and a regular market takes place, which may be a big tourist draw, but the market actually still plays an important role in the lives of ordinary Malays here. Unlike Central Market in Kuala Lumpur, the Gaya Street Market in KK still serves its local purpose and maintains its historic authenticity, which is great to see.

The City Mosque
The City Mosque

As a Muslim country, you cannot go anywhere in Malaysia without being awestruck at the grandiosity of their mosques. I think the most amazing mosque I have ever seen (in person) was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque was very resplendent in its own way – especially at night when the reflection of the light inside the mosque shone on the surface of the water. It was a very peaceful sight and very apt for the values of Islam.

Beaches and watersports in Sabah
Beaches and watersports in Sabah – pretty much on KK’s doorstep

The locals here in Sabah state will tell you that the best beaches in Malaysia can be found on their doorstep – and maybe they’re right! Very close to downtown Kota Kinabalu you will find the ocean (or at least the harbour) and some pretty nice beaches slightly further away, but still no more than a 15 minute drive, so it makes for a nice family day out. No need to stay at a glitzy beachside resort as the beaches here are not private anyway, so anyone can use them! All you need to do is flag down a taxi!

I found that watersports were very common here in KK. I never tried any myself, but windsailing, surfing, parasailing, and speedboating were all being performed during my time in the city, and everybody looked to having a lot of fun! Maybe next time I will get involved myself!

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Ikan Bakar for sale!
Ikan Bakar for sale!

The Night Market is certainly one of the top attractions in Kota Kinabalu. In the local tongue, these places are called a “pasar malam” and you can find all kinds of goodies here, not just food, but little souvenirs, textiles (I must buy some batik one day), and sometimes even live birds (reminds me of Hong Kong!).

One of the most rewarding aspects of backpacking is that over the years you become used to local food and customs. Whereas when I first landed in Malaysia (in KL, back in 2012) I wouldn’t have known anything about the local cuisine there, yet now on my third visit to the country, I walk around the night market in Kota Kinabalu and I immediately recognise the sight and smell of Ikan Bakar! This is grilled fish, and it is a Malaysian (and Indonesian) delicacy. On this occasion, I didn’t buy anything, but on another day I may have just tucked into a meal there and then! Who eats at McDonald’s these days, anyway?

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When you come to KK, it is often on your mind that you must leave the “safety” of the city and go exploring in the nearby Bornean rainforest. It is, after all, the oldest rainforest in the world (much older than the Amazon), and some spectacular flora and fauna can be found around here – including the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia. Many tour groups offer day trips into the jungle and you should consult with your hotel or hostel for the best recommendations. A day trip to Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a good idea, and further afield, head down to Sepilok to see the orangutan sanctuary, as well as a cheap cruise on the Kinabatangan River – and see if you can spot any Pygmy Elephants!

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