Kota Kinabalu Town

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Sabah, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu Town Sabah Reviews

airren airren
2 reviews
Welcome to Kota Kinabalu Aug 25, 2010
The first real trip of 2010 took place in a small little town called Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. Sabah, located in Borneo, is one of two locations people would associate with Borneo. The other being Sarawak and her own capital city – Kuching.

As the capital city of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu is famous for several things. Unfortunately, none of this is the town itself. A quiet place, Kota Kinabalu (Let’s call it KK from now) is famous as a gateway to Mount Kinabalu and a gateway to lush rainforests within her proximity alongside some fairly decent beaches and waterparks.

Mount Kinabalu, for the uninitiated, is South East Asia’s most climbable mountain and 3rd highest in the region. At a height of 4095.2 metres, climbing it represents no small feat but more on that later.


Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) is the main airport in Sabah. From Singapore, we got a JetStar Asia flight to KKIA and the flight was a smooth and relatively turbulent-free experience that took approximately two hours.

Travellers can also opt to fly in from Johor Bahru with AirAsia from the Senai airport. The advantage of doing this is the ability to pay for the flights in Ringgit which we all know is a more economically viable option.

Internally, the major cities such as KL and neighbour cities such as Kuching offers internal flights that are fast and affordable.

I did not try the bus option but I’ve heard you could get buses in from Brunei and Sarawak. If you’re keen, I hear there’s even a way to come in via a ferry.

The town

My bunch of high level adventurers bent on conquering Mount Kinabalu the very next day decided that the best way to get into town is not through a series of adventurous modes of transportation but with life’s easiest form of transport – the taxi.

From the airport, a cab ride would set one back about 30RM but the relative fast ride into the city center will provide you the chance to speak to any traveller’s best avenue for advice – the cabby.

Our cabby, a round fellow with a giggly laugh, was more than happy to share his many years of eating experience with me as he went on and on about grilled prawns, amazing seafood and Japanese tourists who gasped at the size of his city’s enormous prawns.

By the time his stories ended, we had arrived in our destination which was a comfortable little hostel ran by some really nice folks.

As in all parts of South East Asia, transport personnel are all highly entrepreneurial individuals and this gamely dude was no different. Before we even paid him he was all ready to offer us further modes of transport services for the rest of our stay there. My advice on this is to never promise anything. Get his name card and make it seem like you can use his services but never promise. I promised once and the experience was not good. Once you’re free of him you can always go on to check for prices later before you decide on whether you want to use him again.

The pad

Our hostel was booked through hostelworld.com. For the budget traveller, I find this site to be extremely awesome and effective. They also have a points system which you can use to redeem things like a Gold Card which will make you some form of a premium member hence allowing you to waive off the US$2 booking fee from each transaction. To me, that’s a big deal because in some places, 2 bucks can easily get you a comfortable bed, warm showers and even a breakfast.

There’re some schools of thought when it comes to booking accommodation. Some folks prefer to go to the location before booking it because the truth is that places you see on the internet might not necessarily be the cheapest. Beyond the economics, going down to the location to survey for a place to stay also has the added advantage of knowing what you’re getting. Too many a time, I’ve been to places which looked great on the pictures but looked like a whore house in reality.

On the other hand, some folks love the security of knowing that they have a place to stay the moment they touch down. That’s not a problem in my point of view but I find that economics and the sometimes lousy conditions of accommodation means that a new school of thought should be established.

Hence, here’s my school of thought. =p. It’s a simple one really whereby if you’re staying in a place for more than 2 days for example. Then you can try booking a room for the first night before scouting around your area for better deals. That way, you get the security of having a place to stay once you land and the added advantage of being able to find other, more affordable or nicer places once you’re in the area. However, one should really only do this during the low peak seasons. Do this over peak seasons like Christmas or New Year’s and you may find yourself homeless.

In any case, our pad was a nice little place called Kinabalu Backpackers. Because we had 4 people, the kind folks at the hostel gave us a 6 person room and allowed us to fully occupy it for the 2 nights that we were there. It was an awesome gesture because it allowed us the “privacy” of being in our own group. As with most hostels, the place came with external toilets and free breakfast. Again, as with most hostels, the free breakfast was a simple offering of toast, various spreads and tea or coffee. Don’t get me wrong though, this spread is more than enough for a filling and rather awesome start to the day. Equipped with air conditioning, this place was a steal for the US$6 bucks a bed.

Across our hostel were many smaller hostels and a newly opened hotel. Just down the street was another famous hostel ran previously by an Australian. In all, KK definitely has her fair share of good, ample accommodation.

Back to the town

Now as mentioned, the town is not really the most exciting thing you would find yourself in. If possible, walk. It doesn’t take much to go from one end of town to the other. In fact, it took us about 2 hours to do that journey.

The 2 hour walk will show you all there is to KK. Beyond the usual malls that you will see, you will notice the many shop houses that has some of the best street food available in KK. For me, the most interesting part about KK is the beginning of globalisation and tourism taking place in the town. With tourism only kicking in the last 2 decades, you will inevitably start to notice all these small places that have opened up for tourists. Little Italian places that serve really awful pizza, Vietnamese cafes that sold coffee the way it is sold back in Saigon and the odd restaurants that serve food you can be sure wasn’t catered to grandma and grandpa are signs that “progress” has began and the town might soon be yet another tourism-ruined hotspot.

Another place KK left an impression on was the pier. Unlike most seaside towns, the pier smelt terrible. One would be hard-pressed to find a word to describe the smell. But if one gets beyond that and remember happier smelling times, then the pier offers you the perfect breeze on a warm, humid day and good views for photosgraphs.

Big eats

When it comes to eats, KK is pretty much stashed with good food. We arrived in the afternoon, hungry and slightly tired so it was nice to be able to grab some nice food.

Initially, and possibly seeing how we spoke English, our local hostel lady told us to try “little Italy” for some good food. When we reached there though, we saw a restaurant who’s most famous item was probably the pair of marble naked ladies out in the front.

If you move beyond the inevitable commercialism in the food industry, you’ll end up finding a joyload of local delicacies.

Pineapple bun – much like the hongkong bo lo bun, this pineapple flavoured bun comes to you hot and filled with creamy custard that flows on your tongue like a splash of evian on a hot summer’s day. Its delicious, in case I’ve not said it obviously enough.

Bak Kut Teh – almost every corner in every street will toss up a bak kut teh (pork rib soup) restaurant or sign. Try it. it’s different. And good.

Wanton Mee / Chicken rice – oh you think it simply cannot get better than the Singaporean Hainan chicken rice do you. Do you. well, it can. Try feeding yourself with chicken that ran free when it grew up instead of being in a cage butt to butt with other mates. Try tasting the meat of poultry that grew up with injections, modified food or dried corn. Once you’ve done that, you’ll think twice about the Hainan chickens at home. Wanton mee is similarly awesome. In case you were wondering.

Seafood – to be honest, this seems like overhype to me. Everyone we spoke to mentioned how great the seafood is because the town is so close to the sea. In fact, the seafood industry is located in this one central eating area that it’s hard to miss it. 4 of the top restaurants are located in the same place as these 4 restaurants wrestle for your attention, and money. If you ask me, they are probably owned by the same person. And no, the seafood was only okay at best. But try it nonetheless.

Sabah tea – we fell in love with Sabah tea when we were climbing the awesome Mount Kinabalu. Served almost everywhere on the mountain, the tea is a refreshing one that calms your nerve, smoothes your throat and warms your every single body part. Even when we got back to KK, we searched, and found this delicious concoction and bought home as much as we could with our leftover ringgit. Which regrettably, wasn’t much.

BBQ Chicken Wings – taken to an out of town food place by our local friends, we were brought to BBQ chicken heaven with these chicken wings. Served with chicken hearts amongst their other parts, there wings are marinated in a lovely Char Siew sauce which made the wings pinkish, juicy and delicious.

Drink – because KK is such a lazy, relaxing town, you will find it hard to find a decent club downtown. However, the town is filled with some really good places to have a beer, kick back and watch some footy or hang out with your buddies. Alongside a nice set up, such drinking places are comfortable and cheap.

Sunday on a bright note.

We came in on Thursday and climbed on Friday and Saturday. The return flight was in the afternoon on a Sunday so after resting our tired limbs on Saturday and taking a much needed rest, Sunday saw us visiting what I consider the best attraction of KK.

The Sunday market, as her name suggests, opens only on Sunday. It is your typical South East Asian street market with stalls lining both sides of the road that is closed for the operation of the market. In most markets though, these stalls are usually for the typical jewellery, handicraft, souvenirs, imitation wares, food, drinks or performers asking for money. And in this case, the KK market is no different. However, the one difference it provides to all travellers is the sale of animals and pets as well!

Sold at really cheap prices, these pets are adorable and a perfect accompaniment to a lovely Sunday. Providing cuteness and many photography opportunities, I would safely say that seeing this market, feeling it and eating through it, will make your KK trip entirely worth while.

Feeling the way through

Truth be told, the time in KK, without much transportation other than the ones God gave us, represented very little opportunity for us to see much. We were lucky that on our first night there, our Malaysian traveller had some locals that took us around. The interaction with them taught us a lot about the social “system”, exposed us to more local food and helped us see some “glamourous” and out of town sites in KK.

This quick drive through the night allowed us to see more of KK than say, a traveller without friends would see.

Nonetheless, with this traveller’s philosophy on seeing as much as possible, a return to this quiet and relaxing town may just need more than 4095 reasons.
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