Sunday Market - literally going on outside my hostel window!
Kota Kinabalu, or KK as the locals call it, is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, which is located in Borneo. KK is located on the west side of Sabah just north of Brunei. It has a population of approximately 600,000 and it’s apparently a major tourist destination, if only because it has an international airport. A lot of people come here to get their trip in Malaysian, Borneo together and then head off into the wilds seeking a more natural landscape. KK has a simple and efficient airport and a slew of cabs ready to take you to your desired destination. Too bad they over charge you for the fare. Welcome to tourist prices.
I pick a random hostel.
Its perfect. Sort of clean (!), nice room, good price, a/c, great location, excellent security. I must mention that my most prized possession is my passport. I’m extremely serious about this. The thing that gives me the greatest anxiety in life is the thought of losing my passport. You see, I’ve lost my passport before. I had it in a bag with other important things when I was in university. I left the bag in a friend’s car and it was never seen again, despite a thousand efforts to find it and that there was no logical reason why I shouldn’t have found it because I knew this friend really well and saw her every day, so why was my bag missing? I had to go to the passport office and explain that it was gone. They were not happy with me.
With a very stern face the passport official said to me, lose it for a second time and we won’t give you another one. Well holy shit! To be locked within my country like a prisoner, knowing there are amazing sites, cultures, food yet unexplored. My life crashed fast. If I could, I’d stitch my passport into my skin and then only worry that someone would cut it out of me. Needless to say, security of my passport is a really big deal to me when I travel.
The local hardware store
KK’s personality is as dry as toast. After the buzz of Hong Kong this place is the desert. I hate it here immediately. I walk the entire downtown to find nothing of significance. The only things of interest are the cool Sunday market, that is hoping at 6am literally outside of my hostel window, and the permanant local markets by the waterfront.
There are two "major" tourist attractions here; an old clock tower, and a high lookout point. I go along an unmarked dodgy road to find both. And when I see them I’m unimpressed. This is it! Malaysia tourist offices everywhere P-L-E-A-S-E get to work on your cities if you think people are going to come see them. These sites might be interesting but people need help to understand why. Where are the signs guiding you to find them, where are the information pamphlets, and explanations of their significance to your history, city, people, and culture. There was none of that here, zilch. So you’re left climbing a long unmarked road, walking in the ditch while cars zoom by, hoping you’re going in the right direction, to end up where you wanted but stand there with no understanding why you should care. Ouch!
The clock tower.
I’m going to the bar.
KK - from the high point
I head to a place called BB Café. Everyone here is in a couple. Gah. But wait! There is a lone woman sitting listening to the terrible karaoke being sung at the bar. Her name is Jean and we strike up the most fascinating conversation. Jean is an expat who owns a restaurant in KK with her husband Nick. Jean and I talk about the challenges of a business succeeding in KK. She and Nick were recently pushed out of the waterfront area, where they had a successful restaurant/bar. They were pushed out by the Chinese mafia who control the leases on properties along the tourist luring waterfront. Jean explained how they took the struggling restaurant/bar and made it into a tourist mecca.
People flocked there everyday and all night. The mafia didn’t like that their place was busy and the other bars (owned by locals) were not as successful. They also didn’t like how many Westerners were now on the waterfront. So they literally pushed them out of their space. They told Nick and Jean that they couldn’t lease the building anymore because the area was being torn down for a new waterfront expansion. They had to leave right away. Nick and Jean were sick that they had to shut down. The next month the property owners leased it to a Chinese couple. Nick and Jean had to start over, again. All told they’ve had half a dozen bars in the past 5 years - all doing well and then they get pushed out.
Jean and staff - good times!
They are no longer welcome on the waterfront. They can’t get a space there for all the money in the world. They’ve had to move into the core of KK where fewer tourists go, so business is slower. They spend the day time hours handing out pamphlets to tourists at tourist spots, trying to keep their business alive. I went to the bar (it’s called Pirates Rib Shack Diner) it was great. It had a big open air bar, great atmosphere, nice setting, friendly staff, amazing food! I hung out with the staff one long night (!) along with a group of Malay from Sarawak (the state of Malaysia south of Brunei). We had an awesome night talking about Malaysia, Canada, local politics and society. I hope Nick and Jean can make it here and continue their dream of staying in Borneo.