Kota Kinabalu can be a pretty cool place to be; it’s also a great base from which to discover more of Sabah.
Kota Kinabalu is a sprawling and quite charming city. Most of the buildings were erected post-WWII as the British burnt KK (then known as Jesselton) down during the war to prevent it from falling into Japanese hands.
There are just a few survivors from the pre-war era, though — four to be precise. They are the Atkinson Clock Tower, the former Post Office building (which now houses Sabah Tourism) and the Old Welfare building, which unfortunately was razed in a fire a few years back. All that is left standing are the columns that the city authorities have wisely allowed street artists to get creative with.
But hold on, isn’t that only three buildings so far?
Well, the three are what most tourism sites —and probably even the officials — list. There is a fourth, however, and it’s the Gudwara (Sikh temple) that dates back to 1924 on Jalan Mat Salleh.
And how do I know this? Because I had the good fortune of meeting the kindly, humorous and informative Lawrence Singh of Vista Lane Tours. He prepared the itinerary for my short visit and dutifully took me around on a well-organised tour of the city and beyond.
Since I had been to KK a few times before, I was already familiar with some of the places in the itinerary, but Singh had no problem improvising as required. We skipped the Tun Mustapha Tower in Likas, a gleaming circular glass building that is the tallest in KK and can seen from miles away. Instead, we opted for the City Mosque, a resplendent and striking place of worship.
There’s also the Wetlands Centre nearby, a great spot for birdwatchers. We then took a short drive up to Signal Hill to a small observation deck. This is the perfect spot to get a bird’s eye view of the city and the five islands that comprise the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park beyond it.
A quick spin around the city saw us taking in the sights at the Waterfront where most locals (and visitors) congregate in the evening. Next to it is the famous handicraft market, where you can pick up pearls, handicraft and some of the local snacks — cheaply, if you know how to bargain.
There’s also the famous Gaya Street Market (only on Sundays, though) which should keep you happily occupied. All manner of merchandise and goods are available, especially the more touristy souvenirs.
Island-hopping seemed like fun, and it was only 20 minutes away by ferry (either from Jesselton Point or from Sutera Harbour). The biggest island here is Gaya, followed by Manukan, then Sapi, Sulug (the furthest) and Mamutik.
I opted for Sapi. It has a small but beautiful beach, and the snorkelling is good. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see fish and other sea creatures in crystal-clear waters right from the jetty. This is also the island where you can opt for barbecue packages with fresh seafood. We didn’t spend much time here as we wanted to see the iconic attraction of Sabah — Mount Kinabalu and the national park. I did not attempt the mountain as I was in no condition to climb. Moreover, the waiting list is always many months long.
It takes two to three hours to get to the park from KK, depending on the traffic (many trucks and heavy vehicles ply the winding road). The journey itself offers picturesque views of mountains and valleys. At the foothills, some 15 minutes away from Kinabalu Park, is the little outpost of Nabalu. Here, you will find numerous stalls selling native ware and products, including foodstuff.
Singh pointed out some red pineapples (yes, red). They were really sweet and delicious. There must be something in Sabah’s soil, I thought, when I saw that the sellers also had red bananas and red durian. I guess seeing red is a good thing in Sabah!
Once in the park, we picked a short track that took us to the Botanical Garden area set up by the park authorities. It showcased a good variety of the flora found in the area. Lunch, for us, was at one of the numerous restaurants, chalets and B&B’s found outside the park area. Yes, the Park has a restaurant of its own but the prices are astronomical.
Little wonder we only saw one family dining there.
Our restaurant, Rose Cabin (which actually is a chalet and dormitory with a restaurant attached), laid out a great spread for us. The broccoli soup was tasty; we also had yummy fried chicken with basil, ginger beef, mixed seafood, cucumber shrimp and mixed vegetable. The crispy Japanese cucumber fried with batter from the latter was out of this world. It was a great meal.
For dessert, we tried something different — flower dipped in batter and fried. We were told it was from a European tree species that actually grew behind the chalet. I would recommend this place for a meal any day.
After the meal, we set off to Poring Hot Springs. It being a Sunday, the place was quite busy. Loads of people were taking the opportunity to soak in the hot mineral pools. I decided to do just the famous canopy walk. It’s a rather steep climb up to the entry point (fee is separate for the hot springs and the canopy walk). The walk was a lot more fun than the one found in Taman Negara, for you get a good sense of what it’s like to be a tree-dweller up in the canopies.
Soon it was time to head back to KK. While we were at the park, the peak of Kinabalu had been covered in heavy clouds because of the early morning rain but as we snaked down the winding road, the sky cleared, and I saw the full majesty of Mount Kinabalu.
However, just as we were trying to find a good spot to stop at so I could get a shot on my camera, it started to rain. Actually, it was more like a dam bursting. Oh well, never mind; like McArthur, I will be back.
> Kota Kinabalu is a good base from which to explore the rest of Sabah. Vista Lane Tours ( (60) 8853 8966/77, Fax: (60) 8853 8922, email: email@example.com) have various options for you to choose from, including offbeat ones. And they have guides who speak Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin, Cantonese and translators in Korean, Russian, German, French and Dutch.