While first impressions of KOTA KINABALU, which everyone calls KK, may be of a rather utilitarian concrete sprawl, many visitors end up charmed by its lively buzz and the friendliness of its citizens. As well as good places to eat, it also has excellent transport links and is the headquarters of most of the main tour operators.
The best of the city’s few specific sights are its markets, the Sabah Museum and the Mari Mari Cultural Village. A further highlight lies offshore in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, whose popular islands are just a short trip away by boat.
Modern-day KK can trace its history back to 1882, when the British North Borneo Chartered Company established an outpost on nearby Pulau Gaya. After followers of the Bajau rebel, Mat Salleh, burned that down in 1897, the Company chose a mainland site – a fishing village called Api-Api – to develop as a new town. Renamed Jesselton after Sir Charles Jessel, the vice-chairman of the Chartered Company, the town prospered. By 1905 the Trans-Borneo Railway reached from Jesselton to Beaufort, allowing rubber to be transported efficiently from the interior to the coast.
The Japanese invasion of North Borneo in 1942 marked the start of three and a half years of military occupation; little of old Jesselton survived the resultant Allied bombing. In 1968 the name was changed to Kota Kinabalu and city planners set about expanding outwards into the sea. Interconnecting concrete buildings have been constructed on the reclaimed land – the Sinsuran and Segama complexes and Asia City in particular have developed their own identities. Progress has been startling, and today, with a population of over a quarter of a million, KK is a beehive of activity once again.