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.
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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.
A lively street market is held along Jalan Gaya every Sunday morning, with stalls selling items as disparate as herbal teas, handicrafts, orchids and rabbits. In addition, a huddle of markets on the waterfront are open daily, and together form one of the city’s highlights. Approaching from the northeast, you first reach the labyrinthine Central Market, which includes a fish market that’s at its best very early in the morning. Next comes the Handicraft Market, also known as the Filipino Market thanks to the ethnicity of many of its stallholders. Around sundown, the area west of here becomes a gargantuan night food market; further west still is the waterfront parade of bars and restaurants.
Sabah State Museum
Styled after Murut and Rungus longhouses, the buildings of the Sabah State Museum are set in grounds that also hold several splendid steam engines. The botanical garden in front of the museum is bordered by finely crafted traditional houses, representing all Sabah’s major tribes and known as the Heritage Village (Kampung Warisan).
The other highlight of the complex, the ethnographic collection in the main building, includes human skulls dating from Sabah’s head-hunting days, and a sininggazanak, a totemic wooden figurine placed in the field of a Kadazan man who died without heirs. Photographs in the history gallery depict the city when Jalan Gaya still constituted the waterfront, lined with lean-tos thatched with nipah-palm leaves.
Exhibits on oil drilling in the Science and Technology Centre next door are less than gripping; head instead to the Art Gallery upstairs, where the centrepiece is a giant string of Rungus beads, created by Chee Sing Teck, hanging from the ceiling.
Day-trips from Kota Kinabalu
Good day-trip options from KK include Mari Mari Cultural Village and Monsopiad Cultural Village for anyone interested in local culture, or taking a ride south on the North Borneo Railway if you fancy a taste of colonial Sabah. Also south of KK is the Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve, where you may be able to see the world’s largest flowering plant. The most popular attraction of all, however, are the beaches of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park just offshore.
Mari Mari Cultural Village
A newer alternative to the similar Monsopiad Cultural Village, with rather more of a theme park feel but also more interaction right from the start: groups have to assign a leader who will introduce them to the costumed “tribal leader” at the village entrance. Inside, visitors are taken on a whistle-stop tour through the longhouses and customs of Sabah’s various tribes.
Activities and demonstrations include rice wine tasting, beekeeping for honey and glue production, starting a fire using bamboo, bouncing on a trampoline, making sweets and using a blowpipe. Towards the end there’s a dance show, followed by a buffet meal. It may all feel a little phoney but, taken in the right spirit, it is also great fun and you come away both entertained and educated.
Monsopiad Cultural Village
Based around the tale of a legendary head-hunter, Monsopiad Cultural Village provides an introduction to the history and traditions of the Kadazan people. Tours are led by knowledgeable guides who take visitors to a hut where Monsopiad’s grisly harvest of 42 skulls is displayed, and then explain traditions such as the rituals practised by the bobohizan (priestess). Next comes the chance to taste lihing (rice wine) and test your accuracy with a blowpipe and sling. Finally there’s a dance show with scope for a little audience participation.
Although the exhibits and activities are interesting, the entrance price is high and the slightly dated approach has stiff competition from the newer Mari Mari Cultural Village. That said, it has an advantage in that it deals with people from a single tribe – and in the place where they lived – rather than taking a scattergun approach to tribal culture.
North Borneo Railway
You don’t have to be a railway buff to appreciate the romance of taking a steam train along the 36km of the colonial-era North Borneo Railway from Tanjung Aru station to the small town of Papar. The locomotive is a wood-burning British Vulcan, while the five carriages were built to a 1900s-style design in the 1970s.
Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve
If you feel you really must see a Rafflesia in flower while you are in Sabah, then the prospects at the Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve, often visited as a day-trip from KK, are good. As each bloom lasts for only a few days, however, it’s essential to check ahead. Assuming that one is flowering, expect a walk of up to two hours in total.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Named after Malaysia’s first prime minister, and just a short boat trip away from KK, the five islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TAR Park) represent the most westerly ripples of the Crocker mountain range. The islands’ forests, beaches and coral reefs lie within 8km of the city, with park territory as close as 3km off the mainland. The three most often visited are Manukan, Mamutik and Sapi, and it’s easy to book a day’s island hopping. Try to avoid weekends and public holidays when facilities are often overstretched; don’t expect desert island solitude at any time.
Snorkelling is popular around the islands. Although careless tourists have damaged much of the coral, there’s enough marine life around to make it worthwhile. Scuba divers will find the best conditions from January to March, although visibility is still typically just 5m.
The site of the British North Borneo Chartered Company’s first outpost in the region, Pulau Gaya is the closest of the islands to KK and also the largest. It doesn’t feature on standard island-hopping routes; tourists can only visit by chartering a boat, staying at one of the island’s resorts, or booking a tour with an operator such as Tanjung Aru Tours & Travel (wgo2borneo.com).
If you do make it over, you’ll find idyllic stretches of sand such as Polis Beach as well as lovely hiking trails; Downbelow (t012 866 1935, wdivedownbelow.com) runs a dive shop. The eastern end is taken up by a stilt village inhabited by Filipino immigrants.
Though far smaller than its neighbour Gaya, Pulau Sapi also has trails and is home to macaques and hornbills; with the best beaches of any of the islands, it’s popular with swimmers, snorkellers and picnickers. Sapi has simple facilities including toilets, a small café (daily 8am–4pm) and changing rooms. There’s also a dive shop, 50 Bar (daily 9am–1pm; t013 854 5567), charging a steep RM250 per dive.
The park HQ is situated on crescent-shaped Pulau Manukan, site of a former stone quarry and now the most developed island. Indeed Manukan has become something of a victim of its own success, drawing hundreds of visitors on a busy day. That said, the beach is attractive, watersports are good and there’s a café serving a buffet (RM95) or à la carte meals – nasi lemak or curry laksa cost RM18. To escape the crowds, take the thirty-minute walk to Sunset Point.
Across a narrow channel from Manukan, tiny Pulau Mamutik is a snorkeller’s delight. The island is surrounded by coral gardens with the best stretch off the beach at the southwest, towards the back of where the boat drops you, but it’s necessary either to clamber over rocks or to swim right round.
Borneo Divers (wborneodivers.info) have a small dive shop, offering better prices to walk-in customers than you’ll get by booking ahead. Head out on the first boats of the day if that’s your plan; it’s much more cost-effective to do two or three dives than just one.
The last island of the group, Pulau Sulug, is the most remote and consequently the quietest, though its lovely coral makes it popular with divers. It has no facilities, and few boats visit.
Accommodation in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
It’s possible to camp on the three main islands for just RM5; tents can be rented for RM30, but don’t rely too much on availability.