Editor’s note: I had never heard of Kota Kinabalu until Hedy told me she and her partner were headed there as part of a Borneo trip. Now that I’ve read her take on the place, I’m just very hungry! For more of Hedy’s writing, make sure to click here to visit her index page.
When visiting Sabah, Borneo, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the natural beauty of the sea life (do visit Scuba Junkie on Mabul island; they really make a great effort in teaching visitors and locals about the importance of sea life and how to save it from going extinct) and the jungle. If you can handle leeches being everywhere around you, a trip to Danum Valley is a must. It is the oldest rainforest in the world and has a plethora of wildlife. But after so much nature, one can find oneself in want of a bit of culture (and a bit of relaxing). We found the perfect place to do that and more on Sabah to be Kota Kinabalu.
Kota Kinabalu is located in the Malay province of Sabah which is on the north-east side of the island Borneo. From the Malay capital city of Kuala Lumpur it is a 2.5 hour flight to get there. It is a coastal town, sandwiched between the South China Sea and the glorious Mount Kinabalu. Many visitors come here to climb the mountain, which is the highest one in Malaysia and on Borneo. Apparently, the views from the top are unparalelled. If you have a few days to spare and you like intense mountain hikes, definitely put Mount Kinabalu on your itinerary, but do be aware that you have to book the climb in advance.
But back to Kota Kinabalu, which wasn’t always called that. It was first known as Api-Api, before being renamed as Jesselton under the British Empire. In that time it grew as a trading port for local products like ratan and rubber. During the Second World War, Jesselton fell under Japanese occupation. It was heavily bombed by the Allies, which is why you can’t find many buildings from before 1945. It was rebuilt and renamed Kota Kinabalu (or KK for short) in 1967. From there it grew into the modern coastal town it is now, filled with malls, a nice pedestrian seaside walk (with a lot of potholes and missing pieces but still nice enough), and many, many restaurants worth eating at.
A little warning before you continue reading: if you’re hungry, please eat something now before you start salivating all over your keyboard or phone.
The absolute highlight of our stay in Kota Kinabalu was the food. Never have we ever had such a food-filled itinerary – and it was absolutely worth it! Think: go out to score breakfast, go for a stroll after that to find a snack, continue walking to find a nice lunch spot, head home for an afternoon nap, and after waking up enjoy a drink at a bar to see the sunset and head out for dinner and a midnight snack. In Malaysia in general you can find several cuisines like the Malay cuisine, Indian, Indonesian, and Chinese. Add to that the fresh seafood, local Saban foods, and some Western eateries and you can have yourself a very big food fest in Kota Kinabalu, whatever taste you fancy. I will mention some of our favourites, but when in Kota Kinabalu the biggest fun to be had is finding your own.
For breakfast, we visited Keng Wan Hing multiple times. We got a tip to go for the Polo bun, which is a warm bun filled with pineapple custard. We weren’t blown away by it, but we kept coming back for all the other steamed buns they had. Filled with veggies, meat, or bean custard, freshly steamed and very hot, and at a very low price, these buns were our favourite way to start the day.
For lunch, my best spot was Yee Fung Laksa on Jalan Gaya. Their soups are perfect to regain some salts and fluids after a brisk walk in the sun. If you’re not squeamish about mystery meats, I can absolutely recommend their beef ball soup. It is filled with noodles, veggies, various pieces of beef and meatballs, and the best broth I have ever had. If beef is not your thing there are many other options, like their laksa, a spicy seafood soup. Both are very popular and the broths are made in big batches and served within minutes of ordering (seriously, the fastest service we have ever had). When enjoying your meal you can people watch, both inside and outside the restaurant. As mentioned, the staff is extremely efficient in fulfilling orders quickly and how they do it is worth watching and learning from (though there is quite a lot of shouting back and forth, but that adds to the atmosphere) and we loved how they worked together.
Lastly, on the food related must-tries, you have to go for the local seafood. Extremely fresh and well prepared, I still get goosebumps thinking about some of the dishes we had… in a positive way. All over Kota Kinabalu you can find seafood restaurants, but the one you can’t get around (literally, the restaurant is almost a street long) is Welcome Seafood. The fish is so fresh it is still swimming around. You can point out which one you would like to eat and they will prepare it in your preferred way (steamed, grilled, fried). They also have an extensive menu to choose from, with many fish and shellfish I had never heard of before. The tables are big and round and outfitted with a lazy Susan so the best way eat at this place is with a group and to share as many things as possible. Our highlights were the Assam-style squids, but honestly everything there looked and tasted phenomenal and very fresh. The prices are very budget friendly (for seafood) and the portions very large, so you can make your own seafood banquet of your dreams.
Luckily, there is more to Kota Kinabalu than just the amazing food, though for foodies it might already be more than enough reason to visit. For people who want to learn more about the places they visit, Kota Kinabalu has something wonderful to offer. About 30 minutes by car, just outside Kota Kinabalu, lies the Mari Mari cultural village. It is an open air museum about the five tribes of Sabah: the Murut, Lundayeh, Bajau, Kadazan and Rungus tribes. Each tribe is represented by a house built in the style of the tribe. The tour groups are not too big (about ten people) and very diverse, with locals and tourists alike. At the start of the tour we had to pick a tribe leader to represent us as a group, and for some reason the group went for the tallest person: my partner (think Dutch tall dude). You are taken on a guided tour with your group through the village, visiting all the houses. In and around each house you are taught the habits and traditions of the tribe you’re visiting. You hear about how they cultivate or catch their food, you get to taste traditional dishes and drinks, and you get to see how the families lived inside the houses. Next to that you also get to experience, in a small way, what cultural activities the tribes developed. For example we (our tribe leader/my partner and I) had a small “wedding” ceremony (sorry you missed it, mom!) in the Bajau house. After touring the houses you are treated to a little show to enjoy and dance along with the local music. The tour is concluded with a lunch buffet and, of course, a visit to the gift shop. I found the Mari Mari cultural visit one of the most fun and educational museums I have visited in years. And even though it is a bit outside the city center, it is absolutely worth the travel. The Mari Mari cultural center even offers the option of a return taxi ride to and from the museum when booking the tour, so no need to worry about that.
The other thing to do in Kota Kinabalu that we really liked was chasing sunsets. Of course, beautiful sunsets are to be found all over the world. But in Kota Kinabalu we hit the sunset jackpot every night. And it is a good way to wind down from a long, busy day and to just enjoy Mother Nature in her full glory. Anywhere along the coast you will have a good view of the spectacular show, and it is up to you if you do it from a rooftop bar or on a small beach or the coastal walkway. Just sit down and relax, chat with your travel mates or new found friends, and watch the colour palette in the sky slowly change into bright pink, yellow, or orange. And after the sun has gone down, find yourself a nice spot to eat some more and enjoy all that Kota Kinabalu has to offer.
If you are looking for a deeply historical city with many old buildings or beautiful architecture, Kota Kinabalu might not be your place. It is not the prettiest place you will ever see, and it is not a big city with a busy center. But what it lacks in that department it makes up in charm, sunsets, and some of the best eats of your life. It has many more things to see and do (for example, the marine park where you can swim, snorkel, or dive, several museums, and many malls) than mentioned here. And for a little afternoon trip you can go to the Klias River to see proboscis monkeys and witness natural Christmas trees lit up by fireflies.
So whether you will spend a week there or just a few hours as a layover, make the most of it and go enjoy Kota Kinabalu!
How to eat your way through Kota Kinabalu
Even though a big part of this article already was about food, there are still some other bites and beverages to mention.
If you want to try out a lot of different foods in a short amount of time, visit the Api Api night food market on Friday or Saturday evenings in Jalan Gaya. With food stalls on both sides, there is (too) much to choose from, from satay (meat skewers) to tropical fruit salads to loaded fries and everything in between.
For drinks, try a iced Teh Tarik, frothed milk tea and Kitchai juice, a juice made from the local calamansi limes. These drinks are available everywhere, so whenever you get thirsty they are a good way to rehydrate.
I mentioned my favourite lunch spot, but my partner Rudi does not share the same opinion. His favourite (and my second favourite) is the Sri Latha Curry House. The food is served on banana leaves and there are many fresh curries to choose from. As a dessert, do try the roti tissue, a very thin crispy flatbread rolled into a sort of chimney and sprinkled with condensed milk.
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