Kota Kinabalu or also more fondly known by the locals as KK, is the capital of the state of Sabah on the Malaysian part of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu is a relatively big city with about 315,000 inhabitants.
When I flew to Kota Kinabalu on the 27th of January 2020 for my internship with Borneo Eco Tours, I expected the city to be like Kuala Lumpur. I pictured a big city with lots of tourists, big shopping malls and tall buildings, with a very modernized and western look. And in some parts, that is all true, but for me, Kota Kinabalu is much more than that.
Once in Kota Kinabalu, I started to explore the city. I remember having dinner at the Filipino Market on my first night. This market is at the waterfront and offers the most delicious food and much more! The following days, I started to get familiar with the city center while walking around. Kota Kinabalu indeed offers a few luxurious shopping malls like Imago and Suria Sabah, which house a range of brands and products that are both local and international. However, those shopping malls were not the reason why I chose to come to Kota Kinabalu. The city has much more to offer.
During my off-days of interning, I like going to one of the islands nearby Kota Kinabalu. My personal favorite is Pulau Mamutik. This island is about a twenty-minute boat ride away from Jesselton Point. It costs about 30 Ringgit for a return trip which is pretty cheap. Once you arrive on the island you have to pay another 20 Ringgit for conservation fees and then you are free to enjoy the island as you wish. Most people on the island relax in the shade, or if you are just like me, you will relax right on the beach getting a tan (or sunburn). The island offers a few restaurants or places where you can go for a drink and enjoy the view of the palm trees, the white sandy beaches and the clear blue water. I was on the beach all day trying to tan and enjoying the crystal-clear water. At around 4 o’clock the last boats are heading back to Kota Kinabalu again.
While in Kota Kinabalu I also tried many different places to have dinner. Naturally, I also went to restaurants in the shopping malls because it was just convenient after working the whole day. But during the weekends, I like to explore the city and search for new restaurants to have lunch or dinner. Kota Kinabalu provides an array of food choices, ranging from Chinese, Western, Indian, Malay and more.
Most restaurants that are situated in the big shopping malls are mostly modern style Asian cuisines as well as fast-food restaurants. But when you step outside from those shopping malls, you will find many smaller restaurants where the local people also enjoy their meals. I usually believe that those smaller local restaurants offer the best food. If you are a tourist in Kota Kinabalu, I would recommend you to just find a restaurant outside of the bigger shopping malls, and just order something that looks appealing to you.
Besides the amazing food, Kota Kinabalu also has some very beautiful sightseeing spots. I prefer enjoying the sunset on the rooftop bar of the Marriot Hotel on the Waterfront. During the sunset, the sky will show some lush colors like orange, purple and red. I honestly have never seen sunsets like the ones in KK before in my life. Just beautiful! Another favourite of mine is the Gaya market, which is located at Gaya Street and opens on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. This is the place where you can have the best dinners on Saturday evenings and experience a real taste of what it is like to live in Kota Kinabalu like a local. Gaya Street transforms into a fresh and vibrant market on Sunday morning, and becomes a place where you can buy your fresh fruits and local produce, souvenirs, handicrafts, art, plants- you name it!
Part of my internship with Borneo Eco Tours also meant that I got the chance to stay at Kiulu Valley for a couple of days and experience life in the countryside. The valley is situated about a 90-minute drive outside of Kota Kinabalu. This is a relatively small distance, and you will enter a whole new part of Sabah, offering a view into the daily farm life in the state. Kiulu Valley is situated between the most beautiful mountains and hills and surrounded by a diverse and thick rainforest. My personal favorite during my tine in Kiulu Valley was the Quad-biking tour there. During the activity, I got to see a whole new part of Sabah while enjoying some speed and adrenaline from driving the quad bike.
I have to admit, in my time being here, I fell in love with the city. Kota Kinabalu makes me feel at home though I’m in a totally different environment. I believe that Kota Kinabalu offers everything a city should offer, but still keeps its authenticity. I can say, that I am very sure I will be visiting Kota Kinabalu way more often after my internship at Borneo Eco Tours has ended, and Kota Kinabalu could be a city where I could live.
Written by: Bart Kerkhof, Intern at Borneo Eco Tours