Known as the gateway to the mystical island of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is fast growing as a major tourism destination
Once known as Jesselton during the British colonial era, Kota Kinabalu, more popularly known as KK, is now a state capital with a population of around 500,000 comprising a mix of Chinese, Kadazandusun, Bajau, Brunei Malays, as well as a significant migrant population from Indonesia and Philippines. The locals are so used to intermingling among one another that they consider it pointless to ask about each other’s ethnic origins.
From KK, it is easy to access some of Borneo’s famed attractions like its tropical islands, lush rainforests and Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Borneo and Malaysia. Visitors are often enthralled by the enchanting beauty of the rainforest and the diversity of wildlife. Unique species like the orangutan, the proboscis monkey and the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, can only be found in Borneo.
TOP 5 ATTRACTIONS
1. Orangutans enjoy celebrity status in Borneo. An endangered species, these intelligent primates are indigenous to Borneo and parts of Sumatra. From KK, the nearest place where you can get up close to these endearing primates is at Kawi Wildlife Park, about 30 minutes outside the city. The other place is Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort where they organise daily viewings. However, if you have time, you should visit the famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
2. For an island-hopping adventure, visit the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Speedboats depart every hour from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal to the five islands within the marine park, namely Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik. You can get more information from the tour boat operators at the terminal and decide which islands you want to visit. Activities around the islands include snorkelling, diving and kayaking. Pulau Tiga is also worth a visit if you have more time. The first season of the TV reality show ‘Survivor’ was shot on the island and it became world-famous after that.
3. Hop aboard the North Borneo Railway train if you have not been on a steam locomotive before. Touted as the oldest running steam train in Borneo, the ride will bring you back in time with continental breakfast and tiffin-lunch thrown in. The experience will also set you back by RM290 but many tourists seem to enjoy the experience. (www.suteraharbour.com)
4. Kinabalu Park is Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park, located around 90km from KK. With more than 4,500 species of flora and fauna, including 300 birds and around 100 mammal species, the park attracts nature lovers from around the world. The main feature of the park is Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest peak. Accommodations in the form of chalets are available in the park and reservations for accommodation and mountain climbing guides are processed through Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (also known as Sutera Harbour), a private company. Other attractions in the park include Poring Hot Spring, the Kipungit Waterfall about 15 minutes’ walk from Poring, and a bat cave. (www.sabahparks.org.my)
5. If your idea of a holiday is kicking back over a beer, dining al-fresco and watching the sun set,
TOP 5 EATS
1. If you ask the locals where they go to unwind and catch up with friends, most will point you to Jesselton Point Hawker Centre (Jesselton Point jetty), possibly the only place in KK where you can get a wide selection of food – from western to Indonesian, Thai and local dishes at affordable prices. Visit during the evening and you will get the sea breeze and stunning sunset for free.
2. King Hu Restaurant (Jalan Pinang, Tanjung Aru), is an old-school Chinese restaurant well-known among locals for its roast duck (a local version of Peking duck), dumplings and pork legs. Prices are reasonable but it’s mostly crowded during meal times so be prepared to wait.
3. If you like Indian food, try K Sanba’s Curry Specials (Block F, Lorong Plaza Utama 1, Alamesra Lebuh Raya Sulaman). Besides their famous curry dishes and nasi beriyani, locals say their curry puffs are the best in town.
4. Alu Alu Cafe (Lot 6, Tanjung Lipat, Jalan Gaya, Jesselton Point) is a clean and spacious restaurant which is famous for their organic vegetables and fish served in many styles, from double-boiled and wok-fried to braised and steamed. Prices start from RM10 for their grouper fish while their coral trout and humphead wrasses are more expensive.
5. For the best barbeque chicken wings in town, head towards Ang’s Hotel Restaurant (also known as Fatt Kee, Jalan Pantai, opposite Wisma Merdeka), but be prepared to join the queue if you visit during peak hours. They open for lunch and dinner and they are many other poultry dishes like oyster and sesame sauce chicken and herbal chicken feet soup on the menu, too.
Both Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia offer daily flights to KK from Kuala Lumpur. From Singapore, you can connect directly via SilkAir. The journey takes two and a half hours from either Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
WHEN TO GO
KK is generally hot and humid all year round. More rain is expected from October to December. Public and school holidays are busy periods. During the Chinese New Year week and the first week of October, you can expect more tourists from mainland China.
WHERE TO STAY
For those who desire privacy and love to be surrounded by nature, Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort is possibly the best choice among the five-star resorts in KK. Located about 35 minutes from the city, the resort is perched on the edge of a forest reserve and fronting an unspoiled beach. Added attractions within the resort are daily orangutan viewings in their natural habitat, Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club and the award-winning spa (www.shangri-la.com).
If you prefer to be nearer to the city, Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa will not disappoint. You may not be surrounded by nature like in their sister resort but you will still get to enjoy the same high standard of service typical of Shangri-La resorts. Their main draw is their spa located on a man-made island. (www.shangri-la.com)
Gaya Island Resort caters to those who prefer to spend time on a secluded island. To get there, you have to hop onto a private speed boat from Sutera Harbour Marina for a short 15-minute ride. Gaya Island is the largest among the cluster of five islands within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Their spa is touted as one of the few in the world situated amid a mangrove swamp setting. (www.gayaislandresort.com)
Photos © iStock by Getty Images.