Charms of Kota Kinabalu

Nature walks, pristine beaches, well-maintained resorts and an array of markets are the chief attractions in this cheerful Malaysian city, writes PETRA O’NEIL

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Kota Kinabalu, or ‘KK’ as it is affectionately known, is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, only a short flight away from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

Kota Kinabalu traces its beginnings to 1882 when an outpost was established by the British, and then a settlement at a fishing village renamed Jesselton after Sir Charles Jessel, of the British North Borneo Company. To liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation during World War II, Allied Forces heavily bombed Jesselton, leaving only three buildings standing!

Today Kota Kinabalu is a modern utilitarian city with a compact downtown area of restaurants, cafes and shopping centres predominantly constructed from concrete with streets arranged in a grid pattern that, while lacking in architectural merit, are ideal for walking. The lively waterfront is pleasant where in the evening you’ll find open air hawker stalls cooking up a feast of noodles or freshly caught seafood in giant woks. On Sundays, Gaya Street lined with restaurants and Chinese apothecaries, becomes a fresh produce and handicraft market, while nearby Australia Place named after the Australian soldiers stationed here during World War II, has backpacker accommodation, restaurants and numerous bars. Sabah Museum and the Atkinson Clock Tower are also well worth a visit.

It’s not long before visitors are charmed by the relaxed, friendly locals, the lively atmosphere of its markets and waterfront, and close proximity to attractions for day excursions. My daughter Nicky and I visited three of the five idyllic islands at nearby Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park reached by an exhilarating speedboat ride 30 minutes away. While the islands have pretty beaches, bays and sandy coves fringed by coral reefs where you can go snorkelling, the diving sites don’t compare to those found at islands such as Mataking, off Sabah’s east coast. Sadly illegal dynamite fishing destroyed much of the coral.

Reviving the tradition of a bygone era, the North Borneo Railway is a delight. British administrators who came to Borneo in the 1880s paved the way for the opening up of land for cultivation of tobacco, sago, tapioca, pineapples and rice, and construction of the rail line commenced in 1896. The five restored carriages are decorated in timber panelling, the exteriors painted green and cream.

Passengers join the train at Tanjung Aru Station receiving a ticket and passport as a keepsake of their journey. The vintage steam locomotive is one of the last in the world fuelled by wood.  The engine is stoked with timber and the whistle blows to sound its departure. With the windows open, we waved at locals as we passed by picturesque lush tropical scenery, paddy fields, mangrove swamps, beaches and villages. Several stops were made to explore a Chinese temple and the small town of Papar, with a vibrant local market selling exotic fruit and vegetables.

Breakfast is served on board with coffee, assorted pastries and croissants; while on the return journey, the Tiffin lunch with compartments stacked high with an assortment of curries was a treat.

At the Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort we spent several enjoyable days cocooned in paradise. With no shortage of activities, I spent my time on jungle walks, took an evening river excursion in search of fireflies and met the well-cared-for orphan orang-outans undergoing rehabilitation in the resort’s nature reserve. I also caught a local bus to visit the nearby town of Tuaran Town with a temple and fresh produce market, while Nicky spent her time relaxing by the poolside, the tropical climate well suited for indulgent lazy days.

Tanjung Aru, with a pleasant beachside setting overlooking the South China Sea is worth a detour for the great buffets at the Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort. Excursions nearby to Kota Kinabalu also include whitewater rafting, visiting hot springs, viewing the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia, or hiking on Mount Kinabalu. Instead we headed east, ending our stay in Sabah on Mataking Island, located near Sipadan Island, one of the 10 top dive sites in the world. After a day out snorkelling, sighting turtles, rainbow coloured fish and reef sharks, we returned to find a large monitor lizard lying at the bottom of our Jacuzzi! Borneo is one of the most dramatic and exciting destinations you will ever experience, and Kota Kinabalu provides the perfect gateway.

Travel Notes

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Getting there From Singapore, Kota Kinabalu is a short flight away (Silk Air or Air Asia). From Kuala Lumpur, you can fly to Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan or Tawau (Malaysia Airlines or Air Asia).

Where to stay North of Kota Kinabalu, the Shangri La’s Rasa Ria Resort, provides luxurious accommodation with impressive service and attention to detail. Our slippers fitted us perfectly (a rarity since I am usually presented with a huge pair), and our fruit bowl was replenished frequently. The deluxe wing is worth the splurge for the extras, including exquisite chocolates. The hotel offers a comprehensive programme of activities with an environmental focus. Website: www.shangri-la.com

Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa set in a spacious tropical garden by a beach  provides close proximity to the airport and has an impressive tribal art collection. Website: www.shangri-la.com

The Hyatt Regency Kinabalu is centrally located with several shopping centres just metres away and great views overlooking the South China Sea. Rooms that include access to the Club Lounge are worth the extra. Drinks and canapés in the early evening was a trip highlight. Website: www.kinabalu.regency.hyatt.com

The North Borneo Railway operates twice weekly. Website: www.suteraharbour.com

Mataking Reef Dive Resort is lovely, the accommodation luxurious, with Tawau only a short flight from KK (MAS or Air Asia). Website: www.mataking.com

Where to eat Hawker markets are lively, great fun and provide an excellent introduction to Malaysian cuisine. KK is one of Malaysia’s most ethnically diverse cities, reflected in the variety of cuisines available including Malay, Indonesian, Filipino, Chinese, Indian and local dishes from Sabah, including jungle ferns.

More information

With a favourable exchange rate, Malaysia represents exceptional value for money. Even at high-end resorts, room rates, meals and excursions are very reasonable.

Borneo Eco Tours offer ecologically sustainable tours. Website: www.borneoecotours.com

Sabah Tourism: www.sabahtourism.com

Tourism Malaysia: www.tourism.gov.my

Petra ONeill
Petra ONeill
After growing up in Australia's outback she enjoys visiting remote destinations in Australia for the wildlife, vast open spaces and brilliant night sky and travelling overseas to exotic destinations to experience different cultures. Her bag is always packed and ready for the next trip

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