The fast growing capital of Sabah in Eastern Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is fortunately placed amongst an abundance of tropical islands, lush rainforest, and a convenient proximity to Mount Kinabalu. Known as Jesselton under British colonial rule, Kota Kinabalu got its current name after Britian left, allowing the state of Sabah to join with Malaysia in 1963.
The citizens of this fair city are a melting pot of the entire region, containing Chinese, Malay people that emigrated from the sultanate of Brunei, the native Borneoan population from the Bajau and Kadazandusun nations, as well as recent immigrants from India, Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This has granted this place with a cuisine that stands out throughout Malaysia, though it remains less of a known quantity than Penang or Kuala Lumpur.
An important note before your arrival in Kota Kinabalu: being situated in an equatorial climate and at the foot of a high range of mountains that tops out at 14,000 feet, rains fall frequently and heavily in this city: if you haven’t brought an umbrella, it would be advisable to do so upon arrival.
After taking care of this important detail, stroll the waterfront and sample the multicultural flavour of this outpost of civilization, before getting ready for the adventures that await you in the remote hinterland of Borneo, one of the most mystifying wildernesses on Earth.
Much of the building stock of downtown Kota Kinabalu is relatively modern, as most of the city got flattened during intense bombing during the Second World War. However, there are ruins of one building, the former Land and Survey Department building, which has been left as-is, in order to serve as a reminder of those tough years. Artists have painted the exposed columns of the former structure, making it a unique place to check out indeed.
Just above the downtown core, the quaint Atkinson Clock Tower remains as one of the few intact structures pre-dating the Second World War. It was built for and named after the first district officer of the town of Jesselton as it was then known, who died in 1902, likely from malaria. Heading up the hill from the Atkinson Clock Tower, great views of downtown Kota Kinabalu can be had from Signal Hill Observatory, taking only ten minutes to reach on foot.
Chinatown, especially around Gaya Street, has a high concentration of various types of delicious cuisine due to the higher than normal diversity of Kota Kinabalu’s population. One place that comes highly recommended is Fat Khee Restaurant, located below Ang’s Hotel on Jalan Pantai. Here, the food that has been spoken of glowingly is the Assam Curry Fish, as well as the Pork Trotters and the Chicken Wings. Apparently, the latter dish is so popular that there is often a queue out of this restaurant at lunch hour, so arrive early!
Fans of temples will have a unique sight to snap an outstanding of in the Kota Kinabalu area. Che Sui Khor Chinese Temple, located on the outskirts of town on Jalan Tuaran, will dazzle culture vultures with the commanding presence of a 12 tiered pagoda. This complex is run by members of the Che Sui Kor Moral Uplifting Society, which promotes understanding and tolerance between all the world’s major religions.
For those who want to see a truly remarkable mosque, hire a cab and check out the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. Bleached white, sporting intricate designs on the various domes of the complex, and set up over a man-made lagoon, the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque patterns itself after the magnificent Nabawi mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, and is particularly stunning at night.
Finally, head out of town a half an hour to see the Monsopiad Cultural Village. A man who lived in this Kadazan village 300 years ago killed 42 men that attacked his village, hanging their skulls on display in a grisly show of intimidation that demonstrates the toughness of the native Borneoan population.
After an intensive day of seeing the various attractions around town, it’s time to relax on some of the idyllic tropical islands lying just offshore of the city. In Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, there are five isles to choose from, each with various levels of visitor services, from all-encompassing to “you’re on your own”. Snorkelling, swimming and beach bumming are the activities of choice on these lazy specks of sand just off Kota Kinabalu, but wreck diving is also available here for dedicated divers, as the sunken ship Gaya sits in 50 metres of water.
If you fancy catching your own dinner, and have friends that have a bit of extra cash willing to do the same, then deep sea fishing is an attractive option here, as it is the cheapest in Malaysia. Rates start from 2,000 RM (about $670 USD per boat), divided among the maximum of ten people permitted per vessel.
Finally, whitewater rafting packages are available for same day journeys on rivers in the area. Beginners should choose the Kiulu River, an easy, lazy day on the water, with no worse than class 2 features. For those ready to hit some challenging waterfalls, waves, and holes, Padas River is a more advanced option, with waters that can be up to class 4 at times. All packages include meals and return transport, and will prove to be an excellent segue into the bigger adventures that are waiting for you at Mount Kinabalu, Sipadan Island, and more!