When mentioning the word Borneo, the first thing one might think of is probably dense, pristine, lush green jungle. However, the first thing one sees when arriving by plane from Manila to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s provincial capital, is water and islands, tiny little pieces of land sprinkled around a turquoise sea.
Not much is left from tropical wilderness and jungle romance around Kota Kinabalu, affectively called KK by its inhabitants referencing Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysian Borneo’s industrial and commercial centre and transportation hub for visitors to Sabah, located on the Northwestern coast of the world’s third largest island.
Formerly known as Jesselton, the KK area had been under the influence of the Bruneian Empire since 15th century, until in the late 1800’s the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) began to establish colonies through Northern Borneo. Jesselton was to become a major trading post of North Borneo, thanks to the North Borneo Railway network transporting rubber, rattan, honey and wax from plantations inland to the harbour.
Jesselton suffered major destruction by Japanese invasion and Allies’ bombings during World War II. At the edge of bankruptcy after the war and unable to finance the reconstruction, the BNBC gave control of North Borneo to the British Crown in 1946, who elected to rebuild it as the region’s capital instead of Sandakan. When the Crown Colony of North Borneo together with Sarawak, Singapore and the Federation of Malaya formed the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, it became known as Sabah.
Jesselton remained its capital and was renamed Kota Kinabalu after Gunung (Mount) Kinabalu, situated about 50 kilometres east-northeast of the city and with 4095 meters altitude Borneo’s (and Malaysia’s) highest elevation. Kota is the Malay word for a ‘fort’, ‘town’, or a ‘city’. Kinabalu is derived from the name Aki Nabalu meaning the ‘revered place of the dead’.
Today’s KK hosts nearly half a million inhabitants, with its population a mixture of many different races an ethnicities, the majority among the non-Malaysian citizens, followed by Malaysian Chinese, indigenous groups such as Bajau, Kadazandusun, Bumiputras and Bruneian Malays as well as a relevant group of expat Indians and Filipinos. This cultural variety is reflected in the cities’ culinary offer. As everywhere in Malaysia, the best food can be found on the streets, in one of the the numerous Hawker stalls or simple street restaurants and it is in one of those Hawker stalls that we found one of the best dishes we’d eaten during the whole trip: Kuching Laksa, a sea food noodle soup seasoned with soy bean sprouts, garlic, egg, lemongrass, coriander and coconut milk. It was a delight, to a point that as the tiny, grumpy looking lady serving it only had her stall open until noon, we didn’t even bother having it for breakfast, each and every single day we spent in KK.
Another of those jewels was a South Indian restaurant selling our beloved porotha (or roti chennai), prepared and served by a young and extremely service talented expat from Chennai. The sauces served with the plain roasted flatbread smelled like India and tasted like India, with tiny difference in their eatable level of spiciness. With each bite of porotha we plunged into memories of the magical country which had overwhelmed our minds and senses at the beginning of our long trip through Asia, making us feel so nostalgic that we kept returning each time we felt a little mumbling in our stomach.
Kota Kinabalu is not exactly what you would call a pearl among Asian cities, but it certainly has its particular charm, originating mostly from its location on the coast of the South China Sea, the colours of the sunlight and the exotic mix of (more of less shabby) industrial buildings, tropical nature and modern infrastructure.
Kota Kinabalu is not exactly what you would call a pearl among Asian cities, but it certainly has its particular charm, originating mostly from its location on the coast of the South China Sea, the colours of the sunlight and the exotic mix of (more or less shabby) industrial buildings, tropical nature and modern infrastructure.
Admittedly, we didn’t spend a lot of effort exploring KK’s urban jewels, as we arrived carrying a significant package of tiredness from the previous months, as we were getting to the end of our travel cycle. As the unbearable heat of around 36°C prevented us from walking around outside a lot during daytime, we took advantage of the four days we spent waiting for our French friends to rejoin us for reconsidering, rethinking and reordering the huddle of impressions in our heads.
We escaped our hideout from the tropical sun only one day to take some air on two of the five islands just opposite the city forming Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Named in honour of the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, the park is a popular recreational spot for both, tourists and locals. Fortunately, it’s located in Borneo so that even though increasing tourism by Chinese visitors has done a lot of harm to the coral reefs surrounding the islands, it is still possible to spot swarms of colourful fishes., including some Nemos.
Most parts of the islands are uninhabited, only Gaya, the largest among them, hosts a permanent settlement: a water village formed by stilt huts, located just about one kilometer opposite the main boat jetty at Jesselton point, occupied by illegal immigrants from the Philippines, with most of them fleeing increasing violent conflicts in the Southern Philippine islands of Mindoro and Sulu. The village is considered a dangerous, high crime or ‘no-go’ area by the police and KK locals, while its inhabitants provides cheap workforce to the mushrooming hotels in the city centre.
As many places in the tropics, KK reveals its particular magic only by sunset, so that one of its most breathtaking sights is certainly a slow walk through the promenade connecting the jetty with the night active fish market. Make your visit coincide with the evening chants of the muezzins at neighbouring City Mosque and you’ll get a perfect blend of colorful plays of colours in an ambience of religious oriental sounds.