I went to Kota Kinabalu (KK) in Borneo a little while back. It was kind of out of the blue. My friend James called one day and said " You wanna go to Kota Kinabalu ?" We had no reason to go - except that we had never been there before - Air Asia had cheap tickets and we had a three day weekend - so I said "Sure, why not".
Kota Kinabalu (formerly know as Jesselton in colonial times) is located in Sabah. Sabah is part of east Malaysia on the Northern part of the islnad of Borneo. Borneo today is about one third Malaysian (Sabah and Sarawak), two thirds Indonesia (Kalimantan) with a small chunk that is the Kingdom of Brunei. Borneo has a very diverse population (more than 80 local dialects are spoken in Sabah alone) and a long and fascinating history that involves Sultans, head hunters, tribal warfare, foriegn company rule, Japanese invasion, resistance fighters, independence and then a merger with Malaya on September 16th 1963. On that day in 1963 Sabah, Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore joined to form the new country of Malaysia . Two years later Singapore was politely asked to leave, and the remaining territories are today what make up Malaysia.
KK (as locals refer to it) is the capitol of Sabah, but it was not always so. When the Japanese invaded in 1942 the capitol of Sabah was Sandakan, but allied bombing of the Japanese in Sandakan literally obliterated the town. At the end of the war the British administrators decided that Jesselton (renamed Kota Kinabalu in 1968) would make a better administration center.
Today KK is a relatively small coastal town of about 500,000 people situated on Borneo's northwest coast. Although it is the capitol of Sabah, KK retains its small town feel with a leisurely pace and lack of congestion. There are a few backpacker hostels and hotels of differing price ranges. We stayed a very nice little place called Gaya Borneo Lodge on Jalan Gaya in the older part of town. The rooms were small, clean and affordable, the common room stocked with the stuff that a backpacker might need, and the staff was very friendly.
On Sundays there is a big street market on Jalan Gaya and one can buy anything from fresh vegetables to pets, to hand crafted clothing, to home made snacks. The Sunday we were there an unannounced action film crew was shooting a scene where a hapless "hero" ran through the crowd being pursued by a gang of "thugs" wielding plastic knives and fake machetes. Unsuspecting customers scattered, children squealed and a vegi stand was over turned - the mayhem captured by the cameras on the roof top above. We bought char su pau to go with our coffee as the crowd re-settled itself.
We had no real objective to our visit and so spent the first day wandering the streets getting a feel for the town. KK is rather compact but there is a lot to see. The water front is a nice area with a couple of small harbors with small commercial fishing and dive boats
( www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/3399079776/ ).
There is also a larger container shipping dock a little north of town.
We found a surprising number of restaurants and pubs to visit as well as street food vendors and hawker centers. The food scene in KK is quite good. In the evening along the water front by the fish market there is a big food market set up with BBQed sea food and other local specialties. www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/3398351397/ .
Just town side of that (a little ways) along the water front is a row of places where you can linger in the ocean breeze, have some makan or sit by the sea with a cold drink while watching the approaching (or in progress) sunset. http://www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/3403842389/
Despite its name the "Cock & Bull" is one of the better places along that stretch. Farther north just in from the coast road there are a few more night time hang outs catering to a bit more active of a crowd. If you favor a little more of a local hang out check the food stalls and pubs in Api Api centre.
The only thing (besides food & beer) on our agenda was scuba diving - we knew that we wanted to do that. As it turns KK has a nice little diving community and dive trips can be arranged very affordably. For about $160 (USD) each we were able to hire a boat, rent all our equipment, do three dives at three different locations (with an accompanying dive instructor) and eat lunch on the beach – not too bad. The diving was pretty fantastic as well. Having grown up in the warm waters of Hawaii, dove off far flung motus in the Cook Islands and Samoa, and get in the water when ever possible – I was not expecting too much new, and although the fish were a bit sparse, the corals were outstanding. I had never seen anythig quite like it – and apparently KK is considered "not that great" in terms of Borneo diving.
The next day we stumbled on the Monsopiad Cultureal Centre
The Monsopiad Cultural Center is a bit out of the way but well worth the taxi or bus ride out there (although I recommend the taxi). It has exhibits from local cultures around the area and a very good traditional dance and singing show put on several times a day (not to be missed). We were especially lucky that day in that they had on an exhibit of traditional local brews and distillates (of special interest to someone like myself). The exhibit covered raw materials, processing and equipment. It had working a fermentation and distilling in progress - with easy access for sampling (for those of stern constitution)
Scuba diving, A cultural center (with free drinks), a street market, nice food and cool pubs, all in a relaxed and affordable setting by the sea - All in all a really nice 3 day weekend.