Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kota Kinabalu

Perhaps, Kota Kinabalu or KK as the locals call their home, is one of the last popular destinations I haven't been to in SEA. So, our company decided on going to KK for our annual excursion, thanks in large part to the low fares of Cebu Pacific. KK is located in the island of Borneo (the third largest island in the world), directly south of the Philippines, just below the beautiful islands of Tawi-Tawi and the southern tip of Palawan. KK is the capital of the Malaysian state, Sabah, which promotes itself as an adventure destination. Sabah is much like any province in the Philippines, with beaches, mountains, rivers and a whole lot of wildlife. It is also the home to the supposed tallest peak in South East Asia, Mount Kinabalu. This journey takes us into the mountainous area and the islands nearby Kota Kinabalu. We wished we could visit Sipadan and Sandakan, but we had limited time to explore.

So, we start off with the capital itself, Kota Kinabalu. The city center is small enough to be explored by foot in just one morning. The city seems like any provincial capital in Malaysia, still clean and organized, with its share of shopping squares, bustling markets and kampungs (residential neighborhoods). We stayed in a 3-bedroom suite at the Marina Court Condo. I think it is best to stay in the city center, and as near to the Waterfont and the market as much as possible, as this is where the action is centered. But don't think a lot of action goes on. KK is a laid back place with the sea as a backdrop.

There is one nice shopping center in the city center called Warisan Square, where you can find a lot of your everyday brands. There's a Starbucks, Big Apple Donuts (copycat of J-CO) and Yogurberry (one of the best froyos from Korea).

In front of the Warisan Square is the Waterfront, where restaurants and bars make up the nightlife in KK. Alcohol is expensive in Malaysia, so make sure you come prepared (a beer can costs RM10 average, which is P135).

There is also the Filipino market, called as such because of the number of migrant Pinoys selling there. Also called the Handicraft market, it's similar to Aldevinco in Davao. They sell the typical pasalubong stuff. The market is just across Le Meridian, just one block away from Warisan.

As you go further back the coastline, you will find Kampung Air, which has a lot of backpacker inn and eateries. If you want Malaysian food, then go here.

We also visited the wet market that is set-up in the afternoon. We came at sunset, and we were in a frenzy shooting everything we saw. The market was so colorful, and full of life. It was one of my best market experiences.

Further in the developmental areas of KK, and around 7km from the city center passing through the coastal road and mangrove areas, you will find 1Borneo, which is the largest hypermall in Eastern Malaysia. They have 4 hotels here, Mercure, Novotel, Courtyard and the budget Tune Hotel. A Giant Supermarket resides here, and of course, several branded stores. There's really nothing much to do here. The mall is enroute to Mount Kinabalu.

Nearer the airport, one can find Tanjung Aru Beach, which is a long and wide stretch of mud like sand where one can witness a gorgeous sunset. The water is not that clean, but relatively ok for a city beach. Thus, it is best to have a picnic here or have a late afternoon jog.

From Tangjung Aru, you could view the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a marine reserve that is just 10 to 15 minutes by speedboat from KK's piers. I'll have a separate entry for these islands, so stay tuned.

So to those who plan to go to KK for a weekend, I can say that's it's a good plan. Most of the Filipino tourists go to KK for the beach and the change of scene. Being near the Philippines (2 hours flight), it's really an alternative to HK. But don't expect a lot. KK is more of a laid back place, nothing like KL or any big city. It's even less busy than Cebu and Davao. Think Bacolod. That's KK.

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