There is so much more to Malaysia’s state of Sabah than its capital, Kota Kinabalu, but visitors must plan well ahead if they want to explore its wild jungles, swim with the among the coral with the turtles and sharks, climb Mt. Kinabalu or visit the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Center. There is plenty of red tape to navigate, permits to acquire and limited beds to be booked.
For hundreds of years, the land at the north tip of Borneo was passed back and forth between powerful Southeast Asian interests. In the late 19th century, the region was known as North Borneo and was administered by the British North Borneo Company. At the end of WWII, both Sabah and Sarawak were given to the British government and nearly 20 years later, in 1963, they decided to join their future to the emerging nation of Malaysia.
Due to ongoing friction between Sabah and the mainland government, the state remains the poorest in Malaysia, despite the fact that it is rich in natural resources. There has been a dramatic population boom in the past forty years, boosted by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from nearby Philippines and Indonesia. The population has swelled from just 650,000 to over 1.5 million since the 1970.
It’s nearly impossible to sing the praises of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Sabah. Jessleton, as it was known in the past, was completely razed by the Allies in a futile attempt to slow the advance of the Japanese during the Second World War, and then what little was left standing was bombed again to urge the Japanese to leave after they surrendered.
The only real structure still standing from pre-war KK is the clock tower and it stands just above the jumble of low concrete buildings that were put up after the war along a relatively narrow stretch of land between the harbour and a ridge of low hills. The clock tower was built in 1905 as was named after an FG Atkinson, the first district officer who died at the tender age of 28 from malaria.
There are the requisite museums, mosques, markets and even a bird sanctuary, but few tourists linger long in the capital. If they are coming for adventure tourism, they aren’t much interested in the downtown, and for those who are staying only a short time, the most interesting sights are well beyond the city centre.
There are two top-notch cultural villages within a 20-km radius of downtown and for those who want to see the orangutans but won’t be heading to Sepilok or Kinabatangan, there is the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park that can be reached by public transport, by taxi or by private vehicle.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were facing a bit of a time crunch so we had to make a choice of where to spend more time, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah or Kuching in Sarawak. From the descriptions of the two cities, it was clear that Kuching was more multicultural, with a vibrant historical district and a beautiful setting. The fact that alcohol was not banned there had no influence on our decision whatsoever.
For that reason, we allowed two nights in KK so that we could stay in Kuching for three nights and have two full days there. We arrived in KK late in the afternoon, at the airport about 45 minutes south of the city. We had booked rooms at the Novotel, and equal distance north of the centre, so it was dark by the time we arrived. We were delighted to be upgraded to deluxe rooms and loved the modern look of the hotel. If all the buildings are going to be relatively new, nothing historical, they might as well be ultra-modern.
The food on our Air Asia flight had dulled our appetites, so we more or less skipped dinner. We walked through the large mall adjacent to the hotel, but none of the food there caught our fancy. I decided to enjoy our cozy room and turned in early, but David was keen on having a beer so they boys went to the bar and quenched their thirst.
We booked a tour to the Mari Mari Cultural Village for the next evening, taking the advice of a traveller on TripAdvisor. He wrote that while the village is fascinating at any time of the day or year, it’s particularly thrilling once the sunsets. We chose the Mari Mari over its competitor because it was described as the best in Borneo and included dinner. We didn’t want to come back to the hotel and have to search for an interesting place to eat.
When I opened the blackout drapes on our floor-to-ceiling windows the next morning I was almost blinded by the bright sunshine and blue skies. I could see that we were high above the main north-south highway across from the University complex. The light literally lit up the salmon-pink mosque nestled on a wooded hill opposite my window. I do really love the Islamic architecture in Malaysia.
We had no fixed plans till the evening tribal village tour, and when we learned that the mall had free shuttle buses to take visitors into the downtown 7km away, we opted to go in a walk around to get a lay of the land. We had read that the taxi drivers could be difficult, and most refuse to use the meters, so this seemed like a hassle-free way to spend the afternoon.
We saw a great deal more of the city while riding the shuttle bus, and once we arrived near the harbour, we headed over to the low hills behind the town to try and find the clock tower and to climb to a viewpoint for a look over the city. By the time we reached the hill, it was getting on towards noon and it was pretty hot and humid. However, once I get a plan in my head there’s no stopping me, and I trudged up the hill coaxing Anil and David along behind me.
We arrived at the viewpoint hot, thirsty and perspiring to find that the small shop that is normally open to provide cold drinks and snacks was closed for the season. The view was a complete bust; the ugly concrete buildings now obscured much of the harbour. However, we did meet a family who had also arrived for the view (although they had come by car) and after admiring the children, we learned that they were visiting from Kuala Terengganu.
They couldn’t believe that we had just visited their hometown, and that we knew some of the key sights so very well. The baby was fast asleep, overcome by the heat and humidity, but the grandmother agreed to a photo when I asked for one. No water to drink but at least there was a public toilet, refreshed, we headed back down the hill, passing the clock tower along the way and set off straight for the harbour.
We arrived at the boardwalk and what was the first thing we saw? A foreigner was sitting in the full sun with a tub of cold Heineken sitting beside him. How I would have loved to indulge, but the boys had the beer and I ordered a root beer float. I don’t think I’ve had one since high school, but it was just what the ‘doctor’ ordered. Yum! Yum!
We caught the shuttle bus back to our hotel, and along the way me passed a strange memorial to the damage that had been wrought on the city by WWII. A group of concrete pillars that one supported a building on the waterfront was all that was left from the ‘blitz’. Local graffiti artists have decorated the pillars after getting the go-ahead from the municipal council. I noticed that some tourists had stopped to take some photos; I had to make due with the one I snapped as the bus sped by.
Speaking of photos from the shuttle bus; I also managed to get another shot of yet another beautifully designed local mosque. The blue of the dome matches perfectly with the blue sky peeping through the accumulating thunderheads. It was a short a sweet visit to Kota Kinabalu, but at least we had an overview of the city, maybe we’ll return one day when we’ve run out of places to explore.