While some foreigners, especially first time visitors, might feel that Kota Kinabalu is Sabah and Sabah is Kota Kinabalu (further referred to as KK), they would be wrong. KK is “just” a gate to Sabah and unless you have a car or a long holiday ahead to explore this island fully, you should lower your expectations of this place. Albeit very cute and interesting, it doesn’t offer as much as some would assume. And yet, it offers plenty, as my title mysteriously suggests, to always make me want to return. Ready? Let’s set off!
Great mix of everything
First of all, if you are short of time, this is the perfect spot to get a good glimpse of what Sabah is about. It offers some great activities within easy reach – Mari Mari Cultural Village (my favourite!), city mosque, sunsets on Tanjung Aru beach just to name a few – and demonstrates the lifestyle well. Another important reason is that KK boasts the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten in during my whole stay in Malaysia, no joke. And the third reason is that KK is home to some lovely friends of mine. Overall, if you need a quick vitamin sea fix wrapped up in some Sabahan culture but mixed with international tastes, KK is the place to be.
While I don’t want to insult anyone here, I must start this post by a rather bold statement. There is a huge difference between Sabah/KK and peninsula. First off, KK has this great vibe about it which is probably down to its people who are genuinely nice and warm. It’s probably different for a male, but as a woman I always get a lot of attention here that certainly is not unpleasant nor feels intrusive in any way. People will greet you on streets, smile at you nonstop and are generally more open-mined. While I have experienced the greetings in virtually almost every part of Malaysia, the open-mindedness is certainly exclusively a Sabahan thing or perhaps an islanders’ thing. It’s also probably down to other factors such as the variety of religious views, long-term, mostly peaceful, coexistence of multiple tribes, not so strict Islamic adherence and sea breeze that could refresh even a rotten potato.
As I have mentioned above, KK offers a variety of activities in the vicinity. This post won’t be able to cover it all, so I’ll focus on my most recent visit. Kicking off with island hopping. In the mood for some sea vibes? The famous Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (TAR Park) has got you covered. Having said that, if you expect the ultimate beach relax and chill experience, sprawling on a sun lounger, sunbathing and snorkeling, coupled with amazing food and a cocktail in your hand, you are in for a colossal disappointment. The trick here is to stop dreaming big and accept it for what it really is. By the same token, as my previous post suggests, avoid googling photos because not only don’t they reflect the reality but they also seriously distort it.
The park is just a quick – 20 minutes – boat ride from KK, which already suggests that this is really is not the tropical paradise spot you’ve seen in your wild dreams. What’s more, given the large numbers of visitors, locals and foreigners alike (i.e. pre-pandemic) you certainly can’t expect miracles. Yet, if there is nowhere else to go and time is limited, with a proper planning, you could still find ways to make the most of it. Especially now, when international tourism is at zero percent. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of it all.
Basically, the park comprises of 5 islands, but only three of them are available for island hopping – Manukan, Mamutik and Sapi. The fourth island, Gaya, boasts high-end resorts more suitable for a weekend getaway (but it’ll cost you) and Sulug is practically uninhabited, but open for diving and camping.
When to go
Since the weather has gone a bit haywire worldwide, let me not refer to the classic dry and wet season. After all, it’s Malaysia and it rains a lot. It’s a humid climate and rains or showers could be expected more or less every day. However, the rule of thumb is that during drier months (e.g. February, March, April) you could squeeze all the islands in 1 day, thus saving valuable time for other activities and exploring the town. In wetter months such as August, September and October, you may need 2 days as the weather gets bad in the afternoon and last boats depart already at 2pm. Alternatively, you could also spend one full day on each of the three islands, but personally, I wouldn’t recommend that, especially if you are a solo traveller. It could be an entirely different thing though, if you come with a group of friends and feel like a barbecue or are looking for a dive.
The good news is that it’s incredibly easy and organised. The bad news is it’s so organised it may remind you of a high school trip. Anyway, just go to the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal before 8.30am and ask at any booth for island hopping trips. Whichever booth is open. They offer pretty much the same stuff for the same price, but be cautious anyway. On the first day I arrived way too early – at precisely 7.30am – oh yeah I’m that kind of freak. It looked like a ghost town and the uncertainty brought about by the newly lifted national covid-19 lockdown was still in the air. Apparently a great opportunity for a rip off, a local man thought. When orang putih (white person), and a female on top of that, appears on the scene, let’s see how gullible she is and try to make some extra cash.
I asked for trips in English, and was originally told that NO boats were running. But a private boat would certainly be an option. I asked how much that would be. And apparently I must have either looked really naive to that man or too Western or I don’t know, but he blurted 450MYR at me (around 110$). I laughed hard and scolded him in broken Malay big time, telling him I would take my chances and wait. At around 8am I bought a trip to 2 islands (Manukan and Mamutik) for a mere 30MYR, including all the (to me unnecessary though) equipment such as a life vest and a snorkel. Well, it’s always good to have funny stories to tell from your trips, isn’t it?
OK. Let’s get this over with. Manukan looks great from afar but once you reach the jetty you will be confronted with a lot of rubbish. I understand this is not the island’s mistake itself and most of it probably comes from the mainland, however, it still doesn’t change the fact that the water is dirty. Each island has a life guard. Instead of saving lives though, they work really hard to probably save the reputation of the islands, by constant cleaning rubbish and picking up various plastic objects. In Manukan’s case this is a Sisyphean task, an endless project, as the dirt and rubbish never seem to take a break from coming. Rubbish of all forms is constantly being washed away to the shore. You’ve got it all there. From plastic bottles of all possible sizes to plastic packaging and also natural rubbish such as branches, grass, brownish foamy leaks, you name it.
I don’t know what tempts you to come to the beach. But I personally can only appreciate an island and its charm after a long, peaceful and refreshing dip in the sea which can ideally be repeated multiple times. However, swimming on Manukan feels like a punishment, an ephemeral thing. Sooner or later you will be pushed to the shore by waves of stuff you certainly don’t want to encounter. I couldn’t care less that this island is the most developed of all and offers lodges, chalets, lockers, changing rooms, Scuba Doo and whatnot. To me it’s dirty, which is a real deal breaker and a no-no, and I’m crossing this island from my “worth going to” list. I am surely not the first foreigner to claim this. Quite unsurprisingly though, locals will swear by it and tell you how beautiful the water is and will even look shocked when you tell them how you felt about the island. “Rubbish? Really?”… Hell yeah!
Compared to the above certainly an improvement when it comes to the clarity of water. I didn’t see rubbish at all. But the water is really shallow and the bottom can be a bit rough to walk on. I reached around 12pm and the island was practically empty. It’s very small and you can walk around it easily. There is a diving centre but obviously it’s rather idle now. The pandemic has made everything a lot quieter. Simple chalets as well as camping are available too, but again, I wouldn’t go for it. Perhaps I am spoilt but I need a bit more to enjoy myself on an island.
Location, nature and character-wise, Sapi is probably the best of them all. The water seemed clean enough, although there was rubbish here and there too and the life guard was picking it up in a kayak. How thoughtful of him! I believe I would have enjoyed it a lot more, if I had gone on a weekday, which I’ll explain in greater detail in the paragraph below. Sapi is just next to Gaya island so you can swim there or even walk during low tides. The island also offers an attraction in the form of zip line from Gaya to Sapi, so for 80MYR (20$) you can have a very brief feeling of flying from one island to the other.
Plan your trip wisely
You may want to plan your island hopping experience though, because the day you choose will drastically influence the impression you will create. First of all, many Malaysians – that is mainly the Malay community to be exact – have an incredibly different way of using a day on the beach. On the weekend or public holidays, they will flock to the islands in large groups with three main intentions – eat, eat and eat. Perhaps they will include a bit of snorkeling too. But otherwise the agenda is pretty clear.
They will slowly emerge from boats, all obediently wearing orange or yellow life vests, dragging boxes and plastic bags full of food and beverages for the ultimate barbecue or buffet experience. This also means you won’t be alone. You simply won’t manage to find a nook for yourself. As a solo traveller I didn’t stand a chance. Although I arrived early and chose my spot, I was soon ousted of it (this is typical too and was not the first time this had happened to me). You are a visitor, minority, stain on the sand. Anywhere you go, you will be besieged by hordes of locals stuffing on food and considering this the highest form of entertainment. And if you are like me – often looking for some me time, chilling or soaking up the atmosphere peacefully, you can honestly forget about it during those exposed days.
If I had known that before, I’d have gone to Sapi on a weekday and to Manukan on the weekend. I did it the other way round and ended up being pissed off at Manukan for having enough time and space but not being able to swim as the water was filthy and at Sapi for not having enough space and time to do anything as it reminded a local barbeque and snorkeling competition. Although I managed to enjoy Sapi in a way as I met a nice group of guys and we spent the day together – talk to me again about that Sabahan friendliness – I still took the first boat back as I just couldn’t handle the crowds.
Orang putih and conservation fees
Oh boy, do I have stories to tell about this concept in Malaysia and South East Asia overall, but I’ll save it for another post and stick to the topic of this one. One thing is for sure. Orang putih is often considered rich, and therefore people will try to rip you off. That’s not surprising anymore. But in Malaysia and, specifically TAR Park, they do it legally and officially. Take for example conservation fees.
Malaysians pay something between 2 to 5MYR. Orang Putih is charged 10 to 20MYR depending on the situation or place. I tried to argue on each island that I lived in Malaysia, had an employment pass, and paid huge taxes and therefore it didn’t make sense, especially during the covid-19 pandemic. But my attempts were futile, obviously. I wasn’t shocked. At least I tried and in Malay. Pat on my shoulder. This mind-set and double pricing policy drives me crazy but guess I’m done questioning it. Don’t get me wrong, I still love this place but I have to obviously express my opinions correctly.
I guess by now you know that I am not a huge fan of these islands. I mean, what’s the point of going to an island if you can’t swim or enjoy yourself? That’s such an oxymoron that already reading it hurts, let alone experiencing it. However, again, perhaps if you take all the above information into account and plan a trip outside weekends and public holidays, you may have more fun. Similarly, if you are invited for a barbecue with friends, it would definitely make sense. So the only thing you need to do is know what to expect, how to avoid it or prepare for it and it could work out.
Slum hopping perhaps?
Well, now you’re talking! Thanks to my friend Doreen, God bless her, I met her cousin Calvin, God bless him, who took me on a short stilt village tour. Oh yes, stilt villages, you know already that they are my weakness, don’t you? First of all, I love them because they are so quaint and quirky and also because they display a completely different way of life. However, in case of the places I visited with Calvin on that day, I guess I should be careful with terminology. Calling them villages is probably sugar coating it a great deal since what I saw there was raw life, life most of us wouldn’t handle and that’s why it’s so attractive to me.
Of course, it’s a totally different thing to live in a colourful house on Pulau Ketam as I describe here as opposed to a rudimentary wooden stilt house that looks like it could crumble any minute. I am talking about stilt villages on the suburbs of KK, where people live in poverty and on the edge of society and therefore, instead of plainly referring to them as stilt villages, the term ‘slum’ would be more fitting. I admire how these people accept their fate with wonderful smiles on their faces to greet you as you might be possibly the only orang putih they have ever seen.
The paradox of this slum is that it lies right next to a luxurious residential area. The contrast is really stark as fancy condominiums surround these. Calvin and I were walking through the slum but we didn’t get too far as I was a little bit worried that either of us could end up in the dirty waters below it. The wooden paths were not exactly maintained and often huge cracks presented themselves with every other step. I am still learning to find a balance between “better safe than sorry” and “life without adventure is nothing” but honestly yeah. Shit happens and so I can’t really say that I explored this slum to its core. But it’s small anyway and what struck me most were the happy kids with shy yet radiant faces. This is after all something I’ve always loved on my travels.
This was really fun! A huge area of slums that looked slightly better than Sembulan and navigating through the wooden lanes was much easier, except for certain rather shabby areas. But crossing them added to the enjoyment and we had a lot of fun with Calvin. Most kids were literally throwing themselves at my camera and were dying to be photographed. Others occasionally stuck their heads from their shacks to catch a peak of the havoc outside. As if they were saying “Orang Putih is here!” Females were cooking and the smell of fried fish travelled through the slum. Working males, carrying all kinds of stuff around, were smiling at me and a group of them also invited us to sit down and drink liquor. It was tempting indeed, but then I’d definitely end up in the water. One elderly woman with lines so thick and deep like carved wood asked for money in perfect English.
Simply fantastic! A brief but unforgettable moment of sensory overload that easily surpassed the whole island hopping. I would so much like to return to this village because the rain was coming so we had to speed the visit up. So Calvin, brother, are you reading this? Pinky swear?
You see, even if island hopping doesn’t work out somehow, there’s always a good reason to come to KK. Apart from the amazing villages in the suburbs, KK also lures visitors by its incredible international influence which somehow feels much more unique compared to Kuala Lumpur where most businesses try to be something they are not. In KK, it all blends in naturally and feels like it belongs there.
El Centro – the centre of my tummy’s dreams
Alright, this restaurant would deserve a post on its own or a large section in a post related to food, so perhaps I will try to do something like that. But I can’t omit this one. The owner is from California and you can feel that they really pay attention to training their staff. Every time I have eaten here – altogether around 8 times during my so far 2 trips – the food was delicious, tasted the same and I was just in heaven. I love Mexican food and this place knows a secret to it. What’s more, the price is more than friendly and it’s just in the centre of the town. Just give it a try, you won’t regret.
Peppermint for a touch of Vietnam
I love Vietnamese food and coffee. It was in Hanoi where I probably ate the best food ever from all my trips abroad and drank the smoothest coffee. If you enjoy Vietnamese tastes too, give Peppermint restaurant a try. Especially now when travel seems to be unattainable, it wouldn’t go amiss to enjoy a cup of properly served Vietnamese coffee, would it?
Italiano, signore e signori?
If you fancy proper Italian food there are two places to consider Gusto Food & Wine cucina italiana on waterfront and Little Italy right in the city centre. I ate in both of them but in case of the latter it was a year ago. The food, service and everything was great. I read, however, they had recently stopped serving alcohol with food. If having your favourite tagliatelle with a glass of wine is important to you, find out before you go. On the other hand, Gusto Food on the Waterfront had a fantastic Tiramisu. Pizza didn’t impress me, but honestly, I only ate one after the tiramisu, so that’s not the right order to do it. Nevertheless, eating here feels nice simply owing to the fact that you are sitting on a pier overlooking the sea.
Waterfront is overall the party and going out hub of KK. Before the pandemic it would typically be full of tourists and would feel somewhat crowded and loud. However, in August, it was wonderful. I could enjoy all pint of my favourite Blanc 1664 (that is until they ran out of it, sigh) practically on my own, accompanied by heavy rain, music and romantic atmosphere.
So yeah, that’s it folks. Even if some tourist attractions disappoint, KK will always offer some cosy nooks to which I tend to happily return and hopefully this post would help you to find yours too.