Kota Kinabalu

Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
Trip End Apr 30, 2009

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Monday, March 23, 2009

I was surprised that our passports got stamped on entry to Kota Kinabalu, but apparently the province of Sabah is semi-antonymous within Malaysia and has their own customs controls.  We had made arrangements with our hotel in Kota Kinabalu (Borneo Global Backpackers) for a free pickup from the airport.  This offer was only valid until 22:00 though and because our flight was 1.5 hours late, it was actually 22:20 by the time we got our bags and exited the airport.    Fortunately I had used the free Wi-Fi in the Kuala Lumpur to notify the hotel of our late flight though, and they did not charge us the regular 25 ringgit fee for the lift to their hotel.

We had tried to reserve a two person, air-conditioned bunk,-bed room at Borneo Global Backpackers at ca cost of 50 ringgits per night, but once we showed the cost of the bunk-bed room was 58 ringgits a night.  Since this was the same as getting a larger two twin bed room, we switched to one of these rooms.  The price included Wi-Fi Internet and breakfast, so it seemed like a good deal for Borneo.  Since they had picked us up for free, I told them that we'd be spending six nights and they asked us to pay the full price up front, which we did.  Normally I try to only commit to a couple of nights via a reservation so that there is no problem moving later if we find the room unsatisfactory and in hindsight, I wish I had followed that practice here.

It turns out that breakfast is simply a loaf of bread, with no butter, jam or anything to put on the bread.  Fortunately there is a community fridge though, so we went to the supermarket and bought some cheap jam to help make breakfast more appealing.  So far only our full large jug of water has been stolen from the refrigerator and the jam has been safe.  The Wi-Fi Internet was problematic at first, but I was able to fix it (since they had not changed the password on their router from the default.)  The problems didn't really start until our first morning at the hostel when we were woken up around 6:30 by the noisy employees shouting, singing, playing tag and whatever else they doing.  Without even asking, one of the employees kindly asked us if we would like to move to a less noisy room for the rest of our stay, but unfortunately the Wi-Fi Internet didn't work from our new room, so we moved back and decided to use ear-plugs instead.

This turned out to be a mistake because the Wi-Fi Internet stopped working for me altogether after the first day.   I am unable to connect to the router sort of like I have the password wrong, although of course I double checked with them on what it is supposed to be.  Their computers were shutdown from the Internet the second night as well, but since their computers started working again they showed absolutely no interest in trying to help me fix my connection.  The fact that I have over ten years in network administration means little to them and they figure the problem is entirely on my side, but I did not put up much of a fight and can live without Internet access for a week.  The good news is that many of the local restaurants and bars (including McDonalds and KFC) offer free Wi-Fi anyhow and of course I have no problems using their service.

Our biggest problem with Borneo Global Backpackers occurred on the second night after midnight when people started returning to their room to find nobody at reception and the front door locked.  Approximately every 30 minutes between midnight and 4:00 somebody would come to the door and bang as loud as they could for five to ten minutes until they managed to wake somebody up to let them in.  This had to be staff because a key was required to open the door and they were the only ones that had keys.  Around 2:00 the staff stopped coming all together and several people were locked out for the night!  As annoyed as Lisa and I were with getting woken up constantly throughout the night, at least we were not one of these poor souls that were locked out all night.  Lisa got up and tried to locate somebody, but nobody could be found.  They advertised 24-hour reception, so I believe the fault lays entirely on the shoulders of Borneo Global Backpackers and a large portion of their guests checked out after this night.

When you look on the Internet for Borneo Global Backpackers, it looks like quite a nice backpackers place, but now that we are here this place is anything but a typical hostel.  There is a common TV lounge area that is occupied around the clock by the staff.  I am guessing that this is a family run place and that nearly everybody in the extended family works here because there are way too many employees to keep busy throughout the day and they sit around and watch TV most of the time.  They are usually watching soap operas in Malay and never offer to change the channel when you sit down.  This is really more of an employee lounge than an area for the guests as I have yet to see any foreigners get to watch the TV (only the single computer for Internet at 2 ringgit per hour.)

The city of Kota Kinabulu is nothing like what I expected a city of Borneo to look like.  It is very developed with very little green space, but tons of concrete and glass buildings everywhere.  Many   luxury cars on the road show that this area has done quite well with tourism as do the satellite dishes attached to nearly every single dwelling in the area.  The city itself has very few attractions for tourists and although there are lots of tourist attractions outside of the city, they have been cornered by companies and are not very accessible to independent travelers like Lisa and I.  For example, there doesn't seem to be a single place to rent a bike or motorcycle in the whole city.  If you want to climb Mount Kinabulu, you need permits which are all bought up by tour operators who sell 2-day packages for almost $500 per person.

Although drinking alcohol can be quite expensive in Kota Kinabulu (more expensive then in Canada anyhow), the quality and price of food is great.  There are many Indian, Malay, Chinese, Pilipino, Indonesian and Western restaurants to sample and it is easy to have a meal for two at a lower cost than a single beer.  The main place that Lisa and I ate at was called Restaurant Indah (on Lg. Katamunsing), which was a 24-hour establishment run by a Muslim family.  They served various types of Mee Goreng and Nasi Goreng and my favorite was a dish called Nasi Goreng Pataya (which was fried rice, chicken and veggies mixed together and covered by a fried egg with chili sauce on it).  The family was very friendly and I guess they were not to restricted by traditions as one 20-something girls removed her headscarf because it was too hot outside).

Very close to Restaurant Indah, at the corner of Lg. Katamunsing and Jln. Kemajuan, is a parking lot that is used nightly by food vendors.  They offer typical Borneo dishes, such as satays, fried noodles and rice, soups, etc. for very good prices (3.00 to 4.50 RM).  We discovered this area on our first night in Kota Kinabalu, because they were still open at 23:00, and went back nearly every night of our stay in the city.  The real highlight of these restaurants is the fresh fruit drinks that they serve.  There are two sizes that are offered and the large ones were absolutely huge (around 1 liter) and a real bargain at 4 RM.  Since the small ones were only around 300 mls, they were not really a good deal at 3 RM.   They had several kinds of fruit listed that I could not translate to English, but the ones we did try were: mango, honeydew melon, pineapple, apple and orange.  One night, Lisa and I snuck a small bottle of vodka and mixed it in with these drinks, which worked out very well.

With all the tours in Kota Kinabalu being rather expensive and time consuming (7 hours each way to get to the orangutan rehabilition centre), our typical day involved walking around the city looking for pictures and other things to do.  The weather was quite consistent. It was always very hot and humid and days would start off sunny but in the early afternoon clouds would roll in and it would rain for a few hours until the evening.  The evenings were usually still cloudy but the rain would usually stop and let us go on a stroll for dinner.  I am not sure if the cold weather in Hanoi has influenced me, but I feel that Borneo may have the hottest and most humid weather of anywhere that we have been on this trip.

Fortunately while walking around the city, there are quite a few malls that offer an air-conditioned retreat.  We would often cart around the laptop and duck into a mall or McDonalds in order to get away from the constant heat and humidity outside.  Without Internet in our room, we would simply order a sundae from McDonalds and catch up on the world's events while we ate it.  The city of Kota Kinabalu has very few benches or areas to relax other than these malls and McDonalds.  There is only one very small park within the downtown area and it is rather dull and boring for a park in a rich tourist city of the tropics.  The waterfront area has a nice view of nearby islands, but again there is nowhere for the public to sit and enjoy it, other than overpriced restaurants and outdoor massage parlours.

One of the reasons that Kota Kinabalu is so modern looking is because it was leveled twice during World War 2.  First the British destroyed it on their retreat from the approaching Japanese and then again by the Allied forces to get rid of the occupying Japanese forces.  This onslaught left only three buildings in the entire city standing.  One of these structures is called the Atkinson Clock Tower and is a square 15.7 meter high wooden structure that was completed in 1905.  It is only a few square meters at its base, so it is easy to understand how this structure could've survived such devastation.

Not far from the clock tower is a stairway leading to a viewpoint on a hill facing the South China Sea.  There is a sign saying that there are 245 stairs to the top, but the condition of the stairway means that there are actually around 230.  Some of the stairs are hardly attached to anything which makes sandals far from the ideal footwear for climbing to this viewpoint.  Once we got to the top however, we were slightly higher that the surrounding hotels and office complexes, which allowed me to take a decent panoramic photograph of the city of Kota Kinabalu.  We were not on the hill's summit for long though before the afternoon rain started to trickle down and with the stairway being in such poor shape, we hurried down before everything got slippery and wet.

One of the main tourist attractions in the city itself is the Sunday market which takes over Jln. Gaya.  The market is used mostly by local residents but there are also some tourist souvenirs that can be found.  The goods here ranged from fresh produce, to hardware supplies, clothing and even pets (on top of the tourist souvenirs).  We didn't find anything to be much of a bargain, but the prices were about as good as it gets in Kota Kinabalu.  We decided to hold off on the tourist souvenirs until we were in Kuching, but still bought a large bag of peanuts for only 5 RM.  This market starts quite early in the day and people were starting to pack up shortly after noon.
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