My partner Lee and I are wanderers, nomads without a permanent home. We both work online, so we are free to slowly migrate around the world as we choose, living in foreign countries for weeks, even months at a time. We have no fixed schedule and no plans for the future… we simply drift to different locales whenever the inspiration strikes us. This means that we sometimes find a place that captures our interest for a while and we end up staying there for longer than we might have anticipated.
During our slow peregrination across Southeast Asia, we found ourselves in Malaysia and on the island of Borneo and fell in love with it. We loved the laid back pace of life, the lush jungle landscapes, the brilliant sunshine, the sandy beaches and the cheap prices. Our pace of travel slowed right down, so that we could take the time to enjoy this beautiful part of the world.
When we reached the city of Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Sabah region, ended up staying a lot longer than we might have anticipated. Kota Kinabalu offered cheap accommodation, plenty of places to eat and a lovely seaside location, everything we needed to settle in. We thought we might only stay for a few days, but we ended up staying for almost two weeks in this great city.
For many travellers visiting Sabah, KK is a base for other expeditions throughout Borneo, such as hiking Mount Kinabalu and going on snorkelling trips in other nearby regions. We did our fair share of trekking in the wilderness during our travels in Borneo, but while we were in the lush and peaceful city of KK we took the time to enjoy the culture and cuisine.
During our time in Kota Kinabalu we sampled the culinary offerings of the city, enjoyed the nightlife and even made a new group of friends! We felt right at home here, which is why we ended up staying for so long!
Making New Friends – The Couch Surfing Community
On one of the first nights that we were in KK, Lee and I went to a café to get some food. We discovered Fook Yuen, which I would highly recommend. It’s a very clean and modern restaurant which offers a great selection of dim-sum, nasi lemak, roti kahwin and much more.
When we arrived there was a large table filled with a group of happy people talking loudly amongst themselves. We recognised a couple of other young travellers that we had seen while walking around Brunei. We said hello and were invited to join the group around the table, immediately accepted into their circle.
We found out that this friendly and welcoming group were the KK Couchsurfing group on their weekly meet up. The Kota Kinabalu Couchsurfing Group meets up every week at Azlina Sulawesi Cafe on Gaya Street, usually to enjoy a meal together and then go out for a few drinks.
What is Couchsurfing? It is a global movement based on generosity and cultural exchange and it has more than one million members all over the world. The idea is that you can sleep for free on the couches, air mattresses or spare bedrooms of members, after you connect with them online and make a request. You can sign up for the website and create a profile, letting others know about your travel plans, your hobbies and other details about who you are. When you are heading to a destination, no matter if it is Kota Kinabalu or Cairo or London or Vancouver, you perform a search within the area and you will see a list of other members who have couches available.
When you see someone who you think you might get along with, you can send them a request. They will be able to choose whether or not they want to host you and respond with directions to their home. During your visit you will be their guest and no money will be exchanged at all. Of course, usually surfers will bring a small gift of thanks, buy their hosts a few drinks or offer to do the dishes or help around the home.
This is a beautiful travel phenomenon that really restores your faith in humanity and makes you realise just how wonderfully welcoming, generous and social people can be. We have been Couchsurfing all across Canada and we have really appreciated the hospitality that people have shown us. It’s really a win-win situation – couch surfers appreciate the free place to stay and the friendly hospitality and the couch surfing hosts love to learn about other cultures from their guests. Perhaps the hosts are more settled in their lives and are not traveling at the moment, so hosting gives them a chance to bring the world to their own home. Also, Couchsurfing is more than just a place to stay – many Couchsurfing hosts in an area will form groups or plan social events for locals and guests to enjoy. This is what happens in Kota Kinabalu. The local Couchsurfing group meets up every week on a Friday and anyone is welcome to join.
Anyway, so when we met this group of Couchsurfers at the café in KK – we immediately became part of their group of friends. During the time that we were in KK, they would invite us on a number of get-togethers, meals and activities that really enhanced our stay. If you are staying in KK, why not look them up so that you can join one of their meet ups?
A Barbeque on the Beach
One of my fondest memories of our time in Kota Kinabalu was when we were invited to a barbeque on the beach. The smell of delicious roasting meat was in the air, the sea breezes were blowing and people from all over the world were gathered together playing Frisbee, splashing in the waves and relaxing in the sunshine.
The beach was a popular place for everyone on such a beautiful day and we were surrounded by a number of other local Malaysian families enjoying their weekend.
I had a great time watching the spectacular pink, orange and red sunset over the ocean and realising just how bad I am at Frisbee. The food wasn’t cooked until it was dark, so we huddled around our flashlights in the starlight and ate every delicious bite while laughing and talking in a circle.
There are a number of great beaches around KK where you can relax during your visit, so why not pack your own picnic and grab your spot in the sand?
Reaching for the Top – Wall Climbing
Another fun attraction that we enjoyed while we were in Kota Kinabalu was wall climbing. We found out about it from another one of our Couchsurfing friends and we decided to give it a try. We went to the Sabah Indoor Climbing Centre, which is not actually indoors… it is just covered with a roof and mostly open to the air. This meant that we were climbing in the hot and humid Borneo atmosphere, which was quite a sweaty challenge!
The Sabah Indoor Climbing Centre has a number of walls with different grades, from the easiest wall for the first time climber to the impossible-looking angled walls for the very advanced climbers. The walls are built according to the standards of the British Mountaineering Council, with UIAA standard ropes, climbing hardware and harnesses. It is the largest artificial climbing wall in Kota Kinabalu and it is part of the new Youth Challenge Park, located next to the Likas Sports Complex. This park also has a great skate park and several other facilities. The costs for climbing are only 16RM per adult and 14RM for children.
I’m really not sure how climbers attempt some of these walls, as they seem to defy the laws of physics. There are some parts of the wall that curve over backwards in such ways that only Spiderman should be able to cling to them!
I managed to tackle the beginner walls and a few of the more challenging novice walls as well. By the end of it, I was dripping in sweat and looking like an absolute mess! Lee struggled a little bit more, because he had broken his wrists in Canada the year before and they were still tender and couldn’t take a lot of weight. After a while, he got to the point where his wrists were so weak that they couldn’t hold him on the wall – so he had to stop.
I also tried climbing the free-style wall, which is just a large shape with handholds and no ropes. It is very challenging to climb and I feel down onto the soft mats at the bottom many times! The Sabah Indoor Climbing Centre was a lot of fun and I would really recommend you give it a try when you are in Kota Kinabalu.
Although the professionals make it look easy, wall climbing is quite a challenging sport! You need to be able to support your own body weight with your arms and legs while clinging to the wall and you have to be quite flexible in order to reach the hand and foot holds. Make sure that you wear comfortable sports footwear such as trainers and you stretch and warm up beforehand.
Wall climbing is difficult for sure, but the feeling that you get when you reach the top of the wall and look back down at everyone else is fantastic!
Shopping at the Gaya Street Market
Our hostel was located on Gaya Street in KK. When we woke up on Sunday morning, this is what we saw – an entire street filled with colourful tents. “What’s happening down there?” we wondered.
It was the Gaya Street Sunday Market – a wonderful array of food, souvenirs, clothing, jewellery and much more. The quiet Gaya Street is transformed into a busy marketplace teeming with people – where you can find anything for sale from an iPhone case to a barbequed meat skewer to a colourful sarong or a puppy or a kitten. The selection is impressive and you will find items that you might not see at other destinations. If you are looking to bring home some souvenirs or treat yourself to some new jewellery or clothing – why not go on a shopping spree?
Don’t be afraid to haggle with the sellers on the price. When they quote you a price, you can usually negotiate them down to a cheaper rate, especially if you are friendly and flash a charming smile. If the seller won’t budge on their price, claim that you are not interested and walk away – you might find that they quickly change their mind!
My advice would be to get to the market as early as possible in the morning, because once the hot Borneo sun begins blazing down it will start to become uncomfortably hot in the crowds. The stalls start setting up as early as 5:30 am, so set your alarm clock in order to beat all of the other tourists!
A Delicious Seafood Feast
Kota Kinabalu is a wonderful place to be if you like seafood. Unfortunately, Lee won’t eat anything that comes from the ocean, but that just left more seafood for me to enjoy! Since KK is right next to the ocean, it offers supremely fresh and delicious seafood – cooked to perfection in a number of great restaurants.
Many of the restaurants, such as Ocean Seafood Restaurant and Salut Seafood Restaurant, will have fish and crustaceans swimming in large tanks. Instead of ordering from the menu, you can just walk up to the tanks and point to the fish, crab, lobster or other sea creature that you would like to eat! It feels a little strange to point to a specific sea creature and request its demise so that you can have a nice meal, but this way you know that the seafood is as fresh as possible! It is best to go with a large group of people so that you can order a number of different dishes and share them together. The large tables will have a “Lazy-Susan”, which is a revolving round platter that makes it easy to pass dishes around to everyone in the group.
Seri Selera Foodcourt
This is a large open-air dining area with several different seafood stalls offering a range of different foods – similar to many dining food courts in Malaysia. It’s a great place to go with friends, because you can all try different types of foods from multiple vendors if you choose. We went with our Couchsurfing friends and had a great feast of fish, prawns, noodles, rice, chicken and much more. If you want to dine in a lively outdoor atmosphere and have the chance to try several different dishes, I would recommend it.
The Filipino Night Market
On another night, we went to the Filipino Night Market, which is located on the waterfront in KK directly opposite the Le Meridian hotel. This vibrant market offers plenty of superb hawker stalls and sells almost anything you could dream of eating – including some of the best seafood I have ever tasted. Fresh oysters, massive prawns and so much more – it’s a place where you can feast on excellent seafood until you have to adjust your belt because your belly is so full!
I can’t stress this enough – if you love seafood you should each as much as possible while you are in Kota Kinabalu because there are so many great restaurants. Even if you are not sure whether you like seafood, you should give it a try. The seafood is such good quality here that you might just realise how much you like it!
The Kota Kinabalu Waterfront
The main entertainment area in Kota Kinabalu is the KK Waterfront, which is located right across from Warisan Square. This is a great place to find bars, restaurants, cafes, karaoke restaurants and nightclubs. You will usually find bars and nightclubs with live bands performing every day, except on Mondays. It is lovely to get a drink and some food at one of these bars and then sit while watching the sunset over the ocean.
Also, located next to the waterfront you will find the Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market. You will find everything from jewellery, pearls, crystals, home decorations and much more located in this lovely market. Don’t forget to haggle in order to get a better price. If you are looking to bring home souvenirs such as carved wooden statues, sarongs, batiks, floor mats and other crafts – this is the place to find them.
We spent a lot of time in Kota Kinabalu just walking along the waterfront and enjoying the view of the water – as the scenic waterfront is one of the nicest places to walk within the city.
Frozen Treats with Friends at ZenQ
One of the other great places that we tried in Kota Kinabalu with our Couchsurfing friends was ZenQ, which is a café that specialises in desserts, coffee and tea. However, the type of desserts that are eaten in Malaysia are very different than the cakes and ice cream that we are used to.
Many of the desserts at ZenQ are based on ice and some sort of sweet jellies, fruit or even vegetables. For example, there is something called “Snow Ice”, which is like ice cream made with sweet potato milk. I also tried sweet red bean soup, which is a cold and refreshing dessert made with red beans. You wouldn’t think of having beans for dessert, but they are actually quite good!
All of the cold jelly-based desserts are actually quite refreshing in the Malaysian heat – I supposed I wouldn’t want to eat a heavy chocolate cake or a big slice of warm apple pie when it’s so hot and humid outside.
If you like bubble tea, you will also like the array of drinks that are served at ZenQ. They serve both the clear and creamy variety of bubble tea in a range of flavours including winter melon, taro and plum, with the chewy and sweet tapioca pearls at the bottom of the glass. I love a drink that you can chew!
If your sweet tooth is still craving a more western style of dessert, they also serve a gorgeous waffle that is topped with bananas, ice cream and a gooey drizzle of chocolate syrup – as well as other waffle options topped with peanut butter, strawberry, blueberry or other sweet treats. I’m sure that if I lived in Kota Kinabalu, I would eat at ZenQ way too much and would need to buy a larger size of pants!
Discovering Durians – What is This Strange Spiky Fruit?
Our stay in Kota Kinabalu was mostly focused around food, drinks and sharing experiences with friends – and one of the most memorable experiences we had was when we tried Durian for the first time.
What is Durian? It is a strange and spiky fruit that we had never seen before our trip to Southeast Asia. It is known for its bizarre smell and it’s creamy, pungent flesh – it is even banned on some public transit and in shopping malls because its odour is so potent. A durian is around the size of a football and it is covered in hard sharp spikes. The flesh inside is creamy and smooth and has a sweet taste with a bizarre layer of acidity and bitterness.
I am always open to trying new foods when traveling and as a result, I have tasted plenty of exotic dishes. Usually I like most things, but the taste of durian was a little bit too overpowering for me. Many people like it for its complex sweet, sour and creamy taste – but I thought it tasted like someone had eaten lots of nice fruit and cream and then vomited it up. I was glad I tried it, but I probably wouldn’t eat durian voluntarily again.
However, just because I didn’t like it – it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try it while you are in Kota Kinabalu! Trying durian is a must while you are in Southeast Asia and you never know, you might actually like the unique taste.
Kota Kinabalu – A Great Place to Stop for a While in Borneo
We didn’t know what to expect from Kota Kinabalu, but when we arrived in this Borneo city we found great food, fun nightlife, plenty of shopping and a new group of friends that welcomed us into their social calendar. With all of these elements making our stay more enjoyable, we ended up staying much longer than we intended to. If you are backpacking through Borneo, don’t skip past KK – stop to see what it has to offer!
Have you been to Kota Kinabalu? What experiences did you enjoy the most there? Let us know in the comments below.