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Arrival in Kota Kinabalu

View of Kota Kinabalu

This is the first in a series of more in-depth posts on our trip to Borneo.
February 12, 2009

South China Seas. I can not hear that name without thinking of the Vietnam War. My brother-in-law served in the Navy on a boat station in the South China Seas. But Vietnam was not our destination. It was Borneo, an island south of Vietnam bordering on the South China Sea. Specifically, we were bound for the Eastern Malaysia state of Sabah and the town of Kota Kinabalu.

Kota Kinabalu, known locally as KK, was originally called Jesselton. It was a major trading post of the British North Borneo Company and founded it in the late 1800's. The British razed the city in WWII to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Japanese and rebuilt after the war. Northern Borneo joined Malaysia in 1963 and the town was renamed Kota Kinabalu in 1968. Today it is one of the fastest growing cities in Malaysia.

It is also a great tourist jump-off point for visiting Sabah. We selected it because of an one-stop flight from Seattle to KK via Seoul. There are also frequent flights from KK to other areas of Sabah and Sarawak which made it a great anchor point for our travels.

Our flight arrived late in the evening. The airport is new and very efficient. We were not certain if there was an ATM in the airport or if it would be accessible at 11:00pm so we exchanged $50US at the Incheon airport in Korea when we changed planes. Do you know how hard it is to get Malaysia Ringgits in the US? Many banks stock common currencies such as Euros, Sterling Dollars but you have to pre-order Malaysia Ringgits from either a bank that handles international currencies or from Travelex.

We did not need to be concerned. There are two ATMS at BKI and a currency exchange booth just outside of baggage claim in KK airport. They were open until 12:00 midnight.

Our bags arrived quickly and it did not take long to get through Malaysian customs. They inserted the departure portion their immigration form in our passport. I was afraid that we would lose it over the two weeks but never did. We also found out that you have to go though passport control when you travel between states in Malaysia.

There is a taxi counter in the airport and the taxis between airport and KK are regulated. You just walk up. tell them where you want to go and pay the taxi fee. It was 20RM to KK (30RM if between 12:00midnight and 6:00am). We made it by 15 minutes of the 50% surcharge.

There was little traffic and the driver rushed us towards KK. Sodium lights gave the area a golden glow as the buildings rushed by. I could feel and smell the humidity and heat even at midnight. Valentines Day was just a few days away and several of the billboards suggested for gifts. At one major intersection, a couple professed their love for each other. I do not think I would like my love announced on a huge billboard for millions to see.

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at our hotel. The King Park Hotel is located just on the edge of the center of KK. Our room was near the top and faced the water. A little musty but very clean with a large king bed and air conditioning. We took a hot shower and soon fell asleep. It had been a long 18 hours.

Activity starts early in the tropics. The length of the day varies little. Sun rose around 6:30am and set around 6:30pm. The low drone of the early traffic and a narrow beam of sunlight woke us. We heard the local minivans beeping for passengers. I peaked out through the window for my first glimpse of Borneo. The traffic circled below me and I could see the city awaking.

Breakfast was included with the price of our room which by the way is an economical 138rm or ~40USD. It was the standard Malaysian breakfast which consists of a variety of noodles and rice dishes, curry, porridge and egg along with hot sweet milky coffee.

We hit the street after a lazy morning. Our first challenge - getting across a major 4 lane street in rush hour traffic. And to remember to look left since Malaysians drive on the left. My senses were in overdrive. Heat, smells, noise! You definitely need to watch your footing while walking in KK. Many of the sidewalks at store fronts have tile floors which are often missing one or two tiles. There are dips and bumps on the sidewalks just waiting to twist your ankle if you are not paying attending. The storm drain gutters are covered with loose uneven slotted tiles which easily twist your foot. You do not want to go gawking around staring at the sights and not watch where you place your foot. Thankfully the sidewalks are extremely clean and there is no dog poop unlike Europe. The smell is another thing.

We headed toward Jalan Gaya. Jalan is the Malaysia word for street or road. This area is the Chinese center and also filled with backpacker hotels. The streets were still lined with brilliant red Chinese lanterns from the recent New Years Celebrations. We headed for the Alliance Bank for more money and the Sabah Tourism Bureau. We quickly realized that it only took us about 15 minutes to walk the main distance of the center of town.

I noticed the Tong Hing Supermarket when we exited the Tourism Bureau. We had to check it out. It was almost deserted early in the morning and was extremely clean. It is rather upscale and looks to be the place to purchase foreign food. It also had an extensive wine section which is pretty unusual. Malaysia is a Muslim county and alcohol is not as readily available as it is in Western countries.

Our next stop was Borneo Books in the Wisma Merdeka Mall. This is the place for flora and fauna books. We had to go there to see what plant guides we could find. We were not disappointed. The Wisma (mall) was also very interesting . I’m not certain how to describe it. In the center, there is an escalator/stairs leading up to the other two floors. Radiating out from this center space are passages lined with small tightly packed stores selling everything from sim cards, computer games, candy, shoes, clothing, food, jewelry, services like reflexology massage. I’m used to more open malls coming from the west coast and the stores seemed a bit more packed like what you would find in NYC or Europe. Borneo Books was located in the back corner of the 2nd Floor (3rd floor for US). We just followed the signs pointing the way.

Now for a bit of sightseeing. We headed to the waterfront. The day market is located in a large concrete multi-story building along the waterfront. The bottom floor is a wet market filled with produce, meat and other food sellers. I could not resist and investigated up and down the aisles and maze of stalls. It was dark but very interesting. So much foreign and different. The top floor is food court and a clothing store. Next door and outdoors is the smelly but fascinating fish market. It is filled with exotic fish and seafood. Next is the Filipino craft market. The stalls made me pretty claustrophobic. The aisles wound among the packed stalls lit by single light bulbs - dark even in the bright tropical mid-day sun. We were not in the market for trinkets or souvenirs so we moved on.

Vegetable stall


We were surprised that it was not yet noon. We had one more chore to take care of. We dropped by the downtown office of KK Leisure Tours to arrange for our rental car to be dropped off the following day. We ordered an automatic on-line and I wanted to take care of the paper work. We found their office in Sedco Complex, paid the deposit and finished the paper work. We arranged to have the car delivered to our hotel the next morning at 9am.

The Centerpoint Mall was near by so we decided to check it out. It was lunch time and there was a lot of activity in the mall. It is a somewhat modern mall with 5 floors including an extensive hawker food court in the basement. The air-conditioning made it a nice refuge. We checked out the food court and attempted to get a juice but we had not figured out how the hawkers work yet or we were just being ignored. We decided to move on. We crossed the street and stopped for a coke in outdoor restaurant along Jalan Pasar Baru. They had a large TV on with US big time wrestling. We learned this is a popular item in Malaysia. "Where are you from?" the waiter asked us. This question or its variation of "Are you from Great Britain?" was a common question. Many people were surprised to hear that we were from the United States. We ran into many other Europeans but rarely other tourists from the US.

The sun was high in the sky - it was time to return and rest before venturing out again at night.

Related Posts:


  • Kota Kinabalu
  • On the slops of Mt. Kinabalu
    View of Kota Kinabalu

    View from our hotel - King Park - over the center of Kota Kinabalu. Palau Gaya in the distance.

    Kota Kinabalu
    Near the Wisma Merdeka

    Early evening rush hour
    Rush hour in Kota Kinabalu - early evening



Comments (3)

Marta, beautiful photos. I can't wait to see more.

This is what I've been waiting for...reading more about your trip and seeing your pictures. It's Saturday morning and I have a fresh cup of coffee. I plan to hang around for awhile.

Interesting city. I am enjoying reading about your trip and seeing some photos. I wonder if most Americans go to Thailand or Bali. I personally have not heard much at all about Borneo until you started writing about it. Interesting that it is more popular with people from Great Britain.

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