Besides Kinabalu National Park, Kota Kinabalu has a colourful indigenous culture. The city is home to over 30 official ethnic groups.
There is much more to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, than simply being a jumping-off point for the magnificent Kinabalu National Park. Development on the long reclaimed waterfront is injecting modernity and cosmopolitanism into this laid-back city. KK, as the locals call it, certainly takes advantage of its location, with splendid sunset views of nearby islands.
However, it is KK's many markets that reveal an older, earthier character. Here, produce and products from the hinterland, the region or China are hawked by people of indeterminate ethnicity – the city is home to over 30 official groups and a large migrant population of Filipinos and Indonesians.
The most colourful manifestation of indigenous culture is during the May harvest festival celebrations, a great time in which to be in the city. At other times, living museums offer pretty good culture-in-three-hours experiences, which may also appeal to children.
In addition, there is plenty of beach and sea fun to be had on the coast and offshore, as well as outings to wildlife sanctuaries and gardens. The local food is good, particularly in Chinese restaurants, while indigenous fare can be sampled in the markets and during festivals.
Kota Kinabalu is hot and sunny all year round. September-November are traditionally the wettest months, and April-May the hottest.
Passports must be valid for at least six months at the time of entry. Generally, no visas are required for citizens of Commonwealth countries for stays of up to three months, and for citizens of ASEAN countries for stays of up to one month. Check the Immigration Department website (www.imi.gov.my) for details.
The Malaysian ringgit (RM) is divided into 100 sen. Bank notes come in units of 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100. Coins are 5, 10, 20 and 50 sen. Money changers give the best rates. Credit cards are widely accepted. For ATM withdrawals, banking networks include MEPS, Maestro, Cirrus and Bankcard.
The Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) Terminal 1 is about 7km (4 miles) from the city centre. Taxis will take you to town (buy a coupon at the airport). The low-cost terminal, Terminal 2, is 13km (8 miles) from the city centre. Transport to town is by either coupon taxis or buses. To get around town, taxis are the most comfortable; buses and the ubiquitous minivans can be very crowded. Negotiate the price with the taxi driver before getting in. You can also book taxis by the hour.
Kota Kinabalu has good health standards, quality public and private hospitals and well-stocked pharmacies. However, be sure to buy medical insurance and get hepatitis and tetanus shots. Visitors suffering from respiratory illnesses should avoid visiting during the haze period in August-September. Make sure the water you drink is boiled or bottled and avoid dodgy-looking eateries. Use insect repellant in the evening to guard against dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases. Keep valuables in hotel safes and avoid carrying too much cash around.
|How are you?||Apa khabar?|
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|Excuse-me! (to get attention)||Maafkan Saya!|
|Thank you||Terima kasih|
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|Where is the bus/train station?||Di manakah stesen bas/keretapi?|
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|A table for two, please||Sila berikan meja untuk dua orang|
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Go early to take in the bustle of Central Market. From freshly harvested vegetables to live poultry, tofu to betelnut, the vibrant colours and sounds of the daily trading are fascinating. The fish market is in a separate building behind this one, right by the jetty where fishing boats dock. It's fun to see the variety of fresh catch but walk carefully on the wet floor. Fruits and dried seafood are sold in separate buildings.
Kota Kinabalu city waterfront
Kota Kinabalu city waterfront is a great nightlife spot, with seafood restaurants, cafés and pubs lining a boardwalk. The boardwalk stretches for 2.1km (1.3 miles), from Anjung Senja (Waterfront Esplanade) to the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu, and is a great place to watch the sun set over a beer, followed by dinner and more drinks. Eventually, the development will include a high-end shopping mall, a luxury hotel and resort homes.
Mari-Mari Cultural Village
The indigenous culture of the Kadazandusun, Rungus, Lundayeh, Bajau and Murut can be experienced at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. Guides take visitors through traditional dwellings where they can see activities being demonstrated, and participate in some of them too, such as blowpipe-blowing. The tour includes a meal and a dance performance and is pricey but worth it for those on a tight schedule. There are three scheduled tours a day.
Housed in a lovely stylised version of indigenous architecture, Sabah Museum has collections of ethnological exhibits, textiles and Chinese ceramics. Outside in the gardens is the Heritage Village with its 10 life-sized traditional houses of different ethnic groups. Take note of the ethno-botanical species in the garden and pop into the excellent gift shop, which has books and handicrafts for sale.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Beach bums, snorkellers and nature-lovers can spend all day at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, 15 minutes by boat from the jetty. Of the five islands, Pulau Gaya is the largest and most developed, while the remote Pulau Sulug has the best corals. All the islands are thickly forested and surprisingly rich in wildlife; besides Sulug, all have nature trails. There are chalets on some islands and camping is allowed on all of the islands with a permit.
Begin on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens at the city's traditional waterfront markets. The many stalls of the large Central Market and the surrounding fish, dry goods and fruit markets provide an impressive array of fresh produce for local residents, while hawker stalls help to sate appetites. Meanwhile, the Handicraft Market, with products from the Philippines and Indonesia, is a magnet for tourists.
Visitors also throng the Gaya Street Fair, a few blocks away. Set up only on Sundays, vendors of souvenirs and bric-a-brac are taking up more of this busy bazaar, but the iconic Borneon fresh produce and live animal stalls can still be found. This is a good place to try local delicacies such as the Amplang fish crackers and Malay and Chinese cakes and desserts.
Drive south to the Sabah Museum, off Jalan Penampang, to sample local history and culture. The building that houses this small collection is one of the country's finest examples of traditional architecture adaptation, drawing from Rungus traditions. Inside, exhibits of note are those on archaeology and ethnic costumes. Don't miss the outdoor heritage village section with its replicas of traditional houses surrounded by medicinal, ritualistic and edible plants.
Drive further down Jalan Penampang to reach Sabah Art Gallery. This octagonal building with tapered walls has a light-filled interior and houses a modest but interesting collection of local artwork and temporary exhibitions. A public art workshop is held every Saturday by resident artists.
Markets, Gaya Street Fair, Sabah Museum, Sabah Art Gallery.
Pack a picnic lunch and insect repellant to bring on a visit to the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. This is a small zoo but children will enjoy seeing local animals such as the Borneo pygmy elephant (the smallest elephant in the world), the big-nosed proboscis monkey and the adorable orang-utan. Located about 15km (9 miles) from the city centre, go early to catch the feeding of the creatures and don't miss the good animal show.
Come lunchtime, head to the botanical garden at the opposite end of the park to the entrance. There are collections of local plant species: of note are the insect-digesting pitcher plants and brilliantly coloured gingers. Pick a spot to enjoy a picnic amongst the lush greenery. The more energetic will want to explore the 30-minute loop trail up the hill and back.
Alternatively, spend the afternoon at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village, about 20km (13 miles) northeast of here. Only accessible on a tour, the attraction showcases the houses and culture of five ethnic tribes. Children will enjoy traipsing through forest paths to the traditional houses, cooking rice in bamboo and hitting a target with a blowpipe. Among exhibits are skulls from the days of head-hunting, weapons, cooking implements and costumes (which visitors may try).
There are other similar living museums, but featuring single ethnic groups, namely the Kadazandusun's Monsopiad Cultural Village and the Lotud Linangkit Cultural Village in Tuaran. The Kadazandusun Cultural Association Cultural Village in Penampang is the place to be during the Harvest Festival.
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, Botanical garden, Mari-Mari Cultural Village.