5 days in a city that I knew very little about taught me a hell of alot. I didn’t do many touristy things but there are things about the city that you might want to know before you go whether you’re tour driven or just go with the flow.
Boats Catch the boats at Jessleton point… not the questionable boats just before Jessleton. You will encounter men with little picture books that try rope you into taking their boats to the islands, I don’t recommend it. My friend and I did this the first two days, the first day was successful besides the late pickup and the bruised butts we acquired which I blame on stormy weather and the adrenaline junkie driver. I am a bit of a dare devil and found myself laughing until my stomach hurt the entire way, it was rather exhilarating but if you’re the type that’s prone to sea sickness and not looking for a boat ride that can be compared to a rollercoaster then this isn’t a good idea. That first day the boat came and fetched us late which had us worrying that they weren’t actually going to pick us up at all. The second day, the boat ride was not as crazy but they forgot us and we ended up riding back on a boat who’s driver was generous enough to take us without paying him (the kindness of the people is so surprising). You’ll pay 30 ringitt (only 7 ringitt more than a sketchy boat) for a boat at Jessleton and you’re guaranteed to be picked up and avoid a bruised butt.
Money Make sure that you have change. If you are going to be shopping at the markets and taking questionable boat rides, you’ll be lucky if you get your change. I found the best thing to do is to pop into the convenience store in the morning before your daily adventures and buy something to get change. A plus is that at Jessleton point and on the islands they do have change so don’t worry too much about it there.
Clothes Malaysian Borneo is a majority Muslim country and naturally the people are conservative in the way they dress. This is not Bangkok where anything goes (crop tops, tiny dresses etc). You can wear whatever you like but if you want to feel comfortable walking down the street and show respect, you should dress appropriately. I made the mistake of bringing my regular summer attire that I’d wear back in South Africa, thinking there would be loads of foreigners and it wouldn’t matter, well it did. If you don’t dress conservatively expect to be stared at and more than likely hollered at. I found loose, flowy, long pants and tshirts were a better option.
Market and food There is a popular food market in Kota Kinabalu that’s the best place to eat. It’s cheap, delicious and an experience like no other. Each little vendor has an area with tables and chairs where you can sit and eat while taking in your surroundings, this was one of the things I looked forward to every night because it was the best way to experience a bit of the culture, especially due to the fact that there are very few foreigners. My favourite dish was Mee Goreng which is a noodle dish, it was about 5 ringgit for a huge plate, that’s around $1.50!!! BARGAIN! Fresh fruit juice and coconuts are easy to come by, served at almost all the vendors and dirt cheap, you’ll leave with a full tummy having spent barely a thing. You’ll notice these markets are overflowing with fruit, the signature fruits are; Durian, Rambutan and Mangosteen. Something that everyone should try while in Borneo is the ABC special, its their signature dessert dish with canned fruit, ideal milk, sago, avocado and possibly noodles. There are different variations so you never quite know what you’re going to get but its quite tasty. Sharing is a good idea when you’re trying it for the first time, it’s super sweet. There is also a food market at Tanjung Aru beach where they have fresh fruit juice of every kind, cheap food and ofcourse the beach. It’s not really a good spot for swimming, although some do, it’s quite romantic for a walk along the beach after dinner.
Beaches My friend and I had grand plans for Kota Kinabalu which included hiking, scooting around exploring and fire fly night cruises… we did none of the above. The first day we got there we went to Mamutik island and fell head over heels for the beach. All we wanted to do from then on was sip beers and fruit juice, lie on the beach, swim, read and people watch. This is what we did for 5 days and I wouldn’t change a thing. The beaches are just stunning, the water is warm, the weather was great (most of the time), it was perfect! I felt so relaxed and content after those 5 days. There are 4 main islands that are close to Kota Kinabalu, it takes about 20-30 minutes to get to each one. Gaya island is apparently the jungle island for hiking so we didn’t go there, we wanted beach. Mamutik, Manukan, and Sapi Island are the ones we ventured to.
- Sapi Island – This was my favourite purely because of the crystal clear, turquoise water, however it is really small and during high season you are going to run into tons of tourists.
- Mamutik Island – A little bigger than Sapi and less tourists. There’s a patch on the far right end of the island near the dive center that’s fairly private as the seaweed isn’t swept away by the staff, nice if you want some privacy and don’t mind a bit of seaweed on the shore. This is also where we encountered the largest sea monitor I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see.
- Manukan Island – The largest beach of the bunch, like all the islands, has beautifully clear and warm water. Having been to Sapi and Mamutik aswell, this would not be my first choice, it’s very popular amongst locals and tourists which results in it being rather busy.
All the islands have a small cafeteria where you can order fresh fruit juice as well as local and Western food for lunch. Beers and snacks can be bought at the little shop on each island too. We preferred buying a few beers from the convenience store near our hostel before leaving for the island because it was a little cheaper but even if you do decide to buy them on the island they are dirt cheap (around 9 ringgit each).
Weather If you are going during August then I’d recommend waking up early to take advantage of the pristine weather in the morning. Everyday we experienced a downpour around 12/1pm, usually it clears up in 20/30 minutes and is followed by sunny skies but it could go either way. My friend and I experienced a very blusterry thunderstorm one of the days we were beaching it up, this didn’t stop us, the water babies that we are, we swam in the torrential downpour and whipping winds until a marshal told us to get out of the water… Looking back we were taking a bit of a risk.
When you’re planning your vacation to Kota Kinabalu, and Borneo in general, keep in mind that it’s not the Philippines or Thailand where reggae bars serving cocktails and massage huts line the beach. This being said it boasts breathtaking beaches, rich culture and a uniqueness that I will never forget. I absolutely loved it and I’ve made a vow to return one day.