Friday, December 11, 2015

Why not to skip Kota Kinabalu: 7 reasons to stick around Sabah’s capital

Often just a transit stop for travellers headed to the wild jungles and pristine coral reefs of eastern Sabah, Kota Kinabalu offers much to those who decide to stay on – from fantastic seafood to tropical island-hopping, orangutan encounters to a steam train ride into a bygone era.

Just a short hop from Kuala Lumpur, and a mere 40-minute flight from Brunei, Kota Kinabalu (KK) also makes a great case for tying in a stopover within a stopover if you've already visited Southeast Asia's major flight hubs and are keen to break up a long international flight in a new destination. Read on for seven great ways to make the most of it.

Soak up the city sights

One of Malaysia’s fastest-growing cities, sprawling Kota Kinabalu is no longer easy to picture as a British colonial trading post. But with just three buildings surviving the 1945 Allied bombings (including the Atkinson Clock Tower, the post office-turned Sabah Tourism Board headquarters, and a welfare office, which, after being razed by fire in 2002, has become an unofficial street art gallery), one can hardly blame it. But while business booms in KK’s office blocks, day-to-day life thrives at street level much as it always has.

By the waterfront, KK’s Central Market is a feast for the eyes, if not the stomach. Hawking everything from exotic tropical fruits to prawns the size of small lobsters, this wet and dry market is open all day, every day, and makes for great photo opportunities. Wander south, and you’ll hit the colourful Handicrafts Market – perhaps the best place in Sabah to pick up inexpensive textiles, pearls and other souvenirs.

Eat, eat, and eat some more

KK’s rich ethnic makeup has birthed one of the most diverse culinary scenes in Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly, seafood is king here. Head to Welcome Seafood Restaurant ( for one of the freshest, most affordable seafood feasts in town – simply point to what you want in the tanks and indicate your cooking style (hint: try the curry crab) and it’ll be on your table in minutes. Worth forking out a little more for is a meal at Alu-Alu Café. Don’t be fooled by its modest surroundings; here, seafood sourced from Borneo Eco-Fish, an organisation dedicated to harvesting and distributing seafood from sustainable sources, is prepared with modern Chinese-style finesse.

From Indian to Italian, you can find it all in KK. But if it’s hawker food you’re after, head to the city’s famed Night Market to take a culinary tour of Malaysia, or jump in a taxi to Lido Square, a newer, more local food market in the suburb of Penampang where you can feast on everything from mouthwatering gou tie (pork dumplings) to the perfect Kuching laksa for next to nothing.

Ride the North Borneo Railway

Built in 1896 to transport tobacco from Sabah’s interior to the coast for export, Borneo’s first (and still only) railway was all but destroyed during World War II. In 2011, the North Borneo Railway finally reopened, complete with a retrofitted locomotive offering tourists the chance to experience its most scenic section, turn-of-the-century-style. Leaving from Tanjung Aru, just south of KK, the iron horse chugs past lush paddy fields and traditional stilt villages before arriving in the town of Papar. The four-hour round trip includes breakfast, a smashing tiffin lunch, and stops at Kinarut, with its serene Chinese temple, and Papar, which has a colourful produce market worth checking out. Tours depart on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but be sure to check ahead if the train running; the old girl is temperamental.