Kota-Kota-Kinabalu (to be sung in the voice of a 4 year old): Malaysia, Borneo
KK, as it is affectionately referred to, Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah in East Malaysia. A short (under 3 hour), direct flight from Hong Kong, it’s a great destination for those wanting to escape the city without a huge flight commitment (something that I think most Chinese people have already figured out – Chinese tourists are probably the largest tourist demographic in KK). We flew in and out of KK and what do you know, there is a HYATT! there (you can read here for my Hyatt disclaimer), so we opted to stay for a few nights on either side of our Mulu National Park excursion.
At first glance, the location of the Hyatt Kota Kinabalu seems kind of meh. It’s surrounded by what seem to be obnoxious western bars (think Senor Frogs – though, we were asleep by 9pm so I can’t ENTIRELY vouch for that statement) and fairly generic shopping malls. HOWEVER, if you get an ocean view room, you get to wake up to the sight of crystal clear water and a great view of the outlying Tunku Abdul Rahmen Marine Park. The hotel seems a bit old and run down from the outside, but the rooms are all recently remodeled and pretty effing nice (see below photo of bathroom). In addition, it’s a stone’s throw from the Jesselton Pier, where you can hop on a boat to one of the 5 islands in the marine park AND a mere block away from the KK Night Market.
One of the best moments of our trip was wandering around the food area of the night market (dozens of eateries cooking up fresh fish and other Malay delicacies), interacting with patrons and workers. Our take away: Malaysian people are some of the warmest we’ve ever met. Yes, our kids are novel in the same way that they are here in China and get attention as a result, but the attention was of a different sort. No one wanted to take their picture, no one wanted to just touch them. The kids (young and old) wanted to play (the photo below shows the moment the girl on the right gave Safari a sheet of stickers, to which Safari reciprocated and gave her a fairy) and the adults wanted to show them how to shake hands with crabs (no, not all of them). All of our interactions felt genuine; it was so refreshing. And it made me grateful to be traveling with our kids – they bring on the most positive energy.
Down from the night market is a HUGE indoor market area that looked AMAZING, but after the poop episode we didn’t have enough time to squeeze in a visit. I mention it because YOU should go. And then tell me about how great it was.
During our stay in KK, we joined the tourist circus at the Jesselton Pier (though I’m still not convinced hiring the random dude with a boat that we met while walking to the pier wouldn’t have been a better idea). There are a dozen companies you can book your tour with (you make your own itinerary – you can visit 1 or all 5 of the islands) and they’ll also rent you snorkeling gear (all in, it’s about $40 for each adult). We ended up booking with a company whose name I CAN NOT remember for the life of me, and boy do I wish I could because I want to tell you NOT to book with them. Whatever you do, don’t base your decision on the salesman you like the best (it seemed like sound reasoning at the time). My best advice is to book with a company who has their own boats, so perhaps one of the bigger ones. Ours did not and because of this (who knew?), it was entirely confusing trying to figure out what boat to hitch a ride with between islands and we ended up wasting too much time roasting on piers in the blazing hot tropical sun.
Aside from the boat frustration, we had a lovely time on both Mamatik and Manukan Islands. I researched and researched to try and figure out which two were the best for us to visit and ended up choosing these, but in retrospect, we should have gone to Sapi (even though the beach is apparently not as good) to see the Monitor Lizards. Again, YOU should go. And then tell me about how great it was. The coral just off the shore at Mamutik was MUCH more impressive than we expected. Because of the shear number of tourists, you definitely find more trash in the water than you’d like, but the beach was fairly clean as were the facilities. Though we left Manukan early because of a storm, if you’re just going to lounge on the beach, it’s the one to hit. The beach is big and nice, there are more food options, AND you can buy over-priced cans of Tiger (which were nowhere to be found on Mamutik).
As we delved more into Malaysian Borneo, we realized just how miraculous of a place it is and the vast number of places we’d still like to see. What I’m hoping is that at some point in the near future, I’ll be writing another post about visiting wild Orangutans at Danum Valley Conservation Area and getting PADI Certified somewhere near Sipadan.
If you’re flying to East Malaysia from anywhere in Asia, consider using Air Asia. While they make you pay for even water on board, they have a great website interface, our flights were on time, and it was the cheapest deal we could find. In addition, they have SUPER cheap flights within Malaysia and Indonesia.
All in all, if you get the chance, GO. Even the little boys were polite and had super stylish haircuts. And wore flip flops. And were adorable.