Sea of Green: What Makes Kota Kinabalu in Borneo So Special
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Borneo, Asia’s largest island, is also arguably the most politically, ethnographically and ecologically diverse landmass in the world. The governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei together preside over the island, administering a demographic spectrum of 16 million people, and protecting thousands of species of flora and fauna, many of which are either unique to Borneo or are found hardly anywhere else.
Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo’s northern extreme, provides visitors a leisurely way to savour local colour over a weekend. This includes pristine beaches with marine activities, mountain parks offering adventure sports, museums and cultural programmes.
One of the city’s primary attractions is the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, a marine reserve of five islands surrounded by turquoise-blue water that offers hours of outdoor fun. Ferries will take you to the island of your choice or let you go island hopping for a small fee.
While Pulau Gaya, the largest island, has the most luxurious beaches, Pulau Manukan and Pulau Sapi offer access to some of the world’s most compact coral reefs.
The sea is so clear you can stand in three feet of water and see the sergeant-major fish and swordfish swim within inches of your outstretched hands. Snorkelling gear and life jackets can be rented but if you can swim or if the gently lapping shallows do not deter you, a pair of goggles is enough to look underwater and discover the coruscating coral and the variegated clam shells that spend their quiet lives on the seabed before peacefully surrendering their carcasses to the inevitable tide and the sun-baked shores.
Along Kota Kinabalu’s southern fringe, two cultural centres offer a peak into Borneo’s colourful and somewhat violent past. Dedicated to the memory of a fierce Dusun warrior, the eponymous Monsopiad Cultural Village provides an immersive experience that includes a chance to use a blowpipe, grind grain and sip country liquor. The highlights, though, are the bobohizan (high priestess) costumes and the grisly House of Skulls, where 42 trophy heads hang from the roof! For a more expansive introduction to the Bajau, Rungus and Murut tribes, in addition to the Dusun, that allows you to sample food prepared on the spot, visit the Mari-Mari Cultural Village.
If this whets your appetite for more, the archaeology and ethnography exhibits at the Sabah Museum are worth viewing as case studies of well-ordered curation and right-sized detail. And if you have a yen for local produce, travel to Handicrafts Sri Pelancongan or the more upmarket Borneo Trading Post to purchase items ranging from botanical soap bars to ghoulish masks.
No trip to Kota Kinabalu is complete without a pilgrimage to Mount Kinabalu National Park, whose towering peak is the highest elevation between the Himalayas and the snow-capped mountains of New Guinea. For committed climbers, the eight km trek to the granite peak can be accomplished within a matter of hours or over two days. For the less ambitious, the park has many forest trails that stretch from less than 200 metres (Mountain View Trail) in length to more than 5 km (Liwagu Trail).
The trails allow unobstructed views of the forest wilderness and a chance to spot a profusion of plants, including countless varieties of fungi and rhododendron, pitcher plants and Rafflesia. If you are lucky, you may chance upon pangolins, orangutans, sunbirds and tree frogs. If you are not, at least a myriad species of butterflies, beetles and leeches will distract you. Along the perimeter of the park, Poring Hot Springs provides other diversions: sulphur baths, bat caves, waterfalls and a fun canopy walk. For a real treat to close the day, visit Desa Dairy Farm for delicious ice cream and frozen yoghurt.
Kota Kinabalu is also famous for its Kadazan cuisine. Employing bamboo shoots and palm sago, dishes such as Ayam Bambangan (spicy baked chicken in lemongrass gravy) and Nasi Lemak Pandan (marinated fried chicken, braised beef and sambal anchovies) can be savoured at the local food courts and at Le Meriden and Hyatt Regency Hotels.
The city is equally well-known for its seafood: Grand Port View and Kamung Nelayan Restaurant are famous for their cuisine and sea-facing ambience. If you get a craving for Italian, try Gusto. The somewhat crusty Sicilian proprietor, Cristiano, acts as chef or server depending on his mood. But the food is delicious, fresh and authentic.
There is something here for everyone. Nature lovers can spend all their time in the parks that dot the Crocker mountain range. Seafood gourmands can sup on three-course meals for days and not eat the same dish twice. Families can spend their waking hours in the water and still find something of interest on the next island. All of which make Kota Kinabalu the perfect weekend getaway.