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Tags: Malaysia, Mt Kinabalu Climb, Kinabalu Dives, Kinabalu Snorkelling, Maliau Basin Trek, Telupid Forest Reserve Safari, Padas White Water Rafting, Kiulu White Water Rafting, Jungle Survival, Tips,

The many hidden treasures beneath the rough façade of Kota Kinabalu town

Many know Kota Kinabalu as the gateway town to Sabah’s treasures, but under its rough surface, the town itself contains many hidden treasures

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At first glance, Kota Kinabalu (KK) doesn’t look exciting. Many travellers come through the town as it’s the entry point for Sabah’s many treasures – from the beautiful UNESCO site of Mt Kinabalu, to the oldest and most untouched rainforest in the world at Maliau Basin. However, few travellers come for KK itself.

Admittedly, KK itself is not a picturesque town, at least not in the classic sense. Many of its buildings are badly maintained, and there are some streets where you can find the odd rat (or two!) scurrying past.

What KK does have going for it though is that it has a strong local heartbeat: it’s filled with local markets you can get lost in, amazing local food places with home-styled food you can’t find elsewhere and beautiful untouched beaches. Here are some of KK’s hidden treasures, that will make you glad you stayed on an extra day or two.

1. Messy, interesting markets that you can get lost in

There are a LOT of markets in KK. For people who are used to epic markets in Bangkok that you get lost in, the markets in KK are not it – they’re more like guerrilla markets which pop up all over in random side streets. Some markets stretch on (like the Filipino market) whereas other markets take up simply one small side street.

Go to these markets:

Gaya Street Sunday Market (Open every Sunday 6:30am to 1pm)

If you’re in KK on a Sunday, this is a teeming market full of interesting little knick-knacks that the locals recommend. It has souvenirs (like sarongs, touristy t-shirts), food and even pets! Many locals come here with their families for their usual Sunday outings so it’s a great place to people watch.

Filipino Market (Open every day 5pm to 12midnight)

This market seems to have everything! It has sections like the Salted Fish Market (salted fish is used a lot in Asian cooking), a Handicraft Market, a Fruits Market and a Cooked Foods market.

There are some great local foods you can try here – such as the bandung (a milky, sweet drink in a shocking pink), mangosteen (a sweet and yummy local fruit) and rambutan (it looks like a red furry animal). If you ask nicely, the shopkeepers are usually more than happy to let you try a fruit or two for free!

Sinsuran Night Market (Open every day 6pm to 12midnight)

This is where you would go for fresh seafood just by the boardwalk in the centre of town. Just wander about all the various stalls with fresh seafood laid out, pick what you would like to try and get the vendors to grill/steam it for you on the spot!

When we were in KK, the locals told us that they tended not to eat seafood in town as it was too expensive – they preferred going to the outskirts of town for affordable seafood. However, when we went to the market, we saw hordes of West Malaysian families having seafood feasts at the market and when we asked the prices of the fish, it was much cheaper than you would find in West Malaysia. So, while the food here may be expensive for local Kinabalu standards but it’s definitely not expensive compared to even elsewhere in Malaysia. Have the colourful parrot fish with its succulent flesh and some grilled prawns!

2. Shape-shifting sunsets 

When we first went to KK, our local guide told us that KK had recently been voted to have some of the best sunsets in the world. I silently disbelieved him, but when people started running to the boardwalk as the sky started getting dark, my curiosity piqued and I started running behind them. When I got to the boardwalk, this is what I saw.

And then this.

And then this.

Now I’m the one who gets odd looks whenever I gush about the sunsets at KK, but they really do need to be seen to be believed. I used to say that the sunsets in sub-saharan Africa were the best in the world, but they are facing strong competition from those in KK.

Sunset watching spots: 

We loved just sitting by the boardwalk (by Sinsuran Night Market/behind Suria Sabah mall) and watching the sun set. It’s a simple way to do it, and you can just silently take in the sight of the fishermen going out to sea in their little boats as the sun sets in glorious jewelled tones above them.  

If you want something more luxe, the Sunset Bar at Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa is a little oasis set apart from the mass market touristic chaos that comprises the main hotel. It’s not cheap but it is a nice place to sit and watch the sunset, overlooking the water.  

3. Backstreets filled with copious amounts of yummy home-style local food 

One of our favourite things to do in KK is to explore its backstreets in search for hidden local restaurants made conspicuous simply by the hordes of local people queuing up at meal-times. The people in KK really enjoy their food - as do we! In fact, we love the food in KK so much that we would fly from Singapore to KK just for some dry bak kut teh or sticky chicken wings.  

Our favourite foods in KK:  

Dry bak kut teh @ Sin Kee Bak Kut Teh (KK town centre)  

Bak Kut Teh (roughly translated to Meat Bone Tea) is a dish popularised in West Malaysia that usually comprises pork ribs cooked in a herbal, garlicky soup.

In KK however, they cook the pork ribs in a claypot, coated in a sticky, sweet and salty, dark soy-sauce which gives the ribs a caramelised richness. This is best paired with a lot of rice, and some small dishes on the side (such as tofu and vegetables). Thinking about it makes us want to take the first flight back to KK! There is usually a queue here but don’t be tempted to go next door – they look like they serve the same food but it really isn’t the same quality!

Home-styled food @ Fatt Kee (KK town centre)  

Fatt Kee is a KK institution. It has been here for 40 years and it’s now run by the son of the restaurant’s founder. You can spot it by the hordes of local people waiting around at mealtimes and it’s just around the corner from Sin Kee Bak Kut Teh (mentioned above). The sticky chicken wings here are the most famous but to be honest, we have been here a number of times and we haven’t had anything that we didn’t enjoy! It’s free seating so just approach any table that looks like it’s finishing up and stand behind the table to wait your turn – no organised queuing system here!

Mee Tauren @ Kedai Kopi Seng Hing (KK town centre)  

Mee tauren is a famous Sabah dish that you can’t really get outside Malaysia. To be honest, it’s really just tastes like instant noodles cooked with eggs and some meat, but it’s really good, moorish instant noodles that we would happily have plate after plate of.

Other foods that locals have recommended and we haven’t had the chance to try:

- Beef noodles @ Kah Hiong Ngiu Chap Hilltop (15 mins from KK town)

- Seafood @ Welcome Seafood Asia City (KK town centre)

- Seafood @ Suang Tain Seafood Restaurant (KK town centre)

- Fresh fish noodles @ Fatt Kee Hilltop (15 minutes from KK town)

4. Slightly surprising, lovely little hipster nook

When you just arrive at KK and first see its unloved buildings with peeling paint, you may find it a little surprising to hear that there’s a hipster part of town.

There is one tiny little street in KK tucked away just 5 minutes’ walk from the centre of town with flat whites, handmade ice cream and lovely well-maintained heritage buildings.

We loved it not only because we like our coffees, but also because it shows us a different side to KK. A younger and more modern side of a town that is slowly but surely regenerating.

Where to go:

The hipster nook is on Lorong Dewan. We don’t recommend any particular place as we didn’t find any particular stand-out places there, but we would recommend just wandering about the tiny lane and popping into any place that catches your fancy.  

5. Swim in warm tropical waters (that whale sharks pass through), or read a good book on the beach

Whale sharks like passing through KK, so if you go to KK during whale shark season (January to April), you may encounter these magnificent creatures when you dive or when you snorkel.

Whale sharks aside, KK has some very respectable beaches with clear, warm, tropical waters that are lovely to swim in. The five islands off the coast of KK in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP) are a little more remote and interesting, but we liked the public Tanjung Aru beach in KK as well.

At the public Tanjung Aru beach in KK (about 10 minutes’ drive from KK town), there are no coconut sellers, there are very few people trying to sell you stuff (we counted one), and there isn’t a deck chair in sight. You’ll need to bring your own towel, water, sunscreen and book, and you can spend a day on an almost private beach except for a handful of bored locals sitting around.

If you have a bit more time and want to go afield, you can go to the TARP islands. You can either go island-hopping or go to one island. To get to a TARP island, you can hop on a boat at Jesselton Jetty (5-10 minutes’ drive from KK town centre) and the TARP islands are approximately a 20-minutes’ boat ride from the jetty. Getting a boat out is very convenient so you don’t need to book this in advance through a local operator (unless you would like to go diving or snorkelling – in which case you should book in advance).   

Which islands to go:

Sapi and Manukan islands tend to be a little more touristy, so our favourite is to go to Mamutik Island which is smaller and less well-known, so you tend to get a bit more space to yourself if you’re looking to lie on the beach. If you’re looking to snorkel, the water around Mamutik tends to be a bit rougher, so do try to find out about the conditions here from the local operator before you go.

For a return trip to a TARP island (i.e. simply to have an hour+ on a beach on one TARP island), you’ll need at least 3 hours, so do budget enough time! It’s a nice outing to do if you have half a day in KK before your flight out.

Afterword: These tips were written by Jacinta, Co-founder of Seek Sophie. She didn't expect to like KK as much as she did, but she was sold by its amazing food and sunsets!