Kota Kinabalu (KK) is a big-boned city where, despite the locals’ best efforts, a few visitors linger. But though they might not stay long, they come in hordes seeking the austere grandeur of Gunung Kinabalu. KK is also a necessary stop for sorting through travel logistics for daytrips to Kinabalu and beyond. The charming beaches of nearby Tunku Abdul Rahman Park Islands are an off-beat surf-and-turf combo where divers and sunbathers alike come seeking sun, sand, and sea. While the city itself is architecturally raw, numerous daytrips make KK worthwhile.
Completely destroyed in World War II, KK’s center was rebuilt in a grid system dominated by three north-south roads. Jl. Tun Fuad Stephens curves along the waterfront west of the city center and houses the Filipino Market, Pesar Besar, and Sabah Parks Office. The GPO and minibus terminal are on Jl. Tun Razak, the city’s central boulevard. The police station, long-distance bus terminal, and immigration office all line Jl. Tunku Abdul Rahman, which leads to the airport, Lintas Plaza,and Tanjung Aru, along the city’s east edge. Other major landmarks are the Wisma Sabah, Wisma Merdeka, and Centrepoint complexes. Wisma Sabah is the L-shaped building by the Hyatt Hotel, Merdeka is down the street on Jl. Tun Razak, and Centrepoint is next to the Sinsuran neighborhood in the town’s west end.
KK’s main cultural destination, the State Museum is a modern interpretation of traditional Rugus longhouses. Kampung Warisan (Heritage Village) is at the compound’s opposite end, past the waterfall. Visitors can pose with a Murut longhouse or a traditional Bajau or Chinese farm house before continuing to the nearby Ethno-botanic Gardens, where plants used for ornamentation, commerce, and medicine vie for space and sunlight.
Here is our list of favorite attractions to help you make the most of your visit. Click the links below to learn more about tours and activities.
Affordable Malay, Indian, and Chinese restaurants dot the city. The Kompleks Sedco, off Jl. Laiman Diki, is an open-air food court with the feel of a family reunion gone nuts. The A/C food court in the basement of the Centrepoint Complex offers similar bargains and a vegetarian stall. The Anjung Senja esplanade past the Filipino market boasts 16 kiosks and has emerged as KK’s trendiest eatery. It’s one of the few places to find ice kachang – a dessert of iced milk, rice, red beans, and lychee.
Architecture in Malaysia is reflective not only of the historical “changing hands” of colonial rule, but also of the cultural influences in modern-day Malaysia. Buildings range from colonial-style houses to modern skyscrapers. Traditional Malay houses are common in kampong (villages). Such houses are built on stilts and have large windows. These features keep the houses cool and dry in the event of flooding. Also notable are the various forms of religious architecture – mosques, temples, and churches alike compete for skyline space.
Malaysian dance and drama are closely related, as exemplified by the Ma’Yong (also Mak Yong), a Malay dance-drama that gained prominence as a court tradition over 400 years ago. Roles are traditionally reserved for young women, except for that of the buffoon or clown. Malay shadow play is an ancient and elaborate form of puppetry. The central story is the Ramayana, Valmiki’s epic Hindu poem, in which Rama leads an army of monkeys from India to Ceylon to rescue his wife. Malay dance comes in many forms. Two of the most popular are the candle dance, in which dancers hold candles on small plates, and silat, which started as a deadly martial art. The most popular Malay dance is the Joget, derived from Portuguese folk dance. Also popular in the state of Johor is the Kuda Kepang, a form of drama-dance brought by Indonesian immigrants in the 20th century. The Kuda Kepang depicts Islam holy wars and is thought to be connected to the world of spirits. Another dance specifically for women, the Datan Julud is found in Sarawak and is used most often to greet visitors to the longhouses
Traditional Malaysian music exhibits Middle Eastern, Indonesian, Portuguese, Filipino, and Chinese influences and usually contains some combination of the drum and gong. Thought to be of Arab origin, the kompang is an instrument similar to a tambourine and consists of goat hide stretched across a circular frame made from the wood of the balau tree. It is usually played at social events in ensembles of two or more kompang. Another traditional instrument to listen for is the sape (pronounced “sa-peh”), a carved, wooden guitar-like lute of the Orang Ulu people in central Borneo. Musical compositions for the sape are designed to accompany specific ceremonies of the rumah panjang (longhouses) in concert with the jatung ulang (wooden xylophone) and kelual (mouth organ). Among the most well-known instruments is the rebab, a spike fiddle. The popular music scene in Malaysia is dominated almost entirely by Indonesian artists.
As in most Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, the standard conservative codes of conduct apply. Remove shoes entering a home or place of worship, dress modestly, and use your right hand when handling food or greeting someone. As part of the traditional Muslim handshake, or salam, the younger person usually grasps the hands of the older person. Malays extend this gesture by retracting the hand and placing it over the heart to indicate sincerity. Handshakes are suitable between men and between women, but be forewarned that Muslims discourage physical contact with the opposite sex. Longhouses observe a specific code of politeness with foreigners. Visitors should never enter a longhouse an invitation. Upon entering, one proceeds directly to the elder’s room to announce one’s presence. It is not polite to enter a family’s sleeping quarters without permission, nor is it acceptable to walk over a person. Before departing, it is expected that one stay and converse with the inhabitants of a longhouse while sampling the local wine, which is usually made from fermented rice.