The Malaysian north of the legendary tropical island of Borneo is home to Kota Kinabalu, set in Sabah State on the South China Seacoast and known as much for its shopping and dining as for its beaches, surrounding natural beauty and unique ecosystems. Mount Kinabalu looms over the sprawling city with its many integrated towns and villages and the offshore islands form protected Abdul Rahman National Park. Along the coast, mangrove forests protect the interior from flooding and provide a habitat for indigenous birds, reptiles and marine life.
Nowadays, Kota Kinabalu and Sabah are favourite visitor destinations for the more adventurous tourists, with much to see and experience in the city and even more in the remote heartlands of the province. More than 30 nationalities including many ethnic groups have made their home here over hundreds of years, influencing the heritage, culture and religions of the city and giving a unique experience for its visitors. Nowhere is this diverse cultural influence felt more than in the city’s cuisine, a glorious mix of Southeast Asian, Chinese, Indian, Arab and even European ingredients, recipes and flavours.
Food, in all its shapes, sizes, prices and styles, is everywhere in Kota Kinabalu, from street stalls along the harbour, the food courts in the five malls, the seafood restaurants close to the fish market, the wet and weekly markets in the centre and around the city and the upscale restaurants found in hotels in Kota Kinabalu City Centre . For foodies with a sense of adventure and an eye to the holiday budget, the best place to head for is the outdoor food court in the Night Market, set close the waterfront. Here you’ll find a huge choice of every style of cuisine, focusing on fresh-caught seafood seasoned with spices, roots, fragrant herbs, anchovies and chilli sauces and served with coconut milk-enriched rice. One thing’s for sure, Western-style fast food outlets can safely be ignored here!
Kota Kinabalu isn’t just a heaven for foodies and eco-buffs – it’s also a shopaholic’s dream destination. Beginning with the five shopping malls, Centrepoint is the most upmarket, featuring chic boutiques with genuine designer fashions retailing at far less than almost anywhere else on the planet. The mall is crammed with smaller boutiques with locally designed goodies, several famous brand-name factory outlets and a choice of fast food and ice cream joints. The other malls are KK Plaza, Wisma Merdeka, Wawasan Plaza and Karamunsing Plaza, with all open from 10:00 to 22:00 daily.
If you’re looking for antiques and have a degree of knowledge, there are small galleries on the Merdeka Complex’s second floor. For a preview of local historic artefacts, a visit to the Sabah Museum is a useful tool. On the waterfront are several newly-opened stores selling genuine Sabah artworks and handicrafts, and the craft centre on the third floor of the Karamunsing Plaza is also interesting. If nothing takes your eye, the Sunday market along the main Gaya Street is sure to please, with everything from sarongs, brilliantly coloured and patterned batiks, other textiles, home décor and handicrafts.
Across the city’s many small ethnic districts, weekly tamus flea markets take place, offering everything from genuine local crafts to fresh fruit, vegetables and orchids. Generally in areas off the regular tourist trail, a visit to a tamu can be rewarding for its glimpse of traditional everyday life here as well as for bargain purchases. The Handicrafts Bazaar in the city centre is the place to be for pearl and Swarovski crystal jewellery, with high quality cultured pearls offered at good prices, drawing both Malaysian and international women visitors to the market. Both freshwater and marine pearls are displayed here, and the settings incorporate intricate modern designs.
Lek Boonlert is an editor and content reviewer at DirectRooms and is responsible for all Kota Kinabalu City Centre Hotels content.