Gateway to the exotic
For many Europeans, Kuala Lumpur is almost a magic word, conjuring up images of everything exotic, tapping into our dreams of fleeing to a wonderful, tropical paradise. These people are, of course, wrong. From what I’ve seen of Kuala Lumpur, it is just another busy, dirty metropolis. It is a place you want to flee from, not to. Luckily, the true exotic lies only a couple of hours flight from KL. And it all starts in Kota Kinabalu. Capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, KK is the biggest city on the vast and wonderful island of Borneo, and is easily reached from KL by regular and numerous flights. Once in KK, all of Malaysian Borneo is within reach, either by plane or by express bus.
Although KK is a fairly large city, at least by European standards (about 600 000 inhabitants), it is far smaller, calmer and friendlier than the beehive of frenetic activity that is KL. And way cheaper! In my opinion it is also a much more interesting place, and has retained much more of its charm. It is unmistakably Asian, with its street markets, food stalls, fishing boats and stilt houses, and though almost the entire city is built after WWII, the architecture is slightly less awful than the post modern nightmare of KL.
KK has two different tourist information offices, representing the Federal Malaysian and Sabah tourist authorities. The office of the Sabah agency is by far the friendliest and most knowledgeable one. They also hand out quite OKish city maps for free! The office is easily found, located in one of the city’s oldest buildings on Jalan Gaya.
Where to stay
Kota Kinabalu has a relatively compact city center, which can easily be crossed on foot. However, many hotels stating their address as Kota Kinabalu are actually situated rather far outside the true city, and staying there you will miss out on a lot of the charm of the city proper. Try to find a ho(s)tel on or close to Jalan Pantai, Jalan Gaya or Jalan Tun Razak, and you will be within a few minutes walk from nearly everything worth a visit. Kinabalu Daya Hotel offers OK rooms starting at 90RM, and is well worth the money even though the breakfast is rather bad.
Where – and when – to eat
Sabah, and especially KK, is heaven for food lovers, if you only know where to look. In my experience, the best food is often found at the so-called kedai kopi or coffee shops. These garage-like cafés where the locals eat are mostly Chinese owned, and serve either Chinese, Indian or Malay food – or a mix of the best of all three traditions. The food is cheap, and the helpings very generous, but the quality may vary from bad to excellent from establishment to establishment. Anyway, try to avoid western style restaurants. The local cooks are very good at their traditional cooking, and there is absolutely no reason for choosing a mediocre or bad western style meal, when you could have an excellent Asian one.
The importance of timing
In Sabah, when to eat is just as important as where. Most kedai kopi serve lunch and dinner, at set times. Lunch is served from noon to 2 pm, and dinner from 6pm to about 8pm. Try not to be too late, as some of the most popular dishes are sold out rather quickly. Some kedai kopi serve only lunch, and some only dinner, and these specialists are often very good at what they do. My favorite lunch place is the Chatter Box Café at Jalan Gaya, and for dinner the kedai kopi on the ground floor of Ang’s Hotel is wonderful. Get there before 6.30, or you might not get a table!For more information, go to www.sabahtravelguide.com