Travels around Malaysia – Part 9: Kota Kinabalu

This is the ninth in a series of blogs that describes our continued travels on the Malaysia Peninsular and the Malaysian portion of Borneo.

Not a Cock & Bull story!

Kota Kinabalu or KK as the locals refer to it, is the Sabah state capital and is set between lush tropical hills and the South China Sea. Able to trace its origins back to 1881 as a settlement on the island of Pulau Gaya, it was called Jesselton when it relocated to the mainland. Tourist Information OfficeIn 1964 when North Borneo became a British Crown Colony, Jessleton was selected as the new capital. It was renamed Kota Kinabalu in 1968 after the imposing Mount Kinabalu nearby, which at over 4,000 meters is the highest in Southeast Asia.

Our exploration of KK started at the Sabah Tourism Building, one of only three buildings to survive the Allied bombing during World War II to liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation. The helpful staff at the Tourist Information Centre provided us with a map, information booklet and some helpful tips about getting around the city. Just around the corner you can find the steps that lead you up a little jungle trek to Signal Hill Observatory, where you can get a great view of the city and see some of the offshore islands.  From the bottom it looked like a lot of steps and in this humidity and heat we decided to give that a miss and carry on into Australia place. Not a corked hat in sight from the days when Australian soldiers camped here in 1945, its very popular with backpackers. Hostel prices here are very reasonable I’m led to believe.

Atkinson Clock TowerNext up is The Atkinson Clock Tower, the only other building to survive the Allied bombing and still be standing today (the third was lost in a later fire). Not named after ‘Big Ron’ the former football manager but Francis George Atkinson, the first District Officer of Jessleton. Sadly Francis died of Malaria at the tender age of 28 at a time when you couldn’t just pop into Boots for your malaria tablets.  His mother built the tower in his memory in 1905.

A mere few steps away is Gaya Street, the main street of KK. As it was a Sunday morning the street was closed to traffic and hosted the Gaya Street Fair. There was an absolute buzz to this market, not quite the sound of a thousand bees but you get the idea. The traders sell pretty much everything you could imagine to find in a market and plenty you wouldn’t. There are rabbits, tropical fish, clothes and toys, even a mobile health check and sometimes a politician chatting to their constituents. A little bit of street music to add to the mix and it’s an experience you cannot miss.

Jesselton HotelI’ve mentioned before what nice people the Malaysians are and I observed that a policeman was giving an older lady a bit of a ticking off. Whilst administering the admonishment, however, he had her sat on a comfortable chair under a large umbrella to shield her from the sun.  How civilised! The Jessleton Hotel also resides here, the oldest in KK, and with our reflection in the doors if you look closely.

Should you feel a little homesick there’s plenty to see that harks back to the strong association Sabah has with the British. At Jessleton point you can find some red telephone boxes, not quite the real deal but a good impression. Whilst if you’ve tried the lingo and you’ve had enough of your selamat pagi (good morning) or terima kasih (thank you), there is the comforting bright yellow sign announcing The Cock & Bull. Telefon BoxesHere you can nurture yourself with a lamb chop and dream of the cliffs of Dover, but not for us.

We headed back to The Magellan and Al fresco. This is the place to be for the sunset, live music, a good band singing some real classics, Eagles, Shadows and a curried lamb pizza. Heaven.

There are so many great places to visit it Sabah I can understand why KK is often used as a launchpad to other places, rather than a destination in itself. As well as the city there are other attractions just outside, like the State Museum or the Heritage Village. Where your budget and schedule allows, particularly if you can get here on a weekend to take in the steam railway and Gaya St Fair, I think it’s worth a visit.

Next stop Putrajaya.

For holidays to Asia, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia.

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Steve Aldridge

Award-winning travel writer

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