Kota Kinabalu isn’t a huge city, which makes it relatively easy to navigate around. That said, it’s still the largest urban area in Borneo, so it isn’t exactly small either. After being here a few days and doing pretty much nothing except walk around, I figured I’d put together a map with a few handy places on it.
View Useful and Tasty Places in KK in a larger map
When you get to a new city, one of the first things to figure out is a place to stay. I’ve only stayed two places, but I can definitely recommend Borneo Backpackers Hostel. It’s located right off the Jalan K.K. Bypass very close to a police station. It’s pretty cheap, clean, air conditioned, close to the city center, and the staff is nice. I’ve also met some cool people here. It’s so much better than the last place I stayed at: Borneo Global Backpackers Hostel. Notice the name similarity? Yeah, I didn’t the first time. I ended up at the wrong one. Don’t make the same mistake! The one I marked on the map is a little pricier, but it is so totally worth it.
Once you’ve dropped your scoliosis-inducing pack off at the hostel, you’ll probably be pretty hungry. If you’re as lazy as I am, all you have to do is fall down the stairs and roll around the corner to find the coffee shop/museum known as Borneo 1945 Museum Kopitiam. The food is fantastic, and the coffee is a good example of the local specialty known as ‘white coffee’. It’s delicious, but I recommend one pack of sugar at this place.
If you’re feeling like a fitness buff, you can walk across the street and up a block to Jalan Gaya street and try out the Old Town White Coffee shop. The coffee here is a little better in my opinion, and there are more food options. It’s also delicious.
If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, the street running past Old Town White Coffee (Gaya Street) will be packed with tents. You’re in luck! There is a Sunday Market that takes place in the early afternoon where you can buy snacks, fruits, trinkets, scarves, art, etc. It’s fun to just walk through the aisles and gawk at all the wares being hawked while, if you’re as tall as I, avoiding being clothes-lined by low-hanging tarps and lines. Just watch out for the cages of animals. If you make eye contact, you may end up with an unwanted puppy. I almost did.
Now that you’ve sated your voracious appetite and experienced some local flavor, it’s time to take care of some trip planning. Most people come to Borneo to get out and experience nature by jungle trekking, climbing a mountain, diving, or island hopping. For information on a lot of these activities, you can go a block up Gaya Street to the Tourism Office, where the helpful staff can answer most of your questions. I needed to find out where the Sabah Parks office was for information about doing a 4 day jungle trek called the Salt Trail. The guy behind the counter gave me a map and showed me where to go. Thanks, dude!
Of course, that place was the hardest to find. Walking allllll the way across the city center to the Times Square complex is doable, but you’re gonna be sweaty. Luckily, my nostrils and I have grown accustomed to sweating through shirts several times a day, so I didn’t mind too much. Finding the complex isn’t tough. Finding the parks office is. It’s basically a bunch of buildings clustered together with shops ringing the outside, as well as the middle pathways.
Go down the middle and find the ‘H’ block. There are two stairwells that go up from the pathway. On one of them, there are a bunch of official looking plaques saying the names of organizations in Malay. They all have the same logo. That’s the stairway you want to go up. Just go up to the first office and enter. You’ll probably feel like you’re entering some random business, but if you see a TV to your right with a bunch of nature flyers… you made it! It took me forever to find it, even though I asked for directions many times. In addition to not being able to find it, there was a massive thunderstorm that kicked in about halfway through my search of the complex. It was literally setting off car alarms. So freaking awesome. But not ideal for searching =P
After all that walking around, you would probably be hungry again… I sure as heck was. You can walk or get a ride to the waterfront area if you feel like some freshly grilled local fare. I ate here one night, and definitely have plans going back. The area is known as the Filipino Market and has rice and noodle dishes, freshly squeezed juices, and more seafood than you can shake a stick at. I could easily lose all self-control in a place like this, so I was pleased with myself when I only ordered a rice dish, a fresh watermelon juice, and a tiger prawn that might as well have been a tiger… considering how big it was. It was an expensive meal (for SE Asia) running me just over RM 40. That’s about $13-14 in the States. Not really all that bad. When I remember how good the prawn was – slathered in a tasty barbecue sauce and grilled juuuust right – and how refreshing the watermelon juice tasted, well, I can’t complain that much.
KK is a cool city but, from what I’ve heard, the best things to do are in the surrounding areas. However, if you find yourself in the city for a few days, definitely get out there and try some of the food. It’s been the highlight of my Malaysian experience so far.