My first experience with Kota Kinabalu was by the sea at the Tanjung Aru. We arrived from Clark at about 6pm on July 24 and were set to fly ato Sandakan the next day at 7am. So we chose to stay at Borneo Beach House which was just a 10 minute walk to the airport (Terminal 2). It was a quiet area with no traffic jams, more locals than tourists, and the smell of durian wafting in the air as strolled along the promenade by the beach. At the strip mall only one Western-style coffee shop was open along with some Chinese kopi kodai.
We had dinner at the food stalls along the beach where we were served by a Filipina who had come to the city from Zamboanga via an 18 hour ride on a small boat. Like most of them working in the area, she is undocumented and therefore has to keep underneath the police radar. That means avoiding them whenever and wherever she can and hardly going out.
So we were off to Sandakan for the Kinabatangan then to Kinabalu National Park for the climb and the Via Ferrata for the next couple of days. June 30, we were back at the city for the flight home to Manila the next day.
Elegy to the Red Palm
Only Dan and me were at the bus was caught along the road fronting the national park. We were dropped off at the Inanam bus station where touts immediately met us asking where we were headed to. A Filipino tout instructed to just go to the main road and wait for the mini bus that ferries passengers to the city center. We crossed the road just in time for a mini bus to come ambling along. Fortunately it wasn’t full so we settled our packs beside us. We were charged RM4.5 which was a little more than the RM1+ that was being charged to the others. I think we were charged for the seated bags as even when people started pouring in we were not told to remove our bags. The bus was a little cramped and we were the only non-locals. It was a little slow going as people hopped on and off the bus–mostly students and office workers. After about half an hour, we finally reached the old long-distance bus station at Wawasan. We were pointed to the row of idling buses referred to as “city buses” for the ride to Jalan Gaya. Bus # 2 brought us to the bus stop at the corner of Jalan Gaya from where we walked to Red Palm Hostel.
Located along a side street of the main drag, the hostel was a convenient place to walk to just about anywhere. There were Chinese kodai kopi houses and an big internet place. Located on the 3rd floor (stairs again for our weary legs!), we were greeted by the friendly staff. We were one of the last customers as they were set to close on Aug 1, the day after our departure. True enough, as we were packing the next day, so were they packing and shipping their stuff out. We were actually the last ones to check out and the girls were busy moving the furniture out. On my way back from the Filipino market, I noticed that they had also taken down the small sign outside. It really was such a pity because the hostel was clean, spacious, and the staff really friendly and helpful. As told to one of them, they had no idea when they were going to open and from the looks of it, it didn’t seem like a renovation, it looked like they were moving out.
The proximity of Sabah to the Southern Philippines has lured hundreds of Filipinos mostly from Zamboanga ( a mere 6 hour ride on the Weesam Express boats) to find work. It is telling of the lack of opportunities at home that most of these Pinoys are working in menial jobs at food stalls or at shops such as at Asian City selling DVDs, trinkets, general merchandise, and souvenir items—work that could have been easily available back home. Fortunately, as one Sabah local remarked, “We our friendly with Filipinos.” True enough, finding out that we were Filipinos, locals and even those from peninsular Malaysia (tourists included) would naturally be friendly and welcoming to us. It did help that I could converse a bit in the local language.
With so many Filipinos, it is inevitable that there would be a Filipino Market though tourist maps label it as the
Handicrafts Market. Located on the wharf and between the food stalls selling seafood and the Central Market, the Filipino Market was the place to buy souvenirs. It was a just small market and there wasn’t much of a crowd of buyers. Much bigger was the Central Market but it seemed to be selling mostly dried and packaged food and household items. I guess it was geared more towards the locals. The first stall we went to was manned by a talkative lady who said she was from Leyte and had married a local. She was selling really cheap souvenir shirts selling at RM7 though of course they were of the quality that screams “Tourist Souvenir!” According to her, stalls are rotated every six months. I guess that’s to make the entire market look new not that there was much variety in the goods being sold. The The stalls were mostly selling the same thing–a lot of kitsch such as badly carved wooden monkeys, batik, the usual key chains, and other knick knacks whose designs were knock-off s of other country’s souvenirs. There was even some didjiridoo on sale! I would have bought one if it had been imported from Australia but as the Filipino seller himself said, it was a knock-off. It had the same designs but it had “Sabah” imprinted on it. The next shop had thumb pianos and boomerangs. There were mouth organs (sompoton) and drums on sale but closer inspection shows they were more for decorations than playing. Fortunately, I stumbled on a store that had some flat hand-held drums called the kompang. I bought a medium sized one for RM40. One of the locals I met for a drink later in the evening told me that aside from Kudat, my best bet to buy instruments and other local handicrafts such as from the Kadazan and Dusun would be at the Sunday market along Jalan Gaya. I was really in search of gongs that I wanted to bring home.
Browsing the Filipino Market was fun if only for the interaction you get with a lot of Filipino vendors. It’s interesting to know where they come from and how they got there. Some claim to be Bisaya while others are from nearby Mindanao. They all seem happy and contented trying to make do with whatever opportunity they have given the limitation of their situation. It’s not a big market and the quality of most of the handicrafts aren’t really good. I was hard put trying to look for that one definitive Sabah craft that would define the placed and its culture. I settled on the kompangan instead rather than some kitschy tourist stuff with Sabah imprinted on it. Dan dropped by Starbucks just a block acorss to check-out any mugs that had Kota Kinabalu but only found Malaysia stamped on them.
In Search of Food
Aside from the midnight search of food outside Kinabalu National Park the previous day, cheap food was readily available. Our street itself had Chinese eatery with one across bragging its Hainanese Chicken Rice. Of course, pork was not available. On our way to the Filipino Market, past the Atkinson Clock Tower, we had lunch at a Indian eatery where I had Roti Telur Bawang (flat bread with egg and garlic) and Nasi Mee Telur (fried noodles with egg). One of the staff kept asking me if I wanted ayam (chicken) to go with my noodles. Perhaps he seemed it strange for someone to have noodles without any meat with it. Dan had some rice, vegetables, and fish which he pointed out at the pre-cooked viands displayed on the glass counter. We had dinner at the Chinese eatery just beside Red Palm. They had picture menus which made ordering easy. I had Nasi Ayam (fried chicken) served with a cup of fragrant green-colored rice and a bowl of really good soup with caramelized garlic and onions. Dan had some breaded chicken fillet served with chili.
We had tasty dimsum for RM3.50 each for breakfast at another eatery down the street.
Kinabalu at Night
With much of its colonial heritage destroyed during WWII, Kota Kinabalu seemed to have an industrial town feel. Fortunately, I met a local who took me around the city and its outskirts late in the evening. We passed by the old mosque and the newer more grander one along Likas Bay and I also got a glimpse of the Runggus longhouse architecture of the Sabah Museum. Really beautiful was the promenade along the bay where the lights from the buildings cast a shimmering glow on the water. Away from the bustling center, Kota Kinabalu was beautiful. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring my camera so that means no pictures 😦
With Mt. Kinabalu as the focal point, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the city is just along the coast. Returning from the Filipino Market the next morning for some last minute shopping, I lost my orientation and ended up at Jesselton Point where the boats to Tungkul Abdul Raman Marine Park depart. Too bad, we didn’t have time as an island-hopping excursion to the park would have been great.
The Chocolate Boutique
On the way to the airport, our cab driver which we hired through Red Palm and who was also one of the guys helping in the moving-out, asked us if we liked chocolate. “Of course,” I responded. He offered to take us to what he calls “the chocolate house” where promises of curry and chili chocolate piqued our interest. I figured we could spare 10 minutes off our check-in time at the airport.
Located just off the main road and just about 5 minutes to the airport, the Cocoa Boutique is a chocolate lover’s haven. Shelves and shelves of all kinds of chocolate were there. I ran to the shelves that had different-flavored chocolates and got a box each of mango, durian, banana, curry, chili, mint, and coconut. I liked the latter the best with its crunchy texture and white chocolate. Dan in the meantime got his box of Tiramisu which someone had asked him to buy. The staff (one was Filipino) were all very nice and spoke Tagalog. We were the only ones there and if we had more time, I would have probably bought more. There were ordinary chocolates that cost about RM 8 – 10 while the more expensive ones were RM 31.50-45.
With our stash of chocolates in nice lavender bags, we were ready to check-in and fly home to Manila.
Our Air Asia flight departed about 10 minutes late as some passengers (some band members) were held-up at immigrations. As soon as they boarded the aircraft it started taxiing to the runway and then we were on the air. We arrived about 10 minutes ahead just as the rain started pouring. The bus ride back to Manila was pretty fast with the traffic jam only occurring at Balintawak due to the left turn at the SM North EDSA area. I was truly back in Manila.