Twenty-four hours in Kota Kinabalu

Perched on a beautiful bay and caressed by the sun, Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu, KK town to the locals, is a great place for shopping, eating, and exploring. Today my friend Jeff and I, cycling around Sabah, have come into town to get a new chain for his bike.

First thing in the morning we head down to the water to take pictures of the city’s gorgeous bay, where the islands of Pulau Gaya and Pulau Sepangar make a lovely frame for romantic photographs. The wharf comes alive with a morning market, vendors selling everything from children’s clothing to live fish and bags of bright green lemons. Piles of neatly stacked yellow mangos and boxes of bright red rambutans and earth’s best fruit, dark purple mangosteens, fragrant, juicy, and cheap, greet you as you wind your way north along the pier.

Breakfast is everywhere. Buffets host Malaysian-style fried noodles, stacks of fried eggs, miniature hot dogs, and chicken nuggets. Roadside vendors sell sandwiches and sticky rice treats. Chinese restaurants serve up traditional Chinese foods like rice porridge and you tiao (油條). With so many Chinese in Borneo there’s even a Chinese newspaper to read as you sip your soybean milk. Eating my favorite breakfast, roti stuffed with egg served with a dip of curry sauce and hot lemon tea, I think about retiring here.

This morning I’m on a mission: finding gifts for the wife and kids. My wife likes spices, so we stop by the Pasar Besar, the enormous market building by the bay. As you enter you pass vendors selling schoolbooks and newspapers. Stop and savor the aroma of cumin, cloves, garlic, lemons, pickled shrimp, pork, shallots, and cilantro. Machines whir as they carve raw coconut meat from coconut husks. The riot of colors — green bananas and limes, dark purple eggplants and avocados, yellow melons, oranges, and ruby-hued dragonfruits – are guaranteed to make you a star photographer. Upstairs in the food court people smile and children run over demanding you take their picture. I buy a bag of coriander seeds from a spice vendor and fantasize about retiring to KK town.

Next stop: the Ruang Tiong Hua Street area, the textile market. Here the shops offer cloth from all over Asia, from Indonesian batiks to Indian saris. You can haggle in English, Bahasa, Mandarin, or Hakka – Borneo was the site of Asia’s first Republic, the Hakka-run Lanfang Republic of 1777. I share a joke with one girl and she sells me a bolt of cloth in a striking flowery print. A nearby eatery fills the air with the smell of fresh roti, and I wonder about retiring to Kota Kinabalu.

Like any day of relaxation, mine includes errands. My 8 GB card is filled with pictures from our cycling trip through Brunei and Sarawak, so we stop for a new card and then at McDonald’s for coffee – there’s a Starbucks and KFC here also. Back at our budget hotel, NT$250 (RM 26) a person for clean beds and an attached bath, we grab Jeff’s bicycle and head for a nearby bike shop. The owner is Chinese and we chat in Mandarin and English as he works. Friendly and helpful like everyone in Sabah, he charges nothing for labor. We have lunch at a buffet place offering fried chicken, meat curries, curried potatoes, steamed shrimp, an array of greens and of course, roti. I dream of a retirement filled with roti.

Buffet in Kota Kinabalu. Pic: Michael Turton.

After lunch, we wander off to the Gaya Market on Jalan Gaya, crowded with tourists, backpackers, and locals looking for a deal. It’s a great place to buy souvenirs.

Jeff in Gaya Market. Pic: Michael Turton.

After a strenuous day of shopping and eating, a rest is called for. Jeff and I find a cozy bar to relax in with books and beer – the bartender gives us an extra one free. Between bites of barbecued chicken, retiring to KK town seems a great idea.

Fishing boats at sunset. Pic: Michael Turton.

Evening! Jeff and I head back to the water to enjoy the sunset. Approaching the bay, we face a tough choice: the Filipino night market for barbecued seafood and fruit, or the Portview Seafood village, a long wooden deck lined with restaurants and bars selling local and western dishes? We opt for the former and feast on squid, fish, and grilled tiger prawns as long as a man’s arm. Later we sip beers and look out over the bay. Couples walk past arm in arm and tourists raise their cameras at the sunset, as if in worship. I look to where the sun flares orange in a purple sky, and think, yep, I’m retiring here.

Prawns and grilled fish in the Filipino night market. Pic: Michael Turton.

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