The sights. The sounds. The smells.
The food. The people. The culture.
I love and miss all of it terribly.
Any time that I’m back in this part of the world I feel completely absorbed in memories of my childhood and in a warm, happy place.
This February I was lucky enough to spend a week in Sabah with the Halligans. Jim, Karen, Sarah, Matt, Jen and I. We ate lots of roti and ikan pari, watched movies together and got up to a lot of fun in the sun.
In 2016, when I want to revisit life as I remember it in Brunei, it’s nice to go to Kota Kinabalu. Modern day KK is more in line with the culture and lifestyle I remember of Brunei in the Nineties.
The city has absolutely blown up in size over the past decade and is a wonderful place to visit. There is so much to see and do. Most people are familiar with the major tourist attractions – the orang-utan sanctuaries, Mount Kinabalu and the tropical islands dotting the coastline.
But there’s so much more nowadays.
I think the city has struck a fine balance accommodating both contemporary shopping malls and keeping the more earthy local shops and markets where you can pick up knick knacks, curios and trinkets unique to this part of the world. There’s plenty of cool stuff on offer if you explore the city centre.
Kota Kinabalu also has a burgeoning food scene. It’s already heaven for anyone craving a good honest roti chanai and an aisu milo but the city also has an ever expanding array of other cuisine types. They have good Mexican and Italian places now. On this particular trip I even dined out at a Hungarian restaurant (the curiously named Chilli Vanilla).
I can’t speak highly enough about this part of the world. The people are super friendly, there are endless activities to do that cost practically nothing and culturally its like a mix of everything I loved about South East Asia as a kid (the climate, the food etc) but with the perks of a modern city (there’s wifi everywhere, they have a Nando’s).
Driving In Malaysia
The biggest difference about this particular holiday over any other I’ve had in Malaysia is that for the first time in my life, I hired a car and had my own wheels. To the untrained eye, this might not sound like a big deal but for a third culture kid who didn’t get his drivers license until he was 30, it’s a pretty massive.
The car I hired was a Perodua Axia, a car so common in Malaysia you can see an identical one parked in the background of the photo above. Google tells me that a brand new Axia will set you back about $7,000 AUD which is probably why there are roughly a million of these things on the roads of Kota Kinabalu. It’s cheap, compact, fuel efficient and seems to have a top speed of about 70kph if I floor the accelerator. Sure, it wasn’t the flashiest car in town but it did the job and got us around.
Driving in Borneo felt really weird to begin with. All of my memories of being on the road in Brunei as a kid were from the vantage point of the backseat of my dad’s trusty Daihatsu Feroza. And now here I was out on the road. Me! It felt like a real moment of ‘adulting’.
Fortunately, driving in Malaysia wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. I remember being a bit iffy about some of the driving I saw here in the past. The locals seemed pretty lax about indicating when changing lanes and most drove either 20kph above or below the speed limit. But you get used to it pretty quickly. KK has dozens of round abouts everywhere. Traffic jams are a regular occurence in the city. You just have to stick your nose in everywhere to have any chance of getting out.
Naturally, having a car gave me a new-found sense of freedom and I was determined to make the most of it. Although we were only in town for a week, I was determined to cram in as much stuff as possible. So there were plenty of days where we were getting up at 6 in the morning so we could drive to our first activity for the day. It was absolutely worth it. We went snorkelling, zip lining, white water rafting, train riding, hashing, shopping and dancing. We did everything we wanted on our check list.
Mari Mari Cultural Village
One of our first stops was the Mari Mari Cultural Village. I’ve actually been here before but I enjoyed it so much I wanted to go back and share the experience with Sarah and Matt.
The village is a three hour interactive tour that gives you a snapshot into five indigenous tribes of Sabah. You get to walk through a hut representing each of the tribes (including two headhunters) and have a sample of the food and drink they live off of.
The Mari Mari Cultural Village experience is highly interactive and well paced. You get fed plenty of local delicacies, get to sample rice wine and participate in cool activities like using a blow pipe and dancing with some indigenous locals. Our guide was very friendly and knowledgeable. Best of all, the experience ends with a twenty minute musical number and then a buffet. I wish more Western cultural exhibits would do that.
Dining In Kota Kinabalu
The Lido Square Food Court
When it comes to the best eating spots in Kota Kinabalu, it’s hard to go past The Lido Square Food Court. It’s the best place to go if you want to gorge yourself in seafood. There are hawkers selling fresh fish, slipper lobster and sting ray (ikan pari). Be warned though! We were in KK during Chinese New Year and The Lido was so popular that some of these stalls were selling out of their stock early in the evening.
Mohideen Curry House
For roti, we go to Beverly Hills. Mohideen Curry House is the classic South East Asian restaurant that I know and love from my childhood. The roti is made to perfection, they do an excellent aisu milo and they have a tv in the corner that shows pro wrestling. I have always wondered what the origins were of Malaysians and their love of wrestling. Its the only part of the world that I know of where its common to air it at eateries.
It costs about five bucks a head to stuff yourself silly with roti and curry chicken at Mohideen’s. The Halligans are a bit fancy and like to order roti telur (it has egg mixed in). I’m more of a roti canai (roti classic) man myself.
I took a lot of photos when I was in KK but that table spread of rotis and dipping sauces is one of my favourites. There’s plenty of places in Brisbane that do roti now but its never as good as back home.
As I mentioned earlier, we ate at a Hungarian restaurant on this visit. We intended to go to El Centro, a popular Mexican restaurant but it was booked out. I am the last person in the world to be talking to when gauging the authenticity of Hungarian dishes but I can definitely recommend the chicken roulade. The service was friendly and the beer is cheap. Definitely worth it if you want a break from Asian cuisine. Their Facebook page can be found here.
White Water Rafting at Padas River
If you’re going to do white water rafting at Padas River, be prepared to set aside most of the day. You need to get up at the butt crack of dawn and drive to Beaufort which is about an hours drive from Kota Kinabalu. Then you board a train which takes another ninety minutes to get you to Padas River.
The train ride is crazy. It’s not anything like a conventional passenger train you’d get in a Western country. It’s more like the trains you see in old movies that people hop onto when they run away from home and join the circus. The entire contraption is made of metal. Most people sit on the floor. The entire side compartments of the carriage open up for circulation and you can basically sit there and dangle your feet over the edge (the train goes slowly enough that this is more or less safe). It was quite the experience.
We did white water rafting with a group called RiverBug. As with virtually every other activity we experienced, our hosts were terrific. They were friendly, full of fun and enjoyed a good sing song. Our guides pretty much sang the entire time we paddled down the river and they were very accommodating of my constant need to jump out the raft and paddle around.
The journey down Padas River runs for 9km and takes a couple of hours to do. It’s an absolute blast. There’s about nine different ‘rapids’ that you go through and then there are some peaceful stretches of water when you can get in the water and just enjoy floating downstream.
At the end of the river you get a buffet lunch and beer (just like the Mari Mari Cultural Village). You’ll appreciate it because white water rafting is thirsty work.
The Chinese New Year Hash
Matt and I ran the Chinese New Year Hash with the Kota Kinabalu chapter of the Hash House Harriers.
To be blunt, the run was absolutely brutal.
The course took us through the thickets of the jungle in the steep, hilly part of I Don’t Know Where. Then, when we finally reached a clearing, we came out at the back of some Chinese guy’s house where his seven dogs chased us, barking at full volume. The course then followed the main road back to the host’s house where he was having a big Chinese New Year party. There was mahjong, karaoke, a buffet dinner, beer and lots of friendly new faces to meet. They all knew me as ‘Don’s Son’ and had lots of stories to tell about my dad. He is still remembered very fondly in this part of the world.
As you can see in the photo above, I took some pride in wearing the only hash shirt I have in my possession – a shirt commemorating the combined 1800th runs for Gordon Nicol and my dad.
Island To Island Zipline (Sapi Island)
The Gaya to Sapi island zipline is as awesome as it sounds. You basically take a flying fox twenty feet over the water and zipline from one island to the next. It lasts about thirty seconds and is an adrenaline ride (not to mention a great way to view the island paradise you’re in). It costs a grand total of $20 bucks AUD per head. Well worth it.
The last activity we did was snorkelling around Sapi Island. We did this Borneo Dream, a very reasonably priced tour company. We had a day trip on a private boat where there was only our gang and one other British couple (John and Diedre). Our guide Basir was excellent. He took us to some very secluded spots to do our snorkelling and thanks to his experience, he knew exactly where to go to find the most exotic looking fish, interesting corals and in one fleeting moment – a shark (it was only a couple of feet long though).
Basir can also hold his breath for an improbably long period of time and he was responsible for taking our GoPro camera and shooting most of the underwater footage you can see in our holiday video. Some of the footage he shot of clown fish, stingray and schools of barracudas were absolutely amazing.