Far-flung places, exotic destinations, and “safe” cities are what you would often see on the bucket lists of many would-be travelers. And if you chance upon typical Filipino globe trekkers, you’ll be sure to spot Paris, Maldives, and NYC on their respective lists. I was 22 when I first met myself on the streets of Kota Kinabalu (KK), just 2 weeks prior to my birthday celebration as it was graced with cheesecakes, travel magazines, and hiking equipment for my 23rd birthday. Most Filipinos I know barely wish to travel to Malaysia, or to Southeast Asia in general. They always desire to kiss France’s concrete floors or take photographs with Japan’s exquisitely-dressed geishas.
Traveling to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other SEA countries merely seems to be a way of escaping from routines, rather than as way of being purposeful in terms of travel. Whatever is hard to reach becomes the “travel goal” regardless of the beauty or the authenticity of cultural experiences one can partake in in that certain place. Malaysia is one of the closest countries to the Philippines, taking only less than two hours via plane from Manila to Kota Kinabalu. Priding itself as the capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu is known for its sapphire beaches, olive-green jungles, rocky massifs, and diverse wildlife. In this article, I would like to make a little detour by walking you to the less-favored, less-explored downtown KK. Let’s pummel that jaded traveler in us, and let’s rediscover the reasons why we travel in the first place.
Downtown KK was impressively quiet and immaculate at this time of the year, due in part perhaps to Ramadan as people just stayed home and relaxed. The rose-colored mosque became a testament to the peacefulness of Kota Kinabalu. Paying attention to it allowed the inspired traveler in me to soak in the cultural landscape of the city and breathe in the invigorating air exhaled by the mountains and made tangy by the thalassic wonders.
Since it was still Ramadan when I visited KK, looking for restaurants early in the morning proved to be a challenge, since the majority of the population are Muslims, and they vowed to fast from sunrise to sunset. The sun smiled gently at me, but I caught a glimpse of its microexpression that, in an hour or so, we wouldn’t be friends any longer. I traversed the multitude of roads that run across downtown KK in search for the holy grail that was breakfast. As I tried to bask in the tranquil sunlight, I turned at a corner and stumbled upon a busy Chinese restaurant with droves of people whose faces were blurred by the steam and smoke coming from the kitchen. There was energy and passion. I could smell the freshness of dimsum and hakao. I followed where the locals ate, and there I was sitting on a lone table and feasting on a noodle soup with cuttlefish meatballs. Knowing that I was neither Chinese nor Malaysian, the owner of the store recommended that I try air bandung, which is Malaysia’s most popular drink. With chia seeds, rose syrup, and milk, air bandung not only refreshed my senses but also provided a novel and palatable treat.
Cities do not always need to have colorful temples, brilliant palaces, and imperial castles to make them attractive. Sometimes, the most important thing can be their inviting cleanliness and their quiet self-admiration of their spotless streets. Imagine yourself walking on streets as the one pictured below. There’s a huge sense of safety and carefree spirit that envelops you. The entire city, not just certain parts of it, is this much immaculate.
Right after breakfast, while the sun was still gentle on the skin, I decided to take a quick stroll to the bay to relax and take in as much of the scenery as I could. Except for the occasional motorboats, the bay was quiet and calming. The sound of the waves against the cemented pavement almost lulled me into an enchanted sleep. The benches on the sidewalk were occupied usually by lovers who wish to find a cool respite from the burning Saturday morning. Before I came to KK, I intended to go to the five islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Two of those islands can be seen in the picture below! They are just a few minutes away by sailboat; however, other spontaneous activities (which I shall cover in my next article) took some of my time and I ended up having no extra time to devote to the beaches. I shall visit these beaches and climb Mt. Kinabalu the next time I find myself in KK.
When my head started to nod, I decided it was time to hit the streets again. Through a 10-minute walk from the beach, I reached the jump-off point of Signal Hill, which I hiked to arrive at highest point in KK. There are stairs to facilitate the hike, so do not be intimidated by the word “hike” as it could be easily thought of as a breezy walk through the woods assisted by stairs.When you reach the top, you will be greeted by a hilltop cafe that offers refreshing views of the the urban forest and the sea that snakes through the background. A Badjao here serves chamomile tea, water chestnut drinks, and low-sugar soy milk. While scanning the buildings below, I overheard a group of Filipinos complaining about Brunei. Being predominantly Muslim, Brunei apparently disallows tourists to eat in public during Ramadan to show respect to the locals. This also means that there are no restaurants open from sunrise to sunset.
From the observatory deck at Signal Hill, one can also see a tall clock tower around 500 meters away. This is the Atkinson Clock Tower, a heritage building that reminds the locals of the history of their land, back when KK was still called Jesselton and was still ruled by the British. The lights of the clock tower were used to aid the local ships as they navigated toward the port, when it was still visible from the sea. Now, tall buildings have permanently blocked the clock tower so it has never been used as a navigation aid anymore since 50 years ago. The clock tower was named after Francis George Atkinson who was the first district officer of Jesselton. He died of malaria at the young age of 28.
Lunch is always more delicious after a long walk. One of the perks of exploring a place on foot is being able to pay attention its nooks and crannies. Every experience becomes more profound as unexpected interactions with people and places become more common. Eating at the most famous restaurant or visiting the most famous shrine becomes absent in the agenda. Whatever is more interesting and more enticing gets written on paper. There’s always a deliberate decision to move into the unknown and explore what has not yet been explored fully. Instead of the usual travel guide-suggested restos, a quaint outdoor cafe was my choice. The authentic nasi lemak was true to its nature of being spicy and sweet and a little bit oily. Pair it with chicken rendang (dry curry) and your lunch will be perfect.
Wherever I go, I always bring the Filipino in me. Having snacks or merienda means loading up on carbohydrate-rich food. If there are no noodles or rice, I look for bread. But if there’s no bread, I travel for halo-halo. Still feeling full from my lunch, I walked a little, hoping to find some cold treats. But there was no halo-halo in sight.
But there was ZenQ Desserts.
Serving Taiwanese desserts, ZenQ has several branches in Asia: in Taiwan, China, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia. It aims to tickle one’ palate with authentic Taiwanese sweets. Being a lover of cold and sweet food, I barely had second thoughts about buying myself a serving of their desserts. I created my own combination of sweets by mixing together lotus seeds, mung beans, grass jelly, Q Yuan (multicolored chewy rice cakes), and matcha ice cream. The mixture was a spectacular Taiwanese version of the halo-halo that I was craving.
After having desserts, it was time to head back to the hotel and fix my baggage. The alpine vistas would often take a break behind tall edifices and, this time, a mosque of blue and gold domes and ivory walls stood majestically by the Likas Bay, as if to announce its presence in a prideful display. Resembling the Nabawi Mosque in Medina, the KK City Mosque is one of Malaysia’s Islamic pride. Being the largest mosque in Kota Kinabalu, its prayer hall can accommodate about 10,000 people.
The kind of traveler that I am is one who tries to eat street food or homemade dishes as much as I can, but since KK doesn’t have the ubiquitous street stalls like Thailand and Hong Kong do, I gave up on my own challenge and decided to eat at a fast food joint, instead. At 1Borneo Hypermall, there aren’t any escalators. Rather, they have walkalators, which I think are more shopper-friendly since people can comfortably put down their bags and boxes while on the walkalator. It is quite an easy ride, and there is less chance of encountering accidents while moving up and down this five-storey mall.
It was already 6 o’ clock when I left my hotel room, still with plenty of time to move slowly and experience as much as I could before my red-eye flight. The rain outside was cool and warm at the same time, and this contrast provided a comforting embrace to the already darkening skies. There was something about the rain that made me smile and, at the same time, feel an ache just behind my rib cage. Rains remind me of childhood, of carefree wonder, and of my mother’s freshly-boiled sweetcorn.
To satisfy my longing for warm food and some views of the soft rainfall, I headed to Secret Recipe, a restaurant that offered views of the mall’s surrounding areas. I ordered a steaming bowl of spicy laksa. One spoonful of it was more than enough to send waves of nostalgia to me. The freshness of kaffir lime and coriander sent me back to the streets of Bangkok, whereas the noodles and the toasted tofu reminded me of an afternoon in Binondo, which is Manila’s Chinatown. The richness of the broth and the savory tang of dried shrimps and coconut milk were truly Asian in spirit. Suddenly, there was sparkling certainty – I was indeed in Malaysia, a country so rich, so diverse, so flavorful. Then the rain poured more strongly, thus, striking the glass walls of the restaurant and distracting me from the intense emotions I was trying to contain.
The now charcoal-colored clouds reminded me that I would soon part ways with this city. Not for long, I thought. After finishing every last bit of my soup, I tried the restaurant’s durian cheesecake. If you like durian just like I do, I suggest you try this. Unlike most of the cheesecakes I’ve tried in coffee shops, this one was creamy and did not seem to have fillers like starch and flour just to bulk up the serving. I am happy that flavors like this are not easy to find, thus, making one’s travel experience much richer. This provides more character to one’s travels because its presence becomes much more symbolic and much more significant.
With a bowl of fresh and warm Sarawak laksa, I silently whispered to myself that I would travel the entire world no matter what it would take. With every destination I encounter, I also encounter myself or, at least, a part of it that longs to be discovered, to be re-encountered. Life is not meant to be lived in one place, so said by a famous traveler.
In Malaysia, I experienced a city that was different from all my preconceived ideas of what it was. Before I went to Kota Kinabalu, I was not as excited as I was when I visited Ayutthaya in Thailand or Siem Reap in Cambodia. But experiencing it on my own opened up a new world for me, a new place to keep on going back to because of the people, the atmosphere, and the food. Kota Kinabalu was a sleeping tiger, and my arrival at its lair made it prowl at me. There was beauty.
Your Pinoy Joie de Vivre