Blissful Borneo: Exploring Kota Kinabalu

Back from our amazing couple of days in Sandakan, it was time to explore Kota Kinabalu some more.

Kota Kinabalu, formerly known as Jesselton, is the capital of the state of Sabah, Malaysia. The city is located on the northwest coast of Borneo and Mount Kinabalu, which gave the city its name, is located to the east.

We decided to do a day trip to one of the five islands which make up the nearby Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park – Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik.

Our hotel had a tour desk however the only tours on offer didn’t appeal to us, so we made our way down to the jetty where there are plenty of stands selling tickets to the islands. Not having any preference or idea of which island we wanted to visit, we picked out a stand at random and the boat ticket was a reasonable price, so we booked it!

We had a little bit of time to wander along the jetty checking out some of the stalls, and to grab a fresh pineapple juice, before heading off to our boat.

Our boat was just a small speedboat, but it went so fast! We stopped at one of the other islands first, where a couple of people got off, before speeding off to our island of choice, Manukan.

As soon as we stepped onto the jetty, we were surrounded by the beautiful crystal clear blue water, and white sandy beach…and hundreds of other tourists! 😉

There’s a small entrance fee to pay which goes towards the upkeep of the islands in the Marine Park, and once we’d paid that it was time for a wander around the island.

It was so beautiful, but so busy! We’d unintentionally come at the weekend and it seems plenty of the locals and other tourists were out enjoying the beaches, so it was very crowded with people having picnics, swimming, and playing their music.

So of course Kirsty and I decided it was high time for a cocktail, and found a lovely shady bar with a huge fan (much needed in the heat and humidity of Borneo!) to sit down and relax for a bit. We had a beautiful view of the beach to top it all off.

We sipped our cocktails, chatting about life and all of the adventures we’ve been on together…. Zanzibar, Lyon, Myanmar, Borneo, and of course we lived together in Dubai, and have now explored Hong Kong together plenty of times!

While Kirsty fed Theo, I strolled down towards the beach to have a little explore. It was covered in rocks, and reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of the Seychelles, somewhere I’m still yet to tick off my bucket list.

After our cocktails, we strolled on down to the beach to explore some more. Most of the beaches were super busy, but there were a few areas that had nobody on. What they did have though, was absolutely tons of rubbish, plastic bottles, and loads of dirty nappies! I can’t understand people who would leave these kinds of things on the beaches, do they think they’re just going to disappear into the sand?!

Before we knew it the time was fast approaching to catch our boat back to Kota Kinabalu, so there was just time for a quick lunch of Nasi Goreng before we made the speedy trip back. It’s only a 20 minute ride or so from the city to the islands, so certainly very easy for a day trip!

We still had some time left to explore, so stopped for a coffee along the jetty to have a look at our map of the city and decide on a little walk.

Our first stop was the Signal Hill Observatory Tower, which offers a sweeping view of the city below, as well as out to see and the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (where we’d just come from).

There are a good few hundred steps to climb, which were fairly slippery. Just as we were reaching the top it started to drizzle, and then pour with rain, so just in time we took shelter under a covered area at the platform.

In the picture above you can spot the Atkinson Clock Tower, which is the oldest standing structure in Kota Kinabalu, and was built in memory of the first district officer who died of malaria, or “Borneo fever”, aged just 28.

Once the rain stopped and we’d had a chance to rest our legs from all of the steps, that was our next stop. I have to be honest, don’t go out of your way to get there! You can go up close to the clock tower, but you can’t see the clock face unless you go back down to the bottom and cross the road!

Soon it was starting to get dark, and still feeling hot and sticky from our day at the beach, we jumped in a quick taxi back to our hotel for a freshen up and to let Theo have a nap.

The next day we woke up and the rain hadn’t stopped, in fact it was a tropical downpour! We sat and enjoyed a lazy breakfast of Nasi Lemak, a fragrant coconut rice served with sambal (chilli paste), fried anchovies, fried peanuts, sliced cucumber and hard boiled egg. I also tried pancakes with local “kaya” jam, which is a kind of creamy caramel, I think I need to look up a recipe as it was so delicious!

When the rain finally slowed down a bit, we made our way to the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, which due to the surrounding lake, appears to float on water – at least on sunny days!

You can just about see the reflection of the mosque on the water in this picture – I imagine it’s beautiful on a sunny day.

We then continued on to Gaya Street Sunday Market, which as the name suggests is open on Sundays. You can find anything and everything at this market, from fresh food and drinks, to trinkets, plants and flowers, and even some live animals. The rain was on and off so I didn’t manage to get any pictures, although we did snap up a few postcards to send.

Since it was our last day, we decided to treat ourselves to a pedicure, and easily found a salon whilst strolling through town. After our pedicure, we continued walking down towards the waterfront, which is a lovely open area with plenty of restaurants and bars.

It was time for a late lunch, so we stopped at a restaurant serving up Malaysian food and ordered up a feast, including most of the items on this menu board.

My favourite was the fish and aubergine asam pedas, a sour and slightly spicy dish, made with galangal, lemongrass and turmeric, amongst others. Washed down with some freshly made pineapple juice, it was the perfect last meal in Borneo!

Just next door was a lovely open air massage place, so we decided a massage was the best way to spend our afternoon – why not, when on holiday?!

After our relaxing massage, the sun was beginning to go down, so we had a couple of sundowner drinks by the water, to toast to the end of our fantastic holiday. Kirsty was amazing bringing 4-month old Theo along, and he was so well behaved the whole trip!

The sun was setting on our lovely trip, and it was time to head back to the hotel to pack up and get ready for another super early start back to the airport, and a 3 hour flight to Hong Kong.

Thanks Kirsty (and baby Theo!) for an amazing getaway!

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