What to do in and beyond Kota Kinabalu

Text & Photos by Noel S. Villaflor

 

IN these parts, the name Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, conjures the image of a mountain, the one from which it was named, Mount Kinabalu, the tallest in Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Kota-Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu, though, is still roughly 50 kilometers from the city, but closer to the epicenter of the 5.8 earthquake that struck early morning on the first Friday of June, the same day our group from Cebu landed safely aboard an Air Asia flight in Kota Kinabalu’s airport, several hours after the tremor.

As soon as we left the airport, John Prudente, our experienced guide who would accompany us throughout the Sunset Music Festival and Familiarization Trip that Tourism Malaysia and Air Asia organized, calmly apprised us of the situation. Kota Kinabalu experienced some shaking — the epicenter was some 100 kilometers away in Ranau where much damage took place — but Mount Kinabalu wasn’t spared: the quake caused an avalanche and the area had to be shut off from visitors. Hazy reports soon trickled of trapped hikers and a number casualties.

There would be changes in the itinerary, John said, and it would be prudent that we skip one of Sabah’s main attractions, Kinabalu Park, Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site that covers more than 750 square kilometers of botanical features surrounding Mount Kinabalu. No worries, we said.

The trip naturally took on a more somber tone, one that kept us more grounded, allowing us a deeper appreciation of Sabah’s culture, traditions, and everyday life that’s ever so fleeting, of which we saw more than a glimpse. Thanks to our modified itinerary, we now gained more reasons to come back to KK, and I’m sharing them here.

Gombizau Honey Bee Farm

Gombizau Honey Bee Farm
Gombizau Honey Bee Farm

Bee-farmSome 40 kilometers from the town of Kudat, the tip of Borneo, is the Gombizau Honey Bee Farm in Matunggong where the locals show how to manage the farm. First the bee keepers smoke the honey bees in the hive box to calm them down, and take out the honeycomb. Then, they cut the honeycomb into small bits so you can have a taste and enjoy its sweet aroma of local flowers from which the bees harvest nectar. The locals use the honey or sell them in bottles, which are on display at the stalls near the entrance along with handicraft bees made of beads.

The Tip of Borneo: Tanjung Sampang Mangazou

Tanjung-Sampang-Mangazou

Among the Rungus, natives of the town of Kudat, tanjung means tip, sampang means junction, and mangazou means battle, so Tanjung Sampang Mangazou is a place where their forebears defended Rungus territory from invaders. And it is territory worth protecting with their lives: the northern tip of Borneo is blessed with a beautiful stretch of white sand beach and rock formations hewn by the convergence of the Sulu Sea and South China Sea. Every year on the promontory, the locals hold the Sunset Music Festival, a celebration of classical and contemporary music with the sunset as backdrop. It is a must-see for travelers who wish to experience firsthand the Sabahans’ love for life.

Gong Making at the Sumangkap Village

Gong Making at the Sumangkap Village
Gong Making at the Sumangkap Village

Watch skilled men and women make gongs in more than a dozen shops in Kampung Sumangkap (kampung means village). The gongs, which are widely used among Sabah’s major tribes like the Kadanzandusun, Rungus and Murut, are traditionally made of bronze or brass, and more recently of galvanized iron. These idiophones, found all over Sabah, create rhythm’s that are said to represent emotion, such as the “sadness of a death” or “happiness of a festivity or marriage.” Sumangkap is 17 kilometers from the town of Kudat, which, in turn, is 170 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu, or a three-hour drive.

Mari-Mari Cultural Village

Tattoo
Tattoo
Blow dart from the Murut tribe
Blow dart from the Murut tribe
Rice wine of the Dusun tribe
Rice wine of the Dusun tribe

A 30-minute ride from Kota Kinabalu, this privately owned destination in the middle of a rainforest “gathers” the five main tribes of Sabah — the Dusun, Rungus, Lundayen, Bajau and Murut — by recreating their native houses. One gets an interactive experience and more than a glimpse into the tribe’s culture and traditional activities, such as making rice wine, cooking rice meals in bamboo, cigar rolling and tattooing (with henna, of course). The highlight — and most tense moment — of the tour is meeting the leader of the Murut, a headhunting tribe. But after the leader decides that you’re harmless visitors, and the shaman gives her blessings, the tribesmen happily teach you how to aim with a live blowdart and let you join in their native games, such as the wood and bamboo trampoline called the “Lansaran.”

Food trip at the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront

Grilled chicken wings
Grilled chicken wings
Fresh seafood
Fresh seafood
Roti with dal and curry sauce
Roti with dal and curry sauce

This place is a foodie’s paradise: the choices are so diverse you’d need weeks, months even, to sample every dish in Kota Kinabalu’s “one-stop dining and entertainment center,” just a few blocks from top-class hotels such as the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu, where our group stayed. The world-famous night market near the port where the fishing boats are docked offers the freshest seafood: lobsters, tiger prawns, seaweed, squid, and fish of various kinds, all cooked right in front of your eyes. There’s more: grilled chicken wings, fresh coconut, and colorful local beverages. Across the street are numerous eateries, such as an Indian restaurant that serves Tea Tarik and Roti with dal and curry dip. The food alone will keep you coming back to Kota Kinabalu. And we haven’t even sampled the legendary KK Bak kut teh yet.

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