Thursday, July 22, 2010

One Helluva Rollercoaster Ride in Kota Kinabalu

If you're scratching your head, thinking, 'Since when are there amusement parks with rollercoasters in Kota Kinabalu?', you can stop now because the rollercoaster ride I'm referring to is an emotional one - one that only those who have attempted the summit to Mount Kinabalu under the worst of weather conditions would know what I'm talking about.

While the main purpose of this trip to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, was to climb South East Asia's great Mt. K (the other great Mt. K being Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, which could be in future plans as well if I'm still physically fit enough when the opportunity abounds!), my travelmates and I managed to squeeze in a good number of side activities before and after the climb itself as well.  To read more about the climb itself, click here.

My original idea of KK was that it was going to be rather backward and village-ish, but this was quite a big misconception. KK's city centre is comfortably self-sufficient, and it has both modern and traditional elements to it, making it go down very well with me. On my trips, I love to explore the local culture, but at the end of the day it's also comforting to be able to take a nice, warm shower and to crash in clean sheets.

Shopping In The City Centre
The city centre is a short 20-30 minute drive away from KKIA under average traffic conditions.  Unless you're travelling during peak hours where people commute before/after work, then traffic is typically smooth as there are no legal speed limits on the roads, and most people drive like aspiring F1 drivers.  Overtaking on 2-laned roads, and going on unpaved grounds to speed up, is not out of the ordinary.  But other than that, a drive on the roads of Sabah seems generally pleasant!

By staying in the city centre, you can get about easily on foot.  Most places are in a comfortable walking radius of 5-15 minutes, depending where/how far you want to go.  During our stay, we managed to get about easily without having to hail a taxi at all (there did not seem to be public buses plying the area).

One of the main shopping malls we frequented was CentrePoint Sabah, located conveniently within a 5 minute walk from where we stayed - Cititel Express.  The layout of CentrePoint is typical of any one-stop shopping mall - Food at the basement level, entertainment on the 5th floor (8th floor in carpark block at night), and other retails shops in between.  Noted establishments are Pacific Ngui Kee Departmental store and supermarket, Watsons, Starbucks, Kenny Rogers Roasters, KFC, MacDonalds, Daiso (note that at this Daiso things go for RM5 per piece, unlike the SGD$2 in Singapore so it is slightly more expensive there), and Growball Cinema.  We especially enjoyed Kenny Rogers and the cinema, because the pricing scheme is similar to Singapore's in terms of dollar-for-dollar, so when converted back to SGD, it was half-price!  If you've nothing better to do and want to get away from the heat outdoors, the cinema is THE best place to go.  Their film listing is pretty updated, and the condition of the cinemas are reasonably comfortable too.  We did note that the cinema we had visited during the day on the 5th floor was in better condition than the one on the 8th floor at night though.  Regardless, one does not complain when tickets cost SGD$3! :D

The ground level of what I think is the car park block (through where you enter at night to reach the cinema) hosts a small maze of shops during the day selling electronic goods and other handicraft.  I found a pair of pseudo-Sony headphones for RM18, the sound quality is sub-par and the headphones crushed against my ears if I have them on for too long.  It's true of the saying, 'Pay peanuts, get monkeys'.  The headphones have now been relegated to my drawer of obsolete electronics...
SGD$10, SGD$49

Adjacent to Cititel Express stand two adjoining malls, Star City North and Asia City Complex (Grid N6 on my attached map at the end of this post).  These are much less modern malls, with very few, if any, established retail shops at all.  Instead, there are some knick-knack shops for last-minute souvenier shopping, some toy hobby shops, hair salons, small eateries, and our favourite - a small shop at one corner of the atrium selling special DVDs. ;)

Another prominent mall in the area is Warisan Square.  This trendy mall houses shops such as Charles and Keith (these boys have really conquered the mass shoe market, good for them), Soda, Quiksilver, Roxy, Padini, Starbucks, San Francisco Coffee, Secret Recipe, Times the Bookshop (one of the very few bookshops spotted in KK), and EspiritDuring our visit (early July), Quiksilver and Roxy were having mad sales, up to 70% off and certain items going for special rates like RM15, RM30, etc.  Needless to say, that was my favourite shop for the trip and I made about 3 separate visits to the store, never leaving empty handed.  :P

Warisan Square has 2 distinctive wings - one housing the bigger retail outlets as mentioned above, and the other housing an assortment of beauty treatment spas, and some restaurants.  There will be a member of staff from almost all the different massage/spa outlets on the ground level, handing out flyers to mall-goers.  Rates are pretty similar across the spa outlets, and after a survey of the shopfronts, we decided to go with the least dubious/most spa-looking one called M-Mix on the 2nd level - RM55 for a 30min foot massage plus 30min full-body oil massage, but perhaps to entice us to return again, we got an extended 30min body massage.. so that's 1.5 hours of relaxation for just a little over SGD$20, woot!  Nice subtle cuppa Sabah tea was served up post-massage too, which I liked compared to the typical cup of overpowering lemongrass given at most spas.  Well I guess their tactic and massage skills were good, because one of us did go back for a second round the next morning!

1Borneo celebrates World Cup 2010!
About 15-20 minutes' drive away (or take a free shuttle, see Hot Tip #3 below) from the city centre, lies KK's hypermall - 1Borneo.  This hypermall is relatively huge and can be likened to perhaps Plaza Singapura in the local context.  Anchor tenants in the mall include Giant supermarket, Parkson departmental store, Daiso, Toys 'R' Us, Pizza Hut, Golden Screen Cinemas (more cheap movies, woohoo!) and... Quiksilver!!  There is also a tour agent counter located near the entrance to Grand Borneo Hotel (see section on hotel reviews further down this post). in the mall, Only In Borneo Tours & Travel , which has a small catalogue of half or full day trips you can easily book.  Look out for the special daily last-minute promotions which have packages going for up to 20% off.  Do note that the last-minute specials have limited slots, so do not hesitate to book them if you see one suitable for you.  We deliberated over dinner and the slots were all gone by the time we returned to make the booking (either that or they cunningly removed the promotion knowing we would be back, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt here).

Hot tip 1:  The street level in buildings in Malaysia are marked as 'G' for ground floor, and not '1' for the first floor that most of us are familiar with.
Hot tip 2:  Most shops between 10 and 11 A.M., and close around 10 P.M.
Hot tip 3:  Hop on to the free shuttlebus at Warisan Square (near Roxy) or 1Borneo (North Atrium) to shuttle between the two malls.  The bus operates daily and arrives at hourly intervals (info is correct at point of post, see attached bus schedule at end of this post).

Local flavours in the City Centre
During the day, head to one of the several local eateries along the street for some local food.  Typical fanfare includes a staple such as rice, fried beehoon, fried noodles, accompanied by a variety of side dishes - not very unlike our local 'economical rice' stalls.  Pricing at the more 'upmarket' eateries seem average at RM4-6 for a meal with a coffee/tea, and there are cheaper options available for about RM3++ for a full meal (such options were seen available in Asia City Complex).

Breakfast at Fook Yuen @ Asia City
(Mini review on Fook Yuen - Slightly oily food, and the coffee/tea has lots of residue... hole in the sock perhaps? A post I found on Fook Yuen here.)

At night, ahhhhhh this is when the feasting takes place. :)  Head down to the waterfront stretch for an array of fresh BBQ-ed seafood.  The stalls are near the Central Market area (Grid S3 on map).  Do note that you should be looking for a small area with lots of stalls setup under tenting.  There are seafood restaurant options available too, but those are probably for the tourists not-in-the-know and have too much money to spend.  Prices between the BBQ stalls do not differ much, so just choose one which has the array of seafood most appealing to you.  The seafood variety varies each day, most probably depending on what the catch of the day brings in.  We feasted there on 2 separate occasions, and the spread looked slightly different each time.

Other local foods available there also include stuff like Maggi Goreng - one of my personal favourites, fresh fruit, and shaved ice desserts (check out the retro ice shavers).

BBQ chicken wings, BBQ seafood spread, Mee Goreng

Unique kind of seaweed

For an array of dried food items and tidbits, proceed to the Wet Market area (Grid S3) during the daytime.
Pick up some local handicrafts from the Handicraft Market (Grid R3), open in the daytime as well.

Dried goods, Handicraft Masters at work, Boats at the waterfront (Photos by my friend, K. Tan)

Day Tours Outside the City
White-water Rafting - Padas River (Grade 4)
Booked together with our mountain climb land package, we had a very good rafting experience on the Padas River, organized by Riverbug Asia.  The journey began with a 2 hour drive from the city centre to Beaufort Train Station, followed by a short train ride to Kg. Panggi, the take-off point for the rafting.  There, participants gear up with helmets and lifejackets, and the instructors give a short but detailed briefing on safety procedures as well as a short introduction on rafting.  The instructors and river guides are all pretty friendly and are mostly able to converse in simple English.  During the rafting, enjoy the lovely scenery which surrounds you as you cruise down the river.  Paddle and relax when instructed to, and enjoy the adrenaline-pumping ride.  While the river may look like a nasty muddy colour, it is completely odourless because it is freshwater.  There isn't even the nasty saltwater taste like seawater carries, so don't be afraid to indulge in a little body-rafting or swimming when it's safe to. :)

Antique train ride, yay! / Freshly painted pink sampan after rafting to start point to catch our train

Rafting Start-Point, Antique Train Head, Beaufort Station, Riverbug Coach

Proboscis Monkey River Cruise & Fireflies
If the East Coast of Sabah isn't part of your itinerary but you would still like to see the remarkable Proboscis Monkeys in the wild, book yourself onto of the many river cruises available.  Like the cruise we took, it is usually packaged together with a sighting of Fireflies in the wild at night.  Since the tours are to view these wonders of nature in the wild, sightings are not guaranteed and totally dependent on elements such as weather and river water levels which will determine how accessible the river becomes to your boat.

River cruisin', Dining with nature, Rainbow reflections, Gorgeous sunset

The world is just awesome

New information to me, while there are several tour operators promoting these river tours, not all specify which river/which part of the river you would actually be taken to.  This blog's post explains further in detail.  By a stroke of luck, the tour operator we had signed up with takes participants onto one of the more robust rivers - Garama river.  True enough, on our cruise, we did get lucky and spotted several clans of Proboscis Monkeys, a silver leaf langur, a long-tailed macaque munching on what looked like tree bark, a couple of egrets, a huge monitor lizard, and some water buffaloes!  As it drizzled earlier in the evening, we were also rewarded with a full-arched rainbow later in the evening, followed by a magnificent sunset on the river.  I had never been more awed by Mother Nature before.

Typical river tour itinerary:
  • Pick-up at 2 P.M. in the city centre from your hotel
  • 2 hour drive to the river, followed by some coffee/tea/light refreshments
  • 1 hour++ river cruise begins at about 4.30 P.M.
  • Sunset dinner
  • Fireflies viewing (for my trip, the water levels happened to be too low that evening, so we are unfortunately unable to boat out to the area where the fireflies were concentrated, but we did get to see a tree-full of them near our dining area - better than nothing!).
  • 2 hour drive back to the city centre, so you get back about 9 P.M.++  

Enjoying a lime popsicle, fresh keropok, fresh watermelon courtesy of the generous shopkeeper

Hotel Reviews
  1. Cititel Express, Kota Kinabalu
    A no-frills hotel located right smack in the middle of the city centre, Cititel Express is good value for money.  Clean sheets, towels, and hot water are the basic room amenities provided.  No hair dryer for the ladies though.  Also, remember to ask for a non-smoking floor if you cannot stand the stale smell of cigarettes lurking in the air.  Nightly rate is about RM105 for a single room, RM125 for a double.  Room rates do not cover breakfast.

    Raves:  Great location, within walking distance to malls, food, waterfront.

    Rants:  Was not asked if we wanted a non-smoking floor, and it completely slipped my mind to ask for one, so had to put up with the smoky rooms.

  2. This is a backpackers' hostel, and was part of our Mt. Kinabalu land package.  Located on the 2nd/3rd floors of a shophouse stretch, it is also within the city centre, and hence within walking distance to all the shopping/food/waterfront mentioned in this post.  Room rates begin at RM70 per night for a standard double room with no window.  There is a common area to get some coffee/tea/water/toast.  Rooms have attached bathrooms and are relatively clean, but perhaps we opened the window to air-dry our damp climbing gear, we saw a big, black bug dash behind one of the clothes boards (it could still be there, smooshed between the board and wall, because we smacked the board pretty hard but nothing fell out).

    Raves:  Coffee/tea/water/toast corner for breakfast.

    Rants:  Aircon dripped water onto my bed which was against the wall.  The main door to the hostel is locked at about 10 P.M. so if you stay out late, you have to wake a very grumpy staff to open the door for you, but I suppose I would be grumpy too if I were rudely awakened whilst sleeping on the couch.  Although each room has a TV, the channels are merely a 'feed' from the main TV in the hall - so you have to watch whatever the main hall is watching.  TV Roulette, I call it, and you heard that here first. ;)

    Stairs after Mt.K..!!
    Very, very important note:  As aforementioned, the hostel is located on the 2nd/3rd floors of the shophouse, so it is NOT advisable to stay here the immediate nights after your Mt. Kinabalu climb, unless you have knees/legs made of steel and are not unreceptive to the idea of climbing more stairs after battling with the mountain!

  3. Adjoining to the 1Borneo hypermall is Grand Borneo Hotel (previously known as Hotel Mercure), where we stayed at for the last two nights of our trip. I chose this hotel for its location, amenities, luxe factor, and convenience. At nightly rates starting from SGD90++ for a single Superior room (sleeps up to 2 though), the 3.5* hotel was quite consistent with its given star rating. Like the other 90+% of reviews over at TripAdvisor, I would also rate my at GBH as 'very good'.

    Single Superior room
    Suite Room - we got a free bump up because they did not have our initial booked deluxe room available!

      Rooms are very clean, nice modern decor, comfortable beds and pillows, friendly and hospitable staff, mineral water bottles replenished daily, nice concept of glass panelling between shower area and main room area - you can watch TV whilst showering!  Only good if you're alone like I was, I suppose).

    Rants:  My room's mini fridge was overheated, and instead of repairing it, or perhaps that it was beyond repair, I returned to my room only to find the fridge placed neatly under the desk without explanation.  While the overall room seems to have had a facelift, things like my sliding wardrobe door's hinge seemed to be broken.  A small card in the bathroom asks guests to hang their towels on the rack if they would like to be eco-friendly and re-use their towels during their stay.  I did that, only to find my towel still being replaced the next morning...  Perhaps not all the housekeeping staff are in on that little green scheme going on there?

I thoroughly enjoyed my 8 days in KK, yes, even the gruelling climb under the crappy weather now that I look back at it.  This is one state I would definitely return to someday to explore further!

My Google Map of KK

Map of KK City Centre

Warisan Square / 1Borneo shuttle bus schedule
Posted by dawn.wong on 7/22/2010 01:33:00 AM in , , , , , , , , ,