malaysia

Malaysian Borneo: A Walk around Kota Kinabalu

Once you are settled and have taken in the views, a little history and some sights are typically in order.  The downtown stretch of Kota Kinabalu is quite close together, and it is very easy to walk from one end to the other (depending on the weather).  If you do a little research you can find the hot spots, the historical buildings and monuments, and the specific events that make this city unique.  Once you have figured out what you will be doing and where to go, you can easily set yourself up on a walking tour and hit the significant ones in a day.

GAYA STREET SUNDAY MARKET

From early in the morning around 6:30 am until right around 1:00 pm there is a market and fair full of stalls which sell arts, craft, food, fruits, antiques and so much more. This indeed is the best place to experience the culture and the lives of the Sabahan families on a Sunday outing. This happens every Sunday and is well worth a visit, especially if you are in the market for some Borneo paraphernalia or wonderfully local seafood.  The market is towards the northern part of the city centre and is basically streets full of blue tents, rain or shine.  Once you have made your way through the trinket stands, and bought your t-shirts and gifts for your jealous loved ones at home, you should go to where the grills are.  A part of this market that is delicious is the grill area, where you pick your protein (mostly seafood) and they season it, marinade it, and grill it up fresh and hot right in front of you.   After your hot lunch, you can stock up on local vegetables and fruits, Malaysian junk food, and even donuts!  If you are staying a while and have the means, I would stock up on fruits if you can, they don't get any fresher.  If you are feeling naught you can spring for Malaysian Kuih which is one of their traditional deserts.  

SIGNAL HILL OBSERVATORY 

Once you are full and stocked up on your goodies, you might want to drop by your hotel and leave all of your things there before continuing on your day.  The next stop for us was the Observatory tower which is the tallest point in the city with sweeping views of the the downtown area, the waterfront, and the islands in the distance that are a part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park.  The city is growing rapidly with a lot of new buildings going up all over town, and some right in the way of the beautiful view.  It is still beautiful however, and worth the trek up.  They do have water, soda, snacks, and even hot sandwiches at the top if you didn't get enough at the market, but we just took the views in.  There is a way to "hike" to the platform, but it's all on the road and not totally worth your time.  You can take a cab or a car share (We used GRAB) for only a few dollars and get dropped off right at the top.  Once you have taken your selfies and enjoyed the crisp breezes, you don't need to take a car back, there is a much better way that will lead you to our next stop.

ATKINSON CLOCK TOWER

When you leave the observatory head down the road towards town and look for a trail sign and a bunch of stairs.  It is only about a hundred feet down the road, and it will eventually lead you to the street and close to the clock tower.  When you get to the bottom of the stairs you will reach the street, hang a left and walk until you get to it, again, not a very long walk and you can see it from the observatory, and the street. The clock tower is the oldest standing structure in KK, mostly because the entire city was destroyed by allied bombings in WWII and it was the only building left.  The history is more impressive than the tower itself, but it is very interesting that this clock stood as every single building and home in the city was completely flattened.  It's a beautiful site and there is a description on a board in front, but you can't access the tower itself.  The one fun fact about the tower for me is that it is built entirely from wood without the use of any nails.  From here you will look towards the sea and take a stroll through a towering hotels, through American fast food joints, local bars and coffee shops, and make your way to the waterfront promenade.  

As you walk through the downtown area you will notice that this city is not set up for pedestrians.  Drivers are not taught to stop for walkers, and will absolutely not if you need to cross where there isn't a crosswalk or stop light.  Even if you find a stop light with a walk signal, it will be a lucky day if it actually works.  Then there are the roundabouts that have a never ending stream of cars that make a point to never stop for anyone trying to cross the road, so use a lot of caution.  If you can, try to find the pedestrian bridge which is a few blocks south and goes over the main road and has stairs down to the waterfront.  There are two landmarks that you will be looking for on or near the waterfront, one is the Marlin statue, and one is the KK statue above. There are beautiful views to be had here, a local fisherman's dock, and many tourists trying to take the perfect picture with their straw hat and Gucci sunglasses.  I'm not sire if it is illegal or not, but I would highly suggest you don't try to mount and climb the Marlin statue, I saw a kid try it and it didn't end well.  Even though I made fun of the tourists with their straw hats, it's not a bad idea to have a hat on, the sun can be absolutely brutal during the day.  Make sure you are smart about walking around in the sun right above the equator, it can be quite overwhelming if you aren't used to that type of heat. The best thing to do is hit up a coffee shop after this and chill in the air-conditioning and have some juice and fill up your water bottles.  There are a lot of backpacker lodges and hostels in this area, so that means there are lots of coffee shops with free wifi and water.  We utilized one for water, and to call ourselves a GRAB to get us back to our hotel and rest before our evening. Before that however we loved this view and the wonderful breezes looking at Pulau Gaya and the surrounding islands.  This is also where you can negotiate an island hopping trip if you want to.  There will be local boat drivers walking the boardwalk asking if you need a boat, and you can ask them to take you around to the islands for a fixed price.  If you have gear on you to snorkel and swim, that can also be a part of the trip as well, just let them know you want to snorkel and they will take you to a good spot.  So, say goodbye to this view for now, and we will see if we can top it with our plan for the evening.  

Once you are rested up, showered, and ready to go out we ended up finding an amazing bar on the most exclusive and luxurious resort in the city with amazing sunsets, guess what it is called?  Sunset Bar, very clever I know, and it is located at the Shangri-La resort and spa.  You will need a cab or GRAB to get you there, and for some reason cabs have a special price it seems and it will cost you 30 RMs to get there from pretty much anywhere in the city.  If you take GRAB or another car service it will be about one third that price, but they are still working out the "kinks" for the service and you might be cancelled on repeatedly.  If you want to get some shots in before you sit, there is a walking path that follows along the ocean within the resort, and has stunning views.  The bar is open to the public but getting a reservation for a sunset view table is next to impossible without being a guest.  We just walked up and were charged 25 RMs for a cover charge per person, but it did come with one "free" drink.  The tables were all reserved and they asked if we would be willing to stand at the bar, which we did.  We received our drinks and luckily one of the workers located a couple of chairs for us and we sat at the bar and had our drinks.  They have a live jazz band on Sundays which was wonderful, and the drinks were good. You will hear people say they drinks are over-priced, and they may be, but they are really not that bad in the scheme of things.  The food is limited, but fresh and grilled up right behind you as you watch the sun set.  This resort is it's own peninsula and has a very serious view all around, and the sunsets are breathtaking.

There are many things you can do in this town, it is bustling and interesting, and the people are some of the nicest in the world.  What we did was perfect for our limited time and what we were looking for on a lazy Sunday.  Everybody has different agendas and other ways to explore a new city, and this was just one day here.  For us, we wanted history, monuments, local flare and flavor, a bit of walking, and a relaxing sunset drink with a live band, I think we checked off our list in it's entirety.  

Malaysian Borneo: Mari Mari Village

I flew in to Kota Kinabalu which is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.  Borneo is occupied by three different countries, Malaysia to the North, Indonesia to the South, and Brunei which is situated right smack in the middle of Sabah on the coast.  If you look at Borneo, KK (as it's called by the locals) is on the northwest side, right on the South China Sea. The city itself is quite modern in comparison, with many American fast food options, as well as British pubs to go along with colossal malls and local food markets.  With so many modern conveniences and city selections I decided to make my first day a step back before the sprawling city was built.  

After scouring the internet and forums I found that a tour of the historic Mari Mari Cultural Village was my best bet.  You can book a tour (which is highly recommended) and you will be picked up right at your hotel or home stay and driven to the entrance.  Once you get to the entrance you will be lead to "registration" which has fresh water, some pet lizards to meet, and a brief waiting period while they assign certain groups to guides.  I was able to secure a discount and tour through the shop I will be working with, but there are numerous tour companies in the city or you can go directly to them at Marimariculturalvillage.com and book a tour which is 180RM ($42 US) per person.  It is well worth the price.  You will be exploring an ancient village that used to house five different tribes and the tour guides are all descendants of these same villagers.  Our guide came here to visit his grandmother as a young child who was still living in their old long house and living off the land.

Once your group is put together you will be greeted by a guide and taken to the entrance of the village and given a brief run down of what you will see, and what to expect.  We were quite lucky as it was cloudy that day, so it wasn't all that hot, although it is quite humid here.  Once your guide has finished his introduction you will follow him into the village.  The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, fun, and all of them provide an English speaking experience.  Don't be afraid to ask them questions or to engage with them whenever you want to, they enjoy answering questions and sharing their heritage with all of us.

The first thing you see is a rope bridge that isn't all that high off the ground for those of you that aren't great with heights, but it is a sight.  It isn't a giant swinging bridge connecting two cliffs but you still need to proceed slowly and with caution.    Taking a picture of my mother on this bridge wasn't easy, you will need both hands to secure your crossing.  There is a rumbling creek below, and beautiful trees and sounds all around.  Once you are over this bridge you will join the rest of your party and proceed down to the first tribes area.

Once you all gather around the first tribal dwelling you will get a glimpse into the simple life that housed these people for generations.  Simple and hand built long houses that protected the entire village all in one domicile.  These villagers lived off of what was around them, so their construction, food, and way of living were unique to this one little area.  You get a nice story explaining how they lived, how they cooked, and more importantly, how they made rice wine.  A tasting is followed after being told how it is made, and you get to take a shot out of cute little bamboo shot glasses!  Rice is so incredibly important here, between the wine and the food, without rice I can't imagine how this tribe would exist, it is that important.  We were brought inside and a local girl was hard at work making the rice wine, getting prepared for all the visitors.  Another fact we were told was how to spot the single ladies, they have no sleeves, so the girl making our wine was available.

After our shots we were lead out of the house to the produce section, where handmade bowls were full of local vegetables.  The villagers go out and pick whatever they can find in the surrounding forest and make eclectic dishes with what they have around them.  Beautiful pottery made specifically for what they hold, all different sizes, and a myriad of designs.  The jungle around is lavish and makes for an easy experiment of different dishes.  Palm leaves are used as a sort of sanitation paper to line the bowls and serving dishes.  Traditionally the women are in charge of the kitchen, the picking, and the making of utensils and dishes.  The men hunt and protect the village, as well as do the heavy lifting and building.  

One of the most fascinating details for me was how the tribe lived in the long house.  The house was just that, long, and housed the entire tribe.  When you walked in there was a long hallway in the middle, bedrooms on the left, and a mildly raised platform on the right with sleeping pads.  The young single girls slept in the same room as the parents, but up high above.  They would climb a ladder to get to their bedroom, then the parents would remove the ladder once they were up there so nobody could reach them (and they couldn't sneak out).  The brothers would sleep outside of the rooms on the raised part on the front of the house to be able to fight if they were invaded.  The homes were all made from bamboo, and raised up off the ground in case of flooding and attack.  A very tricky ladder was used to enter the house which was basically a log with tiny steps carved into it that could be brought up once the whole village was inside.  There was also a kitchen in the house that was a flame grill with logs that could keep food fresh and eatable for a day or longer.  The also had "air-conditioning" which consisted of pushing the roof up and placing a stick strategically to pull in excess air from outside when it was windy and not raining.

One of the things that I was curious about was activities, what do they do for fun?  They have to do something to pass the time, much like we drink and watch Netflix or check Facebook and post cat videos right?  They actually have a bunch of entertainment to pass the time, and their interests are quite interesting.  They make beads and turn them into beautiful bracelets, earrings, and necklaces.  Henna is made for tattoos, musical instruments (especially drums and gongs), pottery, blowguns and darts, tobacco cigarettes (just the plant, no additives or chemicals), armored vests that can protect them from opposing darts, pots for cooking, and clothing.  Their hobbies and fun create functional items for the village.  

Once you have finished up with the history and making your way through the whole village you will go to lunch.  A buffet of local food prepared by the villagers will await you in the bamboo dining hall equipped with a gift shop of course.  Roasted chicken, rice, local vegetables and fruit, a delicious lunch in a tranquil setting before the show.  The main event is what follows the lunch, and it is a traditional dance that has been passed down for generations.  They have a band that consists of different types of drums, and a singer for a few numbers, but all the young ones celebrate with a number of dance routines.  Obviously they have grown a bit and have lighting, speakers, and a microphone to make the experience a bit more modern, but it is still full of tradition and incredible.  They always welcome photography and video, and at the end invite everyone up to try their dance routines with some minimal instruction.  

If you ever make your way to Borneo and find yourself in KK this is #1 on my list of things to do.  There is so much culture, and so much to learn if you are interested in learning about an ancient tribe you would have otherwise never known about.  The people are so nice and accommodating and incredibly happy to share their ancestry with you as you would be them.  I have been to many countries and experienced many cultures but this was an experience I will never forget because of how it was presented.  I know that most of the performers albeit genuine and descendants are just that, performers, and you are likely to see them in jeans and a t-shirt at the bar later, but does that make it any less genuine?  They still dress up in their parents and grandparents garb and perform the same dances, and show us exactly how their family lived not all that long ago, so it is just as palpable.  I left some things out of the experience as I think certain aspects are better experienced firsthand and didn't want to ruin the reality.  This was such an amazing event, and I'm so happy I was able to experience Sabah in this manner, and will recommend this village and tour to everyone every time I speak about KK.