Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

I lost my hat in the South China Sea. It wasn’t the gentle, cooling breeze tempering the hot midday sun that whipped it away. It was the speed of the power boat I was riding in as it shuttled passengers between Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah state in East Malaysia and Sapi Island

Just a speedy ten minute boat ride offshore, the island is one of a group in the marine park named after Malaysia's first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Visitors are drawn to Sapi’s white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and tropical rainforest, where huge monitor lizards can be seen lazing about at the forest edge. They wait patiently for visitors to leave, but curious macaque monkeys, with the same attitude as raccoons, will occasional leave the forest to see what’s for lunch.

Terrestrial wildlife aside, the park is one of the finest locations anywhere for scuba diving, but for the non diver, Sapi offers a unique experience — under water walking. The only requirements are the ability to walk and breathe — easy. I tried it and didn’t even get my hair wet. Wannabe Captain Nemos descend just a few meters to the sea floor wearing a weighted helmet that’s supplied with a steady flow of clean, filtered air. Groups are chaperoned by an experienced scuba diver, plus the area is cordoned off for safety. 

There was no need to walk far, however, as schools of curious, exotically coloured fish immediately show up to greet an alien invasion of their world. The experience was a delight, like being inside the aquarium for a change. It is one of many unique attractions awaiting the tourist willing to travel to the outer limits of a well traveled planet.

On the return trip from Sapi, the boat docked at Jesselton point. Jesselton is the former name of Kota Kinabalu, or KK as it is known. It was named after Sir Charles Jessel, a Vice Chairman of the British North Borneo Company at a time when Malaysia was under colonial rule. During World War II, Jesselton was abandoned then bombed by the retreating British to prevent it falling into enemy hands. After the war, the city was rebuilt by the new colonial government and, in 1968, eleven years after independence of Malaysia, it was renamed Kota Kinabalu.

During colonial times, Jesselton attracted adventurers, northern land pirates, and Foreign Service diplomats. One of those diplomats was Francis George Atkinson, the first District Officer during the British North Borneo Chartered Company Administration. He died of malaria in 1902 at the age of 28. As a memoriam, his mother, Mary Edith Atkinson, had a clock tower erected on the highest hill in the city, Signal Hill, at that time known as Bukit Brace. The tower, used as a navigating aid for years is one of only three buildings to survive the wartime bombing. Also on Signal Hill is an observatory with platforms that offer amazing views of the city, the South China Sea, and the outlying islands, shorelines clustered with water villages.

To capture and preserve the history and culture of Borneo, the state of Sabah, in 1985, created an impressive complex containing a museum, botanical and zoological gardens, and a heritage village that shouldn’t be missed. The main museum building, inspired by the longhouses of the indigenous people of Borneo, contains a rich display of artefacts including, of course, a nice assortment of skulls. This was the home of head hunters in a bygone age. At least it was only my hat that I lost.

Now, with a population of half a million, and a popular gateway for travellers visiting Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is the fastest growing city in Malaysia. The increasing popularity among tourists hasn’t yet jaded its citizens, who are warm, friendly, and polite. To shop leisurely in the huge, waterfront handicraft market or in the main street market (where inexpensive pearls are a featured item) without being subjected to the slightest sales pressure is a rare pleasure for the traveller.

The city, and Malaysia as a whole, has made huge strides in development in the relatively short time since independence. Construction may have produced a modern infrastructure including luxury hotels and modern, international airports, but tradition is respected. This is evident in the state mosque, a stunning building close to the centre of the city. It combines Islamic architecture with a contemporary design, and while the towers and majestic dome inlaid with gold motifs gleam in the sun, the interior of the building offers a respite from the heat of the day. Other than Fridays, which is a day of prayer for Muslims, visitors are welcome providing they follow the dress code — no shorts and covered heads for women. Equally impressive is the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque at Likas Bay. Like a desert mirage, it soars out of a manmade lagoon alongside the coastal highway on the outskirts of the city.

Mosques appear throughout Malaysiais — Islam is the official religion — and they have an imposing presence in the same way as western churches and cathedrals do, but on the street, in the market, the atmosphere is pleasantly relaxed. 

Communication isn’t a problem. Although Malay, also known as Bahasa, is the official language, everyone seems to speak a little English, a useful remnant of the British Empire, while "Manglish" a mutation of the two languages mixed with local dialects is commonly used too. But, with echoes of Quebec, there are government plans to reduce the use of the local lingua franca while promoting correctly spoken Malaysian.

Whatever the language; shopping, eating, and getting directions there is simple — ask anyone where to find food and you’ll get a favourable response. Food is revered and relished in Malaysia, and with numerous ethnic groups plus sizable Indian and Chinese populations, there’s a huge range of deliciously varied and often integrated styles of cooking. The less adventurous gourmand will be happy to learn there is a solitary representative of the western fast food industry present downtown — a KFC store — open 24 hours.

Meanwhile, local restaurants serve up local game and endless varieties of chin dribbling fresh fruit, the stuff we’d pay a fortune for in our grocery stores — sweet and sour rambutan, much sweeter pulasan, which is rare outside south-east Asia, and the infamous durian, both revered and abhorred due to its unique fragrance. The strange odour even permeates the husk and has caused durian to be banned in many hotels and public places, and yet the fruit is delicious.

There’s abundant fresh sea food, with shellfish in particular prepared as take out food from street vendors to be eaten with fresh cili padi (small chillies) and a lime dipping sauce. For those who like to catch their own fish, the South China Sea around Kota Kinabalu and Sabah offers excellent sport fishing opportunities.

Away from the sea, inland, are the rainforest mountains that rise to east of the city, only a couple of hours drive away. Dominating the skyline and giving the city its name is Mount Kinabalu. At 4,095 metres, the frequently cloud shrouded mountain is the highest in the Malaysian archipelago. The origin of the name is uncertain, possibly meaning a Chinese Widow or the revered place of the dead, but what is known for certain is the uniqueness of the mountain.

Its slopes and foothills hold an amazing number of plant species, including some of the rarest of orchids. The incredible biodiversity is due to the dramatic changes in climatic conditions that range from sea level through tropical to near freezing at the summit of the mountain.

Wisely, in 1964, the government created the Kinabalu National Park, since designated as a World Heritage Site and one of the most important biological places in the world. It now attracts half a million visitors each year who arrive to see the unique species of plants, to try to spot the 326 species of birds found there, or simply to climb the mountain.

It doesn’t require mountaineering skills to conquer Kinabalu, but climbers are required to be accompanied by guides. A fit, well prepared person is expected to take less than two days to hike, clamber and crawl to the top. The average rainfall in the park is 2700 mm a year, enough to swim in, so it’s best to avoid the rainiest seasons. Attempts are best made during the driest period, from January to April, but note driest doesn’t mean rain free.

Naturally, there are competitive types who want to race to the top and their needs are provided for. Super fit athletes can challenge the mountain in one of the toughest mountain races in the world. The Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon was established in 1987 and takes place each October. It attracts a highly competitive, international field that must run a total distance of twenty-one kilometres up and down the mountain.

This is a gruelling race that was initially restricted to Malaysians, but was soon opened to international participants and now attracts the best mountain runners in the world. The best manage it in less than three hours. I’ll wait for the helicopter franchise to start up; meanwhile the bus ride back down the mountains to the city provided enough adventure. I held on to my new hat.

Published October 17 2009 Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury

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