A Walk in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu is a gorgeous city, with laid-back vibes and modern shopping malls emerging amidst streets with rickety cars and weathered shophouses.

I was there last weekend for a short getaway with friends – we spent much of the time at the beach, so the city wasn’t really the main focus of the trip. We did, however, take a walk around KK’s downtown area, where some humble hawker gems and charming old coffeeshops could be found.

The walk was something that I looked forward to, as I had not been in KK for quite some time – my last visit was in 2005.

My observations:

First of all, most of the buildings in KK City Centre were constructed in the 1970s-1980s – this was the time when Sabah was one of the wealthiest states in Malaysia. There are some really popular kopitiams serving local fares like the piping hot laksa and wantan mee.

We went to Yee Fun on Gaya Street for laksa – it’s a RM9 bowl of rich laksa broth. It’s alright, but I prefer spicier and less creamy broth of Kuching Laksa.

Sabah Laksa

Gaya Street, one of the main thoroughfares in KK City is lined with weather shophouses, some of them are already converted into fashionable cafes and boutique hotels, while the rest is still occupied by kopitiams, family-owned hardware stores and corner shops.

The old Milimewah at Jalan Pantai, which used to be quite popular during its heyday, is still there – albeit in the rickety state.

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Much of KK’s new developments are concentrated outside the city centre, with the area surrounding KK Times Square and Imago mall attracting much of the new money in the city.

Gleaming condo blocks, KK

This has culminated into the decaying state of some of the office blocks in the city centre.

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Inner city urban decay is something that is typical in many Malaysian cities – and KK is no exception to this trend. Kuching and Penang city centres also have some underutilised commercial and office spaces.

Fortunately, there are still many active 5-star hotels operating in KK City Centre, like Grand Hyatt and Le Meridien, ensuring the somewhat continuing viability of the inner city.

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There are also some interesting cafes to explore at the area, most of them rustic (faux-rustic rather) – if you fancy some latte and cakes, that is.

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For a good bird’s eye view of the city, we took a 10-minute hike up the Signal Hill lookout point. The view is quite impressive – too bad we were there just before a heavy rain descended upon the town, so the picture below was taken sans a backdrop of a blue sky.

KK City view

KK’s waterfront is a fantastic spot to catch sunset. Upon sundown, it becomes a vibrant social hub in the city, where tourists and locals mingle and drink. The Irish pub here is also popular among the expats living in KK.

We also went to the Filipino Market located just next to the waterfront – it’s a bustling place in the evening, with hawkers frying noodles and grilling fish amidst the chaotic scene of noisy trinket peddlers and fruit sellers. While the waterfront is a neatly maintained place that taps into the tourist market, Filipino market is unkempt and messy. A different world.

No trip to KK could be perfect without a seafood feast. Kampung Air near Plaza Shell is an excellent spot for that. The place is filled with Sunday dinner patrons, many of them mainland Chinese tourists. We had a really good dinner of lobsters, tiger prawns, smallers prawns, clam soup, steamed fish and local vege – and the price was reasonable at RM140/pax. Considering the size of the feast – this is a fraction of what you’d have to fork out in KL.

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The seafood dinner was the highlight of the trip – the lobsters are to die for, easily amongst the best meals I’ve had this year so far.

With its picturesque outlying islands, great seafood and interesting inner city streets, KK is quite a place to visit. Perfect for a weekend getaway. I like it.

FH

Weekend getaways: Why Phnom Penh?

Weekend trips to ASEAN destinations are always a possibility nowadays (thanks AirAsia for the frequent promos and the price wars) and the most common getaway ideas are to go for a beach-and-party jaunt in Bali and Phuket, shopping trip in Bandung and Jakarta, and a splashing Songkran weekend in Bangkok.

Having been to these destinations, there’s no denying that they’re all excellent weekend destinations, albeit a little crowded, especially in the case of Bali.

A little off the beaten track is Phnom Penh; that Cambodian city that’s often overlooked by travellers in favour of Siem Reap (which is also fantastic).

Phnom Penh!

Phnom Penh is one of my favourite cities in the region. It’s excellent for a 3-day weekend visit, and here’s why:

It is cheap. Very cheap.

Think that Bandung is cheap? Phnom Penh is even cheaper. While the use of USD has made Cambodia slightly more expensive for Malaysian travellers, the country is still cheap.

A meal in a good restaurant that wouldn’t seem out of place in Bangsar would cost you around RM10.

Fancy a tipple? A drink at one of the bars overlooking the Tonle Sap costs you as little as RM10.

A tuk-tuk ride that takes you across the town costs you around RM8-10.

A massage? RM30 per hour.

A decent room in Phnom Penh’s legendary Mad Monkey hostel: RM100/night.

Phnom Penh is cheap, and it’s a good place to relax for the weekend. With RM200-300 per day, you get to live like a king there.

The architecture is varied

During the colonial period, Phnom Penh was considered the pearl of French Indochina, which explains the many French-inspired buildings that still dominate the urban landscape in the city’s old downtown area.

Phnom Penh’s main post office

Wide French-style boulevards used to cut across the city centre, but these thoroughfares are no longer “wide” nowadays, as hawkers and haphazardly parked vehicles take up much of the space.

Phnom Penh’s typical streetscape

The central market building, constructed in 1937, is an art deco gem. It was the largest market structure in Asia when first opened. The market is still bustling today, with a large food section selling really cheap street eats (try it out if you are adventurous) and China-made household items and souvenirs.

The food section, Phnom Penh Central Market
Phnom Penh Central Market

Like other Southeast Asian capitals, Phnom Penh also has some very interesting temples and palaces. Luckily, these structures survived the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Royal Palace

The food is amazing

Yes, Thai food is amazing, but Cambodian food also deserves some credit.

It’s underrated.

In Phnom Penh, you must try amok, which is Cambodia’s de facto national dish. It’s basically a meat dish (beef, chicken, fish or pork), cooked in very creamy light curry. It tastes different; more like a fusion between Thai green curry and our masak lemak.

Amok

Their cooking style is similar with the Malays’, but Cambodians love santan so much that their dishes are most of the times very creamy.

For those seeking halal food, there are also plenty of halal dining options in the city, as Cambodia is also home to a sizeable Muslim community. Many within this community still speak Malay and practice Malay culture and traditions.

Cambodia’s version of masakan kampung

Vietnamese food is also very ubiquitous in the city, so if you fancy some pho in the morning, you’re in for a treat.

If you’re…uhm…into that kind of thing, there’s a number of Happy Pizza joints in Phnom Penh.

There is so much history

Cambodians have this air of gentility and politeness about them. They are also known to be very cultured; it was their ancestors that built Angkor, the city which, during its peak, was the largest urban settlement in the world.

However, their recent history has been marred by tragic events.

The Khmer Rouge regime, upon its takeover of Phnom Penh, began Year Zero – a push to get Cambodians out of the cities back to the countryside.

Thousands of intelligentsias, professionals, businessmen, even teachers, were systematically murdered.

Close to downtown Phnom Penh is the Tuol Seng Memorial Museum – the building was originally a school, and during Khmer Rouge’s era it was used as a prison and torture facility.

I’ve been to Auschwitz, and the feeling I got at Tuol Seng was similar. It’s a gruesome place.

Haunting in every sense of word.

The gate of Hell
It looks peaceful today; a contrast from what it was during the darkest days of Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror

It still feels very local and authentic

Many travellers liken Phnom Penh to Bangkok before the latter became famous.

There’s truth in their claim, because Phnom Penh still feels very local and original. The tourism boom that transformed Siem Reap into a mecca for western traveller has so far eluded Phnom Penh, so expect some really interesting local sights throughout the city.

Monks walking in central Phnom Penh

There are the drags too!

Well, what’s a visit to Phnom Penh without seeing the drag queens perform traditional Cambodian dances…

So yes…

Phnom Penh is only 2 hours away from home, but everything about this place, from the old-school layout of the city to the slow, less-hectic daily pace adopted by its people, feels very different.

The resilience of the Cambodian people, even after some very tragic events in their recent history, is inspiring – and if you’re still not convinced:

A book seller at the riverside

Speak soon,
FH