Kota Kinabalu: The Small Big City

A bit about Kota Kinabalu

“What is there even to do in KK at night?” I was asked many times by fellow Sabahans when I was studying in a college Kuala Lumpur in the late 90s. I was 18 then. Since then, just like I have grown from being a teenager to a an adult, the capital of the North Borneon state of Sabah, Malaysia has grown from small town to city status in 2000. Kota Kinabalu (pronounced Ko-tah-ki-nah-ba-lu) or referred to more commonly by its short-form KK by locals, has now a song dedicated to it called Macam Di KK by local singer-songwriter Janrywine J Lusin. The song title means “just like in KK” and is about the lights and excitement of a big city. Still, KK is a small big city, because in spite of the large malls sprouting all around, and throngs of cars that go into them any day of the week, people seem to know each other even if only by association.  KK people are proud to be the “true Malaysians” as they would put it, because of their wonderful ties amongst each other regardless of race and religion. Here,it is possible for families to have both Christian and Muslim members of the family, as mixed marriages are common. For one thing, KK is not the big, bustling city that the capital city of Kuala Lumpur is. People are naturally more laid back, nothing much seems to ruffle their feathers. “Boleh Bah Kalau Kau” is a very common saying, meaning “of course you can” or “you can do it” in response to a question. For example, if a person were to ask “I was wondering if I could get a ride back to the city from Penampang (a neighboring town)”, a quite acceptable response would be “buli bah kalau kau”, if the person asked was favorable to the idea. In recent years, this small big city with an estimated population size of about 900,000 (Greater KK – the city and surrounding suburbs), seems to have gained quite a number of fans and even earned quite a favorable name for itself in foreign media.  In a Huffington Post article in July 2014, KK was placed number six in the Eight Great Places to Watch the Sunset. And that is just one of the great things about this city.  

The perks of living in KK

The proximity of downtown KK to the residential suburbs of Likas, Luyang, Putatan etc are all a mere 15 – 20 minute drive away on a good day with reasonable traffic. It is possible to have a job in an office in downtown KK, yet have time to come home and spend time with family. The slower pace was just one of the perks of living in KK, and this sentiment was shared with some others who were born outside of Sabah, came for work or studies, and decided to stay.
Taken from Likas bay, 5-10 minutes drive from city centre

Taken from Likas bay, 5-10 minutes drive from city centre

Another most commonly mentioned perk of living in KK was that it is surrounded by nature. KK is situated between hills of lush greenery and the South China Sea. The small islands facing the city is reachable within 30 minutes by boat and has some of the nicest snorkelling and diving sites.  Just a little over half and hours drive away is the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia – Mount Kinabalu.  Any where outside the city about an hours drive away or more is suitable for a lovely excursion for the weekend, be it to seek cooler temperature in the Kokol hill or finding nice juicy seasonal fruits in the small neighbouring towns, like Papar. Perhaps this is why KK was put in sixth placing of the Best Cities To Retire In according to 2016 Retire Overseas Annual Index by Live and Invest Overseas.

Getting around in KK City

The city was not built for pedestrians, but people who love their cars. It is very hard to walk from one building to another a few blocks away, as walkways and pavements are mostly non-existent. Public transport is also pretty much useless, as there is no proper system in place for buses. Taxis are difficult to come by and expensive. However, with the introduction of Uber and Grab over recent months has helped tremendously with the mobility of people wishing to get around the city.

Eating out in KK City

Sabah shares the same love and obsession over good food as the rest of Malaysia. In KK, you will never go hungry as there are eateries to suit every taste and budget.  The price of a meal in KK can vary anywhere from RM8 to RM30 a plate, depending on what kind of establishment you visit. The higher prices are what higher end restaurants that serve Western dishes charge for example, pasta or grilled chicken. For a good selection of restaurants, go to Gaya Street (the oldest street in KK) or Australia Place (just across the main road) or visit one of their many malls. Local favourites like fried kuay teow noodles, or rice with a serving of sweet sour fish or the like, can cost between RM8 to RM12. Locals also like getting “mixed rice”, which is a selection of dishes from a “buffet” of meat and vegetable dishes to add to their plate of rice. The exact price of your meal depends on how much you put on your plate. These options are commonly found during lunchtime and can be found in a lot of Malay or Chinese eateries.
A favorite among locals for lunch

A favorite among locals for lunch

Due to the proximity of the city to the sea, fresh seafood can be found in abundance and at reasonable prices. Your visit to this city would not be complete without a visit to one of the big seafood restaurants that serve chinese-style dishes.

The verdict?

Today, people no longer ask “what is there even to do  in KK?”.  Instead, the response is “Oh? That’s a nice place to be”. It is the city where you have the best of everything.

Sabrina Aripen

Sabrina lives in Kota Kinabalu, a hot sunny city in Borneo island. She has visited many countries around the world, mostly for work or volunteer posts, but still thinks home is best. She writes on sanasinisitu.com, a name derived from 3 Malay words to mean “here, there and everywhere”.