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Kicking About In Kota Kinabalu

Rajen Bali

I can almost hear many of you saying: “Kota what?” If I patiently reply, “Kota Kinabalu,” I am still most likely to come across heads being shaken in puzzlement. Do not worry. I too was in the same state till sometime back.

Till one sunny day when I landed, after an around 2 ½ hours flight from Kuala Lumpur (KL) at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport. The extent of my – and, your? – ignorance is such that Kota Kinabalu turned out to be the second busiest airport in Malaysia, after KL! In 2016, over 7.2 million passengers passed through this airport.

A small Geography/History session? Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the state of Sabah, in the third-largest island in the world – largest in Asia - once known as ‘Borneo’. A land of rainforests, wildlife, tribal cultures and incredible natural beauty - especially the numberless great beaches. The Borneo rainforests are ‘only’ 140 million years old, making them one of the oldest in the world. Some coastal places were busy trading posts as early as the 7th century. Borneo has been under – among others – the Brunei Sultans, the British, the Dutch, and the Japanese, who occupied it during the Second World War. Currently, Sabah in the north and Sarawak in the north-east, are states of Malaysia. Wedged between Sabah and Sarawak is the tiny oil-rich sultanate of Brunei. The biggest chunk of Borneo is Kalimantan which is a part of Indonesia.

Back to Kota Kinabalu. Apart from being highly impressed by the first impressions of the beauty of the place, I was much more ‘impressed’ by my own stupidity. I had already booked a decent-looking hotel on the net. The taxis at Kota Kinabalu airport were strictly regulated and to get one, you had to book and get a ticket from a designated kiosk. So, when I paid what I was told was the minimum fare of around U.S. $ 12, I was quite happy because I was told that the city center was about 8 km away. But hardly had I settled down in my seat that my taxi pulled up at the front door of my hotel, barely four minutes’ drive from the airport! Talk of me, A Seasoned Traveler!

However, the hotel was very good, the best beach in town was less than five minutes walk from my hotel and there was a free shuttle service from the hotel to the city center. Soon after my arrival, I was gamboling around at the beautiful beach with hundreds of happy men/women/children, enjoying in quick succession, buttered corn-on-the-cob, assorted Satay and divine Coconut Ice Cream. ‘Rajen’s Folly’ was almost forgotten. Not quite. It still rankled a bit. I mean $ 12 for a ½ km taxi trip?

Kota Kinabalu takes its name from the around 13,500 high, Mount Kinabalu, about 55 km away. Mount Kinabalu and the national park surrounding it are a major attraction. But my mountain-climbing days are long over, having messed around more than enough with heights up to 18000 feet in a younger, previous life. So, I satisfied myself with distant views on my way to, and return from, the northern tip of Borneo, near the town of Kudat. There were spectacular drives through the forests and along the sea, plus spectacular ‘seascapes’ with seas-gone-foamy-silver crashing madly against the rocky shores.

So what if I cannot climb mountains anymore? Instead, I fully exploited the joys-of-the- seas, at beautiful beaches like the best of them all, the one near my hotel, Tanjung Aru. Then there were the island-hopping day trips. There were also the stupendously breathtaking sunsets-in-the sea. And, oodles and oodles of the best seafood one can wish for. Fish of many kinds, giant prawns and lobsters and crabs. The seafood was cooked in Western-style with interesting sauces, cooked in Malay/Chinese styles with coconut milk and what-have-you, deep fried, or – simply grilled over open charcoal fires.  Friends, Kota Kinabalu was An Ultimate Seafood Paradise. If I could, I would have settled down for the rest of my life in Kota Kinabalu for its seafood alone. But, you know, if wishes were horses, Yours Truly would have ridden upon a Flying Horse to his Final Golden-Orange Sunset with a mouthful of just salt-and-pepper fried prawns, clutching a grilled Lobster in one hand and a devilled crab in the other hand. But!

To be fair, it was not only the seafood. There were equally attractive Chicken Claypot, Home-made Sausages, Hainan Chicken Rice, the Filipino Sisig (minced pork with an egg sizzling on top, served on a hot plate), Herbal Fish Chimney Soup, Fabulous Chicken Wings, Delightful Dim Sums….hey, I better stop or I will run out of space. The last kick? Some of the best Tiramisu I have ever had in my life. No more talk about food in Kota Kinabalu.

Let us take in some sights. There was the most impressive State Mosque with its golden dome. The villages with houses on stilts, perched in waters. Pottering about in the trendy Gaya Street with its many restaurants, bars and the Sunday Market was rewarding.. The encounter with the almost-human orangutans at the Sepilok Centre, was like a watching our primitive ancestors.  The historic North Borneo Railway (the only railway in Borneo) offered picturesque rides. Another relic of the Raj was the Atkinson Clock Tower. The leisurely times spent in a number of ‘Kopitams’ (Chinese Coffee Shops) sampling various kinds of coffee and teas – some produced in Sabah, was time well spent. And last, but not the least, were the happy, friendly, fun-loving people.

Sadly, I had to leave, without having been able to do some interesting sea diving off the Sabah shores. I left that to my son, Rahul who loves deep sea diving. But, when leaving, I echoed General Douglas MacArthur’s famous words – “I shall return.” As the aviators say – I know because I too was an aviator once upon a time – “God willing and weather permitting” I will return. Some day.