Kota Kinabalu by Herman (2006)

Short: Kota Kinabalu (formerly Jesselton) is Sabah's Capital; situated on Sabah's West Coast it profits of a unique location: between the South China Sea and Sabah's rainforests. The population of Kota Kinabalu (or KK as it is known here) is around 305,400 (year 2000 census), comprising mainly of Chinese, Malays and Bajau, as well as a rather generous sprinkling of formerly seafaring ethnic entities such as Suluk, Iaka'an, Bisaya, Tausug and others from the southern Philippines. KK has been officially declared a 'Resort City' in 2006.



Kota Kinabalu's origins as a town go back to the foundation of Jesselton by the British, after Mat Salleh, a local rebel, ransacked and burnt down their trading post on Gaya Island in 1898. Before little is known about an eventual settlement, if there ever was. Oral history has it that at the site of the present Wisma Dang Bandangan (the former Immigrations Complex) there was a freshwater source and maybe a small fishing village in which the seafaring Bajau and others took shelter from time to time. However, their principal settlements were on the islands just off the shore of present KK, now comprising the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park.

After Mat Salleh's attack and destruction the English approached the Sultan of Brunei, then ruler over most of present-day Sabah, and leased land opposite the Tunku islands to establish a new trading post and township. It was named in memory of Sir Charles Jessel, one of the first directors of the Chartered Company: ‘Jesselton’ (see: History Section). The new township flourished, also thanks to the newly completed railway linking Sabah's interior at Tenom with the coast, and soon Chinese traders and business men settled in. However, it was not Sabah's (then North Borneo) capital, which was Sandakan.

During WWII Jesselton was occupied, like the rest of Sabah and Borneo in general, by the Japanese. The end of WWII saw allied bombings and Japanese retaliation ransacking and virtually nothing was left standing, further facilitated due to the fact that Jesselton, even though an important trading post, remained a town built from wood and with atap (palm leaf) roofs. Only the present-day Sabah Tourism building and the Atkinson Tower survived this time. Faced with the impossible task of rebuilding Sabah after WWII the British North Borneo Chartered Company ceded the territories to the English Crown and under colonial rule Jesselton became North Borneo's capital.

When Sabah joined the creation of Malaysia in 1963 Jesselton remained its capital and soon experienced a building boom, still very much apparent in to-day's city and architecture. Jesselton was named Kota Kinabalu in 1967. 

To-day KK is a modern and cosmopolitan city - more so since its declaration as a city 2 February 2000! A new city law recently had all building owners clean up their premises and paint facades so that KK's 'historical centre' is again resplendent in the charm of the 70ties, with modern shopping centres and their more daring architecture sprouting in-between. But KK's real charm remains as a city where restaurants never close! Being a true melting pot of many different people - Chinese, Malay, Bajau, many immigrants from neighbouring countries in search of better opportunities, locals and Europeans - foods in KK are as varied as its population, creeds and ethnic background and a culinary world tour is here, in a relatively small area, absolutely possible if you only have the time! 

At the moment KK is experiencing another building frenzy as new shopping malls are constructed at both ends, intersections upgraded and flyovers take shape. By all means a modern town, with rush hour traffic jams, modern fast food outlets (yes, on top of the many restaurants, food courts and open night stalls), banks, holiday resorts and golf clubs of international renown. I once heard that KK is Asia's fastest developing city and living here I am surely inclined to believe it!

KK, with its tourism infrastructure and international airport is also the gateway to Sabah's many natural attractions, some of which are easily accessible by road, other which are visited by boat.

Places of Interest in Kota Kinabalu

Having no historical centre most of KK's attractions are nature based and lie to the north and in the close-by interior (see respective other sections) but there are some places that can be visited in and around town that don't require a day to do so:

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park - the five tropical 'paradise' islands are ideal for a relaxing day at the beach. On Pulau Manukan you find most of the activities and daily BBQs on the beach while on Pulau Mamutik daily SCUBA dives are organised. Pulau Gaya is great for trekking and the adjacent Pulau Sapi offers, just like Pulau Suluk, a quiet retreat away from the crowds but all islands tend to be well visited during week-ends and public holidays and tend to be somewhat overrun by local 'tourists'. To get to the islands you can take a shuttle boat from the KK City Jetty (at KK's northern end) or profit of the offers at the Sutera Harbour Marina or the Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort Marina.

Sabah State Museum - the second museum in Malaysia sports the largest collection of South East Asian ceramics, a small natural history selection, a ethnological part and a time tunnel; the gardens of the museum are interesting with its life-size replicas of various indigenous houses and large collection of indigenous trees and herbal plants.

Tun Mustapha (Yayasan Sabah) Tower - built in 1977 when the area there was still a swamp, signified then the heralding of a new era for Sabah and its people. It is KK's tallest building, standing 30 storeys and 122 meters high. It is a popular photo stop on each KK city tour and now that the revolving restaurant on the 18th floor has been elaborately renovated Sabah's foremost dining address.

Gaya Street Sunday Tamu (market) - every Sunday, from around 5 am to midday Gaya Street (or Jalan Gaya) is closed to traffic and becomes one long, vibrant market where you can immerse yourself in a happy Asian chaos of foods, tools, plants, souvenirs, pets and much more. Most vendors are Chinese and Bajau but if you visit the road behind Gaya Street you will meet more, local Dusuns, who sell their vegetables and other fare. At the same time there is also a market along the beach behind the 'Pusat Kfraftangan' where Bajau sell fish in all shapes and colours. And the place of the daily night market (Asia City) becomes a huge second hand market.

Daily Night Market - in Asia City you will find a daily night market where you can bargain for t-shirts and other clothes, apparel and accessories, and even some handicraft. The market opens until around 10 am.

Pusat Kraftangan or better known as the Filipino Market - along the seafront of KK you will find that a curious building catches your eye: a series of steep gabled roofs and a door underneath each. The Filipino Market! Here you find trinkets and souvenirs, mostly produced in neighbouring countires, at bargain prices. For those who are into pearls and know how to categorise them this is the place to go!

Waterfront (Anjung Samudra) - a couple of years ago the citizens of KK suddenly realised that they were sitting on the sea but the seafront was nothing but a dirty, unkempt stretch where traders liked to hawk and buyers litter... how this has changed! KK has now a modern and clean seafront where you find pubs and excellent restaurants, and the Borneo Trading Post, a souvenir shop with a twist. 

Waterfront (Anjung Senja) - the 'original' waterfront, which was built a year or so before Anjung Samudra. It is in front of the Promenade Hotel and offers a fine selection of halal hawker foods (mostly Malay and Javanese). At Anjung Selera along Likas Bay you will find an even wider selection of mouth watering hawker style foods. Anjung Senja and Selera only open for business in the evenings while Anjung Samudra is open throughout the day.

Restaurants - KK's real charm lies in its many restaurants, from simple kedai kopi to internationally renown theme restaurants. There are simply too many good restaurants, and too many specialities as that I could enter into details here but our feature on Foods in Kota Kinabalu might provide some mouth-watering inspiration.

Nightly Food Stalls - more food! There are various places in and around KK where nightly food stalls pop up, some offering hawker foods and some are extensions of restaurants such as Suang Tain in Asia City. Be adventurous!

Seafood - KK offers some of the freshest and best seafood in the area, being also a major export partner for seafood to Hong Kong and Singapore. Again, you might find some more inspiration in our feature Foods in Kota Kinabalu but I must mention here the Portview Restaurant, the Ocean Seafood Restaurant and Suang Tain (again), then the newly opened Atlantis Bistro and the Atlantis Seafood Restaurant, and also Kampung Nelayan Restaurant. All serve excellent seafood at unbeatable prices and the latter also offers nightly cultural performances.

Shopping Centres - Sabah's oldest mall, and by far the most vibrant and where you find just about anything you'll ever need, be it for a holiday or if you live here, is Centre Point. The other famous mall is Wisma Merdeka, located at KK's northern end. In the centre is KK Plaza and at KK's southern end is Wisma Wawasan 2020. There are another eight shopping malls under construction (March 2006) in and around KK and soon you really would have to 'shop until you drop' to visit them all. Do you really travel all the way to Sabah to go shopping?

North Borneo Steam-Train Ride - once Sabah's railway extended right to where nowadays the KK City Jetty is located (at KK's northern end), and at the moment one still can see the rail track, embedded in the concrete jetty. This was KK's first jetty, built by the English in 1900. Now the KK Railway Terminal is at Tanjung Aru, roughly opposite the airport and daily trains travel all the way to Tenom. This alone is an adventure: the rolling material dates back to the 50's and travelling in the old, open wagons, together with the locals who bring along their chicken and other fares from the market the regular train ride makes for an unforgettable experience! But every Wednesday and Saturday an old English Vulcano Steam Engine is fired up and you travel in colonial style and renovated wagons to Papar and back. This is a romantic journey not only lovers of steam engines should not miss!

Likas Bird Sanctuary - KK is Malaysia's only town with a nature reserve within its boundaries, the Likas Bird Sanctuary. Though birds are not overly active during the day and the mangrove environment is changing due to the fact that the river has been regulated (it used to move with the tides) this is a quiet retreat and a stroll over boardwalks and along the paths is very pleasant.

How to Get to KK & Accommodation

KK with its international airport is easily accessible from most international destinations via Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, or via Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan; there are plenty of hotels and resorts in and around town to suit every budget and need. 


for more impressions go to our gallery

KK by air

State Mosque

Famous food courts

5-star resorts in and around KK

Gaya Street during Sunday Tamu

Other Features on this site: Get to Know the People:

Note: while every care has been taken in compiling the above information the Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, its authors and associates cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracy, omission or alteration that may occur. Please contact us or the respective authors for further details and confirmation of facts and figures. © The Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, 2005-2006; all rights reserved; reproduction in whole or in part without written permission strictly prohibited.


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