Kota Kinabalu

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Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah known fondly by the locals as KK, is commonly described by Sabah Tourism as Malaysia's Borneo. To many, the very mention of Borneo still conjures up images of unexplored jungles and wildlife roaming free. If this is what you came for, you won't be disappointed. But anticipate extra surprises, as KK, with its expanding cityscape and growing population, is also strikingly modern, bustling and quite happening!

Situated by the sea, against the backdrop of the majestic Mount Kinabalu and within easy reach of the mountainous inlands, present-day KK has a population of more than 200,000 made up of Malays, Chinese and some 32 local ethnic groups. The city is also a magnet for immigrants from the neighbouring countries, who flock the land in search of greener pastures. This amazing mix of cultures, reflected in the daily frenetic atmosphere in the city, will either stun or shock you, but this perhaps is where the real charm of KK lies.

City Centre

The city centre, covering approximately 350 sq km, is small enough to explore on foot in less than one day.

Signal Hill and the Old KK town, now a major financial district, lie on at one end of the city. Here, especially along Gaya Street that comes alive every Sunday, concrete buildings line the thoroughfares together with Chinese shops selling herbs and medicines. Items for sale hang down from the stores? ceilings or are arranged in wooden wall racks. Business, it seems, is still pretty much done the old-fashioned way. Aside from these shops that are typically made out of planks, you will also find the old post office building and the Atkinson Clock Tower, the only two salvaged structures that bear testimony to the capital's colonial past.

The commercial areas of Segama, Sinsuran and Bandaran, occupy the other end of the city. The buildings here, comprising mainly four- and five-storey shophouses and offices, are visibly more contemporary. Retail shops, entertainment outlets, day markets and department stores adorn the area, as do a handful of budget lodgings and major hotels like the inexpensive DeLeeton, sea-facing Promenade Hotel and the upscale Hyatt Regency Kinabalu. Further up are the newly established business hubs of Asia City, Karamunsing and Sadong Jaya, where many of the capital's bigger corporate and office buildings, hotels and other newer infrastructures are located.

Across the sea, less than 20 minutes away by boat from the city's main jetty behind the Filipino Market, is the beautiful island cluster of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. Blessed with beautiful beaches and magnificent underwater corals, this marine park is a popular picnic spot and playground for a wide range of water sports. If, however, a boat ride would make you sick, then head for the Tanjung Aru beach resort, a convenient retreat just a short drive away that's popular with the natives and tourists. Its mile-long beach, lined with casuarinas, is a hit not just with day-trippers and picnickers, but also water sport enthusiasts and avid golfers who patronize the nearby Yacht Club and Kinabalu Golf Club. Discerning diners, on the other hand, throng the place in the evenings to relish the delight of al-fresco dining under the stars.

Kota Kinabalu's outlying suburban areas are as varied and scattered as the population, and offer plenty more things to see and do. These can easily be reached by bus, car or, for more convenience, via organised tours.

Likas & Inanam

Apart from being dense residential districts, Likas and Inanam also serve as major industrial areas for the KK precinct. Amidst shops, offices and factories, several tourists attractions make these districts a must-visit for the traveller, such as the Kota Kinabalu Bird Sanctuary, the Sabah Foundation Building, Likas Floating Mosque and the scenic Likas Bay, where the annual Dragon Boat Race takes place.


Largely a residential suburb, Penampang is less than 10 minutes away from the city, and is predominantly populated by the Kadazans, the largest of the 32 ethnic groups. Closer to the city, the houses are the typical terrace and semi-detached concretes seen in many modern suburbs. Drive further towards the Monsopiad Cultural Village, however, and you will come across various villages, where folks still live in wooden houses built on stilts.

Look out for the Hongkod Koisaan along the Penampang Road. This is where the Kadazandusun Cultural Association holds its yearly Kaamatan celebration in May. It's a day of merry-making and features enthralling displays of cultural performances.


Closer to Likas is Tuaran, a growing district that now boasts two comprehensive luxury resorts?Shangri-La Rasa Ria and Nexus Karambunai, each with a private beach and golf course. The Club Sabah, a recreational retreat, is also found here, providing visitors a wide array of water and indoor sports facilities. Meanwhile, the nearby Mengkabong Water Village offers a pleasant glimpse of the local fishermen's lifestyle.

History of Kota Kinabalu

It only takes a visitor one look at present-day Kota Kinabalu, or KK for short, to surmise that this is a fairly new city. The only colonial remnants of an almost century-long British control are the old post office building and the Atkinson Clock Tower in the older part of the capital. With many of its office buildings and commercial edifices sporting today's fa├žades'some still with that fresh-paint look?and with constructions going on at almost every major intersection, one could even be forgiven to think KK was built just yesterday.

Indeed, KK received its city status only recently on 2 February 2000, but its history dates more than a century back to the days when the British North Borneo Chartered Company discovered it by accident, after a fire burnt down its former administration centre on Gaya Island. KK was then a small fishing village, sited on a narrow strip of land with hills on one side and sea on the other. It was named Api-Api, loosely translated as 'Fire-Fire?, to denote the blaze that destroyed the former administration centre. It was later renamed Jesselton, after Sir Charles Jessel, then Deputy Manager of the British North Borneo Company.

Under the Chartered Company's control, Jesselton became a trading hub for local produce such as rubber, rattan, wild honey and wax. A railway line was built to transport goods from the deep interiors to the harbour. (The railway has undergone refurbishment and now runs heritage trips inland). While the Chartered Company did bring about tremendous change to the land and its people by quelling piracy, planting tobacco, developing rubber estates and importing Indonesian and Chinese labourers to work. There were some local tribes who were displeased with them and staged a few upheavals.

It was, however, during the Japanese Occupation of the Second World War that Jesselton encountered its worse attack. Only three buildings were left standing from the Allied bombings, which forced the Japanese to surrender. Unable to finance the enormous cost of reconstruction, the Chartered Company bowed out and North Borneo was handed over to the British Crown and made a colony.

Jesselton became the capital in 1946. Then in 1963, when North Borneo joined the Federation of Malaysia and became known as Sabah, the colonial name Jesselton gave way to Kota Kinabalu. Jesselton now is but a name of an established hotel.

Since then, KK has grown into a reputable financial, economic and tourism centre in the region. It has certainly moved on with the times, with numerous deluxe hotels, roads stretching to the west and east coast towns, and modern structures like the imposing Sabah Foundation Building standing as symbols of advancement.

Yet, despite all the progress and power changing hands from the British to the Japanese, to the British, and back to the people of the land, the rich cultural diversity and stronghold to traditions and customs remain intact.

Nowhere is this diversity more visible than in cosmopolitan KK, where the natives, comprising the Malays, Chinese and some 32 ethnic groups, have assimilated well with the immigrants who flock the state in pursuit of better opportunities. This multi-cultural trait is well represented in the wide variety of cuisines available in and around town. To catch a glimpse of the traditional dance and costume of each ethnic group, come in May for the Sabah Fest and Kaamatan. For a quick run through the city's history, visit the State Museum, or simply explore KK on foot, make day trips inland and see for yourself the land's alluring culture and natural treasures, much of which remains unscathed by rapid development.


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