KOTA KINABALU, MALAYSIA — The only thing hotter than the suffocating air hanging over this city’s bustling night market are the flames I see spewing from the mouth of a man standing just a few metres from me.
I know Malaysian cuisine is reputed to be hot and spicy, but who knew it could produce this kind of heat?
Okay, it’s all part of the act — the flame-spitting man is soon joined on stage by dancers wearing traditional dress and they wow the crowd, made up mostly of hungry young tourists, with some delightful cultural dances, songs and fire-breathing acts. It’s a feast for the eyes.
Located off Jalan Kampung Rd., near the old Filipino craft market, the night market is this city’s main gathering spot for tourists and locals alike. Both come looking for something to eat after a day of exploring this capital of Sabah, the picturesque Malaysian state that borders the South China Sea and is the gateway to Borneo.
Above: Kota Kinabalu's coastline is one of the most beautiful in all of Asia.
Spicy scents hang over the market, which stays open until the wee hours of the morning and is dimly lit by a series of single light bulbs. Sweet-smelling smoke wafts from the many food stalls assembled here and people queue up to order a mix of dishes from all over Southeast Asia — Indonesian, Filipino, Chinese and, of course, Malay foods are most in demand.
The market is the perfect place to end a day of absorbing the fascinating wonders this area of Malaysia offers. It’s home to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park and the fabled Mount Kinabalu, from whence the former British colonial city gets its name.
I’ve long had a desire to visit Kota Kinabalu, known simply as KK in Malaysia and throughout Asia, so on a recent trip to Hong Kong, my wife Rebecca and I hop aboard a discounted Air Asia flight — return fare $250US each — for the 2.5- hour flight so we can spend a few days exploring what some people call “Borneo Light.”
Above: Kota Kinabalu's is often called Borneo Light because of the exotic creatures that call KK home.
KK is not only one of Malaysia’s major industrial and commercial centres, but it’s the fastest growing city in the country. It’s small but modern airport is staffed by friendly immigration officers who make us feel welcome the moment we walk off the plane.
After purchasing a coupon from the airport taxi counter, we start out in the direction of Shangri-La Rasa Sayang, the beachside resort we’ve booked during our stay. The road is lined with thick vegetation and the majestic Mount Kinabalu is always in our site. As we get closer to the resort, the small rainforest that surrounds it comes into view.
After a wonderful treatment at the resort’s world-class spa — it features 11 exceptional massage villas — and a good night’s sleep, we’re ready to go on a boat tour in search of proboscis monkeys, the cartoonish-looking long-nosed creatures that are native to this area. Malaysians also call them the Dutch monkey because their long noses remind locals of the early Dutch settlers.
We quickly discover the reddish-brown monkeys are an elusive bunch — we don’t see any during our hour-long boat ride and the captain says that’s the norm. So why offer the excursion, we wonder?
When we’re offered another boat tour later that evening to see the multitude of fireflies that hang out around KK, we’re somewhat skeptical at first because of the monkey saga but roll the dice and are rewarded with an amazing spectacle.
Above: Tourists are treated to a fiery show at the local market and on the beach each night as the sun sets.
Next morning we head off into the rainforest and come face-to-face with an assortment of snakes and insects and climb to a high point where we get uninterrupted views of the resort’s crescent-shaped beach and far-off Mount Kinabalu. The sacred mountain is a popular hiking spot but it’s strictly controlled and adventurers need to book well in advance of their arrival.
On a city tour of KK later in the day, we see how modern this city of 500,000 is. New office towers, condos and shopping malls dominate the skyline, showcasing KK’s success over the last few decades.
We stop to admire the handsome City Mosque on Central Rd. and then head over to the Sabah Museum, the state facility that occupies 17 hectares (42 acres) of land at Bukit Istana Lama. The vast grounds contain an ethnobotanic garden, a zoo and a heritage village. Inside, we find galleries covering Islamic civilization, archaeology, history, ceramics and brassware. Fascinating.
We arrive back at the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort at sunset and watch the fiery orb dip into the South China Sea, reminding us of the fire-eating act we saw at the night market. Kota Kinabalu really does get visitors fired up. •