Kota Kinabalu | Malaysian Borneo

Having just experienced the perfect spring weather of South Korea, our entry into Borneo felt HOT (even for us Texans)! Being a predominantly Muslim country, Tara felt too exposed in her shorts – which didn’t help. Thankfully the 5 hour Jeju Airlines flight to Kota Kinabalu from Seoul was seamless – and our 25th floor Airbnb views were absolutely incredible. Watching sunset over the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park from our condo or the Jesselton Quay CityPads infinity pool never got old.

While central Kota Kinabalu lacks the traditional “heavy hitter” tourist sites, it’s very conveniently located for a slew of unique and fun day trips. We popped into the Sabah Tourism Authority for advice on making the most of our time here, and an employee named EJ went over the top in guiding us along. She even gave Andy a stuffed proboscis monkey stuffie (see below for related chuckles)! First up was joining a festive tour group to Mt Kinabalu National Park and Poring Hot Springs. The national park portion was sadly a tad rushed (with just a quick hike through the cloud forest), but the Hot Springs (which were deceptively cold!) area was full of fun. Andy began his obsession with “Sky Bridges” here, and we all had a blast at the spring-fed water park. We were also extremely fortunate to have a chance to see the world’s largest flower just outside of the springs – Rafflesia arnoldii

For a complete change of pace, the next day we headed out to the Klias River for a wildlife-spotting boat trip. The primary target for the cruise was the proboscis monkey, which is famous for its phallic-shaped nose. Daddy made the mistake of telling Andy that the monkeys has “penis-shaped noses”- a fact he proceeded to share with everyone else on the tour! The highlight of the trip for all, however, were the synchronized fireflies. As the boat glided through the darkness, several trees came into view that were pulsating with thousands of these tiny bugs. If I had to describe what it looked like, a giant Christmas tree with an electrical short in it seemed like the best analogy. Tara said it reminded her of Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh (if you are an old ass like us and remember that movie). Photography of the main firefly trees is forbidden, but trust us, it’s worth the trip.

With our Airbnb teasing views of the offshore islands every morning, it was soon time to check em out – not least to get a break from the heat. Jessleton Quay next door had dozens of boats heading out to all of the islands every day, making it easy for us to squeeze in 3 of em. We spent one day entirely on Sapi, which had powder white sand and some surprisingly killer snorkeling. The boat ride alone over the cerulean waters of the South China Sea made the trip worthwhile. Sapi had plenty of secluded little coves and 4-foot long monitor lizards that were not shy!

We had another great island trip splitting the day between Manukan and Mamutik islands. Mamutik had incredible snorkeling too, with abundant giant clams and clown fish hiding among the anemones. Manukan was quite a bit more developed, which allowed for some great people watching. It was here that we got the idea to start an Instagram page making fun of all the “influencers” that were plying their craft here. Andy took to the humor quickly and relished joining dad for some tongue-in-cheek photos. For all of our boat trips, we used Mark from Sunny Rainbow (#9 in the Jessleton ticketing hall) and were not disappointed.

For a taste of the local indigenous culture, we spent a super fun day at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. It’s a canned experience to be sure but still a lot of fun for all ages. We were treated to several different “villages” highlighting various tribal skills, such as honey and rice wine making, tattoo artistry, blowgun proficiency, headhunter chants, and super sketchy wood-framed trampolines. Andy quickly bonded with a 9-year-old girl from KL and tears were shed by both upon departure 🙁 

Traveling to Malaysia with a kid

Traveling to Malaysia with a kid

Traveling to Malaysia with a kid

While most of our “touristing” in KK was not actually within the city, the culinary options near us were world class and impossibly cheap- nowhere moreso than KK’s famous night market. Having previously spent time on Borneo, I was quite keen on day one to seek out another round of the locally famous laksa (a coconut-based noodle soup). Kedai Kopi Ye Fung‘s reputation as the best in town was well deserved! The satay at nearby Yuit Cheong was also a huge hit. But perhaps the most memorable meal we had was at Jesselton Point Seafood Restaurant, right by our Airbnb. We both love soft shelled crab so couldn’t resist trying their house specialty, but did not expect the huge and delicious pile of fried butter crabs they brought us!

Honestly though, it’s hard to have a bad meal here in KK. Even the waterfront area (with beer towers galore!) and malls (which double as a heat escape and have kid entertainment options) didn’t lack on variety and quality. While we never eat at McDonald’s in the USA, we always make a point of trying whatever oddities the local franchises serve up abroad. KK’s McDonald’s menu easily wins the contest for tastiest regional specialty – the nasi lemak & fried chicken covered in a coconut butter sauce was insanely good. 

And being on the road for a year like we are at the moment means that normal mundane parts of life must be incorporated as well. Getting Andy’s thick hair trimmed to match the tropical heat was first on the docket. For about $2 US, we found a barber that did as good a job as any we’d paid for at home (for 10 times the cost)!

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