Borneo: A Passive Aggressive Text Message

… At least that’s what I thought of when I discovered Sabah’s main city was locally referred to as ‘KK’. This abbreviation (from Kota Kinabalu, which takes at least half a second longer to say) gives an impression of a young, hip, trendy city. In many ways that’s what KK is morphing into, which is odd because that’s not the picture the rest of Borneo paints.

KK is undeniably the hub for everything Sabah. With ridiculously cheap flights to other places in the region and beyond as well as buses going left, right and centre, KK is the gateway for beaches, jungle treks, sealife, other countries and damn good food. But even if you want none of that. Even if you came to Borneo for KFC and a city break, KK delivers the goods. But like so many of the best cities, KK’s crowning glory isn’t what it contains within but its proximity to so much natural beauty, adventure and excitement. And you get the extra perk of returning to Sabah’s food capital at the end of all that exhilaration.

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I certainly do.

We touched down in KK’s airport around midday and took the infrequent airport bus into the city for 5 RM (around £1). If your flight does not coincide with the bus’ departure, taxis are frequent and relatively inexpensive (around 30 RM) since the airport isn’t too far away. The bus has the added bonus of driving you past and through all the lavish hotels you couldn’t possibly afford before dropping you in the city.

Our envy didn’t last long though as we secured a great hostel. ‘The Bunk‘ on Jalan Gaya was cheap, quirky and friendly as well as being well situated on KK’s main tourist street. Throw in a free breakfast and bizarre bunk beds that made us feel as if we were on a boat and you’ve got a real winner of a hostel. We gravitated back to KK on three separate occasions during our trip and checked into this hostel every time. The staff in particular were great.

A wander round KK’s simple streets makes it abundantly clear this is a foodie city. You can’t move without seeing a shabby cafe, a nasi campur (super cheap buffet style) restaurant or a photogenic market. Along the waterfront is where some of the true gems lie, especially if seafood is your bag. Another must-try along the front are the refreshing fruit juices on offer. For just 1 RM, you can get a cup of juice which keeps the stifling sun at bay. I had the lime drink and it was divine but I also heard great things about the mango.

Alcohol is expensive in Sabah since a government crackdown last year, but the small cafe places will sell you cans of beer for 5 RM which we were then able to drink at the hostel. Otherwise the waterfront has a nice set of bars, even if the water does pong a bit. We frequented the Irish bar (how British of us) a few times and it was nice, especially when the live music was playing. Plus it was all day happy hour on a Tuesday!

But of course we didn’t travel from Hong Kong just to see another city and, charming though KK was, we were eager to explore the beautiful islands it has sitting on its doorstep. The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park comprises of 5 islands, all but one of which are easily accessible from KK’s bustling Jesselton Point ferry pier. Getting tickets is easy enough, if a little overwhelming. The ticket office at the ferry pier comprises of a row of identical ferry companies offering to ship you over for exactly the same price at exactly the same time.  It’s always good to see such an exciting, competitive market. The standard price for the 4 popular islands – Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Gaya – was 17 RM per island visited plus 10 RM tax paid at the first island you arrive on. Most people try to do two islands in a day which is quite sensible.

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Manukan Island

We were hoping to get to the much less popular island, the horribly named Sulug, since we were keen to escape the hordes of Chinese tourists. Unfortunately, this island is less popular because it’s apparently only possible to get there by chartering a boat for a ridiculous sum. I’m not quite sure why they’ve taken the time to invest in all the other islands but not the one which is arguably going to be in the best shape.

The islands each have their own pros and cons. I managed to visit all 4 of them over 2 separate trips and I’d say Mamutik was probably my favourite. Busy, but not too crowded. Manukan is nice too, more of a ‘traditional’ beach. I didn’t like Sapi very much as a beach destination  but it’s great for trying out different sports.

It was on Sapi that I righted a wrong from the Philippines two and a half years ago. On Bohol I backed out of doing a zipwire at the last minute and I’ve regretted it ever since. Between Sapi and Gaya however there is a zipwire which is the world’s longest zipwire going over the sea between two islands of a certain size in Borneo… or some other convoluted world record. It was terrifying and exhilarating and, despite being over in about 30 seconds, was well worth it. In true Jack style, I completely botched up filming it and have got a very lovely 30 second video of the sun during my ride. I’ve got memories though and they will never fade… hopefully.

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Mamutik Island, my personal favourite.

After dicing with death on the zipwire, we chilled on the various beaches for a long while. The last boats usually head back to KK around 5pm which gave us plenty of time to soak up some rays (aka get horribly burnt) and go for a dip. The water was pretty clear. Even without snorkelling you can catch a glimpse of some interesting fish although, to be honest, unless they’ve featured in Finding Nemo I’ve got no idea what any of them are. There was other nature too. One particularly great moment came on Mamutik when a huge lizard was prowling on the beach and about a dozen Chinese tourists frantically followed to get a good picture.

KK’s got everything you want for a break, especially on a short holiday like ours. If you’re venturing into Borneo’s virgin beaches or rainforest or hiking Mount Kinabalu, it’s unlikely KK will be the highlight of your trip but it ends up being like a comfy pair of slippers. After the adrenaline rush the rest of Borneo has to offer, it’s nice to return to a city that is familiar, that has good food, nice sunsets, a cold beer waiting for you and an array of lovely islands a hop away. KK does its job marvellously and with flights from Hong Kong so cheap pretty much all year round, I’m certain I’ll head back soon.

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