KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia (Reuters) - A traveller’s first stop in Borneo, the world’s third largest island, should be Kota Kinabalu.
It’s the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state, with nearby islands and forests, scrumptious seafood, tribal cultures and a history of Japanese rule during World War II.
Yet this coastal city often gets ignored as most travellers make a beeline to Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain at 4,095 metres (13,435 ft). So stop by KK, as the locals call it, for a relaxed 48 hours after the trek from Borneo’s rooftop.
530 p.m. - Start your weekend with a pretty spectacular sunset in KK, a seaside city also seen as the gateway to Sabah’s steamy jungles and tropical islands. If you just won the lottery, head to Sutera Harbour Resort and charter a luxury yacht for a sunset cruise with fine dining and champagne.
Or keep it simple and head over to Tanjung Aru beach with the locals and toast the sunset with an avocado shake. If you are feeling adventurous, try hinava — a dish of raw fish mixed with bird’s eye chilli, lime, grated ginger and salted bitter gourd — at nearby Grace Point food court. This is a favourite of the Kadazandusun people, whose tribes used to dominate Sabah.
7 p.m. - Time for a southern Filipino seafood barbecue at the KK night market on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens. Much of the seafood is caught and grilled by Filipino fishermen who either legally or illegally moved to Sabah for a better life.
Just head to one of long tables piled with seafood and point to what you want. As you wait for the stingray or prawns to be grilled, mix your own dipping sauce from lime, chilli paste, salt and sugar. Best served with hot rice.
10 p.m. - Go a little crazy with Sabah’s lively pubs and clubs where bopping your head to a local or Filipino live band is the way to go. Check out Bed at the waterfront esplanade and rock on.
9 a.m. - Book a guided, two-hour heritage walk through Kota Kinabalu, shaped by years of British rule, a brutal Japanese military occupation followed by Allied forces restlessly bombing the city during World War II.
Here British colonial buildings stand by side by side military monuments, Chinese coffee shops or kopitiam and wet markets in this seaside city also seen as the gateway to Sabah’s steamy jungles and tropical islands.
1230 p.m. - Now for the first of many seafood feasts. Head to Kedai Kopi Fatt Kee on Jalan Bakau or Bakau road for crispy salt and pepper prawns and stir fried jungle ferns, popularly known as “Sabah veggie,” with hot shrimp paste or garlic.
230 p.m. - Peer into a wooden house of ancient skulls collected by Monsopiad, a famous head hunter with magical powers from one of the Kadazandusun tribes. His descendents set up Monsopiad cultural village where visitors can get a snapshot of Kadazandusun life with rice wine making, tribal dances and cooking classes
You can also make your way through a tangle of jungle and rice fields to Monsopiad’s final resting place. The famous warrior was put to death by his tribe after he developed too much of a blood lust for cutting off heads.
4 p.m. - Indulge in a Chinese teatime snack of roti kahwin or marriage bread at the bustling Fook Yuen Bakery in Jalan Damai. With one centimetre thick slabs of butter on one slice of thick bread and generous lashings of kaya, or coconut jam, on the other, it’s a match made in heaven.
7 p.m. — Time to upscale the Chinese seafood dining option with dinner at Port View Seafood Village and its huge aquariums teeming with fish and prawns on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens. Ask for prawns in rich, slightly spicy butter sauce and deep fried soft shell crabs.
9 p.m. — So you heard the locals sing last night. Now it’s your turn for some karaoke, made easier with some jugs of beer. So just grab the microphone and belt out some Lady Gaga at the Cocoon, opposite the Hyatt Hotel.
7 a.m. Try and wake up early for KK’s Sunday market on Gaya street. Traders from all over KK and the surrounding areas hawk interesting wares from traditional spinning tops and tribal gongs to local cigars and Kadazandusun handicrafts.
After some hard bargaining, sate the hunger pangs with a quick breakfast of mee Tuaran goreng, or fried Tuaran noodles at Seng Hing Restaurant on Ruang Sinsuran 2. Topped with slivers of roast pork and fried egg rolls, this is the breakfast of champions.
10 a.m. - Take a 15 minute boat ride to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park with five small islands, coral reefs and crystal clear sea that cover an area twice the size of Manhattan. Rent snorkelling gear or just bask in the sun, and don’t forget to pack a picnic.
3 p.m. - You have two choices when you come ashore. Head to the Sabah Wetlands Centre and explore 24 acres of eco-rich mangrove swamps found in KK, which protect against tsunamis and cyclones. Apart from the odd-looking mudskippers and helmet crabs, this patch of mangrove has seen more than 80 species of birds including some migratory species coming as far as Siberia and nothern China.
Or, you can see some orang utan primates, also known as the men of the forest, at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. One of the largest parks in Malaysia managed by the wildlife department, Lok Kawi is also a rescue center for Borneo animals, from rhinos to pygmy elephants and the Malayan tiger.
6 p.m. - Watch the sun set over the islands at Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park from Signal Hill, which is just a ten minute drive from the center of KK. The best picture to take: the one of the stilt villages on Gaya island bathed in a warm, summery glow.
Reporting by Niluksi Koswanage, editing by Elaine Lies