Saturday, 8 October 2011

Dining and Shopping In Kota Kinabalu

I love to come to Kota Kinabalu.
The sprawling Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu lies in Sabah State on the South China Sea coast of Borneo, the fabled island split between Malaysia and Indonesia. Home to over 30 different nationalities in its conglomeration of formerly separate towns and villages, the city is a confusing, totally fascinating blend of heritage, cultures, traditions, legends and religions. From a Kota Kinabalu City Centre hotel, visitors can wander the streets and markets, spend time on the seafront at the fishing harbour and explore the diverse districts at the edge of town, all the while absorbing the unique flavour of this totally Asian city.
Unique flavours aren't confined to the obvious cultural aspects of the city, they permeate the distinctive Sabah cuisine on offer everywhere from street food stalls to upscale downtown restaurants. A mix of Malay, Arab, Filipino, ethnic, Javanese Indian and Chinese cooking, the main ingredients here are meats and the ultra-fresh daily catches of seafood, spiced or flavoured with roots, anchovies, oil-sautéed chilli pastes, nuts and fragrant herbs. Coconuts, their milk and their flesh, are important for the richness they add to a rice dish, for the delicious desserts and for smoothies and ice cream. Shellfish, crustaceans and deep-sea fish are caught offshore, and even unfamiliar offerings such as grilled stingray wings are a taste thrill.
Kota Kinabalu is known for its plethora of inexpensive dining options, with visitors arriving from the rest of Malaysia for a culinary weekend visit. The famous Night Market's open-air food court is a favourite haunt for domestic and overseas visitors, with its plastic seating and sheeting detracting not at all from the delicacies on offer.
For a very different dining experience, a must-try are the eat-with-your-fingers booths serving sticky curries, various rice dishes and other local specialities. If you obviously can't cope by scooping the food up with a folded banana leaf, more plastic is produced in the form of spoons and forks!
For a less riotous experience coupled with good sunset views, the seafood eateries near the fish market are a good choice at reasonable prices. In this mostly Muslim country, it's still OK to drink alcohol, with the local rice wine and beers easily available. In the more upscale restaurants around SEDCO Square in the city centre, wine is a good choice, but not cheap. Cocktails and a delicious variety of smoothies and coconut milk-based soft drinks are also great accompaniments to Sabah cuisine. If you need a break, steakhouses and fast food joints abound in the malls and many hotels serve English dishes.
Many domestic tourists from KL flock to Kota Kinabalu for the shoportunities in the malls and markets, saving more than the air fare on fashions, pearls and goods for the home. Prices here are seriously low, with bargaining in the markets and small stores forcing them even lower. There are five major malls, with the largest, Centrepoint, home to famous French and Italian designer boutiques with genuine fashions at bargain prices. At a more basic level are the international high-street fashion chains' factory outlets in the same mall, and for even cheaper options the city's many markets are a dream to wander.
For visitors looking for décor items or ethnic souvenirs of their holiday, the Sunday Gaya Street fair is the place to start, wit its stalls displaying batiks, sarongs, colourful textiles and craft artefacts from all over Southeast Asia. Bamboo and rattan is woven into everything from mats to handbags and baskets. For those interested in antiques and with a little knowledge in the field, there are galleries in the Merdeka mall and several shops of the waterfront offer genuine Sabah handicrafts and works of art by local artists. Karamunsing Plaza's third floor handicraft centre is also of interest.
By Lek Boonlert
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