Backpacking in KK

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Ching Pangilinan

IN THE day and age where everyone and every Juan can fly, one of the most economical backpacking destinations for Filipinos is Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. The island of Borneo is among the largest islands in the world, second to Greenland. Three countries share the island namely Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. Sabah has a close and long standing relation with the Philippines in terms of history and culture, to the extent that the Sultanate of Sulu is asserting its claims over this territory. (But this is another story.)

The capital of Sabah is Kota Kinabalu. With the dawn of Air Asia flights to Malaysia a few years back, initially at Clark and later on in Manila, access to this bustling city in Malaysia became much easier and more affordable. Kota Kinabalu’s rise as a tourism destination has been tremendous, especially with the massive efforts at promotion of the Sabah Tourism Board, one of the most active participants in travel and tourism fairs in our country. Statistics shows that in the late 90s, Sabah was enjoying less than 500 thousand visitor arrivals per year, this figure has risen to more than 4 million tourists in 2008, comparable to the visitor arrivals that our entire country enjoys.


Backpackers will surely enjoy Sabah with Kota Kinabalu as its focal point, with the wide diversity of tourism resources it offers. The main area for backpackers to stay is at the historic Australian Place right at the City Center, with its array of bed and breakfast places and backpackers’s lodges and access to the bus terminals. One of the best eats I’ve had in Kota Kinabalu is at the Borneo 1945 Museum Coffeeshop which serves simple and no-nonsense western dishes and local favorites. Their American breakfast at six ringgits is quite a steal, together with a steaming cup of teh tarik or milk tea. The ambiance of this backpackers’ haunt is cozy and interesting, filled with curios and historical exhibits that highlight the story of Borneo.

It is best to find one’s self in Kota Kinabalu on a weekend as one of the not-to-be-missed cultural and trade attractions of the city is the Sunday market at Gaya Street. Among the street markets I’ve seen around Asia, this is one of the most charming and most diverse. I find the array of fresh produce amazing, with herbs and fruits we do not usually enjoy in our country. Personally, one of the best finds that I enjoy at the street market are philatelic and numismatic collections for sale for reasonable prices and artworks by local painters. Since Kota Kinabalu is also a multi-ethnic conglomeration, the cultural fabric of its street market becomes even more interesting and colorful.

For those who love the outdoors, Sabah has an assortment of adventures to offer with the Mt. Kinabalu Park, the first World Heritage Site in Malaysia, which is home to numerous endemic flora and fauna, as well as the Tunku Abdul Raman National Park which hosts marine sanctuaries and great beaches with its five islands.

One of the things I really appreciate about Malaysian tourism is that its destinations are comparatively more affordable, with entrance fees that are within the range of a backpackers’ budget. A quick visit to the Sabah Tourism Board office along Gaya Street will be very helpful especially in identifying which attractions are free to the public.

Moreover,the public transportation system is orderly and efficient. Even if at times the buses are not so nice and comfortable, the fare is quite economical and very organized, compared to the fast paced and crazy system of buses we have in Manila. It is easy to go around the whole of Sabah just through their buses.

While many brochures claim that English is widely spoken, based on my experience, it is a bit difficult to find a local in Kota Kinabalu who speaks excellent English, but with the help of a map, sign language and gestures, it shouldn’t really be a hassle to enjoy what the place has to offer.

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on July 19, 2014.


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