Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia


Diving is a passion which I discovered only about a year ago, so to celebrate my recent emancipation from the bowels of corporate slavery, we hopped a plane on a new Air Asia flight direct from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu for a week-long diving trip.

Kota Kinabalu, or ‘KK’ as the locals call it, is a small city in the very state of Sabah, Malaysia. All of the guidebooks say that KK is ‘not a very interesting place’, as most people use it as a stopover on their way to either a climb to the very imposing Mt. Kinabalu or to the scuba diving mecca of Sipadan. But as we quickly found out on this trip, you can’t always believe everything you read in the travel books….

We were staying a few days in KK to dive at the Tunku Abdhul Rahman Marine Park, a quick 10 minute boat ride from the KK marina. We dove with Down Below, an excellent dive operator which has a small dive shop on Gaya island. I can’t say enough good things about Down Below; they run a tight ship and every dive was well organised and very professional.

The dock at Pulau Gaya

I can’t say the same about the other divers necessarily — during one of the dives, these two girls from Hong Kong seemed to have some kind of panic attack and all hell broke loose. One of them inflated her BCD and shot up to the surface, and the other, seeing her friend quickly disappearing above her head, decided that she should also ascend, and took off her weight belt and drop it directly onto the coral. Luckily there was a divemaster in training with us that day, a young lady named Yvonne, who managed to get the second diver under control and the weight belt back around her waist. Imagine there are lots of useless divers out there who spend thousands on cool equipment but can’t even swim. It seems to me that as a rule of thumb, the more fancy gear a diver has, the worse of a diver they are…

Anyways, after doing three dives a day, we of course were starving and set out to sample all the delicious Malaysian food in KK. Much like Trinidad, Malaysia is a multiracial society where a variety of cuisines peacefully co-exist. And since KK is a small town, it was easy to just walk around and sample different things. The only frustrating thing is, being a predominantly Muslim country, you can’t always find booze at the restaurants! The spicy squid would have been nice washed down with a cold beer…..

But we didn’t have too much time in KK, because on the third day we left the city and took an hour-long bus north of the city, and boarded a small boat bound for the remote desert island of Mantanani. Some people we had met while diving told us that Mantanani was not really a good place to visit as the reefs were quite dead due to dynamite and cyanide fishing, and that the accommodation was not good. But, like I said, you can’t always believe what you hear or read.

The ‘jetty’ at Mantanani

As you can see from the picture, it’s freaking gorgeous. Fine white sand, brilliant turqouise water that goes on for miles, and pretty much nothing else. With a population of 1000, all of whom live in a small fishing village, Mantanani is an extremely remote and undeveloped place with only one lodging on the island — the Mari Mari Backpacker’s Lodge.

I loved it! I mean, really, how cute are those cabins? Each cabin could sleep up to four people, the bathrooms were communal, and electricity only ran from 6 pm to 6 am, so it was certainly very rustic. There were quite a lot of European travellers who had been backpacking around Malaysia and other areas in Asia. At night, since there’s no TV or internet, everyone played cards or board games or just read books. Very, very chilled out.

In the evening we walked around on the island and went to check out the nearby fishing village. As we walked the local kids who were playing football or swimming in the sea sang out ‘Hellloooooooo!! What’s your name!! You have picture?’ Everyone was so incredibly friendly and welcoming to us. A bunch of ladies sitting in the shade of a tree insisted I sit down and chat with them a while. And once we pulled out the camera, everyone came around wanting to pose and be in it.

The ladies (I look like such a frickin giant next to them)
The dudes at the local liming spot

It was a great experience to visit a place that is still completely removed from the outside world. In Asia it is really hard to find a place that has not succumbed to mass tourism such that all the locals end up peddling sunglasses on the beach, or sending their kids to beg for a dollar, or worse. I can only hope that Mantanani can maintain the kind of innocence it currently has.

Super cute kids

We did two dives on Mantanani, and was amazed to see how rich and bright and colorful the reefs are. But it is true — there is dynamite fishing in the area. As we descended for the first dive we heard a big BOOM in the distance. Very scary. But fish were abundant, lots of great critters to see, and visibility was easily more than 20 metres.

It turns out that Mantanani’s diving is still in its infancy. With only one operator on the island, they don’t even have a complete dive map yet of all the sites. They are still discovering new areas to dive, setting routes for the divemasters, and even naming the areas. It was kind of cool to think that one day Mantanani may be as famous as Sipadan, and that we would have been there long before anyone even heard of Mantanani. Too bad I don’t have any pictures. I’ve got to get me an underwater camera, pronto.

No underwater camera necessary!

After two days on Mantanani, we were ready to head back to civilisation. See, we are both foodies, and by that I mean that food is very, very important to us when we travel. The downside of being stuck on a remote island is not having any options when it comes to food. And sadly, the Mari Mari Backpacker’s Lodge did not have the best chef in the world.

So, back to KK we went, sunburnt, happy, and hungry.

Around the backpacker’s district on Gaya Street

And here are some of the things we ate:

Yum Yum. Malaysian food is so good. And so cheap. These dishes cost about US $1 each. Amazing.

I almost forgot to mention that Malaysians LOVE football, so the whole place was going crazy with World Cup fever. From our hotel, we could hear people in the restaurants and bars nearby screaming with either joy or agony every time a goal was made. Brought back fond memories of when Trinidad played in the last World Cup…

Edwina, the super cute waitress from our favourite bar

All in all it was a great trip. KK turned out to be a very nice little town with lots of good food, friendly people, and fun bars, and Mantanani was actually one of the best dive spots we’ve ever been to. Like I said, you can’t always believe what you read in guide books. It’s good to do research beforehand, but it’s better to find out for yourself.

Our last day there, looking nice and healthy with a good tan

Trip Logistics:

  • Flight — Air Asia direct from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu (3 hours)
  • Hotels in KK — The Jesselton and the Sarangnova, both on Gaya Street
  • Diving in TARP — Highly recommend Dive Down Below
  • Mantanani trip — Booked package through Go2Borneo which organised the ground and sea transport to the island
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2 Replies to “Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia”

  1. Thanks for this article. Great read.
    What was the main language at KK and mantanani?
    And which oriental/Asian languages are you fluent in?

  2. Hi Ranelle, glad you enjoyed it.

    Malaysia is pretty amazing in that everyone usually speaks a minimum of three languages – Malay, English, and Chinese, and the Indian people also speak Tamil. In KK everyone spoke English, but on Mantanani communication was a bit more difficult.

    As for me… I am not fluent in any other languages yet, though I am trying my best to keep up my Japanese!

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