When Zach and I first learned his next duty station was Korea, I was immediately excited about all the travel opportunities we were going to have while living here. My list of places to visit is endless, and I know we won’t make it to all of them with already 6 months of our 2 years here gone. Since our easy bake oven would never fit a turkey, and Zach’s boss already claimed Christmas to go on vacation, we decided that Thanksgiving would be a good opportunity to take our first big trip. Initially, we had our sights set on the Philippines, but Uncle Sam doesn’t allow soldiers to travel to the area that we were interested in going. So I started asking around for ideas, and a friend of mine suggested Kota Kinabalu. I’ll be honest, I had never heard of KK until my friend mentioned it, and if I’m being real honest, Malaysia wasn’t high on the list of places to travel to while we were here. But after doing some research, Zach and I were both sold on going for our Thanksgiving holiday: it is a direct flight from Korea, there was a brand new Marriott right on the water, there were tons of things to do and see, and it was well below our budget for the trip. SOLD!
I highly recommend a trip to KK. Its a very popular vacation destination for the Chinese, Filipinos, and Koreans, and after going I can understand why. The air is clear, the water is beautiful, and the landscape is breathtaking. I’m not sure if this is true or not, and I really hope its not, but I’ve been told that KK is not a popular destination for westerners because 80% of the population practices Islam. And I will tell you, the entire time there I felt completely underdressed compared to the majority of the women there, and tourist women definitely stuck out like a sore thumb. There were several mosques throughout the city that were absolutely gorgeous and prayers were broadcasts on a loudspeaker throughout the city throughout the day. It was lovely to see their dedication to their religion and it was really neat to learn and experience something new. It was also interesting that pretty much everyone there speaks English, because the island at one point was a British colony. The main language is Malayan, but most everyone speaks a little English and so it was super easy to get around and explore.
The US dollar goes a lonnnngggg way in KK. When I booked our Marriott, I was surprised with how inexpensive it was, and then upon arriving, I was blown away with how inexpensive it was. Zach and I were treated like royalty, and enjoyed an open bar every night, view overlooking the China Sea, and some of the best service we have ever gotten at a hotel. We took a taxi to the wharf to go snorkeling and it costs less then a dollar for a 10 minute cab ride. Needless to say, we felt like we were making it rain while we were there! haha. We converted $200 to the local currency and didn’t come close to spending it all in 5 days. So much bang for your buck.
Within walking distance on either side of our hotel were several open markets and shopping malls. KK has a huge farmers market every Sunday, so unfortunately we didn’t get to witness that, but the street markets that were open every day were quite impressive. You could buy anything from local fruits and vegetables, handmade jewelry and crafts, and there were also men that sat every few feet with sewing machines, where the locals come to get things made or altered. It was incredible to see the detail they put in their work and how talented they were. Had I known this was a thing, I probably would have had a dress made while we were there. The other funny thing we noticed roaming through the streets of KK is that KFC is VERY popular there. There is literally a KFC on every corner, or so it seems, and when we were driving out of the city, there were signs that would tell you how far you were from the nearest KFC. Seriously. They love that chicken apparently.
We didn’t go to a KFC (but I will admit we ate at a Hard Rock Café so I could have nachos!), we did eat at one of the night markets. Zach got to pick out his snapper from the counter and they cooked it right there for him. It was pretty incredible. I will say, Malaysian food is not my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, its not awful by any means, its very standard Asian cuisine, heavy in noodle and rice dishes, but I just didn’t think the food had as much flavor. Every where you go, each table had a set of 4 different sauces, and I definitely was thankful for those sauces, otherwise the meals would have been pretty bland. Our meal at the market, which consisted of the fresh fish, local chicken, and 2 beverages costs us a total of $11. That’s it. So though I’m not dying to go back for the food, I will happily pay 11 bucks for the both of us to eat dinner any day.
We booked two tours to do while we were there, and if you haven’t heard of Viator.com, I highly recommend checking them out. I was able to book both tours before hand with local companies, and for a reasonable price, they picked us up at the hotel, took us on our excursion, and then brought us back to the hotel. Viator works all around the world, and it is a great way to see what activities are available where you live or are traveling too. Our first tour took us to Mt. Kinabalu, which is a good 2 hour drive from KK. We were the only ones booked for the tour that day, so it was a private tour with one of the locals who was born and raised not too far from KK. Initially, we had hopes of hiking Mt. Kinabalu, but they only allow 120 people to hike per day and you have to book it months in advanced. So instead, we opted to explore the rainforest at its base and hoped to see the world’s largest flower while we were there. Our tour guide was phenomenal, and we had the opportunity to check out the mountain from various view points, wonder through the rainforest that boosts over 1000 varieties of Orchids, and he found us 2 blooming Rafflesias. Since it was just us on the tour, he was able to share some insight into the culture of the area and learn about him. The further inland we drove, the more Christian churches we began to notice. He explained that he is a member of one of the island’s original 30 tribes, and those tribes were subjected to missionaries who converted them to Christianity in the 1970’s. His dad’s tribe was the headhunter tribe, and they were the war makers of the island who protected the territory and were known to use machetes to decapitate anyone who encroached on the land. You could tell this tribe apart from the others on the island because all the men were covered in tattoos and had earrings in both ears. Though this tribe no longer head hunts, members still get tattoos and pierce their ears to pay respect to their tribe; our tour guide proudly showed off his tattoos and explained he still has his grandfather’s machete (don’t worry, he is a devout Christian now!) Our tour guide also explained to us that he was fluent in 5 different languages: English, which he spoke perfectly, as well as Malayan, and then 3 different tribe languages, since his wife is a descendent of a different tribe, and not the headhunter one he is from.
Our second excursion was snorkeling. There is a series of 5 islands that are a protected refuge that you can take a 20 minute boat ride too. We saw soooo many varieties of coral, we found nemo and dory, and at the end a huge school of needlefish that seemed to have an electric glow to them. It was amazing. And though it was beautiful, it was depressing at the same time because there was so much trash in the water. Not as bad as what we saw in Bali, but enough that made me a touch sad. So as I was swimming, I would pick up the various plastic bags and bottles, and the fish would come right up to me because they thought it was food. So though I got an up close look at lots of fishies, it was mostly because they thought the trash I was collecting was food. My PSA: Don’t be a litter bug.
The last full day we had in KK, we made no plans and just relaxed, enjoyed the pool, watched the sunset, and went to a light festival that was right on the water. Though 80% of KK is Muslim, the city still caters to Christianity and there were tons of Christmas displays throughout. I had read that Malaysia is a bit of a mixing bowl of different cultures and religions and they somehow all get along and celebrate each other’s holidays together, so it was really awesome to see this first hand. Never once did I feel like I was being judged for not covering my head, elbows and knees, and it was kind of amazing to see a city 80% Islamic cater to the 5% that are Christians.
All and All, I really enjoyed visiting KK and really recommend it if you are looking for an affordable paradise that has a ton to offer. It was a much needed break from the Korean air, and the sunset every night was magnificent. So now its back to the grind but we are looking forward to our next trip, which will be in January, when we visit Cambodia and Vietnam. We will be staying here for Christmas and looking forward to a low key holiday with a few day trips up to Seoul.
Until next time peeps….