Kota Kinabalu (KK) is the capital city of the state of Sabah, Malaysia. It is generally used as the jumping off point for many treks (like Mount Kinabalu and Maliau Basin, among others) and some wonderful island hopping but the city itself is worth a couple of days of exploring. The city is also easy enough to explore on foot or bicycle, with most things within walking distance.
KK City Mosque
I met this girl from Germany that was travelling in KK for a few days and we decided to implement the buddy system. From the downtown area, we walked about 40 minutes to the KK City Mosque. Most of the walk is on a sidewalk that follows the shore of the South China Sea and goes through a small park (the shade is a welcome relief from the sun beating down on you.
After the end of the shoreline, you will need to deviate to the right and cross roundabouts and what not to get to the mosque. It’s easy to navigate as you can see the mosque – just keep walking towards it. There are no sidewalks along parts of the path, but you’re safe from traffic when walking on the grass. Just be mindful of the unevenness of the grassy pasture…You are bound to sink down into the grass and trip as I did. More than once. Oh the shame.
As I am known for my (not so) graceful walking strides, I managed to find the random mounds of grass hills that are riddled with holes and face planted into the grass. Three times. After the third fall, I simply gave up, sat in the grass for a few moments and had a gigglefest. I also firmly kept my imagination in check so that I didn’t start to wonder what creatures had created those holes and were possibly still in them just waiting to bite me. (I prefer to think there gophers in those holes and not snakes).
The Mosque is also known as “The Floating Mosque” as it is surrounded by a manmade lagoon. The Mosque opened in 2000 and non-Muslims are allowed to visit. I toured the Mosque from the outside and admired its architecture as it is truly a stunning building.
I wore “modest clothing” (legs and arms covered) to visit the mosque, however, female visitors are also required to wear a head scarf to cover their hair and must have a male chaperone. I was not interested in paying a male chaperone to accompany me into the mosque so I skipped the interior visit. If you show up in shorts and a tank top, there is a small shop next to the mosque’s entryway where you can rent clothing and headscarves. The shop lady will also insist that you hire a male chaperone and her son and nephews are conveniently available. Not sure of the cost of the chaperone as I did not investigate this avenue further.
There is small string of shops across the street from the mosque entryway. It’s the perfect place to have a carrot and mango juice to cool off from the heat and enjoy a short rest.
Why Street Names Are Misleading
On our way back from the mosque, we were hoping to find a connecting street between the mosque area and Signal Hill Observatory. According to the map, there are no connecting streets and we were slightly annoyed that we would have to walk 40 minutes back to downtown, just to backtrack a certain distance to go to the observatory.
Suddenly, I noticed a street sign that said “Jalan Signal Hill” and thus, logic would dictate that that Signal Hill would be on Signal Hill Street. (Those of you who have come to know me, know 100% never to follow my logic when it comes to directions). We proceeded to trek up a steep hill, asking passersby if the Observatory was at the top of the street. Everyone nodded enthusiastically and we continued on our mission.
At the very top of the hill (about a 20 minute steep trek upwards), we were greeted by two soaring condominium buildings named Signal Hill Park. And nothing else. No other roads, no other signs, no other buildings. Because of course.
We spoke with the security guide who first giggled at how far away we were from the observatory, and then told us to follow a dirt path through bramble and bush to another road. We followed that road through a very affluent community and continued walking another 30 minutes or so before we came upon the Observatory.
Signal Hill Observatory
So here’s the thing. When I hear “observatory”, I am thinking of some kind of impressive astronomy tower with a fancy telescope that lets you see if Martians have acne. What I was not expecting was a small concrete platform with four benches and a small cafe on the side of the road. You’ve got a great view of the city and harbour, but that’s about it. We stayed for sunset, although this is largely compromised by tall buildings that block your view of the sunset.
We took the more common route back to the city which ended up being about a 10 minute walk down some stairs, which was much easier than our ridiculous workaround because of a street sign. Either way, the walk was enjoyable and most likely made up for our disappointment as to what the Observatory turned out to be. The free city map that you get from the Info Centre has a cartoon photo of the observatory on it that, incidentally, looks more like an astronomy tower than a platform with some benches.
Although I think KK has a few fun sights and things to do, I didn’t love the feel of the place. My experience was that men would follow you, say inappropriate things (i.e.: ask if they can touch your breasts), constantly grab at your arms and legs to touch them, etc. It was very uncomfortable and, as a solo female traveler, it didn’t make me feel safe. The girl from Germany had a similar experience as well – hence our buddy system. We did not see this happening to local women. We saw this happening mostly to “white” tourists (North American, European and Australian) and others we talked to told us they had similar experiences.
This should not be a deterrent to travelling to KK as it is but a snapshot in time of the few days that I spent there. However, if you’re a female solo traveler (or female traveler period), make sure you kick up the normal safety precautions up one notch as touching arms/legs is harmless (although uncomfortable and creepy) but you certainly do not want it to escalate to anything more serious.
- Do try to link up with another traveler if you can, especially if you’re a solo female traveler. The buddy system never fails!
- Do explore KK on foot, if you can. There are so many streets, side streets and alleyways that are worth your time to explore.
- Do pick up a city from the Tourist Info Centre – especially if you’re exploring on foot.