Kota Kinabalu (KK) has an early morning market every Sunday. It starts setting up around 6:30 a.m. and by 7:00 a.m. everything is in full swing. As far as markets go, this one is quite small and sells soaps, lots of trinkets and souvenirs (t-shirts, key chains, postcards, etc.), gardening equipment, and fresh food (mostly fruits).
There’s a small section of the market (lines up with the bird statue down the street – I know this sound vague, but when you see it, you’ll totally understand what I mean. The local tourism board provides you a map of the city and the map highlights the bird statue) that sells ready-made foods like banana leaf steamed rice with chicken, curry puffs, sweets, and other noodle dishes.
Since island hopping is on the docket, I loaded up my backpack with spring rolls, curry puffs (Checkout RasaMalaysia’s recipe for curry puffs – I’ve made them since I’ve been back in Canada and they are fantastic!), bananas, and steamed rice/chicken for lunch. For a grand total of $4 for two people.
As for the market, unless you intend on buying something specific (in my case, lunch), it is definitely one you can skip. I didn’t buy anything and most of what was there was overpriced and available elsewhere.
There isn’t much of interest other than one stall that was selling breast milk soap. Yeah, like human breast milk soap – I asked in case this was an unusual translation for “goat milk soap” or something of the like.
One of the big draws of KK (aside from being a base for hikers heading to Mount Kinabalu) are three small islands that are about a 20-30 minute boat ride from shore that boast sandy beaches and good snorkelling.
From Jesselton Point, you can buy boat tickets to get to the islands. We paid 33 MYR/person (about $11 CDN) for boat travel to visit two islands. From the main terminal, there are 50 of so companies to choose from – all tickets were the same price so we just chose the company that had the shortest line up and earliest departure time available.
First up: Sapi Island. This is a very tiny island that gets overcrowded quite quickly by tourists and snorkeling/scuba diving tours. Knowing about the risk of overcrowding, we took the 8:00 a.m. jetty and we only had to share the island with a few people. This is great, because the main sandy beach is only about 50 feet. Unfortunately, when we got there the beach was closed to the public due to the two red flags that were flying.
The islands have a colour-coded flag system regarding the quality of the beaches. For example, purple flags mean “caution – marine pests present” (i.e.: jellyfish) and two red flags means “high danger – beach closed to public”. Of course, they did not tell us this when we booked our boat tickets. Had I known this, I would have asked in advance for this information.
Not to be deterred, we walked a few minutes over a very rocky area (good shoes are needed – flip flops not recommended) and eventually found ourselves on a quite stretch of sandy beach which was open for swimming. You will need to sign a waiver form as there are no lifeguards on duty here and you go at your own risk.
The downside to this area is that there is garbage littering the beach everywhere so you may have to clear a spot to set up your towels.
The water was warm, but definitely a little chillier than what I had experienced in the Thai Islands, but this made it all the more refreshing. We donned our snorkeling gear and proceeded to explore.
Although snorkeling and scuba diving is boasted here, a lot of the coral is dead. I suspect you’d need to go far out to find more fish and healthy coral. We were out about 75 feet from shore and managed to see blue starfish, clownfish (Nemo!) and other interesting fish. We brought our own gear, but you can easily rent or buy snorkeling gear on the mainland before your departure as well as upon entry on the island.
When we relaxed on shore, we were joined by a curious monitor lizard who was definitely interested in inspecting our lunches.
Note: You will need to pay a “conservation fee” of 10 MYR for non-Malaysians (Malaysians pay 2 MYR) which is about $3 CDN, when arriving to Sapi Island. You will get a small ticket so make sure you keep it as it exempts you from paying the fee at each island and you will need to present it at each island you visit.
Around 11:30 a.m. we took the boat to Manukan Island as by this time Sapi was getting pretty overcrowded. Our packed lunches definitely came in handy as the small restaurants on both Sapi and Manukan are rather expensive (there isn’t much competition).
Both islands are part of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park (along with three other islands: Gaya, Sulug, and Mamutik), which is KK’s first marine national park.
This island is one of the bigger islands and has a longer beachfront than Sapi. It also has a tourist resort on the beach so there are more amenities available.
The beach to the right of jetty terminal is overcrowded with people, but if you go behind the park office where you land and squeeze behind it to the left, the beach is practically empty.
Manukan Island seems to be better cared for (probably because of the resort) as there was less garbage floating in the water and along the shoreline than at Sapi (which was full of garbage everywhere).
We snorkeled here as well, but much like Sapi, I think you’d have to go very far out to find healthy/lively coral.
If you’re travelling for scuba diving and snorkeling, there are much better places in Malaysia to do so. However, for a fun day out at the beach with white sand, clear water, and swimming, this definitely hit the spot.
The Harassment Continues
The same uncomfortable treatment we received in KK continued on the islands with gaggles of men following us and making the experience generally uncomfortable.
Friendly reminder, the Sabah province is predominantly Muslim and you will see Muslim women wearing variations of the burkini which is a “swimsuit” that covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet, with addition of a hijab or loosely wrapped scarf to cover head/hair. Generally speaking, tourists are often a curiosity as we wear our bikinis, one-piece bathing suits and other variations thereof.
I should note that because the sun is so strong (and I am either pale like a white piece of paper or red like a lobster – there is no in between), we wore t-shirts and shorts to swim to give us a bit of UVA/UVB protection.
So, we weren’t parading around in bikinis or skimpy swimwear but still had the unpleasant attention. We moved several spots along the beach with the same group of men following us until we alerted the lifeguard to the issue and eventually just took the jetty to another island to get away from them.
All this to say, do what makes you feel comfortable but know that you may be a curiosity to locals when your chillin’ out at the beach in your bikini.
- Ask at the jetty the flag colour status of each island to help you decide where you’d like to go.
- Go early for popular islands to beat the crowds.
- Try going the reverse order of islands (there is a popular order for going to the islands, so try going to Sapi last) to help minimize crowds.
- Bring your beverages and lunch to avoid paying high prices for food on the island.
- Keep your proof of payment of conversation fees, otherwise you’ll have to pay the same fee for each island you visit.
- Sunscreen, hat, and other sun-blocking measures are a must if you want to avoid sharing the same hue as lobsters.
- The water starts to get pretty choppy by late afternoon so if you get queasy on small boats where you will feel every bump (thinking about travelling over choppy waters in a fishing boat), you may want to bring some motion sickness/seasickness tablets with you to make the boat ride back to the mainland a little more comfortable.