The thing about The Mainstays’ friendship is that we have this unspoken rule that we should be on-call 24/7. There’s no contract, no peer pressure to do so—it’s just that we’ve become our own constants over the years. We have this thread, which has been housed in several messaging apps already (we’ve been on Facebook Messenger, Viber, and WhatsApp, but we’re happily using LINE now), and notifications can go from 10 to 200+ on our peak hours daily.
It’s in our everyday conversations that we find out what’s happening among our circle—work frustrations, upcoming interesting events, life updates, friendly chika, and cheap air fares that are up for grabs.
Usually, it’s Claire (and sometimes, Alex) who does that, so when she asked who wants to go to Kota Kinabalu and back for some PhP2,000++ late last year, I couldn’t say no… even if I have no idea what the Malaysian coastal city has to offer. Because clearly, how could you pass up on seats that cheap?
Fast forward to March 2016, Claire and I find ourselves exploring the city simply called KK.
Love at First Bite
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from binging on TLC’s travel shows, it’s that you will only truly know a country through feasting on its cuisine.
Malaysian food is somehow close to what we have here in the Philippines. Variations of mee look like our pansit, while satay appears to be similar to what is collectively called “barbecue” that’s practically sold in every kanto in any Filipino neighborhood.
What sets KK eats apart, however, is the explosion of flavor its food leaves in your mouth, right after the moment it touches your tongue. I haven’t tried Malaysian cuisine prior to our visit to KK, making our food crawl of sorts a pleasant surprise to the palate.
The food in KK (and probably the whole of Malaysia) appears to be a fusion of Malay, Indian, and Chinese cuisine—there’s just something for everyone. It was love at first bite when I had mee goreng (fried noodles) paired with hot teh tarik (pulled tea) in a restoran near our hostel for my first meal. The moment I took a bite and sip of my order, I knew KK was going to be one heck of a gastronomic adventure.
I brazenly asked for unfamiliar meals, heavily depending on photos in menus in restorans, kopitiams, and market stalls around the city: char kway teow (stir-fried rice cake strips), laksa (spicy noodle soup), bak kut teh (pork bone tea), tom yum (spicy shrimp soup which is apparently Thai in origin, but served in neighboring countries such as Malaysia), sanggar cheese (banana fritters with cheese toppings), and delicious leafy greens with names that I failed to take note of.
Teh tarik, a mixture of black tea and condensed milk pulled back and forth until it creates a frothy goodness, was the main reason I was psyched to head to KK. Thanks to my friend Queen, I knew teh tarik through the BOH instant powder drink. I instantly fell in love with its creamy, distinct taste—what more if I drank the real thing, right? I made it a point to make teh tarik (both hot and cold) my staple drink during our five-day stay.
Since I gave up coffee for Lent, I wasn’t able to taste KK’s kopi. Fortunately, the city’s mad for instant coffee, so I opted to take home a box of OldTown, a popular Malaysian coffee brand which has lots of kopitiams all over the country.
The thing about eating in KK is that you’ll never run out of choices—and if you allow yourself to be adventurous, you just might come across your next favorite dish.
At Home in Downtown KK
Adventurous. That’s one trait you should have if you’re exploring Kota Kinabalu—whether it’s about food or places.
While we haven’t seen all of the so-called “areas of interest” in the free map provided by our hostel, Claire and I managed to see the whole KK city centre. It was sweltering hot during our entire stay, but the briny breeze from KK’s coast made up for the heat from the sun, making walking bearable.
Downtown KK, the city’s home for travelers, is a great place to explore by foot. One moment, you’ll see a not-so-busy highway; the next, you’ll find yourself surrounded by buildings and walls with picturesque murals. Kopitiams, restorans, local convenience stores, and quaint shopping malls pop up in every corner, so you won’t have a hard time dealing with sudden hunger pangs or thirst while walking.
There’s honestly not much to see in the city, as the major attractions require you to hop on a bus to take you to the outskirts or hop aboard a boat to bring you to white powdery sand beaches. Despite that, downtown KK has this strong, inexplicable pull on you, one that you won’t even try to go against.
Going around the city proper felt, to me, like a walk around someone’s hometown, a story book of sorts. Maybe it’s because of the humid air in the area, but there always seems to be a heavy weight of nostalgia present in every nook and cranny.
In KK, you won’t feel alienated. You won’t even feel the need to call yourself a tourist. In that city, you can be who you want to be and do whatever you want to do—and, for some reason, you’ll feel right at home.