Culture and Kids in Kota Kinabalu
When we visited Sabah in September 2013, our children were aged five, two and one. Sabah is famous for things like orang utans, jungle trekking, amazing scuba diving, Turtle Island, Kinabatangan River cruises and Mount Kinabalu, however we realised with such young children many of those activities were beyond our capabilities. We decided to save some adventures for another time and only travel to the capital city Kota Kinabalu. I knew my children would be happy playing in the resort pool day after day but I felt unsure if Kota Kinabalu would offer enough to satisfy our desire to experience the local culture. Kota Kinabalu turned out to be a wonderful cultural experience for all of us.
Here is a taste of what Kota Kinabalu has to offer:
Night Market: Located along the waterfront near the Le Meridian, this is a great place to come for a local meal, especially if you like seafood. Your biggest problem will be deciding what to try first!
Sunday Market: Located in Gaya Street and held 6am-1pm every Sunday morning, this market has a delightful local vibe. There’s plenty of touristy buys but the stalls of fruit and vegetables, plants, pets or even tools ensure this is a place to enjoy a local experience. It’s colourful, busy, entertaining and without the “hassle factor” you might experience in other Asian markets. My girls had a lot of fun shopping for summer dresses and fans to keep them cool. They enjoyed all the attention from locals who wanted to stop and say ‘hello’.
Handicraft Market: If you love to take home souvenirs, this is the market for you! You can find everything from beaded necklaces and sarongs to pearl jewellery and ornate wooden carvings. This is a great market for bargaining too. Just remember your country’s custom regulations when buying wooden items.
Central Market: A local market, undercover, selling things like fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, toys, cakes and other gadgets. Interesting to wander through and a great opportunity to meet the locals.
Mari Mari: There are several cultural villages you can visit around Kota Kinabalu and our excursion to Mari Mari was a real highlight for my daughter Hannah (aged 5). It was a highly entertaining, educational and interactive experience. We visited the traditional homes of communities including the Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus and Dusun, learning about each tribe and how they live. During our visit we learned about headhunters, saw how to make fire without matches (using only bamboo), tasted traditionally made food and drink (we declined the rice wine), visited a long house, had a jump on the Lansaran (traditional trampoline-like floor) and I discovered I would have made an exceptional poison dart blower.
The tour ended with a highly entertaining show of traditional dance and music. The lightning-fast feet dodging bamboo poles banging together was spectacular to watch and amusing to try!
Tanjung Aru Floating Village (Kampung Tanjung Aru): Our guided tour through this Floating Village was a great insight into local life. Houses are built on stilts over the water, with boardwalks connecting the village. Some areas have new concrete boardwalks and other sections have rickety old wooden ones. Building standards have changed over time and it’s fascinating to explore the areas of the village and see the different styles of houses. Rubbish is a significant problem and at low tide you will see piles of trash along the sand. There is a rubbish and recycling service in the village but change is slow. Our guide, who is employed by the nearby Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa, lives with his family in the village and gave us wonderful personal insight into this amazing place.
You wouldn’t normally associate a capital city with wildlife experiences but in Kota Kinabalu you can:
- See the orang utans at the Rasa Ria Resort Rehabilitation Sanctuary
- Visit the Low Kawi Wildlife Park where you’ll see Borneo Pygmy elephants, Proboscis monkey, Malayan tiger, rhinoceros, as well as some different species of deer
- Go snorkelling from an island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
- Take a day trip to Kinabalu National Park – you don’t have to climb the mountain like we did to enjoy the natural beauty here.
After 10 days in Kota Kinabalu, there was still so much more we could have done and we definitely did not want to go home. We will be sure to return!
Where to stay
Whilst in Kota Kinabalu we had the opportunity to stay at The Magellan Sutera Resort, Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, all great spots for families. Expedia’s Aussie travellers tend to stay 3-4 nights and if you’re travelling with little ones, it might be easier to base yourself at one property for at least a few nights.