Kota Kinabalu the Gateway to Sabah

Set between lush tropical hills and the South China Sea, Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah. It takes its name after Mount Kinabalu, located about 50 kilometres northeast of the city.

The beginnings of Kota Kinabalu can be traced to the early 1800s when the British North Borneo Company established a British settlement on Gaya Island, which was previously a small fishing village known as ‘Api-Api’ (translated as ‘Little Fires’).

After the destruction of the settlement on Gaya Island (some say at the hands of Sabahan freedom fighter Mat Salleh), the British North Borneo Company relocated to a more defensible position on the mainland at Kampung Gantisan, a small fishing village. Towards the end of the 18th century, the area was renamed Jesselton after Sir Charles Jessel, then Deputy Manager of the British North Borneo Company.

The city of Jesselton eventually became a major trading hub for North Borneo, distributing local produce such as rattan, rubber, wax and wild honey. There were, however, constant attacks on Jesselton by the local Malay and Bajau rebels.

Japanese Occupation

During the Japanese Occupation of Jesselton in World War II, Allied Forces planned continuous attacks day and night for six months in an attempt to liberate the city from Japanese subjugation. In September of 1945, the Japanese surrendered and control of Jesselton reverted to British control. 

Joining the Federation of Malaysia

In 1946, Jesselton became the capital of Sabah replacing Sandakan, which had been badly damaged during the war. Later on in 1963 and 1967 respectively, North Borneo joined the Federation of Malaysia and took the name of Sabah and Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu (the term “Kota” means ‘city’).

City of Activity

The city of Kota Kinabalu covers approximately 350 square kilometres and one can easily cover most of downtown Kota Kinabalu on foot.

Two of the three colonial buildings that survived the destruction during the war, the Sabah Tourism Building on 51 Jalan Gaya and the Atkinson Clock Tower, can be found in downtown Kota Kinabalu.

If you want to get the best view of the entire city of Kinabalu, the Signal Hill Observatory is the place to be. As it is located off the normal bus route, a taxi would be required to get to the observatory. Admission is free of charge. Come after 5pm to watch the sun set over Kota Kinabalu.

‘Pasar malam’ simply means night market in Malay and it can be found all across Sabah. Merchants setup multi-coloured and brightly lit makeshift stalls where they sell everything from food and clothing to gadgets and a variety of other trinkets.

Also known as Pasar Malam Sinsuran, the Filipino night market is famous among tourists and is located right opposite the Le Meridien Hotel. Open daily from morning to evening, it is a popular destination for tourists looking for souvenirs, handicrafts and cultured pearls.

From 6:00 pm onwards, you will be able to find an interesting variety of fish and seafood such as yellowfish tuna, sharks, stingray, puffer fish and spanner crab, which are not available in supermarkets. Some stalls also cook your freshly selected seafood for you in the local Malay or Filipino style at very reasonable prices.

Located along a stretch of empty parking lots under the Segama bridge, Pasar Malam Segama is the oldest night market in Kota Kinabalu, having been in operation for more than 30 years. Look out for a Javanese stall that sells ‘soto’ and ‘bakso’, a condiment-filled Javanese noodle soup delicacy.

Perhaps the most well-known market in Kota Kinabalu is the Gaya Street Sunday Market. As the name suggests, it is only open once a week at the Kota Kinabalu Central Business District. Unlike most other markets, the Gaya Street Sunday Market is open in the morning, starting as early as 6:00 am until 1:00 pm. You will be able to find everything from fruits and flowers to pets and herbs.