Kota Kinabalu

It is Friday the 13th . No normal person would choose to fly on Malaysia Air on any day. But on Friday 13th you would have to be crazy to fly them.

We have two flights on Malaysia Air today.

We are a little nervous.

We get more nervous as we sit at the gate and notice that the door to the jetway leading to the plane is wide open and unattended. People wander through it and disappear never to be seen again. A whole list of possibilities as to what they might be doing runs through our minds. None of them are good.

But we board the plane anyway and as I am writing this you can probably guess everything went well. No delays, and no missing planes. We arrive safe and sound and on time in Kota Kinabalu, a rather lyrical name for this large town on the north west coast of Borneo.

Down town Kota Kinabalu is modern and new, with high rise hotels and office blocks and gleaming new malls featuring all the usual designers:

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But walk one block away and this is what you find:

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Our hotel, fortunately, is one of the shiny new ones, a huge hotel and very nice with amazing views of the ocean and nearby islands. But it has one drawback…….

oh dear. I feel another rant coming on

………it is filled with Chinese.

I know I shouldn’t have said that. I know there are lots of lovely Chinese, but not one of them is staying at this hotel. Those that are, are crass, rude, vulgar, loud (really loud) and filthy. Other than that they are perfectly charming.

They make us long for the comparative civility of the Australians and the Russians of Phuket.

They are at their worst (and that is saying something) at the breakfast buffet. It is a huge dining room with an extensive buffet mainly featuring Chinese items.

Our idea of a buffet is that you take a plate, get in line and help yourself to what you would like.

Their idea of a buffet is that everything is there to be sampled. There is no need to take a plate. They just go from dish to dish dipping the serving spoon into the food and then putting it in their mouth. The serving spoon then goes back in the food. One girl actually picks up a piece of meat with her fingers, takes a bite and puts the remaining piece back with the rest.

Standing in line is not something they do either. They just push their way into wherever there is a plate of food they want to sample.

The only accommodation the buffet makes for westerners is an egg station where they will prepare the eggs for you. That seems to be the best and only bet, free from Chinese mouths and germs. But the Chinese want to sample the eggs too. This proves to be a problem for them, but not an insurmountable problem. They just take a plate and go straight to the front of the line and stick their plate in front of the chef. They totally ignore the line of westerners waiting patiently for their turn to order eggs. The chef, obviously used to this behaviour, ignores them and carries on serving those in line. But every time he takes the eggs out of the pan, the Chinese push their plates under his spatula in an effort to knock the eggs onto their plate.

The dining room itself is filthy. The staff try to keep it nice but the Chinese don’t care. They pile their plates so high with food, that they can’t carry it back to the table without some spilling over on to the floor. They just step over it and carry on.

At the table, they have no manners whatsoever. They lower their heads to the plate and then shovel the food into their mouths with a spoon and fork. The spoon carries it to the mouth, the fork acts as a shovel to push more in. The table is covered in dropped bits of food.

It is bedlam. There are children running everywhere playing and shouting, and the parents just ignore them. The noise is unbelievable.  They travel in groups and everyone talks at at once, yelling so that they can be heard over the others. If one is at the table and the other is at the buffet they just scream instructions across the room

We get the hell out of there.

We have arranged for a rental car to be delivered to the hotel at 10am.

A cadaverous looking man with nothing much other than skin covering his bones enters the hotel and asks at reception for me. He is rather unsavory, with long fingernails that seem to be the main support for piles of dirt clustered at the end of his fingers. Only half his pinky remains, the other half having presumably snapped off under the weight of the dirt. His jeans look as if he has been wiping his hands on them for years. His T shirt bears the slogan

“I am not doing shit today”

Constipation is a terrible thing, but does he need to advertise it.

I try to avoid shaking his hand but he insists. When he smiles he proudly shows off a total of three teeth, none of which looks as if it will remain in his mouth for too long.

“My name is Peter” he says

Sure it is

He takes me to the car and all of a sudden he is looking better. Anything standing next to this heap of metal would look good. It looks a total wreck. When I get in and start the engine it sounds like a total wreck. The engine makes a terrible screaming noise with intermittent loud clunks. In any other country it would be illegal to have it on the road.

I turn the engine off and tell him

“I am not driving this car”

He looks at me with a wonderful sense of bewilderment and replies “It runs beautifully”

“Did you hear the noise it was making!”

This time the look is one of pure innocence, a hard one for a person looking like him to pull off. But he does it with a modicum of success.

“It wasn’t making any noise when I drove it here” he says. Baring his three teeth once more.

I can’t help myself. I just start laughing.

I hand him the keys and start to leave.

“I can get you another car “ he says.

He returns with a gleaming new Toyota and a friend who isn’t gleaming. I have to shake the friend’s hand too, and discover that he only has two teeth. If I wait around for any more of his friends to turn up I’ll be gummed to death

We spend the day driving our smart rental car along the coast and into the hills. There seems to be little in the way of beach culture. We find some amazing beaches with no one on them.

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Perhaps the signs warning of jelly fish have something to do with it

The country side is not as beautiful or as tropical as Thailand. As in the city there seems to be a wide gap between the well to do and the rest of the population. We pass nice houses with gardens, but most look something like this:

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And sadly there is trash everywhere which seems more noticeable because we have just spent two weeks in Thailand. There are also cattle wandering freely along the roads

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Back in Kota Kinabalu, we have to decide where to go this evening

It is February 14th and Borneo clearly loves Valentines Day. The city is full of people celebrating this – and Chinese New Year.

There are a couple of bad western style restaurants offering Valentine Menus at outrageous prices, but other than that it is all Malaysian restaurants which, despite their efforts, do little to make it a romantic evening. They are all furnished with plastic chairs and tables, topped with plastic salt and pepper shakers and plastic dispensers of tiny cheap napkins. They are bustling and fun and obviously have good food, but there are lines of people at the popular ones and they get you in and out as fast as possible. Not to mention, they don’t serve alcohol. If I am to sit on a plastic chair, at a plastic table, then alcohol is an absolute necessity.

Besides, we want something just a little special for this Valentines evening.

We have read about one place that caught our imagination, called El Centro. It is  a bar and restaurant serving a wide range of food and everyone writes that is about as good as it gets in KK.

We search for it in the afternoon and find it under construction. It is apparently being totally refurbished . There are two women and a bunch of men working feverishly inside while all the tables and chairs are out in the street being painted and cleaned.

We learn that they plan to be open this evening. It seems impossible, but when we return at 8pm, it is indeed open and in full swing. We grab the very last table.

As we look around we slowly realise that we are in a lesbian restaurant. Two women run it, one English and one American, and almost everyone in it is female. There are two straight couples, one other gay male couple and about 50 women. As the evening progresses more and more women arrive. They all know each other and crowd in around the tiny tables or at the bar. Within a very short while we find ourselves in the midst of a raucous party atmosphere. The women are there to celebrate the reopening of their friends’ restaurant and Valentines Day. They are there to have a good time and they drag us along with them. It is great fun

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The food is wonderful and cooked by five chefs in a tiny kitchen. They too are having a party and before long they want to meet the new guys in town. We are invited into the kitchen and all hell breaks loose

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But it is the owners who make the place and our evening. They are both delightful, with great sense of humour. They make us feel so welcome

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We sit there for hours having the best evening of the trip by far.

The restaurant is open to the street, and we are sitting at the front. There is a line of women waiting for tables to become available. At one point a huge rat casually walks to the front of the line (must be a Chinese rat) and into the restaurant. It sits under the table next to ours, looks up a few skirts, and decides this is not where it wants to be. It turns round and walks out without ordering a thing.

Not one woman screams, which says a lot for how tough women have to be living in Borneo.

I turn to the next table and jokingly say to one of the women – the rat seemed to know you.

She laughs and says

“We are used to rats, but I have never had one want to join us for dinner”

Over the next few evenings we too get used to rats

Welcome to Borneo

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7 Responses to Kota Kinabalu

  1. Char says:

    OMG, come back to Mexico! Missing you.

  2. Tim says:

    Obviously it was a lesbian rat, fleeing the Chinese breakfast fiasco. My husband never had any such adventures when staying at the Sheraton in KK. He should get your esteemed travel advisor to book his hotels, cars and restaurants in future.

  3. Hero says:

    Love reading your entry! Just wondering, which hotel did you stay at KK?

  4. andrew says:

    Hi Hero, if you can get room with a view of the ocean – do it. It is worth it

  5. Love your post. It’s really useful for me and helps me so much plan my trip to KK. Wish to trekking in the dense jungle there since I see the living habitat for animals is preserved very well.

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