Kota Kinabalu stands to Borneo as Kuala Lumpur stands to Malaysia . Sabah’s capital is the most modern and cosmopolitan of all Malaysian Borneo , made up of wide roads , modern buildings and shopping centers at every corner. Even though not boasting the elegant malls of KL , it is a future-oriented city that tries to give a gorgeous new pictures of itself with gleaming glass and steel buildings . But the restyling process has just begun and the city still has a strong Asian footprint , the one that strikes at first sight : dirty alleys crammed with Chinese shops selling all sorts of goods of uncertain origin, local diners of steaming hot noddles with worn-out furniture , markets where hygiene concerns are far from our standard. For travelers who are not familiar to the Asian world , the impact with KK, as the locals call it , can be pretty shocking. But it is in this universe of humanity and ways of life so different from ours you can experience the real South East Asia, teeming with life and activity.
The most characteristic place is the amazing night market : if you’ve never been to an Asian market , this is the place . At the shadow of the Meridien , which pampers the European customers with the most opulent luxury , every evening is staged an open air theatre where the actors are street vendors extolling their goods in a loud voice : vegetables of all kinds, exotic fruits unknown in the West, fresh fish, meat , eggs …. nothing is missing . The stalls are organized into sections depending on the foodstuff ; those with fish and meat are the most characteristic : streams of water mixed with the blood of the fish cut on the spot flow under the customers and tourist’ feets. Getting here is like stepping into a Dantesque circle , a jumble of voices and strong smells that fill the nostrils. At dusk the square becomes a huge dining room where diners can taste the fish freshly cooked on the coals . Long tables hosts local people who eat fish and shellfish armed only with sticks and bare hands, while next to them European tourists , who come here for the authenticity of the place, hesitantly approach to food , trying to figure out how orders work. Nothing could be simpler : you just have to indicate the fish you want and wait at the table to be served! Even though the Asian face of KK is strong and dominant , there are some city corners where you suddenly get transported in Britain of late Nineteenth Century . Before the war destroyed the city , its name was Jesselton Town and here lived British settlers . Jesselton Hotel, the first hotel to be built in town , has elegant white facades overlooking Java Street , once called Bond Street , which is now the heart of the city. The rooms, although with a little old-fashioned furniture , are perfectly maintained and the guy welcoming tourists outside the hotel’s entrance, dressed with white shirt and shorts in perfect english jungle style, reminds of Old British Empire. Another nice place to enjoy the city is the area facing the sea with a wooden walkway overlooking the harbour and the islands in front . The area is full of restaurants and pubs very welcoming to tourists, but the prices are really high compared to the rest of the city: I would not recommend eating here, but the place is worth a visit for a walk at dusk to watch the sunset or the fishing boats return home.