When I told my Malaysian aunties that we were going to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, they were equal parts curious and perplexed. “But why…”, they trilled. “You’ll be bored…”, they mused. “I don’t think they have any decent malls there…”, they fretted. And then they just laughed and put it down to us being so intrepid and crazy. Well, dear aunties who have never ventured to Sabah, I’m pleased to tell you (and anyone else who cares to listen) that though we didn’t come across many malls, we certainly weren’t bored! Quite the opposite actually… we spent five action-packed days in Kota Kinabalu doing such a mix of activities and experiencing different aspects of the culture, and still… I don’t think we even scratched the surface of what Sabah has to offer!
Sabah felt different to the other parts of Malaysia I have visited; it’s much quieter, greener, and has more of a focus on nature and adventure. If hiking mountains, traipsing through jungles, and diving in the oceans in your thing then Sabah definitely has to be on your bucket list. That said, even city slickers like us fell in love with the culture of the Bornean tribes and the lush surroundings! Here are my top ten things to do for first time visitors to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah; they might just convince you to book that trip now…
Since being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, the little city of Melaka has seen itself transform into quite the darling of the Malaysian tourist scene. The people are coming in droves to explore the history, culture, and cuisine of Melaka and as a result more and more hotels seem to be popping up all over town. In the midst of the old stalwarts, international chains, and boutique guesthouses, is Rosa Malacca. This new property is a rare gem that provides both the friendly, welcoming atmosphere of a cosy boutique hotel and the stylish, modern design of the larger chains – the perfect combination, if you ask me.
Rosa Malacca is located away from the busy streets of Jonker Walk, which we found to be more of a blessing than a curse. It’s only a brisk fifteen minute stroll or short Uber ride away, but once you step through their huge double doors, you will feel like you’re in another world. After a day of sightseeing in the hot Melaka sun, we were grateful for this oasis. The industrial chic look and feel of the hotel is quite striking, and it’s obvious that Rosa Malacca has been designed with a lot of care and attention to detail. I loved that every inch of the hotel looked beautiful, but also felt casual and comfortable – this new kid on the block is definitely not just a pretty face!
Most people have definitely heard of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s bustling capital city, but it has come to my attention that not many people would consider it as much of a tourist destination. They claim it doesn’t compare to the likes of Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore and mainly see it as a stopover point or gateway to other parts of Malaysia such as Penang and Langkawi, but I think Kuala Lumpur deserves a bit of attention! I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to KL, perhaps five or six, but the last two as an adult have definitely been my favourite!
When I was younger we’d just swing by and visit friends and family but in the last couple of trips, I’ve really had a chance to explore the city from another point of view… one of a proper tourist and I definitely think it’s a gem of a city! Ideally, you’d have a few days to visit all the main sights such as the city’s three towers, the Islamic Arts Museum, Merdeka Square, and still get in all your shopping as well as all the food. However, if you must insist on a whistle stop visit… let’s focus on the food with some touristy stuff thrown in for good measure and you’re still guaranteed a good time!
Being stranded on a tropical island doesn’t seem like the worst fate on earth until the beach frolicking grows tiresome and the call of the tummy can no longer be ignored. Only a teeny weeny problem if you’re anything like me and have no hunting, fishing or foraging skills; the prospect of playing Russian roulette with leaves and berries is not particularly appealing. In fact, it’s terrifying. And rather irrationally, it was a fear I had about spending three to four days on Pangkor Laut Resort.
I know, I know, I overreacted… we were knowingly going to a luxury resort on a private island. Not exactly washing up on a grim deserted island. My first world fear was not about the need to hone my scavenger skills, the issue was whether any of the food would be any good. Restaurants in resorts have a notorious reputation for being overpriced and underwhelming; where’s the incentive to wow where you’ve got a captive customer base?
All my past Malaysian holidays featured food, family, and shopping; arguably the holy trinity of all things Malaysian. I knew there was a lot more to see and do than traipse round the cities ticking dishes off my must-eat list with countless shopping bags in tow but I’m a city person, my family are city people. We didn’t grow up running through the hills or lolloping in the waves in New Zealand so there was no chance we were doing that on our precious trips back to Malaysia. However as this city-slicker grows older, lazier, and more discerning, a dash of relaxation (with a side of luxury where possible) is a staple ingredient in any holiday!
So this time round, while the food and family were still in pride of place, I decided to swap the shopping time (cue the shock horror from my family) for beach time. My mind automatically transported us to the sandy shores of Langkawi because that’s the beach to visit in Malaysia, right?! Langkawi is undoubtedly beautiful, perfect for your doses of sun and sea, and jammed packed with hotels for every budget, but we wanted something a little more exclusive… and needed somewhere a little closer to the other stops on our trip… Pangkor Laut Resort fit the bill perfectly.
One of the most iconic experiences you can enjoy in Penang is to have afternoon tea at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, one of the city’s grandest properties. But afternoon tea seems so very un-Malaysian and so very, very British? Let’s chalk its introduction to Malaysia down to colonialism, which dare I say, is another very British activity from years passed. I won’t get into the pros and cons of that so let’s just all play nice and agree on the merits of tea and cake, with a couple of sandwiches and scones in between. Any afternoon spent enjoying those things in beautiful surroundings is an afternoon well spent in my view.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel has a rich history dating back to 1884 when it was first established as The Eastern. A year later, due to increasing demand and popularity, The Oriental was opened on the neighbouring site, and combined, they became the largest hotel in Penang. Unsurprisingly, there have been highs and lows throughout the years but now, the hotel has been completely restored to its former glory and a spot of afternoon tea in the elegant dining room of 1885 is a must for anyone visiting Penang.
Ask a group of Malaysians what the national past time is and I guarantee you that most, if not all, will say it’s eating. Eating in or eating out, Malaysians are obsessed with food. I would know, I was raised by two of them, and despite growing up in New Zealand, that food obsession is in my blood too! Food is such an integral part of Malaysian culture that people even greet each other by asking if the other has ‘eaten already?’. Not that it matters because even if you have, they’ll coax you into having another bite to eat…
On the bright side, there’s a good chance this meal will be completely different to your previous one because the variety of food in Malaysia is quite phenomenal. I think it’s the original fusion cuisine; a combination Chinese, Malay, and Indian food styles mish-mashed together to create one that is quintessentially Malaysian. But it gets even more interesting as you travel across the country as each region or city will have their own signature variation on a popular Malaysian dish, or even their own speciality dish!