Exactly 3 years ago, we took a 9-day road trip to Sabah, East Malaysia. We did a round trip to the various cities and towns. We liked it so much that we decided we would come back here again. But this time, we would go slower and spend more time in each town before moving to the next. This means a longer road trip, and our latest one was 14 days long. It was the right choice!
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah on 25 Oct. A friend of ours owns two hotels in the city, so we took a Grab for just RM8 covering the 7km ride from Kota Kinabalu International Airport to Stanton Hotel.
Our friend KL is a busy man. He overlooked our visit and forgot to book a room for us. It just so happened that at this exact time, WhatsApp experienced a massive global outage for two hours, and we could not reach him.
Fortunately the landlines were not affected and the hotel manager was able to contact him and get us a room. KL was also supposed to arrange to lend us a car which he likewise overlooked, and he asked Baby Crab to contact his sister Serrene.
When Baby Crab was classmates with KL in their childhood, Serrene was her senior in the same school. They were not close, though Baby Crab and KL were. So it is after 30 years of non-contact and only out of necessity that Baby Crab reached out to Serrene via Facebook Messenger. Unfortunately, she was at a meeting and unable to respond. So KL asked us to contact a guy named Ronald, and gave us his phone number.
Ronald arranged for one of Serrene’s cars to be lent to us, a Mazda CX-5 SUV. And with that, our transport and hotel for the first day was settled.
WE ARE NOT ALONE
Most of our trips are just the two of us, but this time round, we have two friends, Greg and Sook Yeen, who tagged along with us for the first week. Travelling with friends is always challenging, because it means accommodating different travel styles and preferences. It also means learning more about our friends, because we’re going to be around them 24/7.
After meeting Ronald and collecting the car at Inaman, a suburb located about 10km northeast from the city centre, we visited our first ‘pasar malam’ there.
‘Pasar malam’ literally means ‘night markets’. There are ‘pasar malam’ in every town in Malaysia, provided you know where to find them. Some are big, some are small. Some are commercialised, some are traditional.
The ‘pasar malam’ at Inaman was traditional with stalls mostly run by the Dusun people, the largest ethnic group in Sabah. On one half, clothes, cooked food and beverages were sold; on the other half, we saw raw meat, seafood, and vegetables.
We visited many ‘pasar malam’ in our trip in Sabah, and what we have found is that the ‘pasar malam’ that are targeted at locals are much more lively than the ones targeted at tourists.
This is because the tourism industry has not yet recovered from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tourism in Sabah depends heavily on tourists from other Asian countries, such as Korea and China. But China currently still has quarantine restrictions for its travellers, hence holiday makers are few and far between. It is also much more expensive and inconvenient for people in China to travel now.
One of our Grab drivers told us that he used to be a tour guide prior to the pandemic. As business dried up, he switched to being a Grab driver, which is probably something we see globally, wherever private hire vehicle businesses are present. Even though some tourists, like us, have started to return, the industry is currently only at about 20% of what it used to be.
We feel it. Not just in Kota Kinabalu, but also in other cities and towns we visit.
In Kota Kinabalu, whenever we visited the so-called “famous” places that tourists must go, we are left disappointed.
The Pasar Malam Sinsuran, usually a must-go for all visitors, now feels dead. 3 years ago when we came, all the shops were bustling with activity. Baby Tilapia remembers not liking it before because it was so crowded. All kinds of seafood, dried and fresh, cooked and raw, were sold here.
The energy was electrifying, the atmosphere was rich with various foods being barbecued. Now, the only food we see being barbecued is chicken, chicken, and chicken. Maybe just one stall will be barbecuing something other than chicken. Truth be told, Baby Tilapia likes it now, because it’s no longer crowded, but it does not feel like a ‘pasar malam’ at all.
3 years ago, the entire stretch of Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen from KK Sentral all the way to Pasar Besar Kota Kinabalu was dotted with various stalls. Now, when we walk the stretch, there are segments that are dark and quiet, and quite frankly, feel unsafe to walk. Or maybe it’s just because it’s our first day here in Sabah, and we’re not yet used to how dark the place gets after the sun sets. It is fortunate that there are four of us, and we stick together for safety.
Most of the bars that are open here cater mainly to the Caucasians, which fill up about 30% of the tables present. It’s really sad to see the effect that the pandemic has had on the once-bustling city of Kota Kinabalu.
We reassure ourselves that the other places in Sabah that we intend to go to, will be better, because they are more nature-oriented.
It took a few experiences before we learned the trick in Kota Kinabalu.
For dinner, we ate at Welcome Seafood Restaurant. It’s a huge restaurant occupying almost the whole ground floor at Asia City. Rated 4 out of 5 stars on Google Maps, we went there for our first real meal of our first day.
You know when you’re hungry, everything is supposed to taste good, right? We ordered four dishes, including their specialties… and we were deeply disappointed by all of them. The deep-fried soft-shelled crab had no taste of crab, only fried flour. Their deep fried special beancurd was nothing special. Their Mongolian chicken was meh, and their Signature Seafood Noodle was very ordinary.
It was completely not worth the RM129 bill. In fact, we would say that the meal here was probably the most memorable one, in all the wrong ways. We compared all our meals to this one, which served as the lowest level for expectations from then on.
Another disappointing meal was the breakfast we had at Keng Wan Hing, a 4.3 rated coffee shop on Google Maps. It’s located at Jalan Gaya, the Chinatown of Kota Kinabalu. Touted online as serving delicious ‘dim sum’, we eagerly visited it and asked for ‘har gow’ (shrimp dumpling) and ‘siew mai’ (pork and shrimp dumpling). Both of these are basic steamed ‘dim sum’ dishes. If a ‘dim sum’ shop does not sell these, that’s a red flag. Something is very wrong here.
Something was very wrong indeed at Keng Wan Hing when the staff told us that they didn’t have ‘har gow’, ‘siew mai’, or any steamed dishes. They only had baked or fried dim sum. So, we ordered a few to try, as well as a bowl of porridge, which turned out to taste the best among them all. When your porridge tastes the best among all your dishes, you know you’re screwed, because porridge is not supposed to be that tasty.
The food we ate was hard and cold, and frankly, we just didn’t finish eating it. In fact, the quality was so poor that we started to think that the food we get for free back in Singapore all tastes better than what we paid for here.
And that’s when we discovered the trick to getting food in Kota Kinabalu — you need to avoid the famous places.
Because these businesses rely heavily on tourism. When there are few tourists, coupled with the high food inflation, revenue falls… but expenses don’t. These businesses still have overheads to pay for, such as rental, supplies, salaries, utilities, etc. They don’t have profit margin and most will be lucky to not be losing money every month. They also have to let go staff. The lack of revenue accounts for the drop in quality of both the service time and the food.
On the contrary, businesses that cater primarily to locals don’t suffer the same problem of fallen revenue, which is why the local businesses that we patronised all had good quality food and service. And that’s the trick to eating at Kota Kinabalu at this time.
Things may change later as the tourism industry recovers, and we will be back to find out if that’s true.
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