The typical backpacker route in Malaysia often sticks closely to the Western Peninsula, what with Kuala Lumpur (KL) being a top bustling destination with its fun Chinatown and staggering sights of the Petronas Towers. However, a quick plane ride can get you to the Eastern Peninsula: Borneo. Borneo is famous for its Orangutan sanctuaries (which I highly recommend) but it’s also home to Sabah’s capital which is the diverse city of Kota Kinabalu (KK). I flew from Penang to KK on a seriously cheap flight with Air Asia to stay with my auntie (free accommodation is a much-needed bonus when trawling the globe! Believe me, I called in as many ‘family favours’ as was decently possible).

KK isn’t exactly as big or busy and city-slicker as KL, but we never had a dull moment during our stay- the list of sights and sounds is ridiculously long and caters for the hardcore explorers, to the laid-back siesta fans (I’m not keen on the term ‘lazy’).
There are a hell of a lot of shopping malls crammed into the city and the surrounding area. So many, it borders on obscene.

Shopping appears to be a non-stop activity, bathed in the freezing arctic air-conditioning (a jumper is key to survival) with trusty Western brands i.e. Gap, Mango, Topshop. Wisma Merdeka was my personal favourite though with its cheap kitsch Asian fashion at amazingly low Ringett prices. Many beat prices in Thailand and I swear I found some identical dresses! This authentic Asian mall is a top place for unique items, and the place was over-flowing with new clothes due to the upcoming Chinese New Year (note to self: when Asian festivals and celebrations are coming up, the shops are usually fit to burst!).

kk dress

Once you’ve had your shopping fix in the featureless generic malls, get to the Philippino market situated by the waterside. This labyrinth of stalls and shelves of handicrafts and pearls can keep you distracted for ages, and haggling is the usual (and tiring) way to purchase your desired goods. But then you stumble out the back, blinking in the blinding sunlight to be confronted with an awesome sprawling food market, predominantly seafood. It blows your mind that the lobster, crab, fish of all sizes, squid etc being chucked onto barbeques was probably alive and swimming in the past couple of hours.

kk pearls

kk market

The great aspect of Sabah’s largest city being on the coast is that you’re a hop, skip and a sail away from the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park Islands. These small tropical islands are perfect for reclining on the golden sands, soaking up the sun and snorkelling in the turquoise waters among the sea life that may very well end up on your BBQ lunch that’s served on the larger islands. Our ‘great’ view of KK across the sea was ominously marred by a giant storm sweeping in, but our paradise remained untouched… until the traumatic speedboat back in the gale force winds and rain hitting your face like bullets. Fun.

island storm

You should be able to see KK… but that massive storm erased it.

I’ve painted quite a shopping and beach-bum life, but of course there is plenty of hardcore outdoor activities for the gung-ho ‘lets go!’ travellers. Mount Kinabalu is one of the highest Asian mountains that Lonely Planet recommends as a top hike to do in S.E. Asia. And if my younger cousin can do it as a school trip, then I guess it won’t kill you (Government Warning: ‘Do not climb if have any kind of heart condition’). However I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not hiking’s No.1 fan so I applauded the cousin’s school trip success story, jumped into another cousin’s jeep and had the four hour ride of my life. Pack a car with a wicked soundtrack, great company and snacks, and enjoy the winding twirling road that snakes through mountain ranges giving awesome rainforest views and ultimately Mount Kinabalu. The summit towers above you revealing waterfalls sporadically sprinkled in the jungle… and we pulled up at the base for tea and coffee, curled up on sofas soaking up the views. Now that’s what I call mountaineering in style.

mt k

KK was such a diverse and exciting place to explore (I’ll have to dedicate a whole article to Malaysian food and beverages), but was ultimately topped with some Latino dancing. That’s right. My auntie (the perfect hostess) thought outside the box for an activity which was an unique experience that got the blood pumping and included wearing heels. In two two-hour classes, salsa and cha cha were among the moves we embarked under the careful eye of Philippino ‘snake-hips’ Danny, and damn those Philippinos can dance! When we were partnered up with our own Latino professional, I could paint a picture of sultry, sweaty grinding and shimmying, but as I towered over my partner by a good 5inches, it was more me trying to avoid knocking him out with my hips. But ai karumba! It was fun!

Sophie Saint was one of the original travelettes, from 2009 – 2017. After fleeing the UK with ink barely dry on her graduation certificate, she traversed the world with a backpack and spent a few years living in Melbourne – one of her favourite cities in the world.

She finally returned to the UK after a few years where she now whiles time away zipping off for European escapes, crocheting and daydreaming of owning her own hostel somewhere hot to live out eternal summers. See what she’s up to over on her blog and instagram: @saintsonaplane