The wonders of Gaya Street, Sabah’s fun time weekly market

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ February 14th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Parcels of food for sale on Gaya Street Market

Parcels of food for sale on Gaya Street Market

Gaya Street Sunday Market is worth the visit

I’ve a tainted view of markets. They are either very local. Or, if hyped up a lot – very touristy.

Just stay in the city to see it. The Italian pizza maker told me. Yes, I’m cheating on Malaysian food already and taking a break. Actually the pizza maker has been a great contact. An expat in Sabah. Who better to learn from about a living in Sabah as a foreigner than someone who’s already done it!

Get an early start to Gaya street market

The market starts at 6am every Sunday on Jalan Gaya. I was there at 4am.

I had the notion of taking photos of “local” people setting up the market. I sat there alone, in the dark with my cold pizza for breakfast.

And, I continued to sit there for quite a long while.

Weaved Baskets on Gaya street Market

Everything from weaved baskets to household plants and pets are for sale here

By 6am there were a few cars arriving along Kota Kinabalu’s main street. The locals, were in fact business types, and suburban house keepers setting up their stalls.

So no live chickens, and on the spot cooking for me then.

Try again later

So yes, I dipped back to bed for a couple of hours and reemerged near lunch time to see Gaya street filled with hustle and bustle. My worst fears were over, it wasn’t a giant touristy market. Nor was it a “local” market. It is for lack of a better word; akin to a farmers market.

By farmers market I mean, a suburban farmers market.

The diversity of Gaya street Sunday market

Starting at one end I was greeted by rows of fresh milkshake and juice makers. A good start! Then came the freshly baked cake stalls, and the little banana leaf packets of food.

Then came the rows of house plants for sale. Followed by a splattering of letter boxes, wood carved household ornaments and some weaved baskets.

Plastic Chinese toys were featured next as I hit the middle of the market street. Just in time for some freshly ground Malaysian coffee at a stall to give me a pick me up. Wow, are these people pros.

Tropical fish, sea shell ornaments, more food, books, DIY kits, music CD’s, plastic bowls, more house plants and even cats and dogs.

Tourists and locals in Gaya Street Market

No pressure Tourists and locals in Gaya Street Market

Meeting Emma

In mid conversation with a lady serving my coffee, I caught the glare of dark-haired Asian girl. Having just mentioned that Gaya street reminded me of European or small town USA farmers markets I sarcastically re confirmed my opinion.

“It’s true,” came the reply. “It’s just like one’s in France.”

And, so I met Emma. Who was French Polynesian. And, on the tourist trail.

Gaya street market is unique

Unlike many other Asian markets, Gaya was out in the open. A one day a week event. Spotlessly clean, and has the distinct feeling of an upper end car boot sale. Though much nicer according to Emma.

To counter all this into a very nice summation. I like Gaya street market. I am not pressured here. It’s like a community market for everyone.

There are no touristy, buy this, buy that type antics here. We noted how local people seemed to have their regular supplier of treats.

How the couples visiting here were quite stereotypical. The Malaysian ladies dressed up quite nicely, and seemed to have a habit of bumping into friends to talk about their purchases.

Gaya Street market in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

Gaya Street Market is more than just shopping, it's community ...

Meanwhile, sleepy Malaysian husbands carrying lots of bags, seemed to be wishing they were somewhere else!

Gaya streets market community means something

It’s relaxed, it’s friendly, it’s un-pressured, it’s filled with the ambiance of community. Something I’ve not felt in many markets, or places for a long time.

Back at the pizzeria I sat with Emma. Yes, she too was looking for a break from Malaysian food today.

The pizza man all knowingly winked from the kitchen.

“I tell you it was good, no?”

Gaya street market is indeed one of those rare places that signals many different things. In this case it says you can belong here if you want …  So sayeth the pizza man.

Peeling back the layers of Kota Kinabalu

From smoky night markets to Sunday street markets. Forest reserves to islands in the sun. Kota Kinabalu is a tourist destination. It’s really not hard to get around at all. But, I am wondering how much of all this is a touristic facade? A show for tourists and the wealthy of Sabah.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the above in some regards.

However, I’ve learned that sometimes to see what a place is really like, you need to dig a little deeper.

Go a little further into the suburbs and life is very different.

I’ll show another side to the Sunday market a little later on. But for now, I really want to find some sort of challenge. And, I really want to see what lies beneath tourisms freshly painted image of Sabah, Malaysia.

Coming Soon:

Going to places I shouldn’t be …

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20 Great responses to The wonders of Gaya Street, Sabah’s fun time weekly market

  1. Ciki says:

    How the couples visiting here were quite stereotypical? Don’t the women just wear shorts and tshirts and flipflops? LOL
    Oh, you found the pizza place.. good and affordable huh? is it still crowded for lunch?

    • Ha, I noticed many middle aged ladies with big handbags than the younger generation and short shorts. And, I did keep an eye out ;) Not sure if we are talking about the same pizza place. Mine is a tiny tiny cafe. Very affordable!

  2. Hmm, I can see ourselves enjoying a suburban farmer’s market. Curious to read more about your adventures in our neighboring country (I’m originally from Indonesia :)) — a visit to Malaysia is so overdue.

    • Hi Jill, didn’t know you were from Indonesia! Certainly would recommend Sabah for a quick holiday. It’s a little pricey, at least I think so for anything longer. Next week I should be bringing something a little different ;)

  3. I went to the Gaya Street market expecting a bit more of a local market with authentic things like blowguns from the jungle of Borneo. It was a little different than I expected, but it was a very friendly, interesting market like you said.

    I was impressed by a potted tree seller who sold many varieties of Durian trees!

    • So was I! Well, maybe not blowguns. But I was thinking live birds, a little slaughter here and there. Not to mention the odd local person selling tribal stuff. Disappointing in that sense. Then again, KK is not exactly the Borneo of old. I hope Kalimantan is more like that!

  4. iamthewitch says:

    I love the part about Sleepy Malaysian husbands wishing they were somewhere else! LOL! I hate to say this but it certainly reminds me of my other half! There must be something that makes men so against shopping :P

  5. Jason says:

    Hey Dave, The photo’s and your description makes it look all so very orderly. I got a laugh when you described the ‘Sleepy Malaysian Husband’ wishing he were somewhere else. It seems Malaysia and many western countries have something in common on that one. I’m looking forward to your posts, where you do scratch the surface and dig a little deeper.

    From memory there was a shanty town just outside of KK on the ocean, with many houses perched on stilts over the water. Not sure if you’ve seen it yet, but it may be worth a look. I never had a chance, as I was on a bit of a whirlwind trip, at the time.

    • Hey Jason, it’s pretty orderly alright. I was expecting something more crazy. All very civilized. Reminded me of French farmers markets. Even a bit cleaner!

      Yes, been to the shanty town. The last time I visited a place like this was in The Philippines I was bombarded with PC comments and email about using the term “Slums”. I imagine something similar will happen next week :)

  6. Liv says:

    Cool, bak chang (picture 1), glutinous rice balls with usually a pork and chestnut filling, wrapped in pandan leaves. Chinese in origin, with a myth/legend to match, usually prepared for the autumn festival. Very filling.

    By chance, did you spot any salted fish? Actually, you’d smell them before you see them.

    I hear you about digging a little deeper. It takes a while to learn the hidden beat of a place.

    • Well spotted, and thanks for the translation. Many things seem Chinese of origin here. Though every time I mention it people scoff at me! Ha. Yes, I saw the salted fish, smelled it too. But I have to admit since the Philippines it’s not my favorite! Will try to get a photo of some drying for you soon ;)

  7. Greg says:

    Well?!?!? What happened with Emma?? :)
    (Or is that for another post?)

    I love reading your descriptions of these kinds of things – markets, shops, festivals – things that are ordinary to the people there, but somewhat exotic to outsiders. You have a very factual, yet descriptive style.

    • Ha ha, yes, Emma will have to be one for the book :) Thanks for the Kind words. I like to see things that locals see, kinda helps breaking the ice. Though next week might not meet everyones approval!

  8. Anna's World says:

    I love Markets. So interesting to see a “farmers” market in Asia. You have such a good insight into these things!

  9. Abby says:

    Aw, that sounds great! When I was there, my friend was always on the hunt for healthy, fresh food. She knew all of the expat stores and her favorite local stalls. It was fascinating. She’s recently moved up to Kota Marudu, and I wonder how she’s faring on the food front! Our conversations now usually turn to bugs…

  10. Meimei says:

    Hello! I’m really enjoying reading your blogs about Kota Kinabalu. It’s very informative and fun to read. My family will be going there this August and it’ll be our first time (obviously), we’ll be staying there for 2 weeks. Excited and anxious about it. Dunno where to begin as newbies to the area and traveling. So yeah, search, search, search the net for information about Kota Kinabalu, hotel “shopping” and bookings, tourist spot researching, and the likes. Whatever information we can get about each place is a necessity and a huge help. hehehe… Gaya street has already been in our listm too. ^_^ I’m a big pizza-lover myself, so I was wondering if the Pizza place that you went to is still in the center of Kota. May I know the name? ahehehe… And I was hoping that you’d be a consultant of some sort about Kota if you don’t mind. ^_^ Will continue on reading the rest of your blogs. Thank you~ =)

    • Sadly the Pizza place I referred to closed down recently. It wasn’t “mainstream” enough. There are, however several others around Kota Kinabalu, but the prices are rather high. Not been able to find another like that one.

      All that said, Kota Kinabalu is a great town, with lots to see and eat. Hope you enjoy it!