Night market in Kota Kinabalu: a tourists night out

Selection of Malaysian food at Kota Kinabalu night market
Vender serving up a selection of dishes at the night market – notice the smiling faces in the background

Night life in Kota Kinabalu

There are bars, and clubs in Sabah, Borneo. I was invited by a group of tourists to a bar last week. I sat at a table very bored for quite a while. When the Karaoke kicked in, I ran.

We had very little in common to talk about as well. Either I am interrogated with 1001 questions I’ve heard so many times before over my years of travel. Or, I end up listening to the same old “party” stories I’ve heard throughout the same years. Boring, I know.

So, I do what I enjoy; something different. Let’s take the slightly intoxicated tourists to the night market and see what they make of it when their tongues are as loose as their stomachs are hungry.

Karaoke bar in Kota Kinabalu
Karaoke bar vs food

The Night Market in Kota Kinabalu is one of the most famous food courts in all South East Asia

The night market is located off Jalan Kampung Air. Near to the old Filipino craft market. And, is open from late afternoon (5.30) until the last paying customer is ready to leave (late).

Wafts of thick sweet-smelling smoke fade into the night sky by the waterfront as a the hum of life mixes with the hisses of hot food. A cacophony of tarpon, canvas and plastic sheeting usually overs the open area. Hanging from them bright single light bulbs, strings of black wire and the odd sign. Few list their prices.

The group of young, mainly British and Australian, tourists are silently curious. The girls slightly braver than the guys in looking around various stalls with a smile.

But, at the same time the twenty-something girls are not so keen on plastic chairs and the “unknown meats” on display.

The night market offers a culinary mix of food dishes from all of South East Asia

Indonesian, Filipino, Chinese and of course Malay foods are most prominent. With seafood stalls taking up the largest area. Followed closely by open buffet style containers of local dishes.

Fish stall at the night market
Fish stalls are all located in one area

Further into the market you’ll come across fruit stalls, vegetable stalls, and fresh fish stalls all selling in a quiet and discreet manner. There’s no shouting or hawking it in the loud sense here. Though a few small boys do jump out every now and then to spoil a photo unless you give them a ringgit.

But, no one will grab your arm and try to pull you into buying something.

Unless of course you are a male 20 something Australian tourist trying to act smart and juggle fruit in front of the 20 something girl you’re trying to impress.

This will result in a large Malaysian woman handing you a bag of said fruit and demanding money for it!

Local night out, everyday life, or tourist attraction

The surprising thing about the night market to me was its sheer size. I was delighted to see it go on and on for quite a long walk. The later it gets, 7-9, the more crowded it becomes. Nothing too overwhelming, but a lot of stopping and waiting can happen when people spot something cooking with a loud hiss, or something tasty grabs their attention.

Mixed into this mass of food seekers are more locals than tourists. The locals look more like people just finishing work from around the city. Whilst the tourists are the typical one’s with cameras at the ready, the odd confused look and the occasional frown at a live fish gutting.

The price of food in Kota Kinabalu’s night market

There’s always a catch to these things. And, whilst the average tourist will not bat an eyelid at paying USD $5 for a plate of fresh squid, prawns, rice and a drink. I nearly collapse.

“Find a smiling vendor, don’t point a camera, smile back, and there’s a good chance the price won’t increase”

There are of course a few really hiked up tourist prices at some of the stalls. In my case I found the Filipino section to be especially expensive. While the Malay stalls were a lot cheaper. Roughly speaking for a buffet I paid 1.5 Ringet per spoon. So for 2 full plates it cost me only 5 ringgit.

I found sticking with the Malay foods at the night market resulted in more food for lesser cost than a typical Kota Kinabalu mall vendor meal.

Bargain is in Kota Kinabalu's night market food stalls
Bargaining for a better meal at one of the stalls

Tips on how to barter at the night market

  • Watch how the locals do it. If they are bargaining, then you should be prepared to as well
  • Speak Malay! Yes, speaking Malaysian is a must if you want to really barter here
  • At the minimum, learn how to say hello (halo – not hard eh?) , and how much (Berapa banyak?). That alone will help a lot.
  • Avoid showing up with a camera photographing everything, pointing to things and asking “What’s that?”. Act like you’ve seen it all before
  • Always ask how much when ordering something. Sounds simple, but many don’t
  • Bring your own drink, it’s a lot cheaper, and no one ever complains

Best tip:

Stand next to a Malaysian when they are ordering, watch what they order and what they pay. Point, and order the same thing.

(Watch out for the odd sneaky vendor who will still over charge, and say it was a larger “fish” e.t.c., always ask the price)

Is the food there any good?

Yes, it’s really good. I’ll have to give my own nod to the Malaysian vendors for having the best tasting food. I found the people on the outside better than the cluttered inner stalls.

The group just went with noodle type basics, but at least two did venture in the territory of unknown meats.

Ordering lots of small-sized dishes and sampling everything can make for a fun night with or without beer. In this case, a less crowed stall works out very well as the friendly locals will give you a lot more attention and explain all the food types to you.

If at all possible bring a Malaysian friend to tell you what everything is, highly recommended!

Is the night market in Kota Kinabalu clean, or will I get sick eating there?

This was a question a young college girl from the group debated with her friends as we ordered. If you’ve seen open markets before, or have traveled to developing countries then this night market will seem no different in terms of cleanliness.

If you’ve not traveled before, then be prepared for smokey air, plastic plates that are still wet, hands on your food and wet utensils – at least this is what this group complained about the most

My advice to you in the latter case is to go early, look around. Eat a small dish, and if you like it come back for more. Or, come back the next night if you are worried about your stomach. Quite honestly this is super fresh food, cooked in front of you. I’ve never gotten sick from eating in places like this.

People eating at the night market in Kota Kinabalu
Sit down, and very soon you’ll be talking to the locals about their day

A night out in Sabah, or a hangout place?

Without a doubt, for me the night market is a great place to experience Sabah, and a wealth of food from not just Malaysia, but from all of South East Asia.

It’s big, it’s fun and it has a lot on show. For the long-term traveler or budget traveler make friends with one vendor, and you’ll be eating well for the length of your stay.

Hang out with tourists vs locals: the real test

After their meal the young tourist group got up to leave. Their conversation had remained within this closed circle. I bid them goodnight as they walked back to the karaoke bar.

To me they had still missed out on one of the greatest attractions of Kota Kinabalu; Sabahan’s here are some of the most friendly and easy to communicate with people I’ve come across.

As a solo traveler it’s simply a joy to sit down at a table here and start talking to locals as they join you for dinner at the end of days work.

An evening of big smiles, conversations about their day, a snippet about their lives plus your own. This is what makes for a golden experience in travel.

A bar is fine in the evening. But, you can do this nearly anywhere in the world with only mild differences. There are however, only so many occasions you can get to eat really good food, and have this unique golden travel experience of everyday talk with local people.

One thing for sure, if you are in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, don’t miss out on the opportunity to visit this night market!

Address: Jln Tun Fuad Stephens Sinsuran

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All aboard … The North Borneo Railway starts up again!

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40 Replies to “Night market in Kota Kinabalu: a tourists night out”

  1. I have not come across a place like this where it seems so easy to mix with locals. Looks like a giant canteen! Great stuff as always mate.

  2. LOL, the great thing is that you don’t need to be a barter expert to survive the night markets in Sabah/Malaysia. Great advice on slinking close to a local and just pointing out the same thing they order. The great thing about our markets is that they hardly cheat you on price and for fruits, the prices are normally clearly displayed for all to see. Great photos dave!

    1. Night Markets are no problem. Though electronics markets I notice a huge difference. I got a price (sticker) that was really high for a simple sensor pump, and just brushed it off. The lady dropped the price by 50% straight away.

      Strange how all the fruit is priced??? That’s a rare thing to see

  3. Brava, Dave. Few dare to break away from the crowd, and step outside their comfort zone. I’m glad you’ve chosen to highlight (very gently, I thought) some common traveler behaviours.

    I’d balk at a US$5 meal too, in Borneo. I’d complain mightily if a simple bowl of noodle soup was anymore than RM3.00 (though I do start grumbling at the RM2.50 mark because I remember having a bowl for RM1.80 max). It’s gotta to be one special bowl if it’s priced any more than that!

    Have you considered a local’s take on tourism in their town? I’ve always wondered how the majority feel about having these strange looking folks hanging about their town. I know I was disconcerted when I first began noticing Westerners in my hometown, and being cheesed off when some very lovely historic buildings were taken over by tacky souvenir shops.

    1. Thanks Liv. I could have been harsher about the tourist group … there’s a good chance I’m letting it all build up!!

      Very much agree about the prices you quoted. There are more tourist eating in Italian restaurants over here than in the night market it seems. Let alone the local markets. I understand some people just come here for a break, but the fact that there are so many international restaurants here says something.

      Yes, I will do something about a locals take on tourism, a very good idea! I’ve tried in the past, but the problem is one usually gets an auto reply geared towards not causing offence. Usually something to do with “it’s good for business” or “it’s our place, and we are proud to show it off”. However, I will plan something quite different to highlight this subject matter. It’s quite a few weeks off yet. Hopefully you’ll still be around here to read it by then!

    1. It really is easy Jessie. All they have to do is sit down at the big table you saw in the photo and the local people will sit down next to you! It’s that easy! But so many just go in groups and couples and don’t feel comfortable sharing table.

  4. Great insight into a night market. And the food looks great. I think these are tips you can use anywhere in the world where you are visit. Very good advice!

  5. Come on Dave, you could have cracked out a quick rendition of Bette Midlers ‘Wind beneath my wings’ before leaving the Karaoke bar.

    I love a good night market but always seem to gorge myself on to many fried delights, with eyes always bigger than my stomach.

    The final tip you gave about standing next to a local and watching them pay, before ordering is one of the most important things any new traveler should learn. It’s hard for the vendor to overcharge you once you’ve witnessed the local price, although some will try.

    Liked the black and white image. I reckon B&W always look best with a busy scene.

    1. Ha, Jason, trust me there’s someone singing a very loud version of Hotel California on my left side as I write this.

      No matter the food at the night markets, I still get a craving for those deep fried things too. Especially murtabak, no idea why!

      I really like black & white photos, markets I think can look well with them. Likewise if those neon signs are just to bright for color!

  6. These dishes look absolutely awesome. Thanks for posting this great article. And I also have to thank you for sharing these amazing tips about the night market. Very useful indeed.

  7. Great post! We definitely missed out when we were in KK last year. We ended up way down away from town because we were doing a weekend escape. We just didn’t realize how that escape really was!

    Since there’s an new direct flight between Taipei and KK, we plan to come back again this year and do some diving and more exploring — and definitely check out the night markets!

    Talking about the price on a bowl of noodles makes me think of an article I read recently in Taiwan (which does have tons of cheap priced night market food) that we hold claim to the most expensive bowl of beef noodles (a local specialty) in the world! Apparently, there is a restaurant in Taipei that serves $324 beef noodles! Needless to say, foodie or not, husband said absolutely no on trying that one. LOL

    1. Ha, $324 for beef noodles, I don’t blame your husband for saying no on that one LOL. If you go to KK, then for sure the city center is actually pretty nice. Certainly for SEA it’s very peaceful, well administrated etc. The night market is certainly good fun if you are into lots of food.

      There’s also some diving and snorkeling just 15 mins aways from the port on a couple of islands. So yep, lots to do for you return! Most importantly, no expensive noodles around!

  8. What a nice read with some humorous lines in between! :) It looks like you’re getting very well-versed with the local language and customs! Well done! I love the peanut pancakes in your second last picture, have you tried them before? Have fun exploring Sabah and always looking forward to your (mis)adventures! :)

    1. Very glad you enjoyed! Can’t say I any good at Malay yet! Actually I am terrible, but a few words help out :)

      No, I’ve not seen those peanut pancakes anywhere else. So maybe this is another Sabah original?

      1. Nope, those peanut pancakes are common at markets, and I’ve seen them at some hawker centres. BUT the type varies, depending on the ethnicity of the vendor. Malay vendors favour thick doughy versions (a bit more dearer), while the Chinese vendors will make you thin crepe-like, crispy versions (cheap).

        I know them as Ampang Balik.

        1. Good information Liv! I have to admit that I not a huge peanut fan. I don’t dislike them, in fact I like raw and roasted peanuts. But in food dishes, I tend to shy away. So I generally avoid poking too deeply into anything too peanutty.

  9. Great pix and great indepth article. I was in KK a few years back (I took my PADI course there) and loved gorging myself at the end of the day at that market. Yummy!

  10. I’m going to Kota Kinabalu in October with a friend, so I’m sure we’ll check this out. Sounds like lots of fun!

  11. Wow, would you look at that! Food in South East Asia (well I only tasted part of it but still) is insainly tasty. When I think of it, it’s going to take months and months to have all those delicious cuisines.
    Night markets have some sort of power. It’s toxicated..but in a good way.

  12. Great writing and useful information. Hope to experience Malaysia myself sometime. Looking forward to your next adventure

  13. Let me tell you what my diet has consisted of recently:

    jam and popcorn
    pasta and popcorn

    I have yet to try pasta and jam (thank God). And then I stopped at your website and there are these phenomenal photos of food that makes me salivate from thousands of miles away. I would say “thank you”, but I might be too envious to function.

    1. Ha ha. Why, why, why? Are you so isolated you only have popcorn and jam? Odd combinations! If things get to the stage of jam and pasta, I’ll send you a care package!

  14. Sounds like my kind of place! And of course I’m now starving having seen all those pictures…

  15. There aren’t many candid articles nor guidebooks about KK, and glad I stumbled unto yours. I’m all for cheap but great food! But as for nightlife, any alternative aside from karaoke?

    1. Thanks, glad you like it hear. Emmm, you could try down by the waterfront. There are a few non-karaoke style bars there. BED, and the Cock n Bull spring to mind as having live music or the non-traditional kind. There are also a few places open in Kota Kinabalu’s Times Square, Bars, clubs etc. It depends on the day of week. Thursday and Friday’s are usually lively.

  16. Great post…and such a nice travel blog too…i lived there in KK more for 5 years from 97-2001 during my high school days, such a beautiful and nice city. Have you visited the islands in front of the city?

    please keep on blogging dude, such a long but inspiring journey to find a place we called home :)

    1. Thanks for your comment, and kind words.

      Yes, I’ve been to those islands. Weird ticketing system to get there, but relaxing once there is you pick an island not so crowded :)

  17. Hi Dave, is the Night Market at Jln Kampung Air or is it at Jln Fuad Stephens? I’m quite fabbled. :(

  18. Thanks for the post on this Dave.. I read it 30mins after checking into the Hyatt and seeing the smoke from my hotel room window. The wife and I ventured down 2hrs ago and although met by many stares rather than conversation (we are a bit of an odd couple to see round here) but was soon chatting with the stall owners over the fish. After much deliberation we decided to eat at ‘night stay’ at the far end of the first row.. wow the best squid I have ever eaten, we decided to take it easy this evening but we will return tomorrow and every night of our stay. It is a little strange to see fish to eat that would be worth £100+ in UK aquatic shops for your marine tank. I am sure we paid over the local odds but I didn’t barter due to the quality of the food. We are both photographers and this is an amazing photo opportunity, I will perhaps post on here again once I have gained more experience there.

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