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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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All aboard … The North Borneo Railway starts up again!