Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Living the Good Life in Kota Kinabalu

So many adventures, and so little free time to write about them....

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, we arrived in Kota Kinabalu for the first time on this Fulbright trip on January 11, 2012.  It was my second time here, the first time being in January 2007 as an External Examiner for the Universiti Teknologi MARA (aka UiTM) to visit their Sabah branch campus, review exams and write a report.  I was here for three or four nights and fell in love with the place.  In addition the the great diversity of physical landscapes, from Mt. Kinabalu and its surrounding highlands to its beaches and many islands, I think it was the way people here get along and relate to each other that made it the focus of my return.

Kota Kinablau from AirAsia (click on photo for larger view)
Double rainbow over the Central Wet Market area on the KK waterfront at sunset.
This was supported by comments made while I was in KL last month by two friends (one Chinese and one Malay) who separately told me about how special they felt Sabah was.  In essence, they said that people in Sabah are Sabahan first, above their ethnicity, and that the ethnic strains of West Malaysia (aka Peninsular Malaysia) we far less evident in Sabah because of this. An Orang Sungai man who I met this past weekend in Kinabatangan (who was also part Filipino and part Sulawesi) told me the same thing in a discussion about language and the Sabahan accent that they all share.

Anyway, we were here for one week in January to find a place to live and to find a car to rent.  The problem we had was that apartment rentals are mostly either for the day (vacation rentals that are costly in the long term) or they want a one year lease.  We only needed three months (which I have since extended to four months).

After being a bit frustrated in the process of home hunting, we thought to ask the nice lady at the front desk of our hotel, Eden54. She said she had a friend who was a part-time real estate agent and she would ask her. Later that day, we were sitting in the hotel lobby looking at the local paper for rentals, when Susan introduced herself.  She said she had a client who had a place that might work for us, but she needed to confirm with her about the less than one year term.

Later that same day we finally looked at an apartment at the 1Borneo Hypermall -- billed as the largest shopping mall on Borneo.  1Borneo is a large, sprawling complex of structures all jumbled into one, including hotels and a couple of apartment towers. It also has the highest concentration of fully furnished apartments that can be rented on a daily to monthly basis.

1Borneo Hypermall (click on photo for larger view)
The one we looked at there was OK.  It came with everything, including a rice cooker, though the furnishing were quite bare and it was a little worn.  1Borneo is somewhat far from KK's great downtown area, but it is closer to the UiTM campus and would have worked.

We then got a call from Susan and so our hosts from the university took us to look at the place she had.  It was a brand new apartment, no one had ever lived in it!  It had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, though overall was only about 1200 972 sq ft.

 Our new home (click on photo for larger view)

The location was just outside of the downtown, but only a 10 minute walk to the very popular Foh Sang and Damai eating districts!  It also has a small gym to work off all that great food.  The price was RM2000 a month (USD$667), plus utilities, and after a few minutes of thought we grabbed it. (Fulbright gives us RM1500 a month for housing, and KK tends to be more expensive than most other parts of Malaysia, except KL.)

While it was not fully furnished when we looked at it, Susan and the owner managed to get us everything by the time we moved in on Feb. 1st, including a washing machine, rice cooker and microwave oven.  The only downside has been a second block (apartment building) that is under construction outside our bedroom window, which makes for some noisy daytime hours (actually they work almost 7 days a week and as late as 11pm on some days - the workers live in the building that is under construction).

One nice feature of our apartment is a shoe cabinet outside of the front door.  Here in Malaysia everyone takes their shoes off before entering a home.  Many homes have shoe racks, and some, like ours, has a shoe cabinet where we could actually lock our shoes -- though we never do that.  The floors of homes here are all  very smooth and usually large tiles, which make sweeping easy to do (with the ceiling fan turned off).  They also help to keep the homes cool on very hot days.

Children of the constructions workers playing on the site.
Our friend at Hotel Eden54 also contacted the company that she gets rental cars from for her guests.  He gave us the best deal yet on a monthly rental (with insurance).  We got a 2011 (almost new) Proton Saga for RM1700/month (USD$567; Fulbright does not cover this cost).  It is a four door, automatic transmission sedan that was designed and made in Malaysia. Interestingly, while it has air conditioning, it has no heater, because they are not needed so close to the equator.  There are cheaper cars available, but they are tiny boxes that are more like toys than cars.  Thank you Ling Ling.

I bought a GPS unit because even though KK is fairly small (population about  200,000) and compact, some streets can be pretty confusing.  while I could probably figure it out eventually, the GPS saves a lot of time in having to do that!  Driving in KK is interesting because of the use of center u-turn lanes.  These are often placed in the middle of a long street so people do not need to go all the way to the next intersection to do a u-turn.  They are everywhere and widely used -- first and only place where I have ever seen this.  In addition, I always find driving on the left side of the road a lot of fun (I'm serious, I like it).

Another interesting car-related note is that all of the cars in Malaysia come with backup beeping systems. When you approach an object while backing up it starts beeping.  The closer you get the faster the beeps come, until it goes solid, which means you better stop.  I know that this is an option on some cars in the US. Because of the often tight spaces in Malaysia, it is required for all cars here -- and I really appreciate that.

The Foh Sang morning wet market (click on photo for larger view)
Our purchases typically include some breakfast items, as well.
In our local neighborhood, Foh Sang is our favorite destination.  The 10 minute walk to get there makes a nice little exercise when getting vegetables and breakfast items (like Chinese meet baus) in the morning, or going out to eat in the evening.  We try not to go out too often because we have both put on more pounds than we would like since we got here.  The nearby City Mall (a 20 minute walk, though we usually just drive) is one of the new malls in town and has a really good food court and a huge Giant Hyperstore (groceries and household items; like a smallish Walmart Super Center).

How Lee is one of the more popular evening restaurants in Foh Sang.
(click on photo for larger view)
So now we are living the good in of Kota Kinabalu.  We are enjoying it so much that I managed to change my research plans to spend four months (or close to it) in KK, instead of just three.  Now I need to get back to work...

Chinese New Year lasts 15 days and even though fireworks are illegal in Malaysia, it was a very noisy in our neighborhood each night until the middle of February. (view from our window)
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