A Gourmet Spectacle by Night

Enjoying the simple pleasures of Malay cuisine at the Kota Kinabalu night market


The idea of spending your holiday on a tropical island would for most, be one of the most heavenly ways to soak up the sun and release the body of all that built-up stress. During my stay at Gaya Island Resort, I couldn’t get enough of its blissful tranquillity. Yet after a few days, the urge to explore further afield got the better of me. Thankfully, a short boat ride away took me Sabah’s capital of Kota Kinabalu, where I discovered many interesting experiences, including its vibrant night market. 

A Potted History of Kota Kinabalu

The coastal city of Kota Kinabalu has a rich history of intense colonisation, rebellion and conflict due to its role as a very important commercial trading centre. Previously known as Jesselton, the area was under the influence of the Bruneian Empire, before the BNBC (British North Borneo Company) started to establish colonies all over North Borneo in the 1800s. They went on to establish further settlements which were subsequently destroyed by a freedom fighter known as Mat Salleh. The town became a major trading post dealing with wax, honey, and rattan and went through numerous conflicts when Japanese and British forces were fighting over the city.  The British eventually won their battle and worked hard to restore the city to its former glory.

When the Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963, the city was known as Sabah and the capital remained Jesselton. It was later renamed to Kota Kinabalu in 1967. This happened after Chief Minister Tun Mustapha bin Datu Harun passed a bill changing its name. On 2nd February 2000, it was upgraded to city status.

Market shopping at night

culinary experiences in Kota Kinabalu

Grab a few skewers. They are your most cost-effective food options, and the tastiest

Kota Kinabalu has a vibrant nightlife and one of the things that stand out is the night market. This is found off Jalan Kampung Air close to the old Filipino Market. It is open from late afternoon from around 5:30 until late (when the last paying customer leaves). There are numerous stalls here selling a variety of wares, allowing you to have an unrivalled shopping experience under the stars. It’s important to note that the market offers a culinary mix of scrumptious food dishes from all over South East Asia; some containing fresh local seafood such as prawns and crab.

Personally, the night market is one of these places where I could have eaten every evening, especially for the facts that I was not in the mood to get dressed and dine formally or be swamped over by groups of tourists in the larger branded restaurants that were located along the waterfront. Of course, the dining experience is much more simplified and, let’s be honest, basic. Nonetheless at a fraction of the price, without sacrificing the freshness of the food, who’s complaining?

Fresh catch of the day taken from the South China Sea

Fresh catch of the day taken from the South China Sea

Local delicacies

Walking around the different stalls, it was amazing to see how all the locals congregated together in the evening.  It’s intensely hot during the day, so sunset is when everyone heads out to the market.

Having already spent some time in Borneo, I was already used to seeing the seafood regularly cooked on display on the grill. However, make sure to take a shower afterwards to get rid of the smoky odour.  Meat is also on the menu, with chicken being one of my favourites. I may not be in the same camp as the majority, but at home, giblets were a delicacy alongside the Sunday roast. So it was to my extreme joy when I saw skewers of “chicken buts” on the grill, along with chicken hearts.  Clearly, the Malaysians don’t believe in waste, so my advice would be to double-check what you are ordering beforehand.  Also make sure that never to point with the index finger as this is frowned upon and considered rude. Instead, the whole hand should be extended, with the palm facing the downward direction.

The dining experience

Dining in Kota Kinabalu

There are no table reservations in this night market. Grab a seat and eat away with the locals

Plastic table and chairs are the best that is on offer in the market. Forks and spoon are provided (no knife), and there is a box of tissues in the middle of the table. There is also a running tap situated close by to wash your hands to was those sticky fingers.

The overall dining etiquette may not be the most refined. However, it’s exciting and enjoyable to see such a vibrant market in action. Furthermore, the appreciation of Malaysian food culture fully open on display is a delight for all foodies and their stomachs.

How to get there from the Gaya Island Resort

Getting to Kota Kinabalu from the Gaya Island Resort is only 10 minutes by boat. Just make your way to the Point Ferry terminal and transportation will take you right to Kota Kinabalu itself.

Your hotel

To make the most of this neighbourhood, stay at the boutique hotel, Gaya Island Resort, Kuta Kinabalu

Nathalie Salas

Nathalie Salas is a freelance travel writer and marketing consultant based between the UK, Italy and the UAE. Pursuing her passion of boutique hotels, she reviews hotels around the world as well as helping them to improve their marketing strategies. Nathalie is Editor & Founder of travel site Perfect Boutique Hotel, writing also for boutiquehotelnews.com, Masquerade and Global Citizen.

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