Kota Kinabalu’s Best Open Air MarketsBy Marco Ferrarese
Traditional markets are the lifeblood of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. Since the “olden days”— when there were no supermarkets or malls in the region — local farmers, fishermen and hawkers would congregate in a weekly tamu (local term for “big market”), exchanging goods, food and gossip.
Visit Kota Kinabalu today, and you’ll soon realize that the ancient custom of tamu has collided with modernity, leaving behind a series of bustling street markets, unique shops and galleries. They celebrate both Sabah’s traditions and contemporary artistic creativity. Read on to learn where to find some of Kota Kinabalu’s most exciting markets.
Gaya Street Sunday Market
Every Sunday morning, the city’s main tourist thoroughfare, Gaya Street, transforms into one of Kota Kinabalu’s best-known open-air markets. Wander through locally run pop-up stalls selling everything from flowers to handmade souvenirs, postcards, local foods and even pets, such as goldfish, birds, dogs and cats.
It’s a great place to take a serene morning stroll and grab a local breakfast — either from the food stalls or the shops and restaurants that line both sides of this busy central shopping street.
For that special item that will forever hold memories of your Borneo trip, look no further than Changgih Designs. This social enterprise, started on a kitchen floor by a duo of sleepless moms with newborn kids in tow, produces beautiful collections of wallets, handbags, accessories, scarves and clothing that mix traditional Borneo motifs with modern designs.
The collections are all handmade by artisans from rural villages across Sabah. Changgih’s core mission is to give these underprivileged mothers in rural communities a chance to work from their homes as they take care of their young children.
You can browse and buy Changgih Designs’ trendy items at Nook Cafe, a popular bistro on Australia Lane, only a couple minutes walk from Gaya Street.
Api-Api Night Food Market at Gaya Street
Since December 2018, Kota Kinabalu’s busiest tourist street hosts markets galore, even on Friday and Saturday nights. The recently launched Api-Api Night Food Market provides opportunities for small local entrepreneurs, who drive here from all over northern Sabah, to join forces and peddle authentic local food, drinks, fruits and handicrafts.
At Api-Api, which runs from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., the focus is on food: Think Chinese dumplings made according to centuries-old family recipes or authentic local stingless bees’ honey.
From curry fish balls to tropical fruit shakes, Api-Api has something for everyone. In Lintasan Deasoka, a tiny square just off Gaya Street, food trucks, fashion and dance shows complete Api-Api’s weekend bonanza.
The Handicraft Market (Filipino Market)
Perched on the seafront, the Handicraft Market is another of the city’s most famous markets, and is within walking distance of the Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel. Open from morning until midnight, it is a lively mess of tacky souvenirs stacked next to excellent local handicrafts like batik, Borneo beads, cultured pearls and jewelry. Due to the high concentration of immigrant sellers from the nearby Philippines, this market is known to the locals as the “Filipino Market”.
Come here hungry, for there’s a smorgasbord of seafood stalls spilling onto the seafront next to the Pasar Besar complex. Don’t expect luxury: Sellers grill inexpensive seafood right before your eyes, serving it at rustic plastic tables, and often customers eat with their hands. Try to come around 6 p.m., as the sunsets are typically picture-perfect affairs of blazing pinks melting into bright oranges.
Segama Night Market
Strewn along an empty stretch of parking lots under the Segama Bridge, this is the oldest night market in Kota Kinabalu. It’s well-known for the wide choice of Chinese and Malay street food and good Indonesian staples such as bakso — a piquant noodle soup garnished with beef and spices.
Segama is also a tropical fruit lover’s paradise: Besides the juiciest mangoes, pineapples and papayas, if you come in durian season, Segama is the perfect place to taste the spiky, foul-smelling fruit.
Tamparuli Living Arts Center
About an hour drive northeast of Kota Kinabalu is the peaceful riverside town of Tamparuli. The reason to make a detour here is the Living Arts Center, an independent grassroots art gallery showcasing and selling artworks by some of Sabah’s most interesting contemporary visual artists.
It’s run by Herman Duang, an established spray-paint artist, who also works on his designs here. Pay a visit to Magic Borneo Beads, a small workshop-cum-boutique where artist Eleanor Goroh hand makes traditional necklaces, bracelets and earrings, sourcing beads and stones locally.
Try to time your visit on a Wednesday morning, when Tamparuli town still fires up with an incredible tamu when locals descend from the surrounding hills donning their colorful ethnic garb and keeping Sabah’s tribal market tradition alive.