Kota Kinabalu (KK) on the surface seems like a calm, serene and stable city. You won’t be stunned by amazing architectural beauties staring at you or brilliant cityscapes gracing the streets but soon the surreal and indescribable sunsets will slowly convert your mindset as will the inherent friendliness enveloping the winds because of the happy locals who seem to have an aura of welcoming hospitality.

You will then start noticing swanky malls with glass facades standing proudly to attract the modern shoppers but with equal grace stands firm the old-world charm of KK which is seen through the local markets stocked with pearls, handicrafts, dried and fresh sea creatures being pitched by the vendors and sellers who form the soul of these markets.

Pasar Malam or night markets are a speciality found in many Southeast Asian countries. The USP of these market is that it caters for all those who need more in their lives than parties and clubs when the sky has changed glorious colours with sunset and darkness envelopes the skies.

The darker the skies, these Pasar Malam get boisterous and livelier. And the most prominent one in Kota Kinabalu is the Filipino Market which stands proudly opposite the plush Le Meridian as if proclaiming for those who care to hear that no matter how much luxury and newness may come and go but we hold firm to this ground.

Filipino Market

The huge Filipino market located overlooking the ocean is commonly known as Pasar Besar (Central Market), Pasar Filipino (Fish/fruits/vegetable/handicraft market) and Pasar Ikan (Fish Market). This market made up of hundreds of tiny stores, is undoubtedly the best place to shop for souvenirs. The narrow, quaint lanes feel like some game of treasure hunt as you are enveloped with wares and people, colours and energy, laughter and food and so much more. This high energy market filled with old world charms makes you invariably fall in love with everything you see. You simply start feeling the spirit of belonging there.

The list of things available there for sale range from fruits and juices to handicrafts and souvenirs and stalls cooking up local delicacies that fill the air with a fragrance that makes you want to sample everything even if you were not hungry, to begin with. Bargain bargain bargain- as everything here is negotiable as smiling vendors literally try charming you with their smiles, coaxing you to buy what is on offer. A little smartness and negotiation can ensure you leave with an equally big smile on your face.

Filipino market or Central market in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Filipino market or Central market in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Handicrafts and Souvenirs

You will find the best-handcrafted souvenirs and varieties of Sabah pearls available at stalls here. Freshwater and seawater pearls in various shapes, colours and sizes are available which can easily be customized to make jewellery of your choice, be it earrings, pendants or rings.

Vibrant batik print t-shirts, sarongs, scarves and cloth bags, leather bags, rattan handbags, wooden beads and colourful bracelets and accessories, printed t-shirts and the beautiful wooden handicrafts form the highlight here.

You literally feel like a kid in the candy store trying hard to figure what to buy and what to let go. Fridge magnets with the quirky Borneo monkey smiling back along with ‘I love Sabah’ and more designs and varieties of key chains along with photo frames and so much more, make good gifts to take back home for friends and family.

Also read: Exploring the indigenous arts and crafts of Sabah

Souvenirs at the Kota Kinabalu Central Market, Sabah
Souvenirs at the Kota Kinabalu Central Market, Sabah
The Fish Market: Salted and Fresh 

This section of the market is a haven for seafood lovers as you find a vast variety of dried and packed items sourced from the sea. Seafood processed crackers, dried shrimp, dried salted fish, dried seaweed, dried sea cucumbers, many kinds of mixed local snacks and more. The dried packets might entice many but here you find stalls selling poultry and beef along with fish, crabs, prawns, squids, lobsters etc too.

Sabahans at a local market
Fish at the local market
Fruit and Vegetable Market

What amazes you as you enter this section of the market is the sheer variety of colours and smells as tropical fruits like mango, watermelons both red and orange, melons, durians, pears, coconuts and more that entice you in all their glory along with large plastic boxes filled with fresh juices like mango, watermelon, lime, sweet lime, coconut which was a pleasant surprise especially since they’re iced and garnished with cut fruit too. The vegetable market is at a little distance which offers the best produce at decent prices.

Fruit stall at the Kota Kinabalu market
Fruit stall at the Kota Kinabalu market
Food Stalls

The smoke filled cooked food stalls spreading the aromas of various meats and seafood in the air can be found on another side of the market. Every stall has a unique taste and aroma. Your taste buds can relish dishes like grilled crabs, fish, fried prawn tempuras, barbecued squid, seaweed, and stingrays. Don’t forget to sample the local delicacies like Murtabaks, Malaysian KuihMuih, and terangbulan. Satays of all varieties, be it chicken, prawns, beef or pork peek mischievously as a lot of finger food lies enticingly as you to pop one in your mouth.

Food stalls at the market, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Food stalls at the market, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Location and Time

The Filipino Market is at JalanTunFuad Stephens which lies opposite the Center Point shopping complex. It’s centrally located, thus making it very convenient for all the tourists who come there from the various parts of the world. It’s connected to the Jesselton harbour which is home to various clubs and restaurants and this entire area is brightly lit up all through the night. This market begins at 5 pm in the evening and continues till wee hours in the morning.

My Takeaway

This market was a unique experience for me, as it was an amalgamation of various cultures and races, most dominantly Filipinos and then Malays. The smiling faces and cheerful demeanour have imprinted themselves on my heart and soul.

A cute and chubby Malay lady sang Shahrukh Khan songs for me in Hindi while two She boys posed happily, grinning at me as I grinned back. A young 10-year-old over smart boy readily posed for a picture but got super embarrassed as I tried kissing his cute face. A sullen baby looked cross as I tried making her smile as her amused father looked on indulgently. An old lady selling fish tried hard to look away as she found herself facing my camera. A shopkeeper with her baby strapped to her waist like a baby kangaroo indulged me with a picture.

As the sun started setting in the background spreading a glow of happiness around me and I moved towards the harbour for a much-needed drink and many more memories for my lens and heart.

Also read: 7 Interesting Things We Found in the Kota Kinabalu market you’d love to know about

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