Gaya Street, the oldest street in Kota Kinabalu, has been the best place to shop and eat since the early 1900s. In its early life, known as Bond and Dunlop Streets, the area was filled with Chinese traders, and it’s still buzzing today.
Gaya Street was all but razed during World War II, with only a couple of structures remaining, including the old general post office, now Sabah Tourism Board. The first permanent modern shophouses were completed in the early 1950s and as the town grew, the city’s oldest hotel, The Jesselton, was added to the landscape.
A red Chinese-style gate at the start of Gaya Street is a nod to the traders who originally settled here. Today it’s the tourist heart of the city with cafes, bars, backpackers hostels and boutique hotels. It’s still a great place for Chinese food, and many of the noodle and dim sum restaurants are generations old.
Since early times, a weekly tamu (market) was held in Gaya Street. Highland farmers and immigrant traders would meet to barter their products. The traditional continues today and every Sunday Gaya Street is closed to traffic from 06:00 to 13:00 to become Kota Kinabalu’s busiest street market.
It’s a great place to rub shoulders with a cross-section of the local population. Under shady trees and umbrellas, hawkers offer everything from predictable tourist tat to the unusual and sometimes bizarre. Stalls worth seeking out include the numerous ubat kampung stalls — selling traditional medicines that range from colourful bundles of sticks, and snake oil to the not so PC, dehydrated seahorses and mystery animal parts.
Try the readymade bright yellow bottles of jamu (traditional tonics). Huang Poh Lo, the epitome of multicultural Malaysia, is an Indian man skilled in Chinese and Arabic calligraphy. He does a roaring trade, with queues of lovesick young Chinese waiting for romantic messages to be inscribed.
Multicoloured striped kek lapis (layer cake) is cut into pieces to try. Strings of pearls, exotic fruit seedlings and colourful and rare orchids are all on display. Black and gold traditional Dusun clothing sits next to “I’ve climbed Mt Kinabalu” T-shirts. Handmade traditional gongs, wild honey, and breastmilk soap (yes, human breastmilk — they have five local suppliers!) are all there for the bargaining. And there’s even an ice-cream truck. Try some local fruit — the unique tarap is sweet and gooey. It’s native to Borneo and doesn’t travel well so this may be your only chance. If it all gets too much, squeeze into one of the nearby buk kue teh or Laksa shops for a bowl of steaming deliciousness.
If you happen to be in Kota Kinabalu on a Sunday, it’s well worth spending an hour browsing the stalls — you may pick up a bargain or two.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 5th April, 2016.