A few years ago, I still had to make visa runs to live in Taiwan. That meant every 90-180 days, I had to an excuse (and was forced) to leave the country, so I could re-enter and restart the counter on my visa.
So, I took a few four day weekends and had some great mini-vacations. Generally, I would just look for the cheapest flight out of the country and that would be where we would go. (I use skyscanner.com in case you're wondering. They have an option to search for flights to everywhere from your location and I use that to find cheap flights to random places.) That's how I chose Kota Kinabalu. A new route had opened up on AirAsia, so the round trip ticket was around 200 dollars U.S.
Before leaving, I had prepared some cash, but not that much. I had my debit cards and was confident I could pull money out in the right currency. We'd be arriving on a Sunday and wouldn't be able to exchange money anyways.
Well, I was wrong about their ATMs. In Malaysia, at least where we were, they only accepted cards with security chips inside--which mine didn't have. We walked around the city for hours the first evening, trying every ATM, none of them worked. We even had a local guy try to help us. No go. In the end, our hostel owner said they would take us to the airport the next day to try the ATMs there and the money exchange there.
Yeah, that didn't work. We were basically penniless on vacation.
Our kind and lovely hostel owners, a local couple, took pity on us and lent us money. I had my dad Western Union over some cash to cover the expenses. But still, what a nice owner, no? She said we reminded her of her daughter and took pity on us.
The hostel was also one of the nicest hostels that I've ever stayed in. I highly recommend it. We had no plan and no idea what there was to do in the city, so the second day we wandered down to the docks. The city itself doesn't have much to see, so so far we were kind of unimpressed. Well, after an hour of chilling at the pier, we were convinced to book a boat for the next day to do some island hopping. A private boat for the two of us. A private boat tour. So worth it.
Being a hot girl (like my friend) has its benefits.
While snorkeling on one island, the young local snorkel guides wanted to show us everything. They would dive down and pick up random objects or creatures to show us. That included a puffer fish and an attempt to grab a sting ray (which I quickly said no to).
We had almost every beach to ourselves and had lunch in the rain (courtesy of our tour guide) in a cute little bungalow. It was like paradise on those beaches. When we were on our way back to the mainland, the boat captain let us drive the boat for a bit and we made a special swing by Water Village. Both of the men had grown up in the poor area of Kota Kinabalu called Water Village-- a town build on the water. When the locals made more money, they would move to the main city.
The village were make shift houses (some sturdier than others) built on tall docks. The stilts they sat on reached into the sea. There were all shapes, colors and sizes of buildings and even a church.
As we rode by, all of the local children laughed, hollered and waved and jumped in the water to show us how cool they were. Everyone we passed grinned and waved. We felt like rockstars.
That night, we agreed to go with our guide and captain to a hookah place. We knew to be wary, so we made sure we let our hostel know where we were going, and got their card and number. We didn't plan on staying out long and we sure didn't.
A few minutes into the meeting, the guide decided he wanted to call my friend "cutie" and ask her to be his third wife.
The captain told me, "I used to live in the Water Village, but now I'm successful. I have three TVs. Three. TVs." He either said TV or computer; I'm not 100% but pretty sure it was TVs because I wasn't particularly impressed. I told him I lived in Taiwan. He said that it was no problem; he could call me everyday. We could still be married.
Needless to say, we did our best to politely get the hell out of there.
The rest of the trip involved KFC in plastic bags, and a tour misunderstanding (the hostel worker didn't understand that we wanted to do the mountain tour so we missed it, but then the hostel owner was so kind that he took the day off to drive us up there through crazy fog. In the end, we didn't see the giant flower, but did enjoy the hotsprings....I cannot express to you how great the owners were.)
All in all, the islands were beautiful, the hostel was great, and the city was not.