Kinarut is one of those small towns that tourists always pass by but never actually stop at. Located only about 20 minutes south of Kota Kinabalu, visitors on their way to see the proboscis monkeys in Beaufort or white-water rafting at Padas River are bound to pass through this area. Fortunately, the highway doesn’t actually pass through the town centre, thereby rescuing the town from becoming another drive-through McDonald’s look-alike. Just like the towns bypassed by the North-South highway in Peninsula Malaysia, Kinarut has managed to retain its old-world charms. The “town” consists of 2 rows of shop houses facing the railway tracks. On the other side of the tracks is a Chinese school where the majority of the students are Kadazans and further away to the left is a small Chinese temple with some interesting Buddhist statues in the garden. The wooden shop houses have managed to survive the ravages of time, and the town pretty much looks like it is stuck in the sixties. The fact that this situation has remained despite its proximity to the rapidly developing capital city is nothing short of a miracle. Perhaps the people have wisely decided to leave Kinarut as a place to escape to during the weekends. With its location just next to the seaside, it is a good place for a holiday home (even if the cleanliness of the beach and sea leaves much to be desired).
I went there one late Friday morning and there were not many people in the coffee shops. Perhaps the time was not right (too early for lunch and too late for breakfast), or perhaps most of the people in Kinarut are working in nearby Kota Kinabalu and Papar. The mini bus drivers called out to me as I walked past. Their business must have improved since the trains stopped running about a year ago due to upgrading works on the tracks. The rows of wooden shop houses are perhaps of interest to those into preservation of heritage buildings. I am not one of those people, but it still felt good to be in one of these old coffee shops, so I sat down and made small talk with the locals while having breakfast. My Nescafe and economy noodle with one piece of tofu costs RM2.50.
Kinarut’s population consists of the Kadazans who live in the interior, the Bajaus and Bruneians on the coast and the Chinese somewhere in the middle. Most of the shops and fruit plantations are owned by the Chinese. You can find some of them manning the fruit stalls along the road to Papar. It wasn’t always fruits that they sold. According to some people, the Chinese here used to sell coal by the road side, and this was how the town got its name. “Kina”, as in Kinabalu and Kinabatangan, means China, and “rut” is the corruption of “road”. So Kinarut actually means China Road. Of course there is no way to verify this and the story has been disputed. Could Kinarut also be the name of an indigenous group in Sabah? More historically correct is the story that Kinarut was once the stronghold of Sultan Abdul Mubin from Brunei who escaped to this place during the Brunei civil war in the 16th century. He built a fort and stayed here for about 10 years becoming the king of Kinarut. The fort lasted well into the 20th century but finally succumbed to nature’s fury. A forest fire destroyed the fort and nothing remains of it today.
Away from town, Kinarut is surrounded by small villages and paddy fields on one side and seaside resorts and the beach on the other. If you are looking for a place to stay by the beach, the small resorts here provide cheaper and more private alternatives to the 5-star resorts. Locals are also buying houses here because of the cheaper prices and seaside location. Nearby, Kindawan Riding Centre is a popular place for horse-riding and there are hour-long rides by the beach for beginners or more difficult rides into the countryside. Further away is the forgettable Panorama Kinarut Mansion. A few pillars are all that remain of this once grand mansion of a rubber plantation manager. Much more interesting is the replica of a sininggazanak in a paddy field in Kampung Tampasak. A sininggazanak is a wooden statue erected to commemorate a person who had died without heirs. A 30-minute stroll through the beautiful countryside will take you to this place.
Kinarut is not a must-visit (or even a should-visit), but rather is a place for you to go to if you are in Kota Kinabalu for more than a few days and is looking for something not too touristy or tiring. Personally, I like visiting obscure towns in foreign countries. It is one way to really get to know the people and the country besides being able to show-off to your friends by naming towns that they have never heard of! Because of its proximity, Kinarut makes a good day trip for the locals who want to spend a day by the beach or take up horse-riding. Foreigners will perhaps be more interested in the villages and walks through the countryside.
The easiest way to Kinarut if you do not have your own transport is to take the train.* The North Borneo Railway steam train for tourists used to stop by in this town for 5 minutes for guests to visit the nearby Chinese temple. If you prefer a more leisurely and less expensive visit, take the normal train. As the frequency of trains is not guaranteed, it is advisable to make your way back by mini bus. Mini buses are plentiful and can be found waiting for passengers just opposite the wooden shop houses in front of the railroad tracks. For those with their own transportation, drive south pass the airport and follow the road signs to Papar. After passing by the army camp on your left, at the next traffic lights, turn right. If you miss this junction, do not fret as the road leads to a T-junction after crossing the railroad tracks. Turning left will take you to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park and right is the old road to Papar. While the old road to Papar will also take you to Kinarut, the road is quite bumpy and the turning to Kinarut is not as well-marked, so it is preferable to take the new road. (*At the moment of writing, the railroad tracks are undergoing upgrading works and are expected to be operational only in 2009).
Further reading: http://www.mzm.sabah.gov.my/bm/kenalimuziumanda/kotakinarut.html