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  • Writer's pictureRick

East Malaysia Day 2: Trying Various Rice Wine in Kota Kinabalu (亚庇)

Sunrise in Sabah was around 6am. The traffic along Jalan Pantai, especially the loud engines of motorcycles, and guests dragging their wheeled luggage along the corridor outside my room were my “usual” alarm clock despite me trying to switch them off with ear-plugs. I was awoken at 5am and struggled to crawl back to dreamland for 2 hours.

I left the room at 8am, went to Yuit Cheong again and ordered their roti bakar (toast) and hot Milo (brand of a chocolate drink) instead of my usual kopi-o — I planned to visit a cafe in Australia Place later. After finishing the butter-kaya toast, I got a bowl of beef bakso from the noodle stall that opened in the morning only. The bakso was a refreshing morning dish especially after squeezing some lime juice into the light soup.

Toast & Bakso @ Yuit Cheong (悦昌)

Then I went to BIG Pharmacy just 2 units from Yuit Cheong to buy a small bottle of mouthwash and an insect repellant bearing in mind I had liquid items and weight constraints if I wanted to avoid paying for check-in baggage when flying back from Sabah.

10am, I came to Australia Place again and revisited the area as though I was first time here, taking photos of the buildings and shops. Not far away, sitting on top of a small mound, was Atkinson Clock Tower — in the same “work improvement” state as it was 7 months ago. The odd-triangular building, called Wisma Inti Utama, was a unique landmark. The building seemed abandoned but it was marked as “Australia Place Hostel” on Google Maps.

Australia Place

Lucy’s Homestay, or Backpacker Lodge, was where I had stayed after returning from a journey to conquer Mount Kinabalu in 2008. Biru Biru Cafe was not opened until 12pm or maybe even later. Nook Cafe was closed for the day for monthly cleaning. October Coffee House was opened. So, I went in.

I had missed the Irish scones on Cameron Highlands about a month back and seeing that October Coffee House had it in their glass shelf, I went for it with an ice shaken espresso coffee called “sakeso” — and made it double shot. The frothy iced coffee was served in a wine glass. A search for “sakeso” online seemed to indicate that the coffee, or the name, was unique to October Coffee only.

The scones had crispy outer crust with raisins but soft inside and were served warm. Accompanying the scones were butter, cream and jam to be slathered on the scones before eating. I watched a video on how Irish ate scones, and followed. That was how it should be, right?

Scones & Sakeso @ October Coffee House

I had entered into my own comfort zone of soaking in a cafe and began to desire that everyday would be like this — that was what I did 7 months ago. At 11:40am, I kicked myself out of the cafe and started walking around the city centre of Kota Kinabalu.

First, I went back to Mee Young Holidays again to check on other tour packages but they were either fully-booked or no participants, except for Mari Mari Cultural Tour that was always available — but it could not arouse my interest. I kept it in reserve for future consideration.

I decided to go to KK Sentral to get some information but the weather was so hot that I e-hailed a Grab car for just 1.4Km. What seemed like a pretty straight walking path to the bus terminal from Pantai Inn took the Grab driver several loops and turns to maneuver due to the ill-organised roads. I could have walked if it was not for the hot weather, but, to be frank, the Grab ride did save me few minutes.

At KK Sentral, I came to the new Centralised Ticketing Counter — it used to be 2 counters managed by individual bus companies 7 months back, one offered bus services to Brunei, the other to Tenom and Keningau. I asked about bus services from Brunei to Miri or Kuching — not sure. I asked about train services between Tenom and Beaufort — not sure. I did not get any answers. But, to be fair, they were sales staff, and my questions were not directly related to the services they were providing. If the counters were managed by the express bus companies, they would be able to call up their local offices and get information.

I walked back. From KK Sentral, I used the covered overhead bridge to cross the road, which led me to Plaza Wawasan shopping mall. I cut through the mall and came to a long covered linkway that led to a matrix of interconnected sheltered bridges which then led to several street malls and I reached Seng Hing Coffee Shop (成兴茶餐室) without breaking a sweat. If I had knew that path before going to KK Sentral…

Walkway to KK Sentral

I had Tuaran Mee fried with yellow wine (黄酒炒斗亚兰面) at Restoran Seng Hing. Rice wine in Sabah was generally called lihing but the Sabah-Chinese-made yellow wine, also a rice wine, was also called huang jiu (黄酒) in Sabah, whereas rice wine made by the indigenous people was called lihing. The noodle dish was sweet-savoury with great flavours due to the sweet and aromatic self-made glutinous rice wine. Really good.

Tuaran mee with rice wine @ Seng Hing (成兴茶餐室)

On the way back to the hotel, I passed by a certain local market, asked if they had rice wine — they did! So, I bought a bottle for RM15.

Back at the hotel, the cleaner had tidied up the room even though I did not hang the “Please make-up my room” sign outside the door. Pantai Inn was providing better hotel services than most of the budget hotels that I had stayed in. Except for the window facing the road, all were good although they could not do much with noisy guests. If I were to come to Kota Kinabalu and stayed at Pantai Inn again, I would ask for any of the rooms facing the back alley with a small car park — hopefully, the noise level would be lower.

I took a cold shower, boosted my phone battery, sipped a cup of rice wine, which was much sweeter than Seng Hing’s rice wine, and made plans for the next destination — Tenom.

Yellow rice wine in Kota Kinabalu

I would not be making a big loop to Tawau or Semporna since I was not into diving, I chose to do a smaller loop to Tenom and Beaufort then back to Kota Kinabalu. I had not excluded Brunei from my travel yet, but there would be cost escalation if I were to go to Brunei since all booking platforms had indicated there were no longer any bus services between Brunei and Sarawak (to the west of Brunei) — I would need to fly either from Brunei or Limbang, in eastern Sarawak, on last-minute bookings. But if that was the case, I might as well fly from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching and cut short the trip since the original objective could not be met. Anyway, I would decide after Tenom.

The real adventure of the day was during dinner. I wanted to try local Sabahan dishes and came to Little Sulap (or Little “Magic”) in Australia Place at 6pm. It was a small restaurant to the rear of The Atkinson Place, a hotel. There were few diners. I seated myself in a corner and browsed the menu. Two similar items on the menu, which I believed were the signature dishes, had the same ingredients except that the dish called “Original Sabahan” was with rice while the other “Ambuyat Set” was with a bowl of starchy substance — called ambuyat, extracted from the trunk of sago palm. Ambuyat was the national dish of Brunei and also a local specialty dish of Sarawak and Sabah.

I remembered the one reason why I had wanted to dine at Little Sulap even before the trip, so I asked if they still served butod, or sago worm — they did but were sold out. They would have it only when available because it usually took days to find the wriggling fat worms.

From the list of lihing (rice wine) on the menu, only “tumpung” and “lihing” were available. Since I had a bottle of rice wine in my room, I opted for tumpung, which was actually the glutinous rice residue after fermentation of lihing. It would be added with water before serving. I presumed that it would be sweetened and with ultra-low alcohol content like most Chinese fermented glutinous rice sold in Singapore supermarkets, but it turned out to be less sweet and stronger in alcohol content — more like the raw residue itself without being diluted. It was always good to try things, they might just turned out different from expectations.

Ambuyat dish & tumpung @ Little Sulap

When the ambuyat set dish was served, I did not know how to eat it. I fumbled with the utensils, then asked the staff. I was supposed to use the chandas, like chopsticks with one end taped, to roll up the starchy ambuyat and dip it in any of the sauces or ingredients and eat it. It sounded easy but I took close to an hour to finish the meal — I appeared to be playing with my food in the eyes of the other diners but those who ordered the same ambuyat set as me used forks and spoons. Well, I had my entertainment whereas they had their meal.

After the meal, it took me more than an hour to finish the 800ml tumpung — it contained a large amount of rice even after fermentation. I had thought of abandoning it but it was still alcohol and I simply soaked myself in the restaurant, sipping it slowly and observed other diners.

Just when I was about to finish the drink, it rained heavily. Took me another hour before leaving the restaurant at 9pm.


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