How A Malaysian Resort Company Is Weathering The Coronavirus Pandemic

What with travel and movement restrictions worldwide by the coronavirus pandemic, the hospitality and travel industry is undoubtedly one of the most impacted. But while many hotels struggle to stay afloat and running despite empty rooms and cancelled reservations, one company in Sabah is proving that it pays to diversify.

Formed in 2007 in Kota Kinabalu, Echo Resorts – a family business which owns Gayana Marine Resort, Bunga Raya Island Resort and Borneo Eagle Resort –  is keeping busy amidst the worldwide pandemic. Founded on the principles of family and community values, it has a wide range of interests covering hospitality, environmental conservation and wellness – and while its hotel division is not operating due to global travel restrictions and the Movement Control Order in Malaysia, it’s business as usual for the other divisions.

Organic Food Supply

Its Borneo Eco Fish Farm by Bayu Aquaculture Sdn Bhd and Green-Os organic vegetable farm has seen a rise in orders from consumers and restaurants since the pandemic began. The fish farm rears an assortment of fish and prawns, including the Backcross Grouper Fish and the Echo Grouper, a hybrid produced by back-cross of a male giant grouper and a female hybrid grouper. The farm adopts environmentally friendly practices, including chemical and antibiotic-free organic feed, to ensure product quality and safety.

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Green-Os organic vegetables, locally farmed without the use of pesticides or chemicals, is popular for its variety of organic vegetables grown in healthy, fertile soil created by quality compost and organic fertilizer.

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“As a result of the Movement Control Order and a conscious desire to adopt a healthier lifestyle in the midst of this pandemic, we are seeing increasing delivery orders from the public. We are pleased that the public are recognizing the benefits of consuming natural, wholesome produce,” says Gillian Tan, Echo Resorts’ owner representative.

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The supplies are also delivered to Alu Alu Kitchen, the group’s restaurant located in the city, which was opened with a mission to serve fresh, organic seafood and vegetables from the farms. Its talented Head Chef Ah Keong creates nourishing menus inspired by Chinese and Malaysian influences to bring out the fresh tastiness of the produce untainted by chemical fertilizers and obtained from sustainable sources. According to Tan, home orders placed at Alu Alu Kitchen has also increased significantly since February, with some families placing orders for the whole lockdown period.

Alu Alu-Fresh Prawn & Vegetable dish

Marine Ecology Research Centre – Corals, clams and seahorses

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In the absence of visitors, the group’s environmental conservation arm, the award-winning Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) attached to Gayana Marine Resort, is devoting more time to research and development of its reef regeneration and giant clam propagation programmes, including caring for the Baby Giant Clam nursery. MERC’s successful efforts in the propagation of seven of the world’s giant clams found in Malaysian waters were recognized by the Malaysia Book of Records. The team has also expanded their R&D to include seahorses which have been overly harvested for supposed medicinal values. The recent births from two male seahorses have provided much excitement and encouragement into the behaviour of seahorses with the hope of increasing the seahorse population in the foreseeable future.

Health and Wellness

Reflecting the increasing current global awareness for health, Klinik Gayana and Gayana Pharma from Echo Resorts’ health and wellness division, are registering a higher demand for its supplements and medical services.

Employee Welfare

To keep employees safe and productive in this difficult time, the company has taken concerted action by providing training programmes, educational courses and encouraging voluntary work.

Tan says, “We understand it may take time for travel to return to a semi-normal state and we have decided that this is the perfect time to go back to basics and reinvest in education and training. It has always been our ethos to give back to the local staff, and this is a wonderful opportunity to take them back to school.”

With the temporary closure of Gayana Marine Resort, Bunga Raya Island Resort and Borneo Eagle Resort, 50 hotel employees are deployed to render support to Green-Os (organic vegetable farm), Borneo Eco Fish Farm by Bayu Aquaculture Sdn and Alu Alu Kitchen – aimed at helping them gain a deeper insight into different areas within the group’s approach.

Besides volunteering to man the three resorts during this lockdown period which meant sacrificing time away from their families, employees are also putting their time to good use by making 800 reusable masks for all ECHO staff.

Tan adds,” Employee welfare and wellbeing remain the very core of our business. No employee has been made redundant. These may be trying times, but it has also revealed the tenacity of our people and it has been beautiful seeing everyone rally together to weather this storm.”

As part of its community outreach during this time, Echo Resorts has also contributed towards 2,000 food packs to affected families in need on Pulau Gaya.

 

 

Events in March: Kota Kinabalu Jazz Fest 2018

Hey, KK folks, what are you up to this weekend? 🙂

If you’re a fan of jazz music, do head on down to Sutera Harbour Resort, where the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Fest will be making its return from 9 – 10 March, from 7PM to 11PM each night.

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Credit: Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival

The annual fund raising event, which is jointly organised by the Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu and the Society of Performing Arts, is set to bring together a crowd of thousands, with an impressive lineup of local and international acts.

Slated to perform this year is American songstress Sybil Thomas, daughter of the legendary Rufus Thomas and an iconic jazz performer in her own right, Italian a capella orchestra Mezzotono, as well as talented homegrown acts Rozella, Jumero, Albino Deer, Alu Alu Project, The Movement and Esther Applunius, among other.

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Credit: Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival

Aside from enjoying the awesome music, festival attendees will also be able to do their part for charity, as the money raised from ticket sales will be used to fund deserving community projects in Sabah. Some of the past projects that have been funded by previous festivals include a clean water project for villagers, literacy programmes, Avoidable Blindness campaign, environmental protection programmes, free medical services to rural communities and more.

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Credit: Kota Kinabalu Jazz Fest 

Tickets are priced at RM104 for a one night pass, and RM154 to get admission for both days.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit kkjazzfest.com.

**Photos courtesy of KK Jazz Fest 

Clean Water for Communities – Kampung Kalampun, Keningau, Sabah

Water. The bringer of life.

Most of us who live in cities never stop to think about how precious this commodity is; simply because it magically appears every time we turn on the tap. In an ideal world, everyone should have clean water as a basic right to survival – but that isn’t the case. A UN report in 2013 revealed that 783mil don’t have access to clean water, and 2.5bil don’t have access to adequate sanitation: resulting in 6-8mil deaths annually from disasters and water-related diseases.

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ll remember that I went to Sabah for work a couple of months ago. It was for a story I was doing on an NGO, Raleigh Borneo, and Coca Cola Malaysia, for a project called Clean Water for Communities. Coke provides the funding, while Raleigh does all the groundwork together with other local NGOs: identifying communities in need, roping in volunteers, and building clean water systems for villages. Couldn’t write this here since it was still embargoed, but since it’s now published, I thought of sharing it in my own words. 🙂

Set off early in the morning from Kota Kinabalu in a 4WD together with Raleigh staff, through the scenic Crocker Range. The mountains were high enough that the tops were shrouded in mist. When it wasn’t foggy, the view was majestic.

Our ride took four hours. I was a little surprised when we got to the village, Kampung Kalampun in Keningau district, because it was just next to a well-paved road – no bumpiness or trekking through jungles and stuff. I was  told that they had opened this new road a few months ago, so it was much more convenient to get to now. The place is home to about 150 families from the Murut tribe, most who work in nearby oil palm plantations.

Villagers and volunteers were waiting for us at the community hall – a concrete structure next to a long wooden one.

Raleigh’s youth volunteers (aged 18 – 25) come from all over the world, and they take part in the community project as part of a 3 month programme, which also includes exploring the wilderness of Borneo. Volunteers stay in the village, where they eat, sleep and work with the villagers while building the Gravity-Fed Water System (GFWS). An overwhelmingly large number of volunteers were from European countries, with some taking a gap year from their studies. There weren’t as many Malaysian volunteers – which I don’t blame, since it isn’t really in our culture to take long periods of time off for volunteerism.

The volunteers showed me where they were staying – a simple wooden house with kitchen and shared bedrooms with mattresses and mosquito netting.

Considering that they had a bunch of about 30 teens living in the same space, I thought the house was kept quite neatly 😀 It must have been a big change for them, coming from their cosy homes to live in a place with only basic necessities.

Taking a wooden bridge across a small stream to another section of the village, where they have a well-kept primary school.

School assembly area.

School field. After the volunteers’/villagers’ day is done, they often come here to play sports and games.

Neat wooden homes with bright coats of paint.

Again, I found it surprising that this quaint little village, despite its amenities such as electricity and a school, did not have access to clean water and have been relying on a rainwater harvesting system for their needs. On days when the rain fails, the womenfolk have to carry water from a river located several KMs away.

According to the people at Raleigh, this was one of the ‘nicer’ villages – there were some that were truly located deep in the interior, with no electricity, no water, no nothing.

For rainwater collection. 

Made our way back to the hall area, where some of the villagers played traditional Murut instruments while the village chief and NGO staff officiated the tap opening ceremony.

Volunteers posing with Sadin Limun, village chief, in front of the communal water tap.

Pretty Murut ladies in traditional costumes, featuring colourful floral motifs and embroidery.

The youths and children putting on a traditional dance show with bamboo sticks. Volunteers also composed a song about their time in the village. Despite the cultural and language barriers, it was heartening to see how they bonded over a common goal and came to relate to each other on a human level in such a short time. Goes to show that given the time to understand each other, we are all the same on the inside.

Volunteers taught the kids English in their spare time, and the hall was papered over with cute drawings and art projects.

Time for lunch! The villagers had prepared a Murut feast…

Many of these dishes were unfamiliar, some used local herbs, spices and roots; but most were tasty. 

After lunch, some volunteers took me to look at the water system they had built; a 10 minute-drive through bumpy jungle roads and vegetation.

Our 4WD got stuck in mud, so we trekked to the site. It was difficult for me since I wasn’t exactly fit 😀 So I could imagine how hard it was for some of the volunteers who had to make this trip every day, toting buckets, pipes and equipment.

About 15-20 minutes in, we finally came to the small concrete dam, which was built so that water pressure would be able to flow through the pipes and down to the village. The water source has to be free from contaminants such as fertilisers; especially since the area around the jungle was palm oil plantations.

Back at the village, it was a bittersweet goodbye. Most of the volunteers were leaving the next day, but I had no doubt they brought away valuable life lessons. 🙂 

Heading back to KK.

It was a very eye opening experience and one of my favourite stories to write about so far! 🙂  I was truly touched by the villagers’ easy smiles and hospitality, and their close relationship with the volunteers. It also made me appreciate what I have and not to take things for granted. Kudos to Raleigh and Coca Cola for their great efforts in bringing clean water to these communities so they might have a better quality of life.

 

Exploring The Handicraft Centre (Filipino Market) & Salted Fish Market @ Kota Kinabalu Sabah

If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that I was recently in Kota Kinabalu for work. It was my first time there, and I was itching to explore…but my itinerary was pretty packed so I only managed to sneak out for a couple of hours on my last day.

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A good spot to stay at is at Le Meridien KK, as there are several tourist attractions around. I walked across the road to the Waterfront, where I had a sunset dinner the night before. The view at daytime is still picturesque, with fishing vessels bobbing in the water and the dark green shadow of Pulau Gaya in the distance.

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Just next to the harbour is the Handicraft Market, aka Filipino Market. Housed in a bright yellow building with a green roof, the inside is an elaborate labyrinth of stalls selling souvenirs, handicrafts and knick knacks; from jewelry and clothing to bags and keychains. Be ready to haggle – you might even walk away with some good bargains.

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Outside, traders beckon to guests while working on pieces at their sewing machines.

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Colourful assortment of bags and clothing hang from the rafters.

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Magnets, plates, little wooden drums, pouches, wallets, masks, carvings… you name it, they got it.

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Dried fish is a specialty in Kota Kinabalu, and visitors will find that further down the road at the Salted Fish Market.  If you’re a girl, I suggest bringing a companion because I got catcalled .___.”

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Didn’t get anything, but if you’re looking to buy some snacks/souvenirs, these two spots are as good as any in KK. 🙂

More adventures to come!

Kohinoor North Indian Restaurant, The Waterfront Kota Kinabalu

Anjung Samudra @ The Waterfront Kota Kinabalu is home to a row of chic cafes and restaurants, where guests can chill while watching beautiful views of the South China Sea: boats docking in the evening and the shadow of Pulau Gaya beyond. The place is especially lively at night among tourists, expats and the local yuppies. It’s also where you’ll find Kohinoor, one of only a few restaurants in town that serve North Indian cuisine.

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Dimly lit interior gives the feeling of intimacy.

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For appetisers, we had Pakora – assorted fried vegetable fritters of onion slices, cauliflower and peppers. Vegetables usually absorb oil during the cooking process, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that these didn’t leave a greasy aftertaste. They were nice, crispy and addictive! The minty sauce accompaniment was also refreshing and further helped to reduce the greasiness. I could eat these all day.

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Butter chicken – spicy, creamy and filled with tender chunks of chicken. I could really taste the fragrant, buttery flavours in this!

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Clockwise from top left: Palak Paneer, a gravy made from pureed spinach (hence the green colour), tomato and seasoned with garlic, garam masala and a variety of other spices, Naan basket, Butter Chicken and a curry with mutton meatballs in it. Indian cuisine is heavy handed on the spices, so for those who are not used to it (like me!), all the different herbs, ingredients and spices can get quite confusing on the tongue after awhile lol.

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With so much sauce/curries/broth, one must have rice or naan (flatbread) to go with them. The version here is fluffy and light with a slightly chewy texture, browned at the edges from the baking process. You can also opt to have garlic or cheese added to the bread, but honestly? They’re good enough on their own.

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Biryani Rice

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Washed down our food with some cool and refreshingly sweet Mango Lassi. 

Overall, the meal was satisfying and portions were more than enough for the four of us. Service is also fast and friendly. Can be a bit on the pricey side, but hey, you get your money’s worth.

KOHINOOR NORTH INDIAN RESTAURANT 

Lot No 4, Anjung Samudra Waterfront, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen,
Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

Seafood @ Sinsuran Night Market, Kota Kinabalu Sabah

Located on the west coast of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu is a seaside town famed for its beautiful islands. It would be blasphemy, then, to come here and not tuck into its delicious seafood. One of the best places to get some is at the Sinsuran Night Market. Featuring dozens of stalls, each displaying gigantic lobsters, huge shrimps, colourful fishes of all shapes and sizes, giant oysters and juicy clams, this is Mecca for all seafood loving-pilgrims.

There are actually two sections – one where they serve cooked items, and another where you get to choose fresh seafood and have them cooked to order in a variety of styles.

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Don’t expect air conditioning here – the place, like its name, is a ‘market’ through and through, so expect to dine in heat, noise and smell under tarps. Since it rained before our visit, the asphalt was covered in puddles of muddy water.

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Cooked seafood laid out on the grill. I’ve never seen such gigantic tiger prawns – definitely not something you see often in KL! The smell and smoke opens the drool floodgates… 😀

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Cooked on the spot in woks or steamers over huge fires, giving your seafood definite ‘wok hei’.

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Squid, blood cockles, clams on trays. Visitors can pick the ones they want into smaller baskets and hand them to the staff, who will then prepare it in a variety of different styles: goreng tepung (flour battered and fried), sweet and sour, chilli, soy-sauce, assam, ginger, etc.

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Flower crabs. These are halal. Muslims can’t eat mud crabs because they can survive both on land and in the sea, and it is forbidden for Muslims to eat anything that is a ‘haiwan dua alam’, or creatures that can live in two different environments.

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There was even a blue parrot fish! Yes, I guess they can be eaten, but I’ve never tasted one..

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Lobster.

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Our table ordered seaweed. They’re not like the dried ones I see at the Japanese grocer – these have small round vestibules filled with liquid, attached to a stem. They are also called sea grapes (no points for guessing why!). The locals here eat it with a side of belacan (fermented shrimp paste) for a spicy kick. The ‘grapes’ popped in my mouth, leaving a salty, slimy texture in the mouth. Not my favourite, but it wasn’t unpleasant.

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Must try – Avocado juice! It’s not really a ‘juice’, seeing as how avocado has very little water content, but the drink is ice-blended so it has a creamy consistency. It was sweet, refreshing and tasted like honeydew mixed with vanilla ice-cream.

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Giant shrimps, cooked in a sweet and sour sauce. They were humongous but fresh and juicy, with loads of creamy roe in the head.

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My favourite dish of the night was the deceptively simple but delicious fried squid. The batter was savoury and crunchy, coating the springy squid perfectly. I could eat an entire plate all by myself.

So if you’re looking for affordable seafood, head to Sinsuran! Make sure you bargain with the staff to get the best prices. 🙂

SINSURAN NIGHT MARKET 

Lorong Guamantong, Sinsuran Kompleks, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Open daily: 3–11PM
Landmarks: It’s just behind the Filipino Market, across the road from Le Meridien KK.

Hotel Review: Le Meridien, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

During my recent trip to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, I stayed at the Le Meridien, a five-star hotel facing the waterfront along Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens. Conveniently located in the heart of the city, it is within walking distance to many tourist attractions, such as the Filipino Market, the Handicraft Market, Oceanus Mall and seafood markets.

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The room was spacious but it wasn’t particularly outstanding – a little dated in design. There was a couch with some magazines such as Time on the coffee table, a double bed, TV with a good selection of channels and a work table.

Was informed by staff that there’d be ongoing construction works during the day, and to expect some noise. It was really loud though! Good thing I wasn’t in for most of the afternoon. Also, the plugs at the table weren’t working so I had to unplug one of the bedside lamps in order to charge my phone.

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Full length mirror on the side, tea and coffee making facilities, safe, hair dryer in the drawer, closet with a foldable ironing board.

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Bathroom was very spacious, with a shower and a bathtub (love bathtubs!). The tub looked a little old though, with stains at the bottom ._. the plug wasn’t working well either so water kept trickling down the drain slowly and I had to keep refilling the tub. I did like that they provided a cushy bathrobe though.

20161208_171301-tile Surprised that they didn’t provide toothbrush and toothpaste… although they did have shower caps and basic toiletries.

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View from hotel window.

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The next morning, I headed down to their breakfast buffet…which redeemed the meh experience I was having so far quite substantially. 😀 There was a good selection of local and Western favourites. Of course, I couldn’t miss the customary – hash browns, baked beans, sausages, ham and bacon beef slices.

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Cosy, elegant-looking dining space at the coffee house on the ground floor.

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Cereal and drinks station with options of fresh/low-fat milk, and juices.

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The local station, where they served up curries, roti jala, roti canai and the like.

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Freshly fried eggs and omelette station. Told the guy ‘telur mata kerbau’. He nodded. When I came back, he gave me a regular omelette. .__.” I was too lazy to ask him to make another one so I just took it.

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Noodle station where guests can customize their dish to order by adding different condiments.

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Bread, buns, biscuits, croissants,muffins, cakes. Had the croissant; it was crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

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Salad corner with cold meats and greens.

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Porridge counter. Surprised to find that they had century egg! 🙂

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My breakfast platter, washed down with a glass of cold millk.

Overall, the stay at Le Meridien was pleasant, although I was quite disappointed with some of the room facilities despite it being a five-star hotel. Also it’s not nice to be paying so much but having to listen to loud construction noises throughout the day.

LE MERIDIEN KOTA KINABALU

Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Sinsuran, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu – Of Sunsets, Rain and Pisang Goreng Cheese

I’m lucky to have been to a lot of places. The UK, the US, parts of Southeast Asia… so it’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve never been to East Malaysia. Living near Kuala Lumpur, the central hub of the Peninsula, there was little reason for me to venture there. Recently I had to travel Kota Kinabalu for work, so it was a good time to play tourist in my own country…

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Flight via Malaysia Airlines took close to three hours. They served decent airline food – rice with boiled vegetables and ginger fish with a side of peanuts and water. Juices were also available on request.

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It was evening by the time we checked in at Le Meridien KK, just across the road from the Filipino Market. Here, visitors will find all sorts of local delicacies, produce and snacks such as fish crackers, amplang and kueh cincin.

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It started raining cats and dogs almost as soon as we got to the market, but the PR guy I was with wanted to get Pisang Goreng Cheese (fried bananas topped with cheese) from a food court about a kilometer down the road. We decided to brave the rain with flimsy umbrellas, but had to stop at the nearby Oceanus Mall because we were soaking wet.

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The mall seemed sad and empty in the evening. There weren’t many patrons and most of the shoplots were empty. We bought socks to replace our soaking wet ones. While strolling around, we heard a shout, a loud bang, and next thing we knew a huge gush of water came pouring down from the upper floors. Security guards rushed over.. turns out a panel under the escalator gave way.

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The rain eased a little. We were privy to a beautiful sunset view at the mall’s ocean front, where boats were docked for the night.

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Finally made it ! Pisang Goreng is a well-loved Malaysian snack, similar to the Filipino banana cue. A few years ago some genius decided to put shredded cheese on top, and this simple addition resulted in a popularity boom. The version here uses generous amounts of savoury, stringy cheddar, which does wonders for the crunchy battered bananas. It was also drizzled over with some syrup for added sweetness.  Worth the walk in the rain!

More of KK to come. 🙂