(STAR) JACKIE O' FLASH By Bea Ledesma - Travel is no longer a luxury solely for the wealthy. Thanks to the efforts of tourism, budget airlines and hotels, Asia has opened up as a destination for travelers looking for a sojourn that requires little more than your passport, a backpack and a map.

Neighboring countries around the Philippines have already opened up their ports to locals, trying to recreate the kind of synchronicity Europe offers.

The new vacation is no longer just a three-day jaunt to Boracay.

Now locals are invited to hop from Manila to Boracay to Palawan with a stop at, say, Kota Kinabalu to finish off the trip.

Luxury is no longer limited to high-end travel with equally high-ticket rates. Luxury is the freedom to travel at the drop of a hat. It’s about dreaming of a trip to KK and making it happen the next day.

Here’s how to keep cool in KK.

Choose more than one destination

Vacationers with more than a weekend to spare no longer have to limit themselves to just one destination. Seair, famous for its cheap fares, recently unveiled a new promotion they’ve dubbed “Paradise to Paradise Plus One.“ A new route passes through several vacation hotspots: Clark, Subic to Claticlan just off Boracay to Puerto Princesa, Palawan to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Rates between jumping off points begin at P2,660, for say Caticlan to Puerto Princesa, and P2,975 for Puerta Princesa to KK.

Employing the Donrnier 328, travel time between Palawan and KK takes less than an hour, making Malaysia a mere hopskip away from budget backpackers and travel-ready yuppies.

“Last year 45,000 Filipinos came to Kota Kinabalu,“ says Dato Seri Tengku Zainal Adlin, Sabah Tourism Board chairman and diving enthusiast. “We expect more growth with the inauguration of this Seair flight.“

The best part about this? No visas necessary for locals. Take your passport with you, a couple swimsuits and you’re good to go.

Call 894-0100 or visit www.flyseair.com for more info on flight deals. Engage the flight attendants in conversation.

Instead of the usual frowny-faced exhausted crew I encounter on long-haul flights, the flight attendants of Seair are peppy and eager to please.

With their gangly long limbs and easy smiles, these girls make the friendly skies seem friendlier. And funnier.

At the terminal before boarding I noticed the length of their uniforms. A good few inches above mid thigh. It’s the kind of unforgiving length only the truly skinny can comfortably carry off.

“Is it hard to sit in that skirt?“ I asked one of the grounds crew.

“Not at all,“ she said. “There are shorts underneath,“ she whispered.

“As far as I’m concerned,“ said a pervy old guy next to us, “they can’t be too short.“

Ewww, I thought. The girl looked at me conspiratorially and giggled.

“Thanks, sir,“ she answered gamely.

I noticed another flight attendant with chic, darkly-tinted nail polish during the flight. “What color is that?“ I asked, motioning to her nail lacquer as she served cinnamon buns.

“African plum,“ she said helpfully. When I asked what brand she offered to get her polish from her bag once the plane landed. Now that’s the kind of thoughtful service I can get behind.

Shop for finds

KK is famous for its sarongs, beautiful multi-colored wraps for men and women. Authentic sarongs are sold in KK’s largest malls, like Centre Point, which are host to numerous local tourist shops which carry all the trappings and trinkets that make for affordable pasalubong. Yes, a Sabah T-shirt is available almost everywhere.

But Malaysia is also famous for its local fashion lines. VNC has a local — and, keyword here — much cheaper version that offers stylish footwear for about P500 and up. Factory outlets are aplenty. Find generic T-shirts that fit well and cost little at the malls like Warisan Square. But the little secret here just happens to be computers. Malaysia is a big manufacturing hub and computers are available on the cheap. At the time I visited, store display Macs were being sold at less than half the price. Just be vigilant. Look for sales and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

KK also has its own — albeit smaller — version of Mall of Asia. 1Borneo Hypermall is the country’s largest and only hypermall. Built on 23.3 acres, it includes a fully-operational Auto Car City and a 30,000 square-foot oceanarium and boasts numerous hotels, bars and restaurants plugged across its wide expanse. One quirky addition to the must-see mall is the 1Borneo Rainforest, a 14,000-square-foot capsule tour of Sabah’s indigenous traditions and sights in a rainforest environment.

Location, location, location

While visiting KK, find a hotel near the locations you want to visit. The Mercure KK, a mid-scale hotel with budget-friendly rates (they start at 160 ringgit, you do the math), is located right off 1Borneo. Two steps away from cafes and restaurants, along with the locale’s biggest mall. (Visit www.mercure.com for more info.) Key point for kids: the lobby and public areas of the hotel offer free wifi. In fact, many of KK’s restaurants and bars, even the local KFC, offer free wifi, which makes it a godsend for iPhone or Blackberry addicts out there.

Hyatt is more centrally located. It’s connected to one of the more lively nightspots — there are bars just down the street. Malls are a five-minute cab ride away and you get a good feel for the city when you live so close to its main commercial districts.

Experience nature

KK is home to four heritages sites. Diving, mountain climbing and white water rafting are all available to adventure types. The Sabah Tourism Board chairman encourages tourists to enjoy all that Sabah has to offer. “Our diving spots are beautiful,“ says Dato, who regularly visits Sabah’s diving destinations, and has made a pilgrimage to Oz’s great barrier reef, along with Palawan’s diving sites.

For those who prefer to tackle nature at a more leisurely pace, there’s a wildlife park where you can watch Malaysia’s proboscis monkeys hang out. The most interesting part was just watching the animals chillax. The elephants were taking a break from the humid heat by bathing. One mommy elephant tried to push her baby into the water to no avail. Baby elephant scurried away and ran off to drier pastures. The tiger just hung out in his daybed, ignoring onlookers. A Malaysian sun bear stole my heart. Perched high on a branch, he was in deep REM, making everyone wonder: what exactly do bears dream of?

Check out the sunset

A tour of Sabah’s Kiulu river, a two-hour drive away from the city, offered stunning views of the sunset. Of course, a close up of the native proboscis monkeys perched on trees doesn’t hurt either. To cap off the tour, which ends well past dark, we were driven past trees filled with fireflies — imagine eco-friendly Christmas trees filled with fluttering LEDs. It was gorgeous. Hearing Koreans in a nearby boat gasp in awe at the sight instantly had my companions wondering, “Wala bang firefly sa Korea?“ (Are there no fireflies in Korea?).

Beachfront dining

A few minutes’ drive from the city center takes you to a pretty beach, where you can swim — although locals suggest better beaches for swimming or sunbathing. Most people go here to chow on local favorites like satay and, um, pizza.

The quick getaway

KK offers much more than I can tackle in one short article. There are cultural villages and mountain hiking sites that offer insight into how this part of the world lives and works. I prefer to get to know locals the traditional away: over a counter with the cashier ringing up my purchases.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved