A couple of months after I made the decision to quit my job and start a travel lifestyle, I was browsing through cheap flight options with Jonas so that we can plan a quick getaway. During our search, a trip to Kota Kinabalu caught my eye and it quickly piqued my interest.
You see, if you’ve ever thought of Malaysia, I bet that the top destination that comes to your mind is Kuala Lumpur; so for sure, it intrigued me what might be there to see in Kota Kinabalu.
So without further ado, we booked the flights and spent 3 days in this Malaysian city. After days of exploration… I was in bliss. Our whole trip was ‘low key’ and tranquil, but it was clear that Kota Kinabalu can be a charming destination for just about anyone due to the existence of lush rainforests, paradisiac islands, and of course — Mount Kinabalu.
Facts About Kota Kinabalu
- Kota Kinabalu or KK is perched on the northern west coast of the island of Borneo and it is the capital of the state Sabah (one of two states of East Malaysia).
- It is actually named after Mount Kinabalu, which is located about 50 kilometres northeast of the city and also the highest mountain found in Malaysia.
- This is deemed as the largest city in Sabah and it is also the main gateway into the island of Borneo.
- Islam is the most professed religion, that’s why Malaysia as a whole is fairly conservative. Rest assured, most cities are liberal so you should have no problems wearing shorts for example (and besides, they would understand since you are a foreigner). However, it helps to not bare too much flesh with very revealing clothes or whatnot, most especially if you go to rural areas.
- The citizens are comprised of Brunei Malays, Bajau, Chinese, Kadazandusun and immigrants who are mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.
- The languages used in the island are: Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and Hakka dialect. (Rest assured, almost everyone can speak English so it shouldn’t be a problem for you as a tourist).
Top Things To Do in Kota Kinabalu
#1: Island hop in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Named after Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park or Marine Park is comprised of 5 islands and a trip to this area will only take you 15 to 30 minutes by speedboat from Kota Kinabalu. The islands are namely…
- Gaya: The largest island in the park and the closest to downtown Kota Kinabalu. In here, you can find a lot of hiking trails so it makes for a scenic stroll since it is a dense virgin tropical forest reserve after all. Resorts are also speckled across certain areas, and of course there is one beach stretch that you shouldn’t miss: Police Bay which has immaculate white sand and turquoise waters. Other activities to try are scuba diving and sea walking.
- Sapi: Located just on the south-western part of Gaya, this also has one of the nicest beaches in this marine park! A lot of tourists flock here to do snorkelling, diving, barbecuing, and even camping.
- Manukan: The 2nd largest island in the park and arguably the most popular destination for Kota Kinabalu locals. Perhaps because of this fact, Manukan has the most developed tourist facilities. (TIP: for the best beach, go to the eastern part)
- Mamutik: This may be the smallest island of the five but it is the perfect place to go if you want to escape the tourist crowd.
- Sulug: This is the farthest island which makes it the most remote and underdeveloped of them all. But cerainly, that doesn’t stop some travelers from stopping by and enjoying the ‘peace’.
NOTE: There’s also an island in the south called as Pulau Tiga that you can travel to if you want to see a mud volcano and if you want to do more snorkelling and coral reef dives.
TIP: Wanna go on guided tours to some of the islands above? Check out the following:
– Sapi and Manukan 1-Day Tour Trip
– Sapi Scuba Diving Day Tour
– Mantanani Island 1-Day Tour Trip, 2-Day Tour Trip, or a Diving Tour
– Mengalum Island 2-Day Tour Trip or 1-Day Tour Trip
– Gaya Island 3-Hour Fishing Trip
#2: Visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village
Photos by Daniel Pietzsch / CC
If you want a closer look into the life of 5 ethnic communities present in Sabah — the sea gypsies of Bajau, the rice farmers of Dusun, the fishermen of Lundayeh, the hunters of Murut, and the longhouse-builders of Rungus — the Mari Mari Cultural Village is a definite must-see.
In this village, you will witness a programmed showcase of their various traditional homes as they also present to you their cultural habits, customs, performances, and food. It may deem as a bit touristy, but it’s a great immersion and presentation of the traditional lifestyle of the Sabahan tribes (who currently have mostly turned into modern living).
~ NOTE: For a guided tour on this, you can book via KKday.
#3: Soak in the city’s sights
Photo by taufuuu / CC
After the 1945 Allied bombings, one would think that there wouldn’t be that many landmarks to see in Kota Kinabalu. Still and the same, there are surviving buildings from that historical occurrence; and as the city continues to grow, there are also a lot of sights to see in this wondrous Malaysian city! Most notable are:
- Signal Hill Observatory Platform: For majestic views of the city skyline and the faraway coast, do climb up to this spot! (The wooden stairs that lead to this will take you 10 minutes, but it’s not a difficult climb and it’s located at #19 Lowong Dewan Street.)
- Atkinson Clock Tower: Located near Signal Hill, this was built in 1902 in memory of Francis George Atkinson and it is one of the surviving buildings after the Allied Bombings. (Atkinson was the first district officer of Kota Kinabalu, back when it was still called as Jesselton during the British rule.)
- KK Waterfront & Times Square: These are the main entertainment areas in the city and it is dotted with a lot of restaurants too. A part of the KK Waterfront is the KK esplanade and it is a great spot to hang out in if you want the catch some beautiful sunsets and take photo ops of things like the Marlin Fish landmark, fishing boats, water taxis, and the Gaya island in the horizon.
- Sabah State Mosque: The largest mosque in Sabah. Apparently, its dome and minaret are decorated with real gold!
- Kota Kinabalu City Mosque: As shown in the main photo on the top of this post, it is deemed as a ‘floating mosque’ and it is the 2nd main mosque in Kota Kinabalu. As you can see, its architectural style would surely be a feast for your eyes.
#4: Go on a food trip!
Kota Kinabalu is a melting pot of cuisines and it’s no surprise since there are a lot of nationalities and cultures mixing (and matching). For places to go, there are the Night Markets (Pasar Malam) that are famed for its Malaysian and Chinese eats, the SEDCO Square that’s popular among tourists for its seafood choices, and Chinatown / Gaya Street (Old Town) that not only has a Sunday market but a string of Chinese places to dine in too.
For restaurants that you should consider trying:
- Welcome Seafood Restaurant or Alu-Alu Restaurant for what else, but seafood!.
- El Centro for when you’re missing some Western fare.
- Ferdinand’s for fine dining.
- Kedai Kopi Yee Fung for a scrumptious laksa!
#5: Explore around Mt. Kinabalu — or better yet: climb it!
Photo by Stéphane Enten / CC
If you have the time and if you are into nature activities, climbing the World Heritage Site of Mount Kinabalu should be a must on your itinerary. It’s a relatively easy climb and some people are able to reach the summit in just a day (it’s 4,000~ meters high) but it is typically advised to be done in 3 days so that you could acclimatise.
I didn’t manage to do this activity, but a walk along the botanical garden trail at the mountain’s base is possible which will then give anyone the chance to take a whiff of some mountain air! Besides, once you reach the viewpoint, you can even see a closer look of Mount Kinabalu’s peak.
~ NOTE: Go for a guided 2-day tour to Mt. Kinabalu! Book NOW via KKday.
#6: Take on a river cruise
Left photo by deepgoswami / CC | Right photo by 李 尚儒 / CC
Called as a Klias Wetlands River Cruise, this is a day trip in the Klias Wetlands reserve that is near Kota Kinabalu. In here, you can get the chance to spend a later part of the day cruising through a mangrove area which can enable you to witness the elusive Proboscis monkey, Long Tail Macaques, or Silver Languor Monkeys.
Additionally, you can also get to see a myriad of bird species. Come a moonless night, a display of fireflies could even give you a magical ending to this tour!
~ NOTE: To book a spot on this cruise, go here.
Kota Kinabalu Travel Guide
LOCAL CURRENCY: Malaysian Ringgit (MYR or RM) | $1 = RM 4~ = Php 47~
» How to get to Kota Kinabalu?
By plane. Fly in to Sabah. Just head on to: Kota Kinabalu International Airport (IATA): BKI (KKIA) when searching for flights. This is Malaysia’s 2nd busiest airport and the main gateway the island. For the best deals, other than local airlines, check Skyscanner to get the best price.
To get to the city center from the airport, you can take an airport bus that leaves every hour (RM 5) or a taxi which would cost you around RM30. If walking for 1-2 hours is no problem to you, you can reach the city center through this way as well.
By boat. If you’re located somewhere near Labuan, you can also take their ferry service to Kota Kinabalu which would take you 3 hours (RM 18 for adults, regular ticket).
» Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu?
Depending on your travel style, my top choices for accommodations are:
- Budget: Masada Backpacker Hostel (or see HostelWorld for complete list of Kota Kinabalu hostels)
- Mid-Range: Hotel Eden54 (or AirBnB)
- Luxury: Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa
» How to get around Kota Kinabalu?
By car. You can easily rent a car for ease of getting from one place to another. To book your car rental online, go here
By foot. The city center is small and you can walk from one end to another in less than an hour!
By taxi. Feel free to haggle with taxis! Normally they charge RM 10 for short distance trips and RM 20 for longer ones. If you want to rent a taxi for a whole day it shouldn’t cost more than RM 300~.
By bus or minibus. You will find buses and minibuses at the Wawasan Bus Terminal. Travel within the city center should cost around RM .50 wherein the City Buses are used. For long distance trips, it should cost around RM 2.
By motorbike. Rentals cost around RM 50 for a whole day..
By boat. To get to the surrounding islands like that of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, you can get speedboat services from the Jesselton Point Jetty. Cost would be around RM 20 to RM 40 depending on what island you want to head to.
» Food & drinks that are not to be missed?
For meals. You must try the kari (Malay adaptation of curry dishes), nasi goreng (fried rice), nasi lemak (rice with coconut milk), rendang (spicy meat stew), ayam percik (barbecued chicken in chili, garlic, ginger and coconut milk), roti jala (net bread), and laksa (noodle soup).
For snacks and dessert. Have a taste of kuih serimuka (two-layered with glutinous rice at the bottom and green layer made with pandan juice on top), kuih ketayap (pancake with coconut feeling), ondeh ondeh (rice cake with stuffed with gula and rolled in grated coconut), and epok epok (curry chicken in a deep-fried pie shell)>
For drinks. Try out teh tarik (literally “pulled tea”) which has a special pulling process. There’s also sirap bandung which is evaporated or condensed milk with rose cordial syrup.
» Helpful Malay phrases?
- Hello (formal): Hello
- Hello (informal): Hai (Hi)
- Thank you: Terima kasih (TREE-muh KAH-seh)
- Yes: Ya (YUH)
- No: Tidak (tee-DAH)
- Goodbye: Selamat tinggal (SLAH-maht tin-GAHL) [“Safe stay!”] or Selamat jalan (SLAH-maht JAH-lahn) [“Safe trip!”]
- Excuse me / I’m sorry: Maaf (mah’AHF) or Maafkan saya (mah’AHF-kahn SAH-yuh)
- Is there someone here who speaks English?: Adakah orang yang cakap Bahasa Inggeris di sini? (AH-duh-kah OH-rahng yahng CHAH-kahp bah-HAH-suh ING-grees dee SEE-nee)
- Help!: Tolong! (TOH-lohng)
- Cheers!: Sorakan!
Kota Kinabalu’s beauty might not catch your attention at first glance; however, if you give it a chance, its old-world charm can draw you in slowly… and deeply.
From its mixture of cultures, culinary pleasures, ocean wonders, and natural sights, there are a lot of things that you can do here that will leave you with great memories and stories to tell!
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Hey there! I am Aileen Adalid.
At 21, I quit my corporate job in the Philippines to pursue my dreams. Today, I am a successful digital nomad (entrepreneur, travel writer, & vlogger) living a sustainable travel lifestyle.
My mission? To show you how it is absolutely possible to create a life of travel too (no matter the odds), and I will help you achieve that through my detailed travel guides, adventures, resources, tips, and MORE!
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