Often the first stop for travellers into the Sabah region, Kota Kinabalu is a bustling city positioned in the North-West. The grid-like layout makes the compact city easy to navigate, taking only around 30 minutes to walk end to end.
There are several large shopping plazas, markets, coffee shops, restaurants and bars lining a pleasant waterfront (the closest beach is around 20 minutes away by bus).
Most people head to the nearby islands by boat to escape the city. Nightlife is fun with several karaoke bars and nightclubs to be found – Upperstar Bar on J Elam Belas street is the cheapest place to drink, while other places i.e. Waterfront Bar and Shenanigans inside the Hyatt Hotel are more expensive.
There are plenty of places to eat local Malay food, with an excellent fish bbq at the Filippino market where 20RM will get you a whole tuna and delicious squid. Italian restaurants can be also be found on most corners – Bella Italia is excellent – although dishes are fairly expensive.
Transport: Hop on the brightly-coloured ‘city buses’ for just 50cents for a day pass. All buses stop at the main terminal, at the eastern end of the waterfront.
Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu:
Accommodation options of all ranges are plentiful in Kota Kinabalu. Backpacker hostels can be found in abundance and most are located centrally – note the Karamunsing area is around a 25min walk from the city centre.
Get Inn Backpackers is a very popular choice. There’s a relaxed atmosphere, the location’s fantastic, the staff are lovely, everything’s very clean and… they serve breakfast all day! Dorm beds start at $7 USD.
Escape Backpackers KK is close by (and therefore equally well-located). It’s a tiny bit cheaper, starting at $6 USD for a dorm bed and provides excellent value for money. The beds are separated off with curtains for that extra feeling of privacy. The staff receive rave reviews every time!
Bed&Breakfast@21 has a nice little garden to hang out in. It’s modern, comfy and clean. It lacks some of the privacy Escape offers, as there are no curtains on the bunks. That said, it’s still definitely an option worth considering. Beds start at $7 USD.
Cozy Hostel is quite the opposite. The point of this hostel is to help you feel like you’re in a den when you get into your dorm bed. Tasteful design, privacy, great staff and, of course, everything’s squeaky-clean. Prices are slightly higher at $10 USD per bed, but if you’re willing to stretch to that, Cozy Hostel comes highly recommended.
Jk Capsule Hostel… Capsules are really taking over in Malaysia, and for good reason. Super-comfortable and incredibly private (given that you’re technically in a dorm), capsules are surely going to become increasingly popular over time. A capsule at Jk sets you back $11 USD. Oh, and they’ve got Playstations!
Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu:
Tunku Rahman National Park: The national park consists of three islands – Mamutik, Manakan and Sapi. All speedboats to the islands depart from the Jesselton ferry port every hour from 9 am – 1 pm with the last return boat at 5 pm.
Journeys take around 25mins and can be fairly bumpy! You can purchase a one, two or three island pass, starting at 23RM and all islands levy a 10RM tax on arrival.
Snorkel masks can be hired for 10RM. All the beaches (although a welcome break from the city) are fairly small and crowded with tourists – so don’t expect a private island feel! The waters are warm and clear for snorkelling.
Diving: Borneo offers some excellent underwater life. There are plenty of dive centres – Diverse Borneo opposite the Wismah Plaza run both 3-day open water PADI courses at 900RM and a one-day ‘Discover Scuba Diving’ course at 250RM (two dives). Staff are very helpful and accommodating.
Kinabalu National Park: A 90-min journey to the Kinabalu National Park is an absolute must for impressive scenery. Set against a backdrop of stunning mountains and greenery, there are plenty of beautiful nature walks to be experienced, using a guide if you wish.
Climb Mount Kinabalu! For the more energetic, climbing Mount Kinabalu is a great challenge. At 4095 metres above sea level, Mt Kinabalu is the highest peak in South East Asia and although not an easy feat, the 90% success rate is encouraging.
The climb takes two days with an overnight stay at Laban Rata. With only 170 beds, booking in advance is advised to avoid disappointment.
If you book a 3day/2night package, your first night will be spent in accommodation at the foot of the mountain and isn’t necessary unless you wish to acclimatise to the higher altitude or stay in the luxury of Sutera Lodge.
You can expect to pay a range of prices for a package but ‘Climbing Mount Kinabalu’ offer the competitive and reasonable rate of 950RM for 2days/1night.
You can make arrangements independently but must have a guide for your climb. The hire of walking sticks are advisable; they will help for the downhill climb! Day 1 consists of a 6km walk up steps and stones, which takes 4-6hrs.
The summit climb begins at 2 am on day 2, arriving in time for sunrise after a 3hr steep climb using ropes to assist. Walking back down is all done on the same day. Expect sore legs for a few days afterwards!
Poring Hot Springs: To rest aching muscles after your climb, the Poring Hot Springs are a perfect way to spend a morning/afternoon. You can take a bus from Kinabalu National Park or from KK itself and soak in the sulphuric waters.
White-water rafting: For adventurous types, many operators can be found offering adrenaline-fuelled rafting trips on the Kiulu River, only an hour away from KK city.
This Grade I and Grade II stretch of river is perfect for beginners. It has enough fast water to be fun and there are sections where you can learn the basics of manoeuvring. However, there is nothing that would intimidate newcomers.
Whizz down the rapids and coast, swim or body raft in the deep pools. Watch the wildlife along the banks, and enjoy the sensation of being outdoors and in touch with nature.
Air Asia fly into Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur. The new airline, Maswings, now offer internal flights throughout Borneo.
Where to go next?
- Sepilok: A 6hr bus ride east of KK takes you to Sepilok where you will find the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. You can also do a tour of the River Kinabatangan, in the heart of the rainforest with Uncle Tans.
- Sandakan: A 7-8hr bus ride east of KK (most people fly from KK to Sandakan). From here, you can get a boat to Turtle Island to see the babies hatch, although advance booking is essential through Crystal Quest.
- Semporna: 5 hours south of Sandakan by bus, Semporna is not a place worth visiting alone but to experience some amazing dives through Sipadan Divers.