Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia – Travel Guide 

Mist in the trees at Kinabalu National Park

Kinabalu National Park, located just two hours from Kota Kinabalu, is Sabah’s premier national park. The park’s centrepiece is undoubtedly Mount Kinabalu. Every year, thousands of people tackle a two or three-day climb to reach the mountain’s summit. 

But Kinabalu National Park offers much more than just the mountain. When I visited the park at the tail end of the monsoon season, I opted not to climb Mount Kinabalu due to the cost and the weather conditions. Instead, I enjoyed a range of low-level trails that crisscross the park and spent little more than the park entry fee!

So whether you’ve decided to skip the climb or want to explore the park as well as summit the mountain, this Kinabalu National Park guide breaks down everything you need to know. From accommodation to eateries, and trails to guided walks, Kinabalu National Park offers something for everyone! 

Kinabalu National Park’s Entrances 🚪 

The park is split into substations, allowing rangers and enforcement officers to get a good overview of what is happening in the park. The two most popular tourist areas are the Park HQ main entrance and the Poring Hot Springs. Both can be entered using the same ticket on the same day but they are 40km apart and you’d have to rush around to be able to get to both. It’s better to commit to exploring each separately and paying the entry fee twice. There are other entry points to the park too, but these are less visited by tourists and unless you’re spending multiple days exploring the park, you’re unlikely to visit them. 


Kinabalu National Park – A Traveller’s Guide 

Kinabalu National Park Map & Resources

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Best Time to Visit Kinabalu National Park 🌤️

The best time of year to visit Kinabalu National Park is from March to September. This is the dry season in the mountains, bringing relatively reliable warm and dry conditions. It’s the best time to get views of Mount Kinabalu or scale the epic massif yourself. 

However, rain can happen at any time of year. The entrance to Kinabalu National Park is over 1,500 metres above sea level, so plan for changeable weather whenever you visit. 

Kinabalu National Park – Views
On a clear day, Kinabalu National Park is stunning!

September to February tends to be cooler with an increased chance of rain. It rarely rains all day, so you can still get out and explore the national park, or even summit the mountain. Just be aware, the summit closes more regularly due to unfavourable conditions during these months. If your schedule is inflexible, it may be worth climbing at another time of year.   

“I would recommend doing a day trip to Kinabalu Park. Stunning views, canopy walks and gardens.” 

Lewis – South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

How Long Should You Spend in Kinabalu National Park? ⌚️

How long you’ll spend in Kinabalu National Park will depend on your plans. You could spend anywhere from one to six days in the park. 

You can explore most of the park’s trails in a day if you really get your hike on. But if you want to meander and take things a little more slowly, budget two days. 

To climb Mount Kinabalu, you’ll need a minimum of two days. Some climbs take three. If your legs are still fresh enough to explore more of the park’s trails, you’ll want another day or two as well. 

Finally, budget a day to explore the park around Poring Hot Springs, including the canopy walk and trek to the dramatic Langganan Waterfall! 

Opening Times and Entry Fees ⏰💰 

Entering Kinabalu National Park costs around 50MYR (approx. $10USD) per day for non-Malaysians. The fee needs to be paid just to enter the park and is separate from any other costs. If you stay overnight in the park, your 50MYR entry fee covers you for three days. If you sleep elsewhere, you’ll need to pay the fee daily. You can visit different substations of the park on the same day using one ticket. If you visit on different days, you’ll pay the entrance fee each day. 

Poring Hot Springs is a cash-free site. 💳  All payments must be made via credit or debit card, including entry fees. For now, you can still use cash in the main Kinabalu National Park. 

The Kinabalu National Park gates open at 08:00 and close at 17:00. Only people staying in the park are permitted outside these times. Poring Hot Springs has the same opening hours although attractions within the park, like the canopy walk and the hot springs themselves, close earlier.


Where to Stay Near Kinabalu National Park 🛏️

Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links. We always write our articles before checking if affiliate links are available.

If you want a truly excellent experience, consider staying in Kinabalu National Park itself. The only option is Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, which have offerings in the main Kinabalu Park area, Poring Hot Springs and even up at Panabalan – the base camp for climbers summiting Mt Kinabalu. 

Staying in the park is amazing but for cheaper accommodation, you don’t need to look much further afield. The towns of Kundasang and Ranau both offer more budget-friendly accommodation. Kundasang is closer to the park, with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Ranau is a little further down the road, making it more difficult to get to or from without a car or motorbike. Public transport is possible albeit a tad unreliable. 

Our favourite accommodation options in Kundasang and Ranau:

Mount Kinabalu, Kundasang
Amazing Grace offers amazing views of Mt Kinabalu!

Things to Do in Kinabalu National Park 🌳

Climb Mount Kinabalu

But You Didn’t Climb! ✋ 

As I said at the top, I opted not to summit Mt. Kinabalu. However, South East Asia Backpacker contributor Donna Jackson (read her account here), as well as countless members of our South East Asia Backpacker Community, have tackled the climb! 

Because there is no technical climbing involved, summiting Malaysia’s highest peak is possible for anyone with a good level of fitness. But don’t underestimate the challenge. Yes, climbers have a 90% success rate when it comes to reaching the top but most don’t hang around for long. The early start, steep climb, thin air, high winds and cold temperatures can limit the time climbers want to spend on the massif. 

“The last part of the climb is gruelling, mainly due to a wickedly icy headwind and zero shelter. I’m informed it’s -2 degrees but it feels arctic to me! Pulling my hoodie and waterproof so tight only my eyes are exposed, I grit my teeth and make the final push.”

Donna Jackson, South East Asia Backpacker Contributor

Climbing Kinabalu will set you back a few dollars. The permit costs around 400MYR (approx. $85USD) for non-Malaysians. Guides charge around 350MYR (approx. $70USD) but the cost can be split among five people, as each guide can lead a group of this number. You’ll also need to pay for accommodation and your park entry fee. Return transport from the park entrance to Timpohon Gate is around 35MYR per person (approx. $5.50USD). 

The cheapest way to climb the mountain is to arrange the above yourself but if you want to save time and stress, there are plenty of companies offering full climb packages for between 1350-3000MYR (approx. $280-630USD). Just make sure you book with a properly licensed tour agency. There are lots of horror stories of people booking climbs directly with guides, only to be turned away on the day because their ‘guide’ was nothing but a con artist. 

So, it’s hard and expensive to climb Kinabalu – but it’s also an amazing experience. Hiking up from dense jungle to the desolate ridge takes you through several exquisite ecosystems. From the peak, the views are astounding. Smaller mountains snake off in every direction, cloud inversions are common at this altitude and the sunrise from Borneo’s highest point needs to be seen to be believed! 

“Climbing Mt Kinabalu was a truly brilliant experience, and one I will never forget – the achievement is just an incredible feeling. If you do one thing today, add this climb to your bucket list.”

Donna Jackson, South East Asia Backpacker Contributor 

Explore the Walking Trails 🥾

Trekking to the top of Mt Kinabalu isn’t the only way to get your step count up in Kinabalu National Park. A series of walking trails crisscross their way across the site. Some are just a few hundred metres long while others are several kilometres. Many of the trails are interconnected, so you can hop between them to create a longer route. 

Kinabalu National Park – Trails
Trekking in Kinabalu National Park is a blast!

A few sections of trail offer relatively flat, easygoing paths but the majority are more technical with steep undulations, uneven surfaces and plenty of slippery roots and rocks to deal with. In the monsoon season, some routes become waterlogged, meaning the trails turn into flowing streams. 

Leech Warning 🪱

No matter the time of year you visit, Kinabalu National Park is well known for leeches. When I visited, I had to pull at least five of the slippery blighters from my shoes throughout the day – thankfully they’d not managed to attach to my tasty flesh yet! 

Leech socks can be bought from outdoor shops in Kota Kinabalu and Kundasang. These are effective but not very breathable or comfortable. I just made sure my normal hiking socks were pulled up as high as I could get them, which prevented the leeches from attaching to my ankles and lower legs – where they’re most likely to grab on. 

Walking Trails in Kinabalu National Park ⛰️

Of the ten walking trails in Kinabalu National Park, it’s common for several of them to be closed at any one time. During my visit, the Liwagu (the longest trail in the park) and Bukit Ular trails were closed. Pop into Park HQ when you arrive to grab a trail map – they’ll let you know which routes are open!

All the trails are easy to follow, well trodden and well-marked – but you’ll rarely see anyone on them. I only saw seven other people across the various paths all day when I visited! 

  • Liwagu Trail – Closed during my visit, the Liwagu Trail is Kinabalu’s longest. Stretching just over 5.5 km, the trail follows the Liwagu River from Park HQ up to the end of Power Station Road. Expect steep undulating terrain with quite a lot of elevation gain from start to finish. Time to complete: 2-3 hours.  
  • Mountain View Trail – From the end of the Liwagu Trail, turn right and follow the road a short distance. On your left, you’ll find the short but worthwhile Mountain View Trail. As the name suggests, this 150-metre route offers spectacular views of Mount Kinabalu and the surrounding rainforest. Time to complete: 15-30 minutes. 

Shh… Keep Quiet on the Trails 🤫

By staying quiet on the trails, you heighten your chances of seeing birds and other wildlife. So, leave those speakers at your accommodation. No one wants to listen to your music anyway! 😉

  • Bukit Ular Trail – Also closed during my visit, the Bukit Ular Trail is the logical next step after completing the Liwagu and Mountain View trails. It’s just under 1 km in length and seldom visited, making it an excellent place to spot rare birds such as Everett’s Thrush and the Blue-banded Pitta. Time to complete: 60-90 minutes. 
  • Mempening Trail – The Mempening Trail itself is 2.5 km of relatively easy walking. It’s generally flat and pretty good underfoot. If you want to extend your walk, the Mempening Trail intersects with several other routes – the Bukit Tupai and Bukit Burung trails, as well as the Liwagu, Silau-Silau and Bundu Tuhan View trails – combined, these trails can take up most of your day in Kinabalu National Park! Time to complete the Mempening Trail: 2-2.5 hours. 
Kinabalu National Park – Trails 2
Many of the Kinabalu National Park trails intersect with one another!
  • Bukit Tupai and Bukit Burung Trails – Running parallel to each other, these two trails link the two peaks of Bukit Tupai and Bukit Burung together, allowing you to take a short but steep circular route between the two lookout huts. On my visit, the huts were enclosed by vegetation, so there was no view but they made for good rest stops! The Bukit Burung Trail offers a longer but more gradual climb, while the Tupai delivers a short sharp climb and excellent ridge walk. Time to complete: 90-120 minutes. 

“The ridge section on the Bukit Tupai Trail was one of my favourite sections of trail in Kinabalu National Park!”

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker
  • Bundu Tuhan Trail – A short sharp climb from near Park HQ, the Bundu Tuhan Trail is under 500 metres in length but takes some effort. There was no view from the top due to vegetation when I visited but the walk itself offers a quick way to experience walking in the jungle! Time to complete: 30-45 minutes. 
  • Silau-Silau Trail – Following the Silau-Silau River for just over 3 km, this is one of the longer trails in the park. Most of the route is rough underfoot with some steep sections of ascent and descent. Part of the trail is used for guided walking tours and this section offers easy, fast walking. The trail intersects with every other trail on the east side of the park, meaning you can explore them all without revisiting the road. At its northern terminus, it’s easy to cross the road from the Silau-Silau Trail and join the Kiau View Trail to create a loop around the park and back to Park HQ. Time to complete the Silau-Silau Trail: 60-120 minutes. 

Watch Your Step 🥾🪲 

While hiking in Kinabalu National Park, watch where you’re going! There is an abundance of life beneath your feet. From insects to snakes and small mammals, you never know what exciting creature is around the next corner – or beneath your next footstep! Keep your eyes peeled! 👀

  • Kiau View Trail – One of only two trails on the west side of Kinabalu National Park, the Kiau View Trail is deceptive in its ease. Once the initial hard climbing is out of the way, this 2.3 km trail is level and good underfoot. It offers several excellent viewpoints looking across the mountain range and rainforest. The descent is also steep. Time to complete: 60-120 minutes. 
  • Panadus Trail – Connecting to the Kiau View Trail, the Panadus Trail is a short but tough trail offering little in the way of views. Instead, it gifts hikers with a sweat-soaked trek past towering trees, across small streams and through stunning rainforest scenery. Keep your eyes peeled for all manner of birds along here. I spotted several beautiful green-tailed magpies along this section of trail! Time to complete: 45-60 minutes. 
Panadus Trail, Kinabalu National Park
Short but tough, the Pandanus Trail is well worth the effort!

Visit the Botanical Gardens 🎋

The Kinabalu National Park Botanical Gardens help you begin to understand the biodiversity of this part of Borneo. The gardens are separated from the rest of the park but aren’t huge. You can easily walk around them in 20 minutes. They house a countless array of plant life, from the huge, giant trees towering overhead, to the very small, the world’s smallest orchid, and everything in between. 

The garden is open between 09:00 – 16:00 every day with the last entry at 15:00. Entry is around 5MYR (approx. $1USD) for non-Malaysians. There are guided walks through the garden three times a day at 09:00, 12:00 and 15:00. These are well worth joining if you time it right. 

Botanical Garden, Kinabalu National Park, Kundasang
Stop mossing around and get yourself to the Botanical Gardens in Kinabalu National Park!

“I highly recommend taking the guided tour around the gardens. Having a knowledgeable guide meant I got to see much more. I wouldn’t have known what any of the plants were on my own, nor would I have understood why they’re so special. Some plants, I would’ve walked straight past without even noticing them!” 

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker 

Take a Walking Tour 🚶

If you’re short on time, or just fancy having an expert lead you along a short stretch of trail, the daily guided walk is a great choice. Starting from the Kinabalu Multipurpose Hall, near the mini shop and botanical garden, the walk takes you along a short section of the Silau-Silau trail. The guide points out flora of interest and provides information about trees, plants, insects, birds or other animals that cross your path. The walk lasts between 30-60 minutes depending on the group size and is an excellent introduction to Kinabalu National Park. 

Kinabalu National Park – Bug
Keep an eye out for the array of life living right beneath your feet!

Get an Excellent Buffet Breakfast 🍳

If you’re looking for a hearty breakfast, head straight to Liwagu Restaurant when you arrive in the park. It’s not cheap at around 50MYR (approx. $10USD) per person, but the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast is exceptional. Expect everything from local rice and noodle dishes, including Nasi Lemak and noodle soups, to pancakes, eggs cooked to order, cereals, cakes and more. Liwagu Restaurant’s breakfast sets you up perfectly for a day of hiking and exploring. If you’re careful, you might be able to sneak out some snacks for later too…

“I’m so glad I hit the HUGE buffet breakfast before hiking in the park. I had three plates full of food and to ensure I got my money’s worth, wrapped up some cakes and fruit for lunch. Even after spending all day hiking, I didn’t need dinner, so the elevated price was well worth it!”

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

What to Do at Poring Hot Springs Substation 🧖‍♂️

Named after the poring bamboo that is common in this area, the Poring Hot Springs Substation is the second most visited area of Kinabalu National Park. 

Cashless 💳

Poring Hot Springs is completely cashless. You’ll need to pay your national park entry fee, as well as any additional costs via debit or credit card. Make sure you have enough money in your account! 

Soak in the Hot Springs 🛁

No trip to hot springs would be complete without a relaxing bath. The sulphur-infused water from these natural hot springs is said to have many health benefits, attracting locals and tourists for a fart-smelling soak. 

Warm water is piped into open-air baths but you can also opt for a private bathing experience if you prefer. All the private baths were closed for refurbishment when I visited but if you fancy bathing in just a bikini, I recommend opting for these if they’re open. Most Malaysians will enter the baths completely covered up, so you’ll stand out in a skimpy swimming costume! 

Open air baths at Poring Hot Spring, Kinabalu National Park
Get your soak on in the open-air baths at Poring Hot Springs!

Soaking in the open bath costs around 10MYR (approx. $2USD) for non-Malaysians. A private bath costs around 25-35MYR (approx $5-7.50USD) per hour. 

Tackle the Canopy Walk 🌳

Walk among the towering treetops at Poring Hot Spring’s second most popular attraction. This series of walkways strung up in the canopy can feel a little sketchy at times, so is best avoided if you have a crippling fear of heights – the forest floor is a long way down! 

“When I visited this canopy walk, I was lucky enough to see gibbons, as well as countless species of birds, insects and plant life. I recommend avoiding the canopy walk and hot springs at the weekend though. They get super busy with people visiting from Kota Kinabalu!!”

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker  

Entry to the canopy walk costs around 10MYR (approx $2USD) per person. After paying the entry fee, you’ll need to walk from the gate up to the walkway. This takes 20-30 minutes of sweaty climbing but there are occasional benches if you need a rest! 

Canopy Walk at Kinabalu National Park
Scared of heights? Don’t look down!

Visit the Butterfly Garden 🦋

Located before the entrance to the canopy walkway, Poring Hot Spring’s butterfly garden offers an entertaining way to spend a few minutes. Don’t expect too much but as entry is free and you’re likely to walk past anyway, you may as well pop in for ten minutes! 

Hike to the Waterfalls 🩳

Two main waterfalls can be visited from the Poring Hot Springs substation. For intrepid visitors, the epic Langganan Waterfall is a must-see. It takes two hours to reach the towering 120-metre falls but in bad weather, you can double this estimate. To ensure you have plenty of time, you’ll need an early start! Kinabalu National Park requests that nobody leave for the Langganan Waterfall after 10:00 a.m. 

Kinabalu National Park – Pitcher Plant
Look out for these amazing pitcher plants when walking to the waterfalls!

If you arrive too late to trek out to Langganan, consider making the trip to Kipungit Waterfall instead. It only takes 20 minutes and while not as awe-inspiring, the smaller falls and surrounding pool are a nice place to hang out! 

You’ll walk past the Kipungit Falls on your way to Langganan, so there’s no need to make a special trip if you want to see both. 

Try to Spot a Rafflesia 🌺

The world’s largest flower blooms for just one week every two years. Stretching up to 120 cm across and reportedly giving off a pungent aroma of rotting flesh, this carnivorous flower is worthy of a Brothers Grimm tale. Endemic to Borneo and other parts of Southeast Asia, many species of Rafflesia are becoming endangered, so see them while you can!  You’re unlikely to stumble across one in the jungle but inside Poring Hot Springs you’ll find the Rafflesia Research Centre. 

During my visit, the research centre was little more than a wooden walkway with a bunch of informational boards and large dioramas of Rafflesias. However, if you get lucky, you’ll be able to spot a Rafflesia in bloom from the walkway! 

Rafflesia, Kundasang
The R. kiethii is endemic to Sabah and one of the largest Rafflesia species in the world!

The Rafflesia Research Centre was free to enter when I visited but on the Sabah Parks website, they list a “Rafflesia Blooming Observation” fee of around 30MYR (approx. $5USD). So, if there is a Rafflesia in bloom, you may well need to pay to see it anyway. 

Spotting Rafflesias Near Kinabalu National Park 🌺

If no Rafflesias are blooming in the park, never fear. Enterprising locals around Kinabalu National Park have seen fit to turn their gardens into Rafflesia farms. This means, there is usually a Rafflesia in bloom somewhere in the vicinity. They usually charge around 30MYR (approx. $5USD) per person to view the flower. It’s a little steep but well worth it in my opinion – there aren’t many places you’ll get to see one of these wonders of nature! 

If someone does have a flower in bloom, you’ll see posters in the national park and along the road between Kundasang and Poring Hot Springs. 

“I saw posters in Kinabalu Park HQ, at the small café-cum-shop, by the entrance to Poring Hot Springs and on the road nearby. Inside what was essentially a Rafflesia farm, they had two flowers in bloom. One had been in bloom for seven days and looked a little worse for wear. The other had only been in bloom for a day so was at its brightest!”

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

How to Get to Kinabalu National Park 🚗

Kinabalu National Park is around two hours from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and just ten minutes from Kundasang. The easiest way to get to the park is to rent a car and drive. Car rental is relatively cheap in Borneo, starting at around 100MYR (approx. $20USD) per day for a small hatchback. Fuel is cheap. 

Driving to Kundasang, Sabah, Borneo
Driving in Borneo is a chilled-out affair!

Driving standards are much better in Malaysia than in other parts of Southeast Asia and the road from Kota Kinabalu to the national park is good quality. As you’d expect, there are a few rougher sections but pay attention and you’ll be fine.

“My boyfriend and I rented a car during our time in Sabah. We got a cheaper daily rate by hiring the vehicle for more than seven days. It was a Malaysian car we’d never heard of before called a Perodua. It wasn’t anything special and struggled on the hills, but it got the job done and gave us much more freedom than we would’ve had if we were relying on public transport!”

Sheree Hooker, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker 

If you don’t want to drive, you can get a bus from Kota Kinabalu. Buses and minivans heading to Sandakan and Sepilok go straight past the park and through Kundasang. Minivans cost around 30-50MYR (approx. $6-10USD) and leave regularly throughout the day from the big car park on Jalan Padang, very close to the Dreamt Hotel. Larger buses leave from City Bus Terminal North (Terminal Inanam) throughout the day and usually cost slightly less but can take far longer. 

If you’re coming from Sepilok or Sandakan, get a bus or minibus heading to Kota Kinabalu. 

From Kundasang, you’ll need to try to flag down a bus heading towards Kota Kinabalu to get to the park entrance. This is the cheapest way but buses only come past once an hour or so. They won’t stop if they’re full. There is an unofficial taxi stand near the roundabout with the small cabbage (all the roundabouts seem to have some form of plant or animal statue…), just look for the white tent off to the side. Taxis also tend to congregate around the entrance to the national park, so you should be able to find one for your return journey. 


What to Bring to Kinabalu National Park 🎒

Your packing list for Kinabalu National Park will depend on your plans. For hiking and sightseeing around the park, prepare for all conditions and a jungle environment:

  • Long sleeves and pants
  • Full-length hiking socks
  • Hiking shoes
  • Walking poles (if you have them)
  • Leech socks (optional)
  • Raincoat
  • Insect repellent
  • Suncream
  • Waterproof backpack/pack liner/pack cover
  • Sun hat
  • Sunglasses 
  • Water (lots of)
  • Snacks
  • Money (both cash and debit/credit card)
    • Entry fee for the national park
    • For food, water and snacks, souvenirs in the park
    • For the botanical garden 
    • For the hot springs
    • For the canopy walk
    • For Rafflesia farms en route to the park
  • Camera
  • A sense of adventure
  • Swimming costume (for hot springs)
  • Towel (for hot springs)
Kinabalu National Park – Botanical Gardens
Make sure you’re well-prepared to enjoy Kinabalu National Park!

Where to Go Next: 

Sandakan – Five to six hours further along the road from Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan is a popular jumping-off point for trips to Turtle Island and Kinabatangan River. The city itself has an air of former glory that it’s desperately, albeit not that successfully, trying to recapture. There are some good accommodation options and a few great places to eat! 

Sepilok – Close to Sandakan, Sepilok is another jumping-off point for the above adventures. But it’s also home to Sabah’s Orangutan Sanctuary, Sun Bear Conservation Centre and Rainforest Discovery Centre. If you want to be immersed in nature, Sepilok is a better destination than Sandakan. 

Kota Kinabalu – The capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is a small city with a big attitude. Gritty around the edges with some fantastic restaurants, excellent accommodation options and plenty to keep a traveller busy for a few days, Kota Kinabalu makes a fantastic base from which to explore the wonderful state of Sabah. 


Contributors:

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

🙏 Sheree Hooker | Editor at South East Asia Backpacker
🙏 Donna Jackson |
Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker
🙏 Louis Williams |
South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Tim Ashdown | Gear Specialist

After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since then, he has travelled Southeast Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and backpacked South America. His first book, From Paralysis to Santiago, chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident and will be released later this year.

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