When you mention Kota Kinabalu, most people may exclaim “ah!” with recognition. This place is a paradise for nature lovers, whether you are fascinated by the forests of Borneo—home of orangutans—or want to challenge yourself to conquer Mount Kinabalu. Perhaps you like relaxing on the beach or exploring underwater worlds? Or how about learning about the culture of indigenous people? Located only a few hours away from Thailand, Kota Kinabalu provides a holiday like no other.
Kota Kinabalu, often abbreviated to just KK, is the capital of Sabah in Malaysia and located on the island of Borneo. The resort town is popular tourists from all over Malaysia, and throughout the world. Revenue from oil and manufacturing industry helped to boost the local economy, leading to the opening of shopping centres and other recreational areas. Accommodation of all types is available, from luxury five star brands to beautiful resorts on a private beach. The languages spoken are Malay, English and Chinese. Here, there are only two seasons, summer and the monsoon, though year round travel is possible, with January-March having the best weather due to low precipitation and a cooler climate.
Downtown Kota Kinabalu may seem like a regular city, but if you take the small alleyways and observe things away from the main road, you’ll find its true charm. Amongst the large shopping malls and luxury condominiums that have sprung up on the busy throughways, locals live their lives indifferent to a world driven by modern technology. Traditional lifestyles pair easily with urban growth and modernisation, a relationship easily observed in the vibrant atmosphere of a wet market filled with produce and freshly caught seafood, whereby fishmongers hustle to transport their goods against time.
The city of Kota Kinabalu itself has many attractions. Upon arrival, you should first visit the Sabah Museum. Here the natural history and culture of the Malaysian and Borneo people is explained. There is a gallery showcasing the traditional way of life, local plants, animal species, and interesting antiquities like whale bones. Next, you should visit the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, a white mosque that rises out of the water. This contemporary structure can hold up to 12,000 people and is based on the Nabawi Mosque in Saudi Arabia. It’s beautiful during the day, but at night when the moon shines on the reflective surface, it’s even more breathtaking. The Aquarium & Marine Museum is a great place to see research on the aquatic life of Borneo, and although it is small, there is plenty of colourful marine life and coral to see. Be sure to take a walking tour of the city’s cultural sites; expert guides can lead you to spots of historical significance along with a quick stop for refreshments at an antique coffee shop. A simple tour like will take approximately two and a half hours.
For shoppers, head to the Handicraft Market where you can find unique souvenirs to take home. Those who are good at bargaining will return home with a luggage full of beautiful sarongs, batik, pearl jewellery, coconut shell bags and other local objects found nowhere else, such as the Sompoton (bamboo musical pipe). If you happen to visit on a Sunday, visit the market on Gaya Street. Held just once a week, this flea market sits at the centre of the old city. You’ll find fashion items as well as food, dried fruits and antiques. Stop by for a dessert and taste of the local Tenom coffee of Sabah.
If it’s not too sunny, walk around Jesselton Point, the port of the old city. The buildings have a retro atmosphere perfect for taking a few snapshots. Restaurants and bars are lively from the evening to the early morning. Have a snack at the food court, try some home-style seafood or enjoy a drink at one of the stylish restaurants near the waterfront, and watch the hustle and bustle of the area. Drop by Alu Alu Cafe for an alcoholic drink that’s rare in Muslim countries like Malaysia, or try Cock & Bull for a big glass of beer served the traditional English way.
Of course when speaking of Kota Kinabalu, you can’t miss out on the fine white sand beaches. One of the most sought after places is Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, which is located just 15 minutes away from the coast. The marine park has five recommended islands for both shallow and deep water diving. Dress comfortably and sunbathe on Sapi Island’s beaches, or fly across in a zip line on Gaya. If you enjoy diving, you’ll find not only fish and colourful coral but also the chance to see sea turtles and stingrays.
After visiting the islands, you’ll have to explore some of the natural jungle at Kinabalu Park, located just 90 kilometres from the city. If you want to spend a day hiking, you can easily find an organised tour package. There are several different nature trails and routes suited to different difficulty levels. This designated UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to more than 1,000 species of orchids. If you’re lucky, you may also see the Rafflesia Flower, the largest flower in the world. Be sure to also visit the Poring Hot Springs with mineral water that courses all year long, and drop by the nearby Canopy Walk.
When it comes to Borneo, you cannot miss the chance to see an orangutan at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. Aside from the orangutan, there are also elephants, Proboscis Monkeys, Malayan Tigers and many species of native deer. But if you have all day to spend, head over to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Although it’s far from the main city, you will not be disappointed. The centre is home to orphaned apes, and gives visitors the chance to see the magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. For the best photos, come during the feeding time from 10:00 - 13:00 hrs.
Another attraction not far from the city are the tribal village models, with two to three distinctive villages close to one another. However, we recommend the Borneo Cultural Village which showcases the lifestyle and homes of 5 tribes in the region. This includes the Rungus known for their long houses and the Murut tribe, famed head hunters. There are also plenty of fun activities such as, fire building with bamboo and tasting Ambuyat, a snack made out of sago palm. The brave souls up for a challenge can also try eating a sago worm. Do like the locals and wash it down with some white liquor.
Last but not least, Mount Kinabalu, which is a place that draws travellers near and far, all with hopes of conquering the mountain. Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago. The summit at 4,095 metres is ironically named Low’s Peak, and hiking there usually takes two days and one night. Usually on the morning of the second day, climbing begins at two in the morning so that one can reach the peak in time to see the sunrise. As long as you are physically fit, you can do this climb without any special equipment or climbing experience. The natural surroundings will change as you hike, starting with the magical ‘montane grasslands and shrubland’ biome. When you reach the top, breathe deep and pat yourself on the back for the great achievement. Then, head back down to see the bustling city life with a new perspective. Sounds like a great way to invigorate the soul, doesn't it?