They call it the “land below the wind”. Sabah, located on the northern part of the island of Borneo (the other Malaysia) is so called, as it is located just south of the typhoon prone region around Philippines. Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah has the best of both the worlds. Surrounded by the tropical rainforests and boasting of Mount Kinabalu, it is also the meeting point of the Sulu and South China Sea, Kota Kinabalu is the nature lovers’ paradise and adventurer’s delight. There are so many things to do in Kota Kinabalu – you can trek, climb, dive and swim. The place is full of adventure!
If you are not into the adrenaline rush, then Kota Kinabalu will surprise with its varied culture and smiling people. But yes, the adventure is still there. The thrill of discovering the city in its streets and lanes or indulging into a gastronomical treat, adventure awaits at Kota Kinabalu!
When we got an opportunity to travel to Kota Kinabalu, it was the second place this year after Koh Mak in Thailand when both Agni and I had no idea of. The only thing we knew that it was in Malaysia. Well, if you have already travelled to a greater part of Southeast Asia, Kota Kinabalu can be a great place to visit if you are looking to see something new and to indulge in some off the beaten adventure.
So in this Kota Kinabalu Travel Guide, we will give you useful information about planning your trip and how to get the best of your time at this beautiful destination.
Where is Kota Kinabalu and Sabah?
Sabah is located in the northern part of the Borneo island. Borneo is the thirds largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. Shared politically by 3 countries – Sabah and Sarawak of Malaysia, Kalimantan of Indonesia and the tiny country of Brunei, Borneo is known for its rich biodiversity, verdant rainforests and beautiful beaches. Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah, also known as KK by the locals.
Kota Kinabalu is named after Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia.
Sabah is located just below the tropical typhoon belt of Philippines, resulting in a warm temperature throughout the year. It is saved from the typhoons usually faced by its neighbouring country. And so it has got the name of “Land Below the Winds” or “Negeri Di Bawah Bayu”.
A very brief history of Kota Kinabalu
Since 15th century, most of Sabah was governed by the Brunei Sultanate, which extended till the early 17th century. Later the region faced various power struggles and rebellions. In the second half of 19th century, British and other western businessmen started gaining rights in Sabah, as it fell on the trade route between India and China.
In 1882, the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC) was formed. In 1886, the whole of North Borneo was made into British protectorate. BNBCC occupied the area of Gaya Bay from 1882 to 1897 until it was destroyed by a group of rebels led by Met Sallah. In 1899, the British built their new settlement in Api Api due to its proximity to North Borneo Railway. This new centre was named Jesselton, after Charles Jessel, vice-chairman of the BNBCC.
Did you know: The book Pre-war Images of North Borneo by Lim Pitt Kent and Nicholas K.M. Tan showcases the history of Kota Kinabalu.
During World War II in 1942, North Borneo was occupied by the Japanese force. In 1945, the Allied Force bombed most of the area and only 3 buildings were left intact. After the Japanese surrender, North Borneo went back to British administration and in 1946 it became a British colony.
In 1963, Malaysia gained independence, and North Borneo was renamed Sabah. Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu in 1967 after Mt. Kinabalu. But it was only in 2000 that it got the official status of the city.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Mountain peaks graze the sky. Sunsets are spectacular here. Here are a list of things to do and places to visit in Kota Kinabalu. Depending on the number of days you have, you can choose the places you want to visit.
Best Kota Kinabalu City Sights
Kota Kinabalu City Mosque or the Floating Mosque
KK City Mosque is an impressive building. The mosque is partially surrounded by a large moat overlooking the Likas Bay, giving it an illusion of floating on water. So it is also known as the Floating Mosque. It is the largest mosque in Sabah. It was opened in February 2000 after KK had got city status. The design of the mosque is inspired by the design of the Nabawi Mosque in Medina.
How to Get there: Take a Grab Car
Entry Fees: 5 MYR
Sabah State Mosque
The Sabah State Mosque is the largest mosque in Sabah and is an elegant example of modern Islamic architecture. Its single minaret rises to almost 66 metres. The mosque can handle around 5000 worshippers at one time.
Do remember to dress conservatively while you visit both the mosques.
Visiting Time: Monday to Thursday, Saturday & Sunday : From 08:00 am to 12:00 noon and from 14:00 pm to 17:00pm
Friday : From 14:00 PM to 17:00 PM
Atkinson Clock Tower
Atkinson Clock Tower is one of the buildings that have stood the ravages of bombing by the Allied forces in 1945. The tower was built in 1905 in the memory of Jesselton’s first district officer Francis George Atkinson, who died of malaria at an age of 28 years. This is perhaps one of the oldest buildings at KK.
How to get there: Atkinson Tower is located at the edge of Signal Hill, located off Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Entry Fee: Free
Signal Hill Observatory
It is located just behind the Atkinson Clock Tower. The Signal Hill Observatory platform offers a majestic view of the city and the island beyond.
Hoe to get there: Take a Grab car. From the edge of the Signal Hill, take the trail uphill.
Tanjung Aru Beach
Tanjung Aru Beach is said to be the best place in Kota Kinabalu to view the sunset. Very naturally, this is one of the most loved beaches in the city for both the locals and tourists. You can visit here and walk along the long stretch of sand or have a drink at the bars and shacks lining the coast. And yes, the sunset is really awesome from here, though the beach can be really crowded.
Pillars of Sabah
This is one of the most unique things that I have seen at KK. The concept of Pillars of Sabah is also quite unique and noble. I say noble because it aims to educate people about wildlife conservation. Located at the heart of KK city, Pillars of Sabah is actually a number of pillars on which the 30 endangered and threatened animals found in Sabah are painted. It is a collaboration of various artists and they have painted the animals according to their style and imagination. The location of these pillars is actually an abandoned pre-war site. It was so good to see that these people have used the abandoned site in such a noble cause.
How to get there: Take a Grab Car to Suria Sabah Mall. You can see the Pillars of Sabah just opposite to the huge mall.
Gaya Street Sunday Market
Gaya Street has been the centre of business for more than a hundred years in KK. If you are at Koka Kinabaluon a weekend, it is worthwhile to take a visit to the Gaya Street Market on a Sunday morning. The market offers beautiful souvenirs, art and craft items, food and many other. You have to use your bargaining skills if you wish to pick up something from here.
Market Timing: Sunday from 6:30 AM to 1:00 PM
Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market is located near the Waterfront along Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens. This is undoubtedly a favourite shopping haunt for the locals and the tourists alike. Textiles, seashells, jewellery, woodwork and precious pearls – all are found in display at the handicrafts market. Be sure to use your best bargaining skills here.
At night, the night market is located just beside the handicrafts market selling local delicacies and sea food. For a customised itinerary, get in touch with Flynote Malaysia Experts.
Kota Kinabalu Waterfront
Kota Kinabalu Waterfront and the Times Square are the most happening places in Kota Kinabalu. Dotted with a number of restaurants, this is the place to hang around in the city. This is the place to sit back, relax and get a vibe of the city. Also if you want to catch the beautiful sunset of Kota Kinabalu, Waterfront is just the place to be.
Island Hopping at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park is one of the most beautiful places in Sabah. Comprising of 5 islands, you can take a speedboat from Kota Kinabalu to hop around this island. Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug are the five islands and it will take about 15-20 minutes to hop around each of the islands. Manukan Island is the second-largest island is one of the most beautiful and popular destinations.
You can take a dip in the water, go for snorkelling, scuba diving or sea walking, parasailing or simply laze around in the beach. Gaya Island and Manukan Island also have resorts where you can also opt for staying.
Upside Down House (Rumah Terbalik)
Rumah Terbalik is the first upside-down house in Malaysia. Located along the main highway leading to Mount Kinabalu, it takes around 1 hour from the main city. This is quite an interesting and fun place, especially for the kids. The house is totally upside down having a drawing room, dining room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, garage and other fun places.
Inside the same complex is located the 3D Museum, another interesting place. Thanks to special art techniques, two-dimensional images are transformed into immersive 3-D environments. The theme is Sabah’s culture and customs, landscapes and traditions presented in a reality bending way. This is also a very fun place for the kids.
Rumah Terbalik : 7AM – 7PM
3D Wonders Museum : 7AM – 6PM
Entrance Fees for Rumah Terbalik: RM 12.72 (Malaysians) and RM 24.38 (non-Malaysians)
Entrance fees for 3D Wonders Museum: RM 19.08 (Malaysians) and RM 34.98 (non-Malaysians).
Special combo fees for both: RM 31.08 (Malaysians) and RM 47.70 (non-Malaysians)
Kota Kinabalu Day trips
There are so many interesting places to visit in and around Kota Kinabalu. Once you have explored the city, you can go for these day trips around KK.
Turquoise water, beautiful coral reefs and sandy white beaches – these are not the only charm of Seppangar Island. Located only 5 km from Kota Kinabalu, this idyllic tropical island is one of the best places to experience sun, sand and surf in Malaysia. The sandy beaches meet the thick jungles just off the coast that rises to twin peaks having a height of 160 metres.
This is a perfect place for nature lovers with a variety of flora and fauna. The island is there to explore. You can trek upto the rainforest trail to the South peak. From there you will get the best views of Gaya Bay, Likas Bay, Seppangar Bay, the South China Sea and the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
The clear blue waters of the sea welcome to take a refreshing dip. You can enjoy various watersports here like scuba diving, sea walking, snorkelling, jet ski, banana boat, kayaking and parasailing.
Less crowded than its more famous cousin Manukan Island, this place is perfect for enjoying the sun and the beach. There is overnight accommodation facility also. They have a few basic rooms for those who want to experience the beauty of the island at night. There are no resorts yet, and that is what makes it more exciting!
To reach Seppangar Island, you will get motorboats from the Jesselton Point.
Malay Culture at Mari Mari Cultural Village
The Mari Mari Cultural Village is one of the best places to get an insight into the culture and traditions of Sabah and its people. The village is situated about half an hour drive from the city in a forest setting.
There are 5 major ethnic groups in Sabah whose houses, costumes and traditions are displayed at Mari Mari Cultural Village. You can explore each house, taste the traditional cuisine and local wines and have a chat with the locals about their culture. The five tribes include the rice farmer Kadazan-Dusun, the longhouse resident Rungus, the hunters and fisherman Lundayeh, the cowboy and sea gypsey Bajau, and the famously feared headhunting tribe Murut. They also have a headhunting tribe like the Konyak Nagas of India. While talking to them, I found out that their rituals and cultural activities are quite similar to the Konyak tribes. A traditional dance is performed for the visitors and the tour ends with a traditional lunch.
Reaching the Mari Mari Cultural Village can be cumbersome. It is better to book a tour that includes transport, entry fees, lunch/dinner.
Tour Times: Everyday 10 AM, 2 PM and 6 PM
Stone Age Spa and Cultural Park
The Stone Age Spa Park is just beside the Mari Mari Cultural village. This park is the brainchild of Tao Grandmaster Jes T Y Lim. He is the creator and supervisor of this unique place. Grandmaster Lim had studied and researched on ancient cultures, learnt from ancient village masters, shamans and ancient texts. He believes that nature is the best place for healing and therapy and it is through nature that we get all our positive energy.
The park is serene with huge canopies. A river flows by and you can hear the chirping of birds. There are a few stones from ancient times. According to Grandmaster Lim, by sitting, lying down or embracing the stone, we would get positive energy. There are 10 different themes that include friendship, family, wealth and well being, IQ and a few more.
It was quite a pleasant time that we spent in the Stone Age Spa and Cultural Park. I am not sure whether I gained energy or not, but the atmosphere was so serene and so close to nature, that I really felt refreshed after spending some time there.
See Proboscis Monkey on the Klias River Cruise
Borneo’s proboscis monkeys are one of the major attractions of the wetlands. You can enjoy the forest scenery and the amazing flora and fauna of the Borneo wetlands by taking a river cruise on the Klias River. A journey of around 2 hours from the city to the Klias peninsula, you can opt for a half-day cruise. Not only the stunning wildlife, you will also enjoy the breathtaking landscape where the river meets the sea at the backdrop of Mt. Kinabalu. While cruising through the mangroves, you will see the endemic proboscis monkeys as well as many colourful birds. The fireflies River Cruise can also be included in this trip.
Fireflies Safari Cruise
Just imagine cruising through the river in the late evening and watching the dreamy specks of light as the fireflies lighting the place around you! It is an incredible experience. The Fireflies Safari Cruise is one of the major attractions of KK usually done along with the Klias Wetland River Cruise (where you get to see the proboscis monkeys).
Sabah Tea Garden
Sabah tea is the only organic tea gardens in Borneo. Visiting the tea gardens can be a different kind of experience. Located about 2 hours from Kota Kinabalu, the tea garden comprises of a tea forest where you can walk around the garden and also see how tea is processed. You can also try some of the local blends. If you want, you can also stay here at the bungalows, traditional long houses and campsites. From the Longhouses, you can get a view of the Mount Kinabalu at a distance.
Adventure in Kota Kinabalu
Climb Mount Kinabalu
The mountain is a part of the famous Crocker Mountain Range and lies in the middle of the UNESCO Heritage Site Kinabalu National Park. If you want to see the diverse flora and fauna of Borneo, visit the mountain. It has an amazing diverse ecosystem.
The climb to the mountain is relatively easy and can be done in a day, but it is not worth to hurry. It is usually advised to take 3 days for better acclimatization. Low’s Peak is the highest point and can be climbed without any formal mountaineering training.
Keep in mind: Now, only about 140 hikers are allowed to climb Mount Kinabalu. So, plan and book your trip in advance.
White water rafting
White water rafting is quite a popular activity here. It takes place at Kilulu River, Kadaiman River and Padas River. White water rafting at Kilulu River is an hour drive from KK and is of Grade 1 and 2. For Grade 3 and 4, you have to go to the more treacherous Padas River. This route is around 30 km long is the longest in Borneo. Padas River is located at Tenom for around 2 hours from the city.
Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Water Spring
The Kota Kinabalu National Park is a great way to get personal with nature. Just 2 hours drive from the city centre, the place is breathtakingly beautiful. The park covers a huge area of 754 sq km and is a UNESCO Heritage Site. There are various trekking trails inside the Kinabalu National Park of various levels of difficulty. The forest has lush vegetation and the temperature range varies according to the altitude. There are nine trekking trails inside the park. You can visit the Carson falls, the Botanical Gardens, Sunset Point and many more. You can also visit the Poring Hot Springs situated 40 km from the Park.
Sepilok Orangutan Centre
Borneo Orangutans are one of the major attractions of visiting Sabah. You can take a day trip to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Sandakan to see the Borneo orangutans. The centre is the home to orphaned and displaced orangutans. There is a broadwalk that leads to a viewing area from where you can see the animals in their natural habitat.
Address: Sabah Wildlife Department, W.D.T. 200, Sandakan, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok, Sandakan, Sabah.
Open Hours: Daily 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Things to remember before visiting Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Now that you know about things to do in Kota Kinabalu, here are a few other important tips.
Visa Requirements to Malaysia
Indians need a valid Visa for entering Malaysia. You can get apply for online Visa quite easily. If you are an Indian or Chinese citizen and not staying in Malaysia for not more than 15 days, you can apply for Malaysia eNTRI visa. But eNTRI can be used only for single entry to Malaysia.
|Cost||USD 45||USD 21.50|
|Validity||eVISA is vaild for 3 months while eVISA holder is entitled to stay up to a maximum of 30 days for
each visit in Malaysia
|An eNTRI holder is entitled to maximum of 15 days for each visit. Each application can only be used
|Processing Time||48 hours||Within 24 hours|
How to reach Kota Kinabalu?
The best way to reach Kota Kinabalu is to fly in. Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI) is the city’s airport. It is Malaysia’s second busiest airport and the busiest one in Borneo. From India, there are no direct flights. You can get connecting flights from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
How to get to Kota Kinabalu City Centre from the airport?
From the airport, just take a taxi. Or download the Grab App and book a ride. You can also take the Airport Bus Service. It leaves hourly between 8 AM to 8:30 PM and the fare is MYR 5.
Getting around Kota Kinabalu
Cars: If you want to get around the city, the best way is to book a Grab Car. You will get local taxis also. Infact, you can also walk around as the city attractions are all close by.
Bike: You can also rent a bike for a day for going around. Bike rentals cost around MYR 50.
Buses: You can get buses and minibuses from Wawasan Bus Terminal. You can get buses for roaming around the city as well as for outside city trips.
Boats: You can go around the surrounding islands by speedboat services from the Jesselton Point Jetty.
For trips away from the city, if you are booking a trip with an operator, they will provide pick-ups and drops from the hotel.
Best time to visit Kota Kinabalu
The best time to visit Kota Kinabalu is between February to April. Monsoon season is between October to January and is frequented by heavy rains.
Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu?
There are resorts and hotels of various budgets at Kota Kinabalu. Depending on your budget, you can pick your accommodation.
Note: Foreigners staying at paid lodgings in Malaysia are expected to pay a Tourism Tax amounting to MYR 10 per room per night.
Places to eat at Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu has an incredible place for foodies in Southeast Asia. The Malaysian cuisine has an Indian and Chinese influence just like we found out at Myanmar. But yes, the taste is distinctly different. It is a paradise for non-vegetarians. But vegetarians will definitely not starve off.
The Waterfront and Times Square Area is full of restaurants, cafes and pubs. I heard Kedai Makan and D’Place Kinabalu are quite good for Malaysian cuisine, Welcome Seafood Restaurant for seafood. You will get great Indian food at Kohinoor and Radha’s.
We had visited Radha’s @ Square for an Indian meal and D’Place Kinabalu for a Malaysian platter. D’Place Kinabalu is highly recommended if you want to taste some great Malaysian cuisine.
Some Useful Malay phrases
Good morning: Selamat pagi
Good afternoon: Selamat petang
Thank you: Terima kasih (TREE-muh KAH-seh)
Welcome: Selamat datang
I understand: Saya faham
I don’t understand : Saya tidak faham
How much: Berapa harga
Where is the toilet: Di mana tandas
Goodbye: Selamat tinggal
Is there someone here who speaks English?: Adakah orang yang cakap Bahasa Inggeris di sini?
Rest assured, you will probably have no problem in Malaysia with language. Almost all understand and can converse in English there.
Travel Essentials for a trip to KK
Light clothes & comfortable footwear: As the weather is tropical, mostly hot and humid, you are advised to take light and breathable clothes. Carry a light raincoat for occasional bouts of rain. Carry comfortable footwear for walking trips. Also, carry flipflops with you.
Swimwear: As island hopping is one of the major things to do at Kota Kinabalu, carry your swimwear to fully enjoy the beaches and sea of Kota Kinabalu.
Universal Adapter Plug: Most of the hotels and resorts have 3-pin square plugs. So do not forget to carry your universal adapter.
Mosquito repellant: This is one of the most important things to carry. Most of the places have mosquitoes, so a mosquito repellant is highly recommended.
Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) is the used currency.
Conversion rate when we visited: 1 MYR = 16.63 INR
There are a few money changers at Kota Kinabalu Airport. You will find more at Kuala Lumpur Airport. At Kota Kinabalu, you will find money changers at Jesselton, Gaya Street Area and a few malls. These places will fetch you better conversion rates than the airport.
You can also use the ATMs to withdraw money in Ringgits. It would be a good practice to inform your bank beforehand that you will be withdrawing money from abroad, to avoid any problems.
Sim Card at Kota Kinabalu / Malaysia:
If you are not carrying an international SIM, you can get a local SIM from the airport. I took a Digi SIM Card. They have different rates depending on the number of days you are going to spend in Malaysia. I bought a SIM card for MYR 25 that came with 8 GB data, 10 minutes local call, 10 minutes ISD call to India for 7 days.
We were invited to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah by Travel.Earth in association with Sabah Tourism, Malaysia Tourism for the Travel.Earth Digital Travel Influencers Convention & Earthy Awards 2019. We flew from Kolkata to Kuala Lumpur and then further to Kota Kinabalu via AirAsia. We explored in and around Kota Kinabalu with Exotic Asian Explorer (Surego Borneo). The views in this article are, however, completely ours.
Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, a part of Borneo Malaysia is an incredible destination. If you liked the post and find it useful, please do share it and let us know your thoughts in comments below. Pin it for a later read!