12 Things to Do in the Borneo city of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
TLDR; it was a long holiday weekend and all flights to anywhere was mad expensive. So when I saw that there were promos to Kota Kinabalu, I jumped at it. Initially, I was excited at the prospects of seeing Orangutans – my favourite primate – until I realize that Kota Kinabalu city itself is about a four-hour long drive away… or another flight away. Regardless, it was fruitful trip filled with so much nature, and glorious sunsets.
Here’s how you can spend two full days or a weekend in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
We spent a full day of diving near Gaya Island within the Tungku Abdul Rahman Nature Park (TARP). Unfortunately, our dives were hit with bad visibility, but a different dive group had a good session with turtles and nudibranchs. I had fun nonetheless; any chance to “fly” underwater is a good dive. The dive company I went to is DownBelow Adventures, extremely pleased with their service, flawless organisation, safety standards and their quality dive instructors and guides.
For non-divers, there are purportedly good snorkeling sites at the TARP Islands too.
TARP is made up of five islands; Gaya Island (the largest), Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug. Since we had a day of diving, we figured we could chill at just an island – Gaya. The dive company has its own private beach in an enclave at Gaya Island, so it was nice to enjoy some seclusion during surface intervals.
The thing to do would be to get to Jesselton Jetty by 9am, seek out boat tickets and island hop the different islands.
I’ve heard that the islands are not very well-maintained. Our dive guide was telling us how sad it is to see tourists simply chucking their trash openly in the sea – even now – because there’s no strict rubbish management.
See Mount Kinabalu
Although it seems like a must-do to anyone who visits Kota Kinabalu to climb the famous mountain, I did not. A climb up is a full overnight trip, and I didn’t have the time – or energy, let’s be fully honest – for that. What I can do is at least, sneak a peek at the majestic mountain.
Kinabalu Park & Poring Hot Springs
While we went diving the first day, we sought out some nature on the second. We hopped on a Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Springs tour that we booked directly with the hotel. We saw a couple other similar tours like this online, and they all seemed pretty standard in terms itinerary and price. This was a full day tour and the majority of the time (about 5-6 hours) will be spent on a bus. However, you get to take in a lot of nature at the Kinabalu Park, which was exactly what I needed.
The first part of the tour was at the base of Kinabalu Park, where we had a walkthrough of the Botanical Gardens. This was at 1500 metres above sea level, so the temperature was much cooler within the 20 to 23 degrees Celcius range.
The second part of the tour found us at Poring Hot Springs Park – and back to hot and humid weather. I did not participate in any hot springs activities because it was way too overcrowded. Instead, I enjoyed taking in a bit more nature since the Poring Hot Springs is also part of the Kinabalu Park.
One of the highlights of Poring is the Canopy Walkway experience. Basically you’re walking on swaying bridges high above the canopy – not for the faint-hearted. To take photos here, you’re required to pay a fee of RM5 for each device, including a mobile phone. Only six people are allowed on the bridge at any one time. Aim to be the last people on the bridge; this way you can really go ham on the photo-taking.
See the Rafflesia
The Rafflesia is the biggest flower in the world and the national flower of Malaysia. You can only spot it in Southeast Asia, mainly in Malaysian jungles. Seeing it naturally might be tough though. This flower is extremely rare and blooms just five days a year.
There are Rafflesia gardens set up as tourist attractions, and we visited one that had a “first day” bloom on our tour. Now, to view these rare blooming Rafflesias, we had to pay a hefty RM30 per person. We paid anyway, since we’ve never seen a Rafflesia. A short two-minute walk later, and we encountered two Rafflesia blooms. If you can ignore the stench coming off it (it is otherwise known as a corpse flower for its fly-attracting scent), it was quite pretty.
I can’t seem to find much information on the place we visited, or the legitimacy of its “first day” claims, but I’m quite certain they breed Rafflesias to keep the attraction going. Correct me if I’m wrong. Not that I find anything wrong with that; same concept if you were to pay to visit a zoo.
Proboscis Monkeys & Fireflies
We did not actually go for this – chose the Kinabalu Park and Poring tour instead – but it was a close fight. Proboscis monkeys are these cool-looking dudes that are endemic only to this part of the world. Meaning you can only find Proboscis in this tiny region in Borneo. The tour comprises of a river cruise and would carry on to the night to see some fireflies. Personally, I’ve never seen fireflies either, but the thought of being confined to a boat the whole day… might drive me nuts. If we had an extra day, we definitely would have gone for this though.
Catch the most beautiful sunsets in the world
The best thing about Kota Kinabalu, hands down, the sunsets. Kota Kinabalu itself – not very exciting, sorry. However, I relished returning back to the city – for the incredible sunsets. We had gorgeous sunsets and rainbow skies every single day and we never tire of it.
Tanjung Aru Beach
When I first googled “best sunset in Kota Kinabalu”, the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru resort comes out A LOT. You don’t actually need to go to the resort, you can see spectacular sunsets along Tanjung Aru Beach itself. For free. Tanjung Aru Beach is a long stretch of beach in Kota Kinabalu that has restaurants.
It gets extremely crowded at sunset thought, so you do need to walk a fair bit to get to a quieter spot. I would want to come here earlier in the day and enjoy the beach, which looked clean and invited some nice waves.
One of the more happening places in Kota Kinabalu is KK Waterfront. KK Waterfront is a row of restaurants and bar by the sea, in full view of Kota Kinabalu’s spectacular sunsets. The sun sets at around 6.30pm – I suggest being there an hour earlier to grab the best seats right by the sea. The food was great too, albeit expensive.
Have some satay
I’ve had many satays in my lifetime and I like them… But every satay meal we had in Kota Kinabalu was fabulous. I especially love the ones we had in KK Waterfront at a little kiosk – deliciously juicy and well-seasoned glistening meats on a sticks for RM1.20 a pop.
If seafood is more your thing, there are plenty of choices here too if you can get past the touting seafood salesman. They also charge you per kilogram prices, instead of per plate, which can be intimidating for those not used to ordering that way (me). We did try a seafood meal that hawked set meals which was much easier – it was RM35 for a prawn dish, calamari, fish dish and a vegetable stirfry. But I think I also got food poisoning from that so… I’ll stick to satay.
Gaya Sunday Market
If you’re there on a Sunday, make sure to visit the Gaya Sunday Market. Our hotel was right on Gaya street where the market is, and we were woken up at around 6.30am – that’s right, 6 – by karaoke from the market.
Every Sunday, the street gets closed off to traffic for the market. The market was huge and The market looked to be catered to both locals and tourists and it was huge. You can pretty shop for anything and everything here such as souvenirs, clothes, batik items, food, even plants. We were here for less than an hour since we had a morning tour to catch but I can imagine spending way more time roaming the market. I had the best coffee in Kota Kinabalu at one of the stalls here.
If the Gaya Sunday Market is not an option, head over to the Filipino market for any sort of souvenir shopping. This small handicrafts market is located close to the KK Waterfront. This market is targeted at just tourists, so you find your usual fare of souvenirs here like beaded bags, teeshirts, magnets, shells, etc. If you’re after food-type souvenirs, there’s a market right next door.
All in all, I had a great, eventful weekend in a city I’ve never been to. Kota Kinabalu city itself is quite banal, but attractions are just a boat or bus trip away. If I had an opportunity for a re-do, I would want to head over to Sandakan, which is on the other side of the island. Sandakan is of course, close to the Orangutans. It is also a wildlife paradise and I would be surrounded by nature all trip long. Sounds blissfull.