The small but lively city of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on the Malaysian side of Borneo is a world away from KL! The distinct culture and history of Bornean Malaysia combined with the dense jungles, unique wildlife, stunning coastline and the towering 4000m Mt Kinabalu makes it an enchanting place to visit. Having already fallen in love with Malaysia whilst exploring the peninsula side to this multifaceted country we had no idea when we set off from the capital on a short flight over to Borneo that the best was yet to come. Visiting both Sarawak and Sabah we were taken back by just how accessible and affordable travel around Borneo is for the most part and recommend anyone backpacking around South East Asia to take the short detour to experience this unique place. One of our bases during our time here was Kota Kinabalu, a laid back, fun filled city with so much to offer. Looking for the ultimate Kota Kinabalu itinerary? Here’s our guide to the best Things to do in Kota Kinabalu!
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu: Our ultimate Kota Kinabalu Itinerary
Do your PADI course: Learn to SCUBA in the incredible Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
“Doing your PADI” is one of the must do things when backpacking around South East Asia and its something that seems to be on just about everyone’s bucket list and for good reason. However, many choose to do it in Thailand where friends have described feeling like they’re in a conveyor belt. Learning to dive in Borneo however offers a much more memorable location, less crowded waters with more abundant marine life and a more personal experience, it’s definitely one of the most fun things to do in Kota Kinabalu too!
Learning to SCUBA dive is one of the best things we’ve ever done, it truly is an eye opening experience where you have to learn to survive in a totally alien environment. It can be intense, overwhelming and down right terrifying at times. However its also an incredibly exhilarating experience that not only tests you mentally and physically but literally opens up a whole new world to explore! It’s definitely something you should consider adding to your Kota Kinabalu itinerary, I mean, how cool does it sound that you learnt to dive in Borneo!!
Learning to dive in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park in Borneo was such an wonderful experience. We were able to not only pick up a new skill here that we’re able to use all over the world, but we were also able to see some of the most diverse, active and impressive coral particularly on the last dive. Of course, if you already know how to dive then coming to Kota Kinabalu is the ultimate place to organise a dive or take a further course with the abundance of marine life and undamaged corals in calm waters making it a top spot for diving in South East Asia with great accessibility and no crowds!
Information about PADI courses in Kota Kinabalu:
* PADI Open Water courses usually takes around 4 days to complete which includes 3 full days in the water and a day of theory work and assessments on the technical and practical side of diving.
* PADI open water courses are only for those aged 15 and above, junior courses are available for those younger. Most people can easily complete the course as it is taken in stages and at your own pace. The technical side of things is also not as difficult to get your head around as it might first seem. Being a strong swimming however is a must being in open water!
* We recommend taking the course with Borneo Dream, they’re a well established company ran by a British Ex Pat that provide a safe and fun environment to learn in.
* Expect to pay around 1,270 MYR / £238 / $307 which includes 3 full days in the water with morning and afternoon dives as well as lunch.
Read about our experience here:
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu: Go island hopping around Kota Kinabalu and discover some of the best beaches in Borneo
Ok, so SCUBA diving isn’t for everyone and that’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the beauty of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park in other ways! Borneo might be well known for its unique wildlife living in the dense jungles and rainforests that cover this extraordinary island. However many people don’t realise that Borneo is also home to some incredible beaches, stunning tropical blue waters and a remarkable eco-system that extends from the land into the surrounding seas. Visiting the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is one of the most wonderful things to do in Kota Kinabalu with many ways to explore.
Close to the coastline of Kota Kinabalu there are 5 islands that sit in the protected Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, many of these offer totally differing experiences from exclusive resorts to adventure activities and low key beach shacks. If saying in one of the island resorts is beyond your budget then not to worry, as there are many different ways to visit the white sandy beaches and warm clear azure waters of the marine park.
From Kota Kinabalu there are many options. It is possible to take a day tour visiting all 5 islands or take a ferry to just a few of the islands and even camp overnight. Whichever way you do it, its a must do on your Kota Kinabalu itinerary!
Information about visiting the Tunku Abdul Rahman islands:
The following is a brief description of each of the 5 islands:
Home to upmarket resorts and can only be visited on an organised day trip or if you’re staying here! There is however a zipline that takes you over to Sapi island which is pretty cool!
The most popular and touristy island where most of the organise tours seem to congregate. The beaches are smaller and busier than on many other islands.
Used by SCUBA diving boats as a base it has a good combination of activity and peacefulness. It has one of the largest beaches of the islands making finding a spot to yourself not too difficult and has some great snorkelling spots and sea walking opportunities.
Great island with lots of facilities for snorkelling, kayaking and sea walking and with many places to eat available too. It’s one of the most fun islands without being overbearing with other visitors. Here you can also do parasailing, jet skiing, banana boat riding as well as many other activities.
The most isolated island it can be a little bit trickier to reach but once there is has the real deserted island feel to it being almost entirely undeveloped. If you’re looking for a secluded beach all for yourself then this is the island to head to.
How to visit the islands:
* Ferries to the islands leave from the Jesselton Ferry Terminal and take 15 minutes.
* All companies offer the same prices but different times, check each one out to see which will give you the right amount of time for your trip. Boats usually leave every 15 minutes and return times are normally between 3pm – 4pm.
* A return ride to one island costs 22 MYR / £4.15 / $5.30, for two islands the cost is 33 MYR/ £6.20 / $8.00 PP
* There is an additional 7 MYR / £1.30/ $1.70 PP terminal fee plus 20 MYR / £3.75 / $4.80 PP for entrance into the National Park.
* Snorkel gear can be rented when you buy your ferry tickets for 10 MYR / £1.90 / $2.40 PP for the day, if you forget it is possible to rent gear out on many of the islands.
* Lunch is available on many of the islands for 45 MYR / £8.45 / $10.80 PP and is usually a buffet.
* Organised island hopping tours are also available and can be booked at the harbour or with tour operators in the city. They vary in quality, price and experiences but often include lunch and transfers. Those that take in all five islands in a day can be a little but rushed but there are many that just do two. Expect to pay between 150 MYR – 300 MYR / £28 – £56 / $36.20 – $72.50 PP for most standard boat trips.
Soak in the unique tribal culture of Borneo at the Mari Mari Village
One of the most special things about visiting Borneo is not only taking in the natural landscape and unique wildlife but the one of a kind culture here. Tribes have inhabited this land for thousands of years and they’re one of the features of Bornean Malaysia that makes it so different to Peninsula Malaysia. The rich tapestry of the many ethnic tribes of Sabah, their stories and legends are embodied in the people of this region and they are fiercely proud of that and their individual identities. Alongside the natural wonders here the cultural side of Borneo is one of the most enchanting things to do in Kota Kinabalu .
Unfortunately these days some of the traditions have died out or are very difficult to witness having retreated further and further from the developing cities of Borneo. The one time head hunters have given up their practices of hanging human skulls outside their camps and many of the decedents wear western clothing day to day. In a sense there is nothing wrong with this, it’s a natural development and no one wants to be beheaded or stuck with a poison arrow whilst exploring the jungles of Borneo. But much of this culture does also need protection from globalisation and nurturing to protect its legacy and create a place for it in the modern world. Experiencing even just a taste of this is something you really should include in your Kota Kinabalu itinerary.
One way in which this is being done is through the Mari Mari cultural village, this is essentially an open air museum where descendants of several different tribes from the area display their culture and traditions through displays, clothing, teaching, food, housing and other displays. This way the remaining tribes people in the isolated regions of Borneo are left as just that and those who wish to share their culture can do so here in a faithful and and fascinating environment. We certainly had an unforgettable and immersive experience here learning so much about the culture of this remarkable island.
Visiting the Mari Mari village
* The entrance fee for the village is MYR 90.00 / £16.80 / $21.70 Adult & MYR 80.00 / £14.90 / $19.35 child, including a guide in a group and lunch afterwards.
* The village is around 30 mins from Kota Kinabalu
* Its best to go on an organised tour which includes transport or you can pay MYR 170-200 / £31.70- £37.40/ $41.00-$48.40 per person for entrance and transport from the city at 10am, 2pm or 6pm.
Read about our experience here:
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu: Tackle the two day hike up the incredible 4095m Mt Kinabalu!
This is the big one, its what most people come to Kota Kinabalu to do and it is what drew us here too. The 4095m (13,435 ft) mountain is no walk in the park! This two day trek is expensive, tiring and weather dependant as well as there being a limit to how many people can ascend each day making is mentally and physically exhausting! But in truth a Kota Kinabalu itinerary wouldn’t be complete without summiting the mountain that is pictured on the flag of Sabah and gave the city its name!
The mountain is one of the highest in the world in terms of prominence being a huge chunk of grey granite standing alone at the end of Borneo with no other mountain range connecting to it, a quite astonishing sight to see it shimmering like a mirage above the lush green jungles surrounding it. The 10 million year old igneous peak is actually one of the youngest in the world and was carved by glaciers during the last ice age and is in fact still growing! The surrounding National Park is home to some of the worlds most diverse flora and fauna and is a protected UNESCO site, even if you just visit the park seeing this incredible place is one of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
The two day trek up the mountain is probably one of the hardest but most incredible and rewarding things we’ve ever done. Each and every KM, especially on the way back down, was slow and agonising. The second day in particular was a mammoth effort, waking up just after midnight to summit for sunrise, a line of head torches trudging through the darkness up the steep and slippery final push. Using in place ropes to pull ourselves up the climate at this altitude was a shock to the system after months in tropical Asia but as the sun began to rise over this lunar landscape all that effort paid off. The unique features of the mountain revealed themselves in the morning light, an sight we’ll never forget, above the clouds and on top of the world! The walk down after breakfast back at the hut was probably the most challenging bit for us all, the steep descent was hell on the legs with each footstep feeling like a colossal effort!
Information about climbing Mt Kinabalu:
* The only way to climb Mt Kinabalu is with a guide and on a tour after the 2015 earthquake where many climbing the mountain were killed. This is frustrating in the fact that it means the price is pretty steep and really a guide is not needed for the level of hiking involved, but required by law. Accommodation is also limited after earthquake damage and numbers limited per day to keep track of all climbers, this also bumps up the price. But in our opinion its something worth doing despite the price!
* Prices are pretty standard across all operators and its best to reserve your place as far in advance as you can. We were lucky in the fact that our time there was open ended so we were able to wait around for a space to become available. It’s worth asking around as each company gets allocated a certain amount of spaces.
* It is possible to book direct on the official website or through tour operators. The official website does often release cheaper promotional tickets in limited numbers. Prices are expensive but they include transport to and from the mountain, guides, accommodation and lots of food!
* A good level of fitness is required to climb the mountain, its two days of steep and sustained hiking with some small sections of easy scrambling near the summit. There is no technical skills required to summit and the mountain is easy in technical senses. Good shoes and warm clothing should be brought along and you should prepare for all weathers. Often the summit on the second morning can be cancelled if it is raining and there are no refunds in this case, however the weather in the morning in Kota Kinabalu is usually fine with afternoon showers common.
* Prices range from MYR 2,390 / £447.79 / $577.90 for one person to MYR 1,990 / £372.85 / $481.20 PP for groups of 7 and above. Staying in a hostel beforehand is a great way to gather a group or join a group to bring the price down.
Read about our experience here:
Unwind on the Kota Kinabalu waterfront
Kota Kinabalu is a lively little city and might surprise many visiting Borneo for the first time, it’s well developed with many of the same facilities as places like KL but of course on a much smaller scale. The waterfront area in particular is a great place to hang out with many bars, restaurants and a mall to explore for those wanting something a little different. We met some great people on our PADI course and ended up getting a meal here together before having a night out in the pubs and clubs afterwards to celebrate passing our course! With so many activities to do here is nice to schedule in some down time in your Kota Kinabalu itinerary and the waterfront is the perfect location to relax.
But its not just during the night time that this area of the city comes alive, during the day the harbour is busy with boats leaving for the islands, SCUBA trips as well as local fishing boats and ferries to other parts of the island. We actually took a ferry from here over to Brunei for a short visit so the port is quite a busy and bustling place to sit back and watch the world go by! It makes a nice change of pace to some of the more thrilling adventures around Kota Kinabalu and is a perfect place to watch sunset! It might be one of the most pedestrian things to do in Kota Kinabalu but its nice to have some downtime!
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu: Marvel at the majestic city mosque
A newer addition to the landscape of Kota Kinabalu having been opened in 2000, the floating Masjid is a stunning sight to behold. Reflecting into the surrounding lake it can hold up to 12,000 worshipers at any one time and is one of the largest in the area! It offers a change of pace and culture from the ancient traditions of Borneo to the relatively modern religion of Borneo. From the sweltering jungles and the depths of the surrounding oceans, here is a different kind of peace and tranquility and something a little different to add to your Kota Kinabalu itinerary.
Each day from 8am – 5pm apart from Fridays, visitors are welcome to visit for free with appropriate clothing being provided by the mosque for a small fee. It really does make a great change from some of the expensive and overwhelming activities many come here to do and combined with exploring the waterfront is a great way to spend a “rest day” in Kota Kinabalu!
Take bus 5A towards UMS (University of Malaysia Sabah), its around 5 km from the centre of Kota Kinabalu and you should ask the driver to stop at the Tanjung Lipat roundabout.
Take a Klias river cruise through the dense jungles around the city and spot unique wildlife
Venturing into the surrounding lush landscape of Borneo a great way to experience all it has to offer and on a Klias river cruise you get right into the heart of the jungle. The unique ecosystem of the wetlands is a protected area and is home to some of Borneo’s most unique creatures such as the Proboscis monkey, Silver Langur and crocodiles in the murky waters you sail through! Seeing the animals borneo is famous for is a must on any Kota Kinabalu itinerary and this is a great way to do that without too much effort!
Unlike some of the more involved expeditions in Borneo this one is very much a relaxed experience floating through the mangroves keeping an eye out for all the wildlife that call this area home. Along the way you will also get to see some great views of Mt Kinabalu as well as venturing far enough down river to see where it eventually meets the sea. Being around 2 hours outside of the city it’s a full day trip that usually starts in the afternoon to catch the stunning firefly display that lights up the river banks after dark.
Information about the Klias River Cruise:
The river cruise is best booked through a tour company given the distance from Kota Kinabalu. Tours usually include transport and food and can be booked from any one of the many companies in the city, though we recommend Borneo Dream.
Expect to pay between MYR 170 / £31.85 / $41.10 – MYR 250 / £46.85 / $60.45 PP.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu: Book a tour for Kota Kinabalu
Getting around Kota Kinabalu can sometimes be tricky but there are some great options for tours when visiting this area of Borneo. We usually love to travel independently but in Borneo the benefit of taking a tour outweighs that with unparalleled access to the unique culture, wildlife and landscape that often needs specialist knowledge to make the most of.
All the information for your Kota Kinabalu itinerary
Getting to Kota Kinabalu
However for most you will have to arrive via a plane. Flights are cheap, frequent and short from Kuala Lumpur and Kuching (Another city on the other side of Malaysian Borneo)
Book your flight for Kota Kinabalu here:
When is the best time to visit Kota Kinabalu
Sabah is generally a year round destination temperatures only slightly changing throughout the year and the rainy season affecting different parts of the region at different times. October to January is generally considered to be the rainy season with slightly lower temperatures but this can vary across the region. February, March and April are considered the drier months in Kota Kinabalu and are good for climbing Mount Kinabalu, but in other areas of the state February and March are considered still within the rainy season!
This region however is hard to predict and even during the rainy season it’s highly possible to get great sunny days with a short afternoon downpour! You should consider what’s important on your Kota Kinabalu itinerary and when is the best time of year to make sure that happens.
Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu
When we travel we usually stay in hostels as we are backpackers. We know they’re not everyones cup of tea but the one we stayed in during our time in Kota Kinabalu is a prime example of the potential of hostels and how far off the mark many peoples estimations are! Faloe Hostel is a small family run hostel with two main rooms and a cosy dining and living area, well designed and maintained the atmosphere here is truly wonderful with it feeling more like an apartment. The owners too are so open and friendly helping us organise all aspects of our adventures as well as storing our bags when we climbed the mountain and took a trip to Brunei. We also met some great people here too who we ended up doing some of the trips with!
Book your accommodation here:
Have you visited Kota Kinabalu or do you plan to in the future? What are your top places to visit?
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