When you’re on the road, it’s so easy to get caught up in wanting to see as much as possible in a short space of time. I am guilty of doing this, and tend to move a pretty fast pace. After three weeks of being constantly on the move around Malaysia, however, I was ready to take my backpack off and leave it in one place for a while. And I was so happy that I chose Kota Kinabalu to do it in!
This stimulating city is small in size but big in character. Six days in Kota Kinabalu won’t get boring, with so many foods to try, day trips to make, and nooks and crannies to seek out. My experience will give you sense of what the city has to offer, but this can be tailored to suit your interests, leaving you to have your very own Kota Kinabalu adventure!
I arrived at my hostel pretty late (and very sleepy) in the evening after an incredibly delayed flight from Singapore. I was greeted straight away by a bunch of enthusiastic travelers, who were getting ready to hit the bars for a night out. I reluctantly agreed to come along, and thoroughly enjoyed a night out of good vibes and karaoke! Although unexpected, Kota Kinabalu has a surprisingly good array of bars and nightlife to keep you entertained until the early hours of the day.
I was pretty exhausted after being on the go for more than three weeks and a fun night out, so my plan for the day was open and relaxed. A fellow traveler from the hostel was heading out to check out the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, so I readily agreed to accompany her. The mosque is pretty spectacular – a beautiful white facade, completely surrounded by water. Attendants there will supply you with the appropriate dress before taking you inside, which is also worth doing!
After the mosque, we headed back into the city to seek out some lunch. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant, where I was introduced to an amazing local noodle dish and some very “interesting” tasting durian ice cream. If you’ve never tried durian before, order a dish to share with someone – it’s an acquired taste, definitely not something for everyone!
The afternoon was spent wandering through the Central Market on the waterfront, which sell everything from souvenirs to jewellery, to clothes, to instruments, and much much more! You can spend a couple of hours getting lost in this maze of a market. Enjoy trying out local food at the neighboring Night Market in the evening, and sit on the waterfront to enjoy a stunning sunset. This was how I spent my evening, which was followed an early bedtime!
On day three, after waking up with renewed energy, I decided to take a boat to go and explore the local islands. There are five major islands (Pulau Gaya, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik, Pulau Sapi and Pulau Sulung) within a short boat ride of Kota Kinabalu, which are worth a visit. You won’t get to see all in one day, but pick out two, and you can arrange to have a boat pick you up in the middle of the day and taxi you over to another island. Get to the pier nice and early, to avoid missing out on boat tickets. The boats don’t leave at certain times in the morning; rather, they wait until enough tickets have been sold and then off they go. This may mean that you may have to wait a while at the pier until enough tickets have been sold, but at least you have the safety of having secured yourself a ticket.
I chose to visit Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Manukan, two of the smaller islands, both covered in golden sand and lush forest. Enjoy a day lying on the beach, snorkeling in the clear waters, and wandering through the bush. Watch out for the giant lizards though!
If you are visiting Kota Kinabalu, don’t miss out on a two-day climb of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia! This epic mountain is right on the doorstep of Kota Kinabalu, making it a great place to base yourself if you want to do the climb. This classic hike doesn’t require an intense level of fitness or previous climbing experience – just make sure you have the right gear. Going up with a guide is compulsory, and this can be shared between a small group to cut costs. If you plan to do the hike, make sure you book in advance via an agency, or book directly through Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (who supply accommodation and food for the climb).
You’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn to get a bus from Kota Kinabalu to the base of the mountain. If you don’t plan to return to the same hostel after the climb, take you things with you and store them at the base.
The first day of the hike is a steep climb, so take your time heading up. There’s no rush, as dinner will be served between 5-7pm, just before the magnificent sunset. After this, it’s time for an early night, because you’ll need a lot of energy for the next day!
Day two of the hike is truly magic, and has to be one of the highlights of my entire trip to Malaysia. You’ll wake up at 2am after (half) a nights sleep to make the final ascent to the summit before sunrise. Don’t race up, because it’s freeeezing up there. Once the sun starts to rise, things start to warm up, and you’ll forget how cold you are the minute you see the sun peak above the clouds. Standing above the clouds at the peak of the mountain is breathtaking. Enjoy every second of the view, before beginning the descent. (For more detailed information on the climb, click here).
After a quick breakfast back at the accommodation, you’ll make the final descent, reaching the bottom most likely around lunchtime. After lunch at the base and a bus ride back to Kota Kinabalu, I was sooo happy to spend the evening enjoying local food at the Night Market with fellow climbers, and a seriously painful massage!!
Enjoy one last local meal and walk through the city before heading off today. I ordered a LOT of food for lunch, and savored every bite before reluctantly dragging myself back to the hostel to collect my things and head to the airport.