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Home to an impressive mosque and the gateway to towering Mount Kinabalu and the sweeping beaches found in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, the city of Kota Kinabalu is the perfect addition to a Borneo itinerary. Bordering the South China Sea in the state of Sabah, it draws the business crowd by being one of Malaysia’s main industrial and commercial centres despite it’s population of only a quarter-million people. ‘KK’ is also a favourite spot for travellers backpacking southeast Asia, who use it as a base to explore the pristine natural areas surrounding the city.
What to do in Kota Kinabalu
With its perch along the sea, fishing is a big industry in Kota Kinabalu, and the best way to see the action first hand is to head to the waterfront and watch the boats returning with their catch. In a nod to its maritime history, there are also many colourful underwater-themed statues around the city.
The most famous of the Kota Kinabalu attractions is the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, which has a vibrant blue roof and is surrounded by a lagoon. Fittingly nicknamed ‘The Floating Mosque’, it’s especially gorgeous at sunrise when the colours reflect off the water.
The mosque can hold an astounding 12,000 worshipers, and visitors are welcome to explore the sprawling complex every day except Fridays. Admission is free.
No Kota Kinabalu visit is complete without sampling the famous Malay-Chinese cuisine at the food stalls or cafes, and locals love sipping on a Milo ping which is like an iced chocolate malt drink, coconut water and lemon teh ping which is similar to an iced tea. Fuel up on roti canai, which is warm, flaky bread served with a savoury sauce.
Kota Kinabalu beaches
While the best stretches of sand are found on the surrounding islands, the best beach in Kota Kinabalu is Tanjung Aru. Its golden sand is ethereal during sunset, and there are also BBQ facilities, shelters and plenty of areas for lounging which makes this popular with families.
If you’re up for an adventure, fight your way through the thick vegetation surrounding the Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Outdoor Development Centre in northeast KK. There you’ll find secret coves, and chances are you’ll have the white sand and sparkling bay surrounding this Kota Kinabalu beach all to yourself.
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
A 20 minute speedboat ride from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal is all it takes to get to the spectacular beaches found in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, which are sure to be a highlight of your Borneo tour. There are five islands to explore that are the absolute definition of paradise: think blonde beaches, swaying palm trees and crystal clear, turquoise water filled with underwater life. A couple popular ones are:
Manukan Island: This spot is a slice of heaven for beach lovers, where palm-trees concealing cheeky macaques fringe soft, white sand. The tropical fish are incredible which makes for fantastic diving and snorkeling excursions (note: if you plan on snorkelling, it’s cheaper to buy equipment in Kota Kinabalu than renting it on Manukan Island.) There’s also a restaurant, washrooms and changing facilities.
Sapi Island: This is one of the most developed islands near Kota Kinabalu, with restaurants, bathroom facilities and a diving centre. After paying a conservation fee of about $3 (less if you happen to hold a Malaysian passport), you’re free to lounge on the dazzling sand or dive into the sea. There’s so much underwater life that you really don’t even need to rent snorkelling equipment here; by simply wading into the water you’ll see a dizzying variety of bright, tropical fish, water snakes and clownfish, including some friendly fellows who might nibble at your toes like want you to come play.
Book a day trip to the islands near Kota Kinabalu:
Kota Kinabalu day trips
Besides enjoying the beaches, there are a few more adventurous day trips from Kota Kinabalu:
Hiking Mount Kinabalu: This arduous trek takes two days to complete, but the spectacular views from being high above the clouds in Mount Kinabalu National Park are worth it. The peak soars 4,095 metres high, making Mount Kinabalu the highest mountain in Borneo, and those who tackle the trail will enjoy flora, fauna and rainforests along the way. and all of southeast Asia, the Mount Kinabalu hike features breathtaking views of the rainforests below, tropical plants and flowers as you head up, as well as the odd bird.
The Klias Wetlands: Located a two hour drive from Kota Kinabalu, the Klias Peninsula is a large coastal wetland home to those funny looking proboscis monkeys. Tours include a river cruise where you can spot wildlife like crocodiles, monkeys and lizards, and a sunset dinner. Click to book
Tips for a Kota Kinabalu trip
Language: Malay and Mandarin
Currency: The Ringgit (MYR)
How to get to Kota Kinabalu: The beautiful Kota Kinabalu International Airport has both domestic and international flights, linking travellers to other Malaysian cities like Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, as well as Asian hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong and Manila and nearby Brunei. The only regular access to Kota Kinabalu by sea is the three-hour ferry from Labuan.
Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu
- Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu– It’s worth staying at this luxurious hotel for the pool alone, which has a sundeck outfitted with plush lounge beds and overlooks the sea. The gorgeous suites feature ocean views and modern amenities, and the posh property is within easy walking distance of the main attractions and Kota Kinabalu beaches. Click here to book
- Hotel Eden54– This highly-rated hotel is a great budget-friendly option, and its location near the port makes it an easy base for heading off on day trips from Kota Kinabalu. Click here to book
- Hotel Sixty 3– The rooms in this hotel are very spacious for the price you pay and the location can’t be beat. The staff are accommodating and, while you won’t be blown away by this hotel, you will be sure to enjoy your stay. Click here to book
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