As the capital of Malaysian Borneo, this is a larger city than Sandakan but still nothing to write home about. Whilst it looks a little scruffy on first appearance, we ended up feeling safer than expected and one of the real highlights here is the fantastic fresh seafood that you can find in most restaurants.
Our main reason for visiting was to see the famous Kinabalu mountain and we used this as a base for our day trip to Brunei, catching cheap return flights to Bandar Seri Begawan and returning to KK that evening.
On our first day in Kota Kinabalu we arrived mid afternoon to pouring rain and grey skies that showed no sign of clearing. We knew we had a limited time in the city, so we donned our raincoats and headed out to explore. Like both Sandakan and Bandar Seri Begawan, it has a heritage trail that you can follow around the town to learn more about its history.
Slightly off topic and perhaps a little controversial but travelling as a Brit in former colonies is a very bizarre experience. You spend half your time amazed to find English sounding street names and relieved that everyone generally speaks great English (making life a lot easier than travelling in say, South America), and the other half terribly embarrassed about the whole colonialism situation and feeling like you should be apologising.
Anyway. As it happens, a British settlement took place in Kota Kinabalu, courtesy of the BNBC or British North Borneo Colony to give it its full name, so there are sights like the Atkinson Clock Tower and the war memorial that you can take in on the heritage trail, as well as the Independence Fields where Malaysian independence took place.
After taking in some of these spots we made our way to the sea front and had a wander down the esplanade, which would have been lovely in the sun but sadly was fairly bleak given the day’s weather.
The next day was our day trip to Brunei which was a very glamorous experience. Not only was it a treat to fly with hand luggage only and to be able to rock up at the airport an hour before departure, Royal Brunei Airlines has to be one of the best airlines we’ve flown with. The plane was half empty, we had complimentary soft drinks and did I mention we did a day trip by plane? Absolute jet setters. Although I think our excitement may have given us away.
More about our fab day trip to Brunei and how to spend a day in the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan here.
Our final day in Kota Kinabalu, and indeed our last day in Borneo, was spent visiting Kota Kinabalu Park. A world heritage site and home of the much beloved Mount Kinabalu, we were pretty excited to spend a day hiking around and exploring the park.
It’s best reached by bus, with mini buses departing daily from 6.30am from the KK bus station, (they leave when they’re full), and costing 20MYR one way per person. The trip does take around 2 hours on fairly winding and mountainous roads so it’s best to leave early. We arrived at about 7.40am, hopped into a bus and didn’t leave until 8.30am so do be prepared to wait a while and get there early if you have a full day planned.
We’d met a couple who said it was supposed to take around 2 days to complete all of the main trails around the park so we were keen to get cracking and planned to spend a good 4-5 hours hiking before making our way back.
When you arrive at the park you need to pay the entrance fee of 30MYR per person and the visitor centre can provide you with (pretty bad) maps of the trails and (pretty good) information about the hiking routes available. We opted to do a loop of the park via the botanic gardens.
Before I get into our hiking adventures, there’s plenty of decent infrastructure around the park for day trippers. There’s a buffet restaurant, although this is fairly pricy so we decided to just stock up on snacks, as well as the visitor centre, a heritage centre with more information about the park and a small shop which has a pretty interesting book collection as well as selling souvenirs and basic food. As I’ve said, the maps aren’t great but there are several dotted around the main arrival area that give you an idea of where you might like to head to, and the trails themselves are fairly well signposted.
The hiking itself was awesome. It had been a rainy couple of days so the trail was extremely wet and our trainers didn’t quite cut it with the boggy paths and deep puddles, but it was still manageable. The terrain, as you’d expect, is very jungly and you’ll find yourself dodging spider webs and surrounded by bugs so make sure to bring plenty of insect repellant. The scenery though, is stunning. We had to pretty much pinch ourselves it was so surreal to think we were trekking in Borneo!
It took us an hour or so walking through the park to reach the botanic gardens which cost just 5MYR and were interesting to take a wander around. Nearby there’s also another restaurant and a visitor centre for those who want to stay overnight in the park – not a Backpacker budget option!
After visiting the gardens we made our way back to the park entrance, getting lost several times along the way but enjoying the detours. Overall we spent around 3.5 hours exploring the park and that felt like plenty, although I know there are many day tours available that take a lot longer. Perhaps it was because we didn’t stop for lunch and just snacked as we walked, but we felt like we covered a lot of ground.
Sadly the real disappointment of the day was Mount Kinabalu itself. A treasured national icon for Malaysians, it stands over 4,000 metres in height and dominates the surrounding landscape. We would have loved to climb it but it’s now a mandatory two day one night expedition (you used to be able to climb it in a day), and the lowest cost we could find was still upwards of 250USD per person.
We were rewarded with some great views of Kinabalu on our way to the park but stupidly didn’t take any pictures, assuming we’d be able to get better photos once we arrived. Unfortunately the clouds descended and the mountain was more or less invisible so we have no pictures of one of Malaysia’s most famous natural monuments!
If you have all the time and money in the world I’d recommend a day in Kota Kinabalu, a couple of days hiking Kinabalu mountain and a day exploring the shorter trails in the park. That would be the dream but sadly we are poor backpackers and had to make do without the big climb. Our time here was still brilliant and we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The adventures continued when we started to make our way home from the park. We’d been advised that buses regularly passed by until 4.30 and we just needed to flag one down, so after waiting ten minutes we decided to wave at passing coach on the off chance it would stop. We were pretty delighted when it pulled over and we jumped on. Only to find that we’d somehow gatecrashed a school trip. The coach was packed with kids, young Malay boys who I’d guess were around 10 years old, and who found it about as hilarious as we did that we’d ended up there. They pointed and laughed as we found a free seat and we sat down and tried to look as if this was a perfectly normal occurrence!
I mention this though for a couple of reasons. Yes it was pretty funny and slightly embarrassing but mainly it typified just how easy it is to travel around Malaysia and how happy people are to help out.
Sabah is a Muslim state that’s known for being conservative and many countries, the U.K. included, have somewhat alarming travel warnings in place. These are clearly in place for a reason and a couple were kidnapped in Sandakan a couple of years ago, not far from where we stayed in fact. However, despite some mild nerves, our experience travelling in Sabah couldn’t have been better. Everyone we met, from taxi drivers and bus drivers to locals in the cities we visited were really friendly and Malaysia and Brunei are amongst the most open and welcoming countries we’ve spent time in.
Whilst we can’t speak for everyone, we had a fantastic couple of days visiting Kinabalu and a great week overall in Borneo and didn’t experience any problems whatsoever. Two days was just enough to see the highlights of the city and the park, and if we’d had the chance we would have stayed a couple of days longer to take in even more.