Laidback, stress-free, and resonating with an old town charm—time slows down in Kota Kinabalu.
Early this year, I booked a promo flight with AirAsia to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia. I had to admit that it was not at the top of my wish list, but it was one of the most affordable options, and the available flights were fast disappearing.
Fast forward to October, and I scramble to research for things to do in Kota Kinabalu. Kota Kinabalu is especially famous for having the highest mountain in the Malay archipelago, but I’m no mountaineer, so I had to rule out climbing it as part of our itinerary.
Nevertheless, I was still especially interested in doing some nature tripping and learning more about the culture in Kota Kinabalu. I really wanted to visit the Mari-Mari Cultural Village (where you can learn more about the Borneo heritage and traditions) and the Monsopiad Heritage Village (honors the Kadazandusun people and the headhunter warriors, the Monsopiad) but I was challenged by time and budget constraints.
To go to the Mari-Mari Cultural Village, you need to arrange transport and the tour via their website. Prices for foreigners range from RM150-175, depending on the size of your group. At this time, one ringgit equates to roughly around 12 Philippine pesos (Php).
I read on one website that the Monsopiad Cultural Village, on the other hand, requires you to book a tour as early as two weeks ahead, and I only had a few days left before our trip. So that pretty much was a no-go, too.
That left us with visiting the many islands just a stone’s throw away from Kota Kinabalu, and the number of sightseeing spots in the city.
Day 1: October 7, Friday
It was an ordeal to get out of bed with minimal sleep just so we wouldn’t miss our flight (and avoid the insane traffic). We were in a bit of a stitch as we got a flat tire, right when we were about to leave for the airport. Thankfully, we travelled during a window period, right before the traffic jam hit. What we foresaw as possibly a one-hour trip lasted only a magical 15 to 20 minutes.
It was our first time to travel via AirAsia and it was a pleasant flight, though I wasn’t too happy about the restrooms. Since the flight was just two hours long, meals were not included in the airfare. As we were a bit on the practical side, we decided to skip buying a meal on the plane and wait until after we had settled in our hotel.
That was our mistake, as we were famished once we stepped out into the comfortably familiar warm and humid environment. After changing our money to the local Malaysian Ringgit (RM), we luckily saw the airport shuttle stand and paid a reasonable RM5 (Php60) to get to the nearest bus stop to our accommodation.
The gentlemen manning the airport shuttle bus were kind enough to write down on our ticket where we should get off. We just presented this to the driver and soon enough we found ourselves in the heart of the city.
Kota Kinabalu City is incredibly close to the airport—a mere 15 to 20-minute drive—which totally blew my mind. Before the trip, I made sure to do a screenshot of a city map, just so we would roughly have an idea of where we were headed. Note: the airport does not have tourist maps but more pamphlet-like guides on popular attractions in the city.
My initial impression of KK City was just how wide and well-maintained the roads were. No potholes, the streets were free of litter, and there were several malls in the area. I found the general architecture a bit plain looking, though. Buildings tended to be on the squarish side and the facades were painted in muted colors. They reminded me of buildings from the 70s and 80s. Some of the walls’ paint was peeling.
We got off at Horizon Hotel and sped to the Gaya Centre Hotel, where we were staying. It was easy to locate as it towered well over many of the buildings in the vicinity. Plus, it was right beside the Suriah Sabah, one of the establishments with the more modern-looking architecture in KK City. Along the way, we passed by some interesting shops selling dried fruit and children’s storybooks.
Although check-in wasn’t until 3 pm, I had requested upon booking for early check-in, and was fortunate to access to our room immediately. It was around 12:30 in the afternoon.
We had booked a twin superior room, which was a steal for Php5264.70 for three nights (roughly Php1755 a night). That being said, you can’t expect too much from the room. It was rather underwhelming with the carpet stains and no-nonsense furniture, and I was sniffing the pillows for that fresh, powder detergent smell. Otherwise, it was relatively clean. The cable TV had just about ten channels and many of them had very poor reception. It was a good thing we had Fox movies where we caught a lot of really funny and entertaining flicks.
What I did enjoy about the room was how responsive the showers were when I would turn the lever to adjust the water temperature and pressure. I was also pleasantly surprised by the fast Wifi speed (well, anything is definitely faster than any connection in the Philippines).
After resting a bit, we went out to have late lunch at KFC (LOL yes our first meal). We were shocked with how big the meals were. I ordered the Lil’ Zinger box, which comes with—you guessed it—a little Zinger burger, large fries, chicken and a large drink.
The weather can be a bit erratic in Kota Kinabalu—sunny one minute, pouring the next. Good thing I had brought an umbrella. We knew we were just around the Jesselton Point area, so that’s where we went next. Soon, we saw the famous marlin landmark at the roundabout. Based on the photos online, I didn’t think it was such a busy roundabout, but apparently it was the complete opposite. Maybe because it’s situated where a lot of hotels, shopping centers and markets are located.
Walking around the area, we discovered KK Plaza, which houses interesting knick-knacks, from tapestries, old dolls, school shoes, wristwatches, belts and wallets. We also spotted some inviting eateries selling a variety of dried meat (but we were too chicken to try them out), plus the well-known kedai kopi (Chinese coffee shops).
We went to Atkinson Clock Tower next, which is pretty much situated near Gaya Street, where the famous Gaya Sunday street market is held. It was a short but sweet climb and we were surprised that the base of the tower was a parking lot. The Atkinson Clock Tower, one of the oldest buildings in Kota Kinabalu, sits nestled in the greener part of the city, where dense foliage can be found. It’s a historic site, which commemorates the city’s first district officer, Francis George Atkinson, who passed away at the tender age of 28 due to “Borneo Fever”.
We made sure to drop by the Sabah Tourism Board next, where we got our stock of useful tourist maps and the food crawl map. We highly recommend you to visit it when you go to Kota Kinabalu. They’re open daily until 5 pm. They have helpful staff who can answer your travel-related questions. Most of our queries were about how to get to places using the local transport, the minibuses (bas mini) or the regular buses.
While there are countless taxis in the city, we noticed many drivers just lounging around and waiting for passengers, versus being on the road round the clock like in the Philippines. I suppose earning a day’s keep isn’t as big a problem there because of all the tourists. Plus, we wanted to keep our costs low—taxis there cost around at least RM20 (Php240).
We next made our way and prepped our calves for the Signal Hill Observatory. At first, I was on the fence about going there since I had read online reviews that there was nothing special about it, and it would get pretty crowded sometimes. But just hiking up and finding ourselves suddenly immersed in a seeming forest threw those apprehensions out the window.
After about 10 to 15 minutes, we ended up on a road and walked a few meters towards the observation deck. It was a simple roadside snack store, but once we saw the view, we were bowled over. The deck provides a fantastic view of the bustling KK City roads, and the glorious sunset in the horizon, just over the water. Kids were happily playing with bubbles and a guy was filming the sunset with his DSLR.
We played around with our time-lapse videos and waited for the sun to dip. It was pretty hot already at that time so we bought ourselves some bottles of water. While we still had light, we weaved down the same path to the city proper. The path is lit when it gets dark, so no worries. Once we even saw a dog and a squirrel crossed our path, to our surprise.
We rested for a bit in the hotel and checked out Fook Yuen for dinner. I thought at first it was a bakery selling Chinese pastries, but apparently they also sell a variety of skewered seafood and chicken, noodles, and other dishes. It can be a bit intimidating to select what you want to eat, if you’re not familiar with what’s on the trays. Thankfully, most of the items had labels in English.
We ended up getting Chinese sausage balls, fish balls (which were really fishy), a ton of noodles (similar to the Filipino pansit canton), some peanuts, chicken and veggies. Each item more or less cost us RM10 (Php120). Not bad, right?
We capped off the night by searching for an affordable travel adaptor, which we got for like RM6 (Php72) in Suriah Sabah. I know, I know, it was pretty irresponsible of me for forgetting to bring one. Malaysian electric sockets are the three-pronged ones.
Day 2: October 8, Saturday
Because we had reserved Sunday for the Gaya street market, we decided to dedicate Saturday to Kinabalu Park. Getting there is relatively easy if you do it on your own. Just trek the road Jalan Tungku Adbdul Rahman, past the roundabout near Bandaran Berjaya, and you’ll see a terminal right across the hotel Dreamtel.
Because we took our time that morning, we lost a few hours that we could have spent visiting the Poring Hot Spring, where I hear the canopy walk is awesome. We pondered for a bit if we would still risk it, since it was near noon time already, but we still went ahead and booked two seats aboard a mini bus (think it was RM20 each) to get to Kinabalu Park. Make sure to look for the ones headed for Ranau. Kinabalu Park is on the way to Ranau, so let your driver know so he will let you get off when you’re in the area.
Take note that minibuses in Kota Kinabalu are not air-conditioned, so it’s good to bring water in case you get thirsty, or a fan to keep you refreshed when the sun beats down on you through the windows. Once you get to higher altitude, though, you’ll relish the cooler breeze. Don’t be surprised if the driver takes a few stops along the way to take some personal phone calls and to rest. We stopped at a store maybe two thirds into the trip and treated ourselves to some ice candy.
We arrived at around 2 pm in Kinabalu Park, and it was especially cold. Good thing I had also brought a jacket (though I was wearing shorts, LOL). The entrance is RM15 each.
We instantly saw a lot of foreigners milling about the area, obviously mountain climbers. There is a visitor’s center building by the entrance, so you can ask for a map of the park there. Use this opportunity to ask for directions too and tips how to go around the park—there are several trails that weave at the base of Mount Kinabalu and the estimated time to navigate them is indicated in the map.
Since a museum was just a stone’s throw away, we checked it out for a good 10 to 15 minutes (it was very small). But it gave us a good idea of the geological and zoological wealth lying in the mountain. Trivia: “Kinabalu” comes from “Aki Nabalu”, meaning the “revered place of the dead.” The spirits of ancestors are said to roam the mountain.
We didn’t take the trails and just went ahead to check the Botanical Garden. Along the way, we enjoyed the clean air, the lush surroundings and the chirps and hums of birds and insects. We were delighted when we saw squirrels and green-beaked birds among the trees.
The walk is a good 20 to 30 minutes from the visitor’s center. There aren’t a lot of signs along the way, but you’ll know you’re in the right direction when you see the Liwagu Restaurant. Facing the restaurant, take the road on the right and you’ll soon see a sign on the left to the botanical garden. The entrance costs RM15 (roughly Php180).
The botanical garden was not as massive as I thought it would be. I thought it would be as big as the one in Singapore or like a typical park in Japan. But the price is worth it to just transport yourself in a rainforest-like environment. Just hearing the bubbling brooks, appreciating the clear water and the smell of dew in the air is intoxicating.
If there was a disappointing thing about the botanical garden, it’s that we didn’t actually see a lot of flowers in bloom. Maybe it wasn’t the season yet. Among the floral varieties labeled throughout the garden, we only saw maybe two, and the other kind we would see even outside the garden.
We had to hurry to leave the park because I was scared we would miss a ride back into the city. Based on what I had read online, there are buses every now and then but they are hard to get by after 5 pm.
We crossed the road and hoped for the best. There were taxis just outside the park, but they were trying to close a deal at RM150, which we knew was preposterous. We took our chances and soon enough, a bus bound for KK City passed by.
The tricky thing was, we didn’t know that the bus would be headed for a terminal still in the outskirts of KK City. We weren’t familiar with the place, but an information center was available in the terminal and we were advised to take a mini bus. It was getting dark already.
Luckily, after walking for like a half a kilometer or so, a mini bus passed by and it was headed for the city. To make sure we were headed in the right direction, I had pre-loaded Google Maps back at the hotel so we would have GPS even without data connection.
The mini buses in Kota Kinabalu are similar to the ones in Manila, though not as big. I’m not sure what kind of vans they were, but they could accommodate maybe nine to 12 passengers, tops. Vehicles, of course, are right-hand drive in KK and can be disorienting to tourists like us. I think we paid RM10 each.
We asked that we be dropped off at the Waterfront, where thankfully the mini bus would pass by. Because we were famished, I thought of a good restaurant where we hadn’t eaten yet.
It was a bit of a walk, but we headed for the Welcome Seafood Restaurant at the Asia City Complex. We knew we were in the right direction when we saw the row of seafood restaurants. Welcome Seafood Restaurant is at the very back of the mall, and it was packed with patrons. There was that chaotic buzz of servers and people talking loudly.
To place your orders, you need to fall in line right by the aquariums. There is a menu displayed for your convenience. We asked for a salted egg soft shell crab.
Tables are all meant for big groups, in the traditional Chinese round table style, with a lazy Susan in the middle. We found a table for cleaning and soon offered to share it with two ladies I presume were Singaporean. We found the cleaning of the tables both fascinating and at the same time unnerving, because they would use squeegees and soap to clean the tables.
Apparently, for drinks and other items such as rice, you have to order these directly with the servers. We ordered for some rice and Kit Chai Ping (an iced drink with calamansi limes with salted sour plums and sugar). It was refreshing, and went well with the spiciness of the crab. The sour plums reminded me of the local Chinese delicacy in the Philippines called “kiamoy”. Because of its soft shell, the crabs were easy to crack open but also proved tricky to eat because of the little shell pieces you’d end up with, with each bite.
I decided to try the coconut pudding, which was absolutely creamy, faintly sweet and the perfect way to cap off the night. Our total order was less than RM41 to RM50 (Php500 to Php600).
Day 3: October 9, Sunday
We excitedly made our way to the Gaya Sunday street market, where you can find almost anything under the sun. From Malaysian biscuits, traditional Malaysian gongs, special handmade soaps, kitchen utensils, plants, live sea animals, and more.
This is also the perfect opportunity to buy souvenirs and pasalubong for family and friends. I bought my fill of fridge magnets and t-shirts for my nephews (around Php300 to Php400 if you convert it).
Want to learn what souvenirs we recommend? Check out my video below:
Along the way, we also noticed several cafes that sported a more Western look. I assume these are the products of the hostels in the area, which were set up by foreigners.
It can get a bit hot and humid, so make sure you are dressed comfortably. By lunchtime we were famished so we navigated the streets to find Kedai Kopi Yee Fung, where the laksa is legendary. I have tried laksa in the past (maybe just twice), but to be honest, I always forget how it’s supposed to taste like. I am really more of a ramen person than a laksa person, so I didn’t know what to expect when we ordered the small bowl of laksa.
The place was packed, as can be expected every Sunday. You can feel the energy and fast pace just with the servers shouting orders to one another. Thankfully we saw a family leave a table (typical round tables for big groups) and soon we were sharing it with a couple.
We placed two orders for the Yee Fung Laksa, and I also got a Teh Maderas Ping. Laksa, for the unfamiliar, is a combination of Chinese and Malay cuisine. It’s a spicy noodle soup with rice noodles, chicken, shrimp or fish. The soup base can be either spicy coconut milk or tamarind.
Yee Fung’s laksa has ingredients such as dried tofu, omelette, shrimp and chicken. Even if it was hot that afternoon, the first piping hot, sour and spicy spoonful was pure heaven. Just having that hot, flavorful laksa soup go down to your tummy, followed by perfectly cooked noodles, made that morning’s tiring window shopping spree all worth it.
That afternoon, we rested a bit and decided to view the floating mosque. As advised by the tourist information guides, we could just get an Uber while we’re still connected in the hotel. As we started to see the mosque from afar, we were spellbound with its beauty. The blue and gold dome jutting out into the sky was truly majestic.
There were a lot of tourists that day (mostly Chinese) and I decided to rent an abaya so I could go inside the temple—tourists can mill about the courtyard but not inside the temple, unless they’re dressed accordingly. My boyfriend didn’t want to change but as a man he didn’t really need to anyway, as he was dressed appropriately in a t-shirt and jeans.
The fabric I was dressed in was surprisingly breathable and lightweight, and I avoided making rowdy movements so as not to be rude to the Muslim locals.
It’s amazing what that piece of cloth can do to you. Suddenly you have a profound appreciation of what Muslim women go through every single day they have to go out, no matter what the weather is like. Without the sight of your hair, your own body shape or your clothing style, it’s really your face and your demeanor that will speak for your personality and individuality.
After removing our shoes, we carefully stepped into the mosque, which I was surprised was quite simple inside, architecture-wise. There is a first area where tourists can go around and take pictures in, with a view of the prayer area. That area has a fine line up to where tourists can go up to. That afternoon was a quiet one, and only a few people were praying.
After returning the rented abaya, I treated myself to fruit-flavored ice cream. Since we didn’t want to use our data, it took us a while before we were able to hail a taxi back to the hotel.
After a good hour’s rest, we headed out again to search for a place to have dinner. We passed through a new mall, Oceanus, and saw these cool robot rides for kids (RM10 to 20). The deck at the back also gives you a good view of the sunset by the ocean.
Because we were too tired, we settled to “baptize” a McDonald’s joint. We ordered cheeseburger meals and their bubur. Their cheeseburger wrappers shared the nutritional information and I was shocked to find out each cheeseburger is 455 calories (whut). The bubur is a local rice porridge, which I found very similar to the Philippines’ lugaw. It’s an acquired taste, and after a few spoonfuls, I started to like it.
With our bellies full, we took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, soaking in as much of the Kota Kinabalu vibe as it was already our last evening in Malaysia.
There were a lot of things that we could have done differently, but in the end, we left the country with our eyes, taste buds and cultural appreciation on fire. We thank the locals for their warmth, hospitality, friendly smiles and love for their heritage and traditions. No goodbyes, but just see you later! 🙂
Want to see more from our Kota Kinabalu trip? Watch my vlog below, and subscribe to my YouTube channel if you’d like to see more travel and food videos!