If you’re looking for a tropical city to visit over a long weekend with a unique allure of nature and culture, the nearest down south of the Philippines is Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.
Part of the State of Sabah (which means “land below the wind”) on the northern part of the island, Kota Kinabalu is a little more than two hours by plane from Manila, and more than 1,000 kilometers apart with Davao City in Mindanao.
Sabah was once part of the Sultanate of Brunei until it was given to the Sultanate of Sulu as a gesture of gratitude for helping quell a rebellion within the former’s kingdom. Controlled by the British in latter part of the 19th and early 20th century, Jesselton (what would be Kota Kinabalu) thrived as a trading post. It, along with Sabah, became part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 and was renamed Kota Kinabalu, after Mount Kinabalu.
Today, Kota Kinabalu is known for its City Mosque, colorful bazaars and trade, and natural treasures such as the proboscis monkey, orangutan, the pygmy (Asia’s smallest elephant), and islands.
To enjoy Kota Kinabalu, here are 10 helpful travel tips to get the best out of your upcoming trip to Sabah:
Getting around the city.
Although taxis are widely available, taking Grab is more convenient and is cheap. Don’t forget to download the app before your travel. If you’re traveling solo, you can also rent a motorbike or scooter.
Visiting Mount Kinabalu.
Bring a warm clothing if you plan a trip to Kota Kanabalu mountain park. The temperature drops from 30 degrees in the city down to around 15 degree Celsius at Mount Kinabalu. If you plan to relax a little bit more, head down to Poring Hot Spring, a 45-minute drive from Mount Kinabalu Park.
Join a group to see the Proboscis Monkeys.
If you want to see wildlife first hand, book a tour for the Klias River adventure to see the Proboscis Monkey of Borneo. This includes the van, buffet snack and dinner, boat ride to see the monkey and another boat ride at night to see fireflies.
It’s not a Kota Kinabalu trip without a massage.
It is said that a massage is a necessary local experience in Kota Kinabalu. There are plenty around; I personally recommend street massages at night at Kampung Air area, which usually starts around 6 pm and pack up at 3 am. Otherwise, you can also pre-book your spa or massage on Klook.
One-stop shop for tours.
Haven’t booked an island tour yet? Not to worry. At Jesselton port (jump off point to Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik, and other islands), you can book your trip and schedule your boat, your activities, buffet lunch and many more. Activities such as parasailing, jetski, banana boat, and helmet diving are surprisingly cheaper than Boracay.
Here is a list of main islands you can visit from Kota Kinabalu.
You can speak Tagalog with some of the locals.
With its close proximity to Mindanao in the Philippines, Kota Kinabalu is home to many Tagalog-speaking residents and migrants. It has been very convenient to speak Tagalog because many in the street would understand; it’s just difficult recognize who is a Filipino or not.
Beyond culture, Sabah is all about adventure in nature.
A wide array of adventure travel experiences, such as river rafting, hiking, ATV tour and snorkeling.
Bring insect repellent on your forest tours.
Bring an insect repellent as you will need it when you hike the park and when you visit the monkeys.
Don’t skip local food.
Explore the wide variety of Malaysian and Chinese cuisine in restaurants and along the street. Night market is also an option for seafood delicacies, satay, and other local flavors, but be sure to arrive early as it normally closes at 12 midnight.
Try out the delicious Laksa at Yee Fung — it’s arguably the best.
Visit the local market.
Visit the Filipino Market (Yes, there is such a market) at any day for your souvenirs, such as clothes, magnet, key chains, and the likes.
If you happen to stay during Sunday, drop by Gaya Street Sunday Market for a wide range of items to buy such as fruits, herbal medicines, clothing to food, and many more.
If you want to find out more about Kota Kinabalu, here’s an amazing New York Times article about the city.
Thanks to my friends Liezl, Noel and John for sharing their photos!