Best Time To VisitCredits: Giphy.comWhile KK (and Malaysia in general) doesn't have four seasons like most Western countries and can be visited all year long, it does have a few months where the weather is much fairer and better suited for those planning to hit the beach or go mountain climbing.The best time to visit Kota Kinabalu would be during the peak season, which is from December to April. The weather is the best during this time with little to no showers - making it perfect for outdoor excursions.Alternatively, if you're looking to get cheaper accommodations, you can opt to visit during the off-season, which is between September and November. The only downside is that you might experience some intermittent showers☔- though it's definitely less frequent than from mid-April to May!
Renting a Car in KKCredits: Giphy.comGetting around in KK can be a little difficult if you depend on public transportation alone. That's why a lot of visitors who come to KK on vacation opt to rent a car during their stay. Not only is it more comfortable, but it makes visiting all the attractions so much easier as you can do so at your own schedule ??Plus, there are also plenty of rental car services available, like Big Momma Car Rental, Wahdah Car Rental, and Kota Kinabalu EzCar which has a range of different sized cars at affordable rental prices ?
What to bring if you plan on climbing Mt. KinabaluCredits:Giphy.comFor those of you who are entertaining the thought of climbing up Mt. Kinabalu, the process is not as cut and dried as you may think. One does not simply climb up Mt. Kinabalu – instead, there are many things that you need to prepare beforehand, the most important being getting the actual permit to climb the mountain.Do take note that if you are planning to climb the mountain, it is advisable that you do not book any flight or accommodations until after your permit has been confirmed (as it’s not guaranteed that you would get a permit during your preferred travel time).If you do manage to get your permit and have everything sorted out, there are also essential items that you would need to take along with you on your climb. First off, you're going to want to bring a waterproof backpack to ensure that your items - like headlamps, ponchos, gloves, clothes, water bottle and snacks - remain dry in case of rain. It's advisable to keep your backpack to less than 6kgs to make the climb less taxing ?Next, you're definitely going to want to bring along some sturdy walking or hiking shoes - something with a good grip for the climb and preferably high cut to prevent any ankle injuries - better safe than sorry ?Finally, be sure to bring along your personal toiletries and medication (should you need it). Some other items that you can take along with you include insect repellent, sunblock and lip balm - as the air is quite dry when you reach a higher altitude and cracked lips are just no fun to deal with ?
Getting to Kota KinabaluCredits: Giphy.comThe main gateway into Sabah and subsequently, Kota Kinabalu is by plane. Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) is Malaysia's second busiest airport and is located roughly around 7 km away from the city centre. Do take note that besides flights from Peninsular Malaysia, there are several direct international flights that go straight to Kota Kinabalu, for example from Singapore via AirAsia and Silk Air️, from Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei via Royal Brunei Airlines, and from Perth Australia via Malaysian Airlines. From there, there are various ways for you to get to the city centre, either by Airport Bus, Minibus, taxi, rented car or (if you have some time to kill) even by foot!Alright, now that we’ve got that cleared away, let’s move onto the fun bits of the actual itinerary!
Day 1: Arrive in KKExplore the City.
- Spend the first day of your trip exploring the beautiful, vibrant and culturally diverse city of Kota Kinabalu. This relatively small but bustling city is home to around 500,000 inhabitants which consist of Chinese, Kadazandusun, Bajau, Malays and a significant number of migrants from Indonesia, the Philippines, India and even the Republic of Korea ?!
- The Kota Kinabalu City Centre, or more often referred to as the Central Business District (CBD) or simply Downtown KK is located on the narrow coast which overlooks the Gaya Island - making it an incredibly scenic place for photos. Some places of interest that you might want to visit in order to get your bearings include the following.
- The Gaya Street (originally known as Bond Street) is home to a popular weekend market that spans about 350 meters with some spill over onto the next arterial streets. Located in the Central Business District (CBD), this area is also aptly known as Chinatown due to the vast array of Chinese coffee shops and restaurants that are located around the area ?
- Every Sunday morning, Gaya Street is closed off to traffic to make way for the street market whereby you can sample delicious street food and purchase wonderful souvenirs that range from artwork and handicrafts to Tenom coffee and jewellery. In addition, this is also the best place to get the famous Sabah pearls at good, bargain prices. If you're unsure whether a pearl is authentic or not, keep in mind that real pearls are not perfectly circular or smooth. They'll have small blemishes or irregularities to their shape and usually have a rough or gritty texture.
- For those of you who like shopping, you can easily spend half your day here - though as the name states, it is only open on Sundays.
- Located a couple of minutes’ drive from away from Padang Merdeka, the Signal Hill Observatory Tower is the highest point in the city and requires you to either climb up 250 steps to reach an airy observation tower or alternatively, you can drive up (or get a Grab car to take you up ?).
- The steps are somewhat precarious but the stunning views of the city, as well as the gorgeous beachfront, is definitely worth it. Plus, if you get peckish, there's a cafe at the top of the observatory that carries some tasty snacks, like banana fritters and milk tea!
- If you're the type of person who adores learning while on vacation, a trip to the Sabah State Museum should be right up your alley. Located at Jalan Muzium (a mere 10 mins drive from Signal Hill Observatory Tower) and spanning 17 hectares of land at Bukit Istana Lama, the traditional Rungus Longhouse inspired building holds a great number of historical artefacts, documentation, and photographs that details the rich history of Borneo ?
- For a minimal entry fee of RM 2 (for Malaysians) or RM 15 (for Non-Malaysians) you can wander through and admire several exhibits that will without a doubt captivate your interest for hours on end. Some of the more interesting exhibits include the Ceramic Gallery, the Headhunting Gallery, the Natural History Gallery and the Ancient Culture Gallery. Plus, the Sabah State Museum also happens to have the biggest whale skeleton exhibit in Malaysia - which is pretty cool ?!
- As a Muslim, you'd be remised if you went to Kota Kinabalu and missed out on visiting its gorgeous state mosque. Located a mere 5 mins away from the Sabah State Museum, the Sabah State Mosque is one of the most outstanding pieces of architecture in the city; featuring a unique combination of Islamic architecture and contemporary designs ?
- Boasting a majestic dome and stunning gold inlay motifs, the mosque also features a special balcony that is exclusively allocated for Muslim women during prayer time and can accommodate up to 5,000 worshippers at one time.
- The mosque is opened daily, though do note that visiting times are subject to change from time to time as to correspond with the Muslim prayer time.
- Can you really say that you've visited KK if you didn't grab at least a couple of kitschy tourist selfies at the 'I Love KK' and 'Marlin' statue at Segama Waterfront? Located 11 minutes away from the Sabah State Mosque, the statues are located right beside the Central Market which goes pass Wisma Merdeka (and very close to the Hotel Hyatt Regency). The picturesque harbourfront offers visitors a stunning view of the South China Sea as well as the island and long houses in the background. In addition, it’s also one of the many great places to catch a truly stunning sunset view ?
- The ‘I Love KK’ and ‘Marlin’ statues are rather striking and a picture with either landmark would serve as undeniable proof that you have indeed, visited Kota Kinabalu ?
- Once you've explored the city to your heart's content, you can choose to end your day with a relaxing view of the gorgeous sunsets that KK is known widely for. Named as one of the top 5 places to catch the sunset, the Shangri-la Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa is located approximately 10 minutes away from the city and has an absolutely amazing beachfront setting.
- Entrance onto the resort premises is free but if you’re feeling a little pecking, you can also pop into Coco-Joe's Bar & Grill - an in-house contemporary beach barbecue restaurant that boasts tasty treats that you can munch on as you watch the skies alight with a riot of colours during sunset from their private beach-dining platform ?. The food is prepared using halal ingredients, however, please note that alcoholic beverages are served on the premises. We recommend that you dine at your own discretion.
Day 2: Drive to Kundasang (Day Trip)
- Located in the Ranau District of Borneo, Kundasang is rich in natural beauty, teeming with wildlife and is surrounded by refreshing, lush greeneries. Popular among both locals and tourists alike, there are several things that you can do in Kundasang which include:
- Located at the foot of Mount Kinabalu in Kundasang Valley, the Desa Cattle Dairy Farm or Desa Dairy Farm is where most of Sabah's dairy products are produced. Offering one of the most amazing alpine scenery one could ever hope for within such a tropical country, the Desa Dairy Farm spans over 199 hectares with an estimated 600 dairy cows - making it one of the largest farms in Sabah ?
- Be sure to reach there before 8 am to catch a breathtakingly clear view of Mt. Kinabalu before it’s hidden away by clouds. Besides the breath-taking scenery, there are plenty of activities that you can do at the farm, including feeding the calves with bottled milk, feeding the goats, learning milk is processed and of course, shopping for souvenirs and sampling some of the dairy products like ice cream, yogurt, cheese and of course fresh milk !
- If you're a history buff, then a trip to the Kundasang War Memorial will right up your alley. The memorial, which is located about 19 minutes from the Desa Dairy Farm, was built to commemorate the British and Australian soldiers who were martyred in the Sandakan POW camp during the infamous 'death' marches to Ranau that occurred in World War II ?
- The idea for the memorial can be traced back to Major G.S. Carter DSO, a New Zealand war veteran and employee of the Shell Oil & Co. (Borneo) in 1962 and was later constructed by local architect, Mr. JC Robinson. Though due to the lack of funds, the relatively large memorial fell into disrepair before a native Thai pensioner, Mr. Sevee Charuruks from KK, decided to restore the area as a private project in 2005 (with some help from the Australian Government).
- The memorial itself is rather lovely and divided into four interconnecting areas that have been aptly named labelled; The Australian Garden, The English Rose Garden, The Borneo Garden and the Contemplation Garden and Pool. The first three gardens, as their names would suggest, represent the home country of the victims.
- If you’re feeling hungry after exploring the war memorial, then rest assured that good food is just a short 4-minute drive away! Restoran Syah Adilah is a humble-looking store that sells truly delicious halal Chinese style cuisine. This restaurant comes highly recommended due to its friendly staff, clean and well-maintained space and the fact that you can get a variety of dishes at a reasonable price.
- From mixed Tomyum, omelettes and fried baby kailan to marmite chicken, Japanese tofu and beef soup, you can definitely satisfy your cravings here. In addition, the restaurant also has a prayer room for customers to utilise ?
- During your trip to Kundasang, driving around to see some of the local villages is the best way to gain the most authentic experience of the local culture and region. One of the most interesting activities you can do in Kundasang is to visit a natural fish spa to try a fish foot massage ?!
- One of the best places to experience this unique activity is at the Tagal Luanti Fish Massage Village, which is about a 50-minute drive away from the Kundasang War Memorial. The fishes at the village are specifically trained by the villagers to perform the healing massage activities. With a nominal entrance fee of RM 2 (or RM 5 if you’re planning on bringing a camera), you can enjoy the thrilling experience of having fish nibbling off the dead skin of your feet and leaving it smooth and supple ?
- Your feet aren’t the only things that you can pamper in Kundasang! If you’re feeling particularly exhausted or sore after a long drive around Kundasang, pay a visit to Poring Hot Spring to refresh your body and soul. The name Poring comes from the Kadazandusun word for a bamboo species found in the vicinity. Situated about a half an hour drive away from the Tagal Luanti Fish Massage Village (in the lowlands and surrounded by rainforest), the hot spring is actually located within Kinabalu Park ?️.
- It is said that the water of the hot springs is rich in sulphuric minerals which are believed to have healing and therapeutic benefits. Not only is it good for your health (and able to improve your blood circulation) but it's a good way to de-stress and soothe away your aches and pains.
- Do take note that for a satisfying trip to Poring Hot Springs, it is recommended that you bring some essential items like rubber sandals/slippers, a change of clothes, a towel, and swimwear.
Day 3: Climb Mt. Kinabalu (if you're not climbing Mt. KInabalu, skip ahead to our alternative Day 3 itinerary below!)
- If you’re planning to climb Mt. Kinabalu on your trip, it’s a good idea to spend the night in Kundasang as you will need to get to the Kinabalu Park Headquarters extremely early in order to register for your climb. Once you’ve registered, you will be given tags to identify which tour group you’re in before being brought over to the starting point. Just before you start your climb, there will also be a short briefing and some additional information about the trail as well as the do’s and don’ts of climbing up the mountain - just minor things like not to curse, shout or scream when on the hike (as locals believe in respecting the spirits residing on Mt. Kinabalu).
- The full trek is going to take you a little over 2 days and is separated into 2 parts. The first part is an almost 6-hour nonstop hike through spectacular landscapes and nature before reaching the mid-way point at laban rata. The second part is the Summit Climb which can begin as early as 2 a.m. the next day until you reach the peak before heading back down the mountain.
Day 3 Alternative: Visit Kudat (Day Trip)
- Alternatively, you can turn Kundasang into a lovely day trip before heading back to KK before embarking on a journey to Kudat the following day. Known as the Tip of Borneo, Kudat was once a bustling trading post in the 19th Century. Having evolved into a rather chilled town, the once isolated Kudat (which was only accessible via sea until less than 50 years ago) is now accessible via a 3-hour drive or a 30-minute flight from KK. Populated mainly by the Rungus ethnic people off Sabah, Kudat features a slow-paced environment and a traditional charm that will bring you back to the basics necessities of life.
- In Kudat, there are several interesting places for you to visit to have an enriching, thrilling and fun-filled day, as detailed below!
- Situated in the northernmost tip of Borneo, this dramatic headland is the third largest island in the world, right after Greenland and New Guinea. Tanjung Simpang Mengaya translates simply to 'the lingering junction' and it is here where the South China Sea meets the Sulu Seas which flows from the east. With breathtaking views, you can take an easy stroll to some of the most notable landmarks, such as the flagpole the Globe and the rocky outcrop that forms the 'Tip of Borneo ?.'
- Finding good halal food or restaurants in Kudat can be a little tricky. There's a lot of little stalls around that are run by locals but not all their offerings are halal (you'll have to ask if a stall catches your eye!)
- One of the places you can stop by to eat your fill is Tampat Do Aman's Tip Top Restaurant. Owned and operated by an English man and his wife, Tip Top is a Muslim-friendly restaurant (all ingredients used are halal certified but they do serve alcoholic beverages, hence we recommend that you dine at your discretion) that overlooks the Kosihui beach. Serving a mixture of traditional Rungus, Malay, Chinese and Western cuisine, this restaurant offers you not only great food at reasonable prices but amazing views as well ?
- Bees are an integral part of food production and as much as they antagonise us, the Borneo Honeybee Centre (BHC) offers plenty of insightful information on the history of the honeybee industry that will have you thinking twice before squashing a bee the next time you find it in your backyard (or wandering around inside your home) ?
- Aiming to provide a memorable agro-tourism experience for both local and foreign tourists, the BHC is located at 27 minute drive away from Tanjung Simpang Mengayau and is the ideal place to visit if you'd like to learn more about the local bee species and honey production.
- Established in 2006, the BHC allows visitors to discover the wide variety of local bees (for example, Apis cerana and Apis dorsata bee species). There's also an interesting live demonstration on honey harvesting by the beekeepers and visitors will also get the chance to sample pure honey directly from the honeycomb - an especially tasty reason to pay the BHC a visit!
- While Kudat remained mostly isolated until quite recently and still retains its original and traditional lifestyle, they're not completely free from the shift to modern-day living and advancement. That being said, it's getting quite rare to see the traditional longhouses (built on stilts) where the traditional Rungus people used and practised a fascinating communal lifestyle ?
- Kampung Bavanggazo which is located near Tinangol in the Kudat district (about 25 minutes drive from Kampung Bavanggazo) is one of the few places left where you can still experience seeings exploring the purpose-built longhouse which is constructed entirely out of traditional materials (but with the added modern comforts of toilets and showers)!
- The gong is the most important musical instruments to the Rungus people and is often played during festivals or during auspicious events - like weddings. Years ago, the art of making gongs was considered a rather private affair and gong makers would only work on their craft in total seclusion. Some gong makers would even go as far as to retreat deep into the jungle with their tools and materials in order to craft their gongs ?
- Nowadays, you can witness the method of gong making by visiting Kampung Sumangkap (located a mere 8 minutes drive from Kampung Bavanggazo) which will often hold cultural performances in their Community Hall where the kulintangan (a set of different sized gongs that produce different sounds) are skillfully played for your listening pleasure ?
- You can even choose to purchase gongs of varying sizes and designs from the village - from keychain-sized gongs to ones that reach up to 2 meters wide in diameter!
- There's a small entrance fee to go into the village (about RM 3 per entry) and the money is used to help sustain the village.
Day 4: Last Minute Shopping
- Depending on what time your flight leaves, you can use the last day to get in some last-minute shopping at the Filipino Market for some of the truly ‘local’ souvenirs - and at less exorbitant prices. Located at Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, the Filipino Market is called as such due to the foreign origin of most of the sellers there. Open daily, the Filipino Market actually consists of a Salted Fish Market, a Fruits Market, A Handicraft Market, a Vegetable Market, and a regular Fish Market with a series of accompanying cooked food stalls that sells a variety of tasty seafood and snacks for when you get peckish. But if you’re short on time, you definitely need to at least give these few areas a quick visit:
- The Salted Fish Market specialised in all manner of products from the seas - from dried salted fish and seafood crackers to dried seaweed and more. Neatly packed and ready to be taken on board your flight back home, there are over 10 stalls in this section of the Filipino market that you can browse through and buy your souvenirs from. The vendors are usually very nice and you can even try to impress them with your 'Sabahan lingo' to try and get a bargain price for your souvenirs ?
- From musical instruments, keychains and blowpipes to handcrafted jewellery, t-shirts and wooden sculptures, the Handicraft Market is a great place to buy souvenirs for all your friends and family back home ?
- With tons of stalls available, you can go around and bargain at each stall to get the best price for your desired items (as a lot of the time, the price tag for each item is open for negotiation). Bargain hunters adore this section of the market because you can get all manner of interesting souvenirs - like a wooden-frog that 'signs' when you stroke its back with a wooden stick or coconut-shaped handbags ?️
- Located right behind the Handicraft Market is the cooked food stalls. The slightly smoke-filled stalls which are permeated with the delicious aromas of various cooked meats and seafood will surely have you curious to sample some of the local delicacies.
- From grilled crabs, fish and squids to fried prawns, barbequed stingrays and more, your tastebuds will thank you for the experience. In addition to the delicious fresh seafood snacks, you can also try the local kuih - like kuih lidah and kuih cincin, martabak and terang bulan (turnover pancake or apam balik) ?
- In conclusion, Kota Kinabalu is a charming place to visit with a little something for everyone - no matter if you're an adrenaline junkie or someone who is just looking to have a nice, quiet vacation away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Although the main jewel in Sabah's crown is Mount Kinabalu, we hope that this 4D3N Kota Kinabalu Itinerary including a day trip to Kundasang will convince you that there are plenty of other fun-filled and thrilling activities that you can do in KK besides mountain climbing in order to have a fruitful trip ?