TRULY ASIA. Definitely the best description of Malaysia as what the famous tourism advertisement suggests. Malaysia is located partly on a peninsula of the Asian mainland and partly on the northern third of Borneo and is known for its diverse wildlife, beautiful beaches, and fast emerging cities.
I would have gone shopping in Kuala Lumpur but nothing from the root of my hair to the tip of my toenails would even agree to that so I then booked that flight to the best option (for a nature and beach lover like me), Kota Kinabalu (KK).
When people hear about KK, the first thing that comes to mind is Mount Kinabalu. But there’s so much more to it than a famous mountain! There is a ton of options if you are not inclined to exceed and test your hiking capabilities in one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. Did I mention it is one of the UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE sites too?
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Before embarking on an exciting adventure to Kota Kinabalu, it’s best to make sure that that first step is well calculated.
- Book a flight in advance to save more! A flight from Manila to Kota Kinabalu costs an average of around 5,300php. I booked mine for 3,000php through Cebu Pacific’s promo fare. Yaaas!
- Book your accommodations via AGODA. By using AGODA’s filters, you can choose from a wide selection of local accommodations to suit your personal taste in comfort. Since KK is a very small city, it’s better to stay in the Central Business District so you can have an easier time exploring around. You can choose to stay either in Gaya Street or in Bandaran Berjaya Street where most of the affordable accommodations are located.
- Buy a local simcard in KK Airport. I paid 25RM (around 275php) for a local sim with call and text credits and an 8gig data! That’s basically internet all day, err day!
- Download these convenient apps: GrabCar/Uber, GoogleMaps, and Couchsurfing. FYI, riding a taxi is the most expensive means of transportation in KK! Your best option would be to book a GrabCar or Uber. Plan your own city walking tour using Google Maps. Everything is pretty accessible if you are staying either in Gaya or Berjaya Street. Lastly, if you are frequent traveler you definitely must have a Couchsurfing app. This is basically a hospitality service/social networking app. I managed to get around the city quickly through the help of a local Couchsurfer. Just be sure that you get to know the profiles of the person you wish to contact as some could get you into trouble. Check their references and reviews!
- Exchange your money PhP to RM (Malaysian Ringgit) through the following:
- NAIA Airport 3
- ATM in Kota Kinabalu (only Visa and Mastercard are accepted)
- Wisma Merdeka, a mall situated near the Sabah Park Jetty Port. They offer the best rates!
- Wear cotton or any comfortable clothes! The average weather in KK is 32°C. You can wear a turtleneck if you insist, but don’t blame me if you collapse while chowing down on that sumptuous Malaysian dish.
- No English, No Problem. Filipinos are just everywhere! You won’t have a hard time communicating coz the moment you say “Hello” they will instantly reply with “Kababayan!” Haha. Many of our kababayans work in KK and imagine how much perks I got coz you know how helpful and hospitable Filipinos naturally are. Mabuhay and Pilipinas!
PLACES TO VISIT:
I stayed in Kota Kinabalu for 3 days and it was just enough time to explore around (if you wish to climb Mount Kinabalu then you should add another day for that!). I personally recommend visiting these places to maximize the KK experience:
- Tunku Abdul Marine Park (ISLAND HOPPING!)
This marine park is composed of different islands: Gaya Island, Sapi Island, Manukan Island, Mamutik Island and Sulug Island. The most famous would be Manukan and Sapi Island. Island tours can be booked on the spot at the Jesselton port which is 10 minutes away from town proper. A tour cost usually starts at 23RM and may cost more depending on the number of islands in the itinerary. There are also snorkeling devices for rent and other water activities such as diving, banana boat, and zipline, which you can avail for an additional cost. The best time to go here is at 8am.
- Kinabalu Park
You can’t miss this as it is Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site and is also the center of plant diversity in South East Asia. Of course, the main attraction is Mount Kinabalu which is a hotspot for mountaineers out there. I would have loved to make the climb but sometimes being spontaneous takes me to the wrong place. If you do want to climb the mountain, make sure to book a reservation 6 months prior. Go to Sabah Tourism website.
Otherwise, you can always explore the rest of the park, the Desa Cattle Farm, and Poring HotSpring. Kinabalu Park is a 2-hour drive away from the city proper. You can get there by bus in the airport (25RM one way) which goes to Kinabalu Park, by rented car using EasyBook (just make sure you have an international driver’s license), or by GrabCar. Try to negotiate for the price (a whole day tour would in Kinabalu Park would range from 100-150RM), or book a Kinabalu+Desa+Poring tour in trusted travel agencies. Click here for more deets!
For the total Kinabalu experience, my personal advice is to stay overnight. It’s awesome to wake up with a stunning view of the mountain and fresh cold air breeze. Budget lodges are available near the park. Also, make sure to pack warm clothes coz it’s a bit cold up there!
- Tanjung Aru Beach
Definitely one of the best areas near KK town proper where you can catch the beautiful sunset! Don’t expect a powdery white sand though! Get there by the very reliable GrabCar. You may also want to avail of Shangri-La resort’s Sunset Bar. 25RM for a glass of alcohol and a great spot for sunset watching!
- Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
Also known as the floating mosque! I recommend coming here at 4:30pm so you can witness its beauty at day and at night! The mosque looks quite stunning at night but it is also quite refreshing during the day. You may enter the mosque but you need to rent a Hijab or the Islamic clothing. Modesty and privacy is strictly observed here. You may rent it at the tourist center near the mosque for 5-10RM.
- DIY City Walking Tour
You can do this any time, at your own pace! You are good to go with just Google maps! Explore the Atkinson Clock Tower, get to know more of KK in the museum of Islamic civilization and Sabah Museum, go wild with Asian and Malaysian cuisines along Gaya Street, and shop at Suria Sabah Mall, Imago, the Handicraft market and central market along Jln. Tun Fuad Stephens street. Witness the sunset at the Waterfront while enjoying a bottle of beer and watch the KK nightlife unfold.
Walking can be tiring, but worry not coz there is a legit (yes) massage service at the KK Waterfront! If you still have paper to spare, you can always rent a GrabCar for your city tour or catch a city bus that stops in almost all famous tourist spots for 1RM per ride!
- Gaya Street Sunday Market
As the name implies, it happens on Sundays! Haha! Get those unique Asian finds and local souvenirs here!
All these places are a must visit and I personally recommend them all! I’ve been to each and every one of them and I can say I’m more than satisfied with my KK experience. I made the most out of my stay and I was able to fully embrace the Malaysian culture. You can also explore other places and do more activities by checking out Lonely Planet’s recommendations.
Now you have the travel guide and places you need to visit! Go book that flight and explore Kota Kinabalu!
Love, light, and glittering ganernderlust,