Early morning that Friday from two weeks ago, we left Manila with nothing prepared but our backpacks, pocket money and passport. We haven’t prepared any itinerary or did any kind of research on how to get around Kota Kinabalu. We just booked a package with Klook to tour us around Mt. Kinabalu Park & Poring Hot Spring. Everything else was completely unplanned. We arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia 30 minutes past 11 that Friday morning and we left around the same time on Sunday that same week. It was our very first spontaneous trip outside the country and we only had 48 hours to roam around the city.
WHAT TO SEE IN KOTA KINABALU
Kota Kinabalu is a city in Sabah, Malaysia. Sabah is one of two states of Malaysia that are located in the third largest island in the world — Borneo. The other state is Sarawak which stretches along the northwestern coast of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu can be reached by plane and it will only take about 2 hours from Kuala Lumpur. It’s accessible from other countries as well even without a transit in KL and that includes my home country. Coming from Manila, it will also take you about 2 hours of flight by plane. When we arrived, we bought a Digi travel sim card so we can connect to the internet and search our way around the city.
Kota Kinabalu Mosque
We started our tour by visiting the Kota Kinabalu Mosque in the northern part of the city. It’s the largest mosque in Sabah and can accomodate up to 12,000 worshipers during prayer rituals and celebrations.
Taking photos is not prohibited provided that you don’t take pictures of people praying or any other shots that might disturb the solemnity of the praying ritual. I believe this applies to any other religions as well. It’s an etiquette tourists must observe.
Signal Hill Observatory Tower
The next destination we visited was the Signal Hill Observatory Tower. The view from the top was nothing extraordinary but sometimes, if you’d only learn how to look at something differently, you’d get to appreciate even the simplest of things.
Spend some time to appreciate the humble city of Kota Kinabalu from this viewpoint.
It can be reached in two ways — either by trekking or by car (Uber/Taxi). Coming from KK Mosque, the wiser option is to ride an Uber/Taxi. But in case you prefer to trek, you have all the freedom to do so. Head on to Jalan KK Bypass road and you’d see the jump off point to the Jungle Trek.
We took this route on our way down and it only took us about 10 minutes. So I guess it will only take you about 20 minutes to go uphill. The trail has built-in red metal stairs so don’t worry about your staining your shoes with mud.
Atkinson Clock Tower
We walked for another 5 minutes or so and then we saw the Atkinson Clock Tower, the Big Ben of Kota Kinabalu. It’s not that tall though, but just like the Big Ben of London, the Atkinson Clock Tower stood the test of time.
Built in memory of Jesselton’s (former name of Kota Kinabalu) first district officer, Francis George Atkinson, the clock tower has been showing time since 1905. Being the oldest structure in the city, it was declared as a heritage building in 1983.
We wanted to watch the sunset in KK Waterfront but when we realized the time is already past 6PM, we decided to just have our dinner in Filipino Market.
From Atkinson Clock Tower, we walked for about 15 minutes to reach this market known for its seafood stalls.
There were chicken as well for variety. We haven’t seen any pork on display maybe because Malays are mostly Islam.
Walking around the food stalls will make you realize why it’s called the Filipino Market. You want an obvious clue? Most of the store owners speak Tagalog!
Pekan Nabalu Viewpoint
The next day, we had to get up by 6AM to prepare ourselves for the day. Our tour guide fetched us 10 minutes past 8 o’clock in the morning. The weather forecast that day was a bit cloudy with 90% chance of rain so I told TJ to bring umbrella. From the city, it took us about 30 minutes to reach Pekan Nabalu Viewpoint in Kota Belud where you’d get to see Mt. Kinabalu up close even without the struggle of climbing.
The forecast was right. It was really cloudy so we didn’t get the chance to see Mt. Kinabalu’s peak. I know it’s disappointing. So maybe God just gave us a reason to come back. The idea of ‘next time’ always gives me relief.
There are stores where you can buy souvenirs. Grab a Kinabalu ref magnet to add up to your collections!
Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden
It rained some more while we were on the road to our next destination. So it was a perfect time to sleep. After more than an hour, we finally reached Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden.
The weather was still not good when we were about to start our tour around the rainforest. It was a good thing that our tour guide do sell raincoats. So I bought one for TJ and another for myself.
The tour lasted about 40 minutes of walking around to see different species of flowers and plants. Out of all we’ve seen, my favorite is this flower they called “Mickey Mouse Flower”. They called it as such because of its shape. Do you see the not-so-hidden Mickey?
Another plant that caught my interest is the “Pitcher Plant” also known as the “Monkey Cup”. From those names, you’d somehow refer to it as a plant that holds liquid which is in fact true. Its “monkey cup” name actually came from the fact that monkeys were once observed to drink rainwater from it. But aside from that obvious reference, you’d be surprise to know that it’s actually a carnivorous plant. It produces a sticky fluid inside it so when insects got in, it will most likely be trapped and will eventually be a source of food for the plant.
Mt. Kinabalu Park Botanical Gardenis just one of the destinations you would find in Kinabalu Parkwhich was designated as a heritage site by UNESCO. To become one tells a lot about the place. The tour guide mentioned that in every minute, hundreds of trees are being cut down worldwide and having this protected area is something the Malays are proud of. And if there’s one thing I could bring with me as a learning it’s —
“No matter how small you think it is that you do for the environment, it still matters.”
Poring Hot Spring
After visiting the Botanical Garden, we traveled another 45 minutes. We arrived just in time for lunch which we had with fellow backpackers. After we ate, we head over to the entrance of Poring Hot Spring. The tour guide said we can disperse and be back in about an hour but I’m not sure anyone even understood him because they were still walking together! So we had no choice but to follow them just to be sure they won’t leave us behind. Haha!
We all head out for the Canopy Walk first. It’s within the vicinity of Poring Hot Spring. Since we had no plans to take a bath in the hot spring pools, we decided to try out the canopy walkway. It’s not the first canopy walk I’ve had in my life so I really didn’t think it was challenging at first.
But when I was already there, crossing the the other side seems a bit difficult. I believe TJ felt the same way. We’re all in this together! Tee-hee!
Sulfur Hot Spring
Afterwards, we went back to the pool area and plunged half of our legs in the hot sulfur bath meant to soothe muscle pain. We did chat with Camilla, our new friend from Denmark, while waiting for our trip home.
When we got back from the day trip we had in Kinabalu Park, the first thing we did was eat in Burger King. I personally didn’t like the food we ate in Poring so I craved for some comfort food. Then we took rest for an hour or so before deciding where to spend our last night in the city. It was actually our monthsary so we wanted to eat somewhere special but since it was still raining, we decided to just go to a coffee shop. And in Kota Kinabalu, you would find a handful of coffee shops in Australia Lane.
It was not a bad decision since the coffee shops in the area were perfect for coffee lovers like us. We went to October Cafe and I could say the experience was worthwhile. With raindrops as our background music, we ended our day at peace.
Kota Kinabalu Waterfront
On our last day, we decided to visit Kota Kinabalu Waterfront since we haven’t got the chance to do it in our first and second day in the city. It’s just a 5 minutes walk from where we stayed.
From the bay, you can already see Manukan Island. Maybe on our next visit, we can spend at least a day or two in this island known for its diving spots.
There’s nothing much to do in this side of the waterfront (near Hyatt Regency Hotel). But you’ll get to take a picture with the Marlin Statue in the background.
I Love KK
And who would miss out I Love KK couplefie? Not us!
Gaya Street Sunday Market
Before we left the city, we passed by Gaya Street Sunday Marketto buy souvenirs. There were a lot of options from crackers, dried seafood, coffee to keychains and many more.
While roaming around, I got this sensation where it felt like I was just shopping in Divisoria. No kidding! Kota Kinabalu is indeed very much alike to the capital of the Philippines, Manila. They were so much alike that we found ourselves wandering around the city like a local.
ESTIMATED BUDGET BREAKDOWN
✈️ Roundtrip Flight — RM 165 (approx. Php 2,000+ / head)
🛌 Accomodation — RM 82 (approx. Php 1,000+ / night)
📱 Travel Sim + 10GB Internet Data (Good for 7 days) — RM 25 (approx. Php 300+)
⛰ Mt. Kinabalu Park & Poring Hot Spring Voucher from Klook — RM 165 (approx. Php 2,000+ / head)
🚗 Transportation (Uber / Taxi) — RM 20 (approx. Php 240 in total; RM 2~8 per ride)
🍴 Food — RM 82 (approx. Php 1000+ in total)
💰 ESTIMATED TOTAL EXPENSES = RM 488 (approx. Php 5, 920 / head)*
* Travel Tax Excluded
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Malaysiatourist visa is not required for citizens of Philippines for a stay up to 30 days. All travelers will need a passport valid for at least 90 days following your departure date from Malaysia. However, it is strongly recommended that passports must still have 6 months validity. (Source: Malaysia Visa HQ)
- I always recommend to bring pocket money of at least twice the projected expenses in case of any emergency.
- There are foreign exchanges in airports but expect exchange rates will cost you more compared to foreign exchanges in cities.
- Weather in Malaysia is similar to the weather in the Philippines. It’s only either a sunny day or a rainy day. So you don’t need to bring winter clothes if you’re planning to visit from December to January. Do bring folded umbrellas in case it rains. Also, please take into consideration of the fact that most people in Malaysia are muslims. Always be considerate of the clothes you will wear.
- Transportation within the city is easy if you have internet data on your phones because just like in Manila, you’d most probably want to book a ride with Uber. But there are taxis around so if you don’t prefer to buy a travel sim, getting around KK city is still easy.
Thank you for reading. Enjoy your trip when you get there!
P.S. Leave no trace but memories.