Travel Guide to Kota Kinabalu

Borneo Beach Break

By Ian Anderson. 

Borneo has been a popular adventure destination for many years and indeed trips into its interior are still about as adventurous as adventure travel can get. However, it is possible to experience some of the delights the island has to offer in a short break from Hong Kong, and if desired, experience it in luxury.

Kota Kinabalu or KK is a modern city of approximately half a million people and is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Kota Kinabalu’s coastal location and mountain backdrop give it one of the most spectacular settings of any city in Malaysia. It’s also Malaysia’s second busiest airport and a 3 hour direct flight from Hong Kong makes it one of the more accessible exotic beach destinations at our fingertips.

I recently spent a week there – here are some of my Kota Kinabalu holidays highlights: 

Unique Wildlife

Unique WildlifeBorneo is renowned the world over for its incredible biodiversity. It is one of the last of the world’s wild places, with its dense rainforests, tropical coastal islands and mysterious jungle valleys. As such, it has become a rare place on this planet today – somewhere where you can still encounter a rich variety of colourful and endangered wildlife, amidst amazing natural scenery. Sabah’s abundant and relatively accessible wildlife – combined with its picturesque islands and beaches – offer visitors the opportunity of combining nature-based activities such as trekking, wildlife watching and diving with relaxing beach holidays.

Undoubtedly people associate Borneo with Orangutans. For me a visit wouldn’t be complete without seeing the ‘wild man of Borneo’ in their native environment. The renowned Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located near Sandakan a short flight away, but there is a smaller nature reserve and interpretation centre in the grounds of the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort about 40 minutes out of the city centre.


Unique WildlifeIf you are not staying at the resort it is an excellent half-day trip. There are 2 feeds every day at 10am and 2pm. I would highly recommend a visit – after a video on the plight of the orangutans we walked through the jungle to the feeding station. A couple of young orangutans soon appeared and for the next hour we were completely transfixed – it looks like they enjoy the interaction as much as the tourists, the more outgoing one certainly put on a show for the cameras! After a trek back to the centre we are met by a baby orangutan who again seems to lap up the attention – such intelligent and funny animals.

There is also the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, which is managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department. It’s one of the largest wildlife parks in Malaysia and has Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys and Borneo Pygmy Elephants – again it can be experienced in half a day out of the city.

If you have the time there is also the option to do a river safari – the most popular is on the Klias River, approximately 2 hours away from Kota Kinabalu. Leaving Kota Kinabalu mid-afternoon the 90 minute boat cruise is timed to be at dusk so as to catch the fireflies as darkness falls. Sightings of proboscis monkeys are common, and if you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of an orangutan in the wild.

Beautiful Tropical Islands

Beautiful Tropical IslandsWith its beautiful beaches, offshore islands and pristine coral reefs, Sabah’s coastline is as fascinating as its rainforest and mountain-clad interior. The Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park near Kota Kinabalu covers 50 sq km and includes five islands, Gaya, Manukan, Mamutik, Sapi and Sulug. Each of these offers diving and snorkeling possibilities.

In addition to water sports activities the islands have a number trekking trails. All the islands are easily accessible from Kota Kinabalu, the nearest being 15 minutes by boat and the furthest one hour away. Various combinations of the outlying islands are possible.

One option is to head to the largest island, Gaya, and trek 2 kilometres of jungle trails before transferring across to Mamutik Island to relax and swim / snorkel.

We took advantage of a daytrip offered by Bunga Raya resort on Gaya Island and spent the day sunbathing, kayaking and snorkelling. It’s also possible to daytrip to the Gayana Eco Resort where there is a Marine Ecology Research Centre.

Tropical Rainforest

 Tropical RainforestKinabalu Park, covering an area of 754 sq km, was the first national park in Sabah. The park is dominated by Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest peaks in Southeast Asia at 4,095 metres. The slopes of Mount Kinabalu are home to an incredible variety of plants and animal species. Different elevations of the park and their micro climates support distinct habitats. The park’s most famous attraction is the Rafflesia plant, which grows the world’s largest flowers. These fleshy, smelly, bright red flowers sprout on the ground and only last for a couple of days before wilting. Although they sound hard to miss, they’re actually quite rare and you’ll only stumble across one if you’re very lucky.

Owing to its unique and varied ecology the park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The park has a number of trails and offers a range of activities and experiences, including the summit climb. The main entrance to the park is about a 90 minute drive away from Kota Kinabalu.

A daytrip to the park is usually combined with a visit to Poring Hot Springs. Explore the mountain gardens – home to many species of orchids, pitcher plants, birds, insects and butterflies. Then take the Poring canopy walkway 100 feet above the forest floor before relaxing in the hot mineral springs.