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Vacation Guide: In and Around Kota Kinabalu

Updated on November 18, 2014

About Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu (KK) is one of the most prominent spots visited by tourists during their vacations to S.E. Asia. In fact, the tourism industry plays the major role of driving KK's economy. Popular for its position on the Borneo Island and the majestic Mount Kinabalu (one of the tallest mountains in S.E. Asia), KK is flocked by eager tourists all year round. Currently the capital of East Malaysian State of Sabah, KK is formerly known as Jesselton during the colonisation of foreign powers.

Kota Kinabalu Location

A markerkota kinabalu -
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
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Airlines Offering International Direct Flights to Kota Kinabalu

Airlines
Flying from
AirAsia
Taipei, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Jakarta
Korean Air
Seoul
Dragon Air
Hong Kong
Asiana Airlines
Seoul
Silk Air
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Indonesia AirAsia
Denpasar
Malaysia Airlines
Perth, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei
Cebu Pacific
Manila

A View of Kota Kinabalu City Centre

Photo featuring the city centre of Kota Kinabalu, taken from an observation tower.
Photo featuring the city centre of Kota Kinabalu, taken from an observation tower. | Source

Introductory Video Clip about KK

"What" and "Where" in Kota Kinabalu

Knowing what to do and where to go is especially crucial for people who do not wish to travel with a tour guide. Doing a careful planning with sufficient allocation of time for each place is necessary to prevent you from hassling around and as a result, making your vacation less valuable and memorable (hopefully my Hub is informative enough to stop this from happening to you.)

Briefly saying, Kota Kinabalu is a perfect venue for both shopaholics and adventurers, with places ranging from malls to restaurants, mountains and forests available to various groups of tourists:

I will introduce each venue in detail under the following sections, including information about what you can do during your visit to each of them. Please note that the list above is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive. More destinations are available here on AirAsia's "Travel 3sixty" digital version mini travel guide.

Places at a glance

Accomodation
Shopping & Food
Adventure & Expedition
Sutera Harbour Pacific/Magellan Resort (5-star)
Suria Sabah Shopping Mall
Kinabalu National Park
Cititell Express (3-star)
Centre Point Sabah
The Canopy Walk
Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort (5-star)
The Handicraft Market
The Rafflesia Garden
Tune Hotel (3-star)
Da Jia Lai Seafood Restaurant
Up-Side-Down Residence
Detailed introductions that follow will be done in categories as in the table above
Shopping at KK: Centre Point Sabah
Shopping at KK: Centre Point Sabah | Source
Shopping at KK: Suria Sabah Shopping Mall
Shopping at KK: Suria Sabah Shopping Mall | Source

Shopping

CENTRE POINT SABAH

Overview: Commenced full-operation in 1997, walking distance from Cititel Express.

Operating hours: Monday-Sunday 10:30am - 9pm

The competition between shop owners in this mall seemed to be quite stiff as many of them sell similar, if not identical products. As a result, it puts pressure on the prices besides offering consumers more choices on stuffs ranging from souvenirs to food, traditional costumes, shoes and more, hence making it strongly recommended to tourists. The interior ambience of the mall, however, is somewhat awful, as it lacks the modern and luxurious feel, mainly caused by minimal maintenance and the ageing of the building overall.

SURIA SABAH SHOPPING MALL

Overview: One of the few high-end shopping malls in Kota Kinabalu. Prime location in the city centre.

Operating hours: Monday-Sunday 10am-10pm

In contrast with Centre Point Sabah, Suria Sabah offers a much better interior ambience but it comes with a price, ie. pricier stuffs. Cuisine-based restaurants, branded goods, cinemas, jewel stores, premium boutiques and so on are what you can expect to hunt in here.

THE HANDICRAFT MARKET

Overview: Also known as the Fillipino Market, this haven of bargain is located just a few steps away from the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront.

Operating hours: Monday-Sunday 7:30am-9pm

A number of the vendors are not quite friendly, but handicrafts at cheap prices are all you want. Among tourists' favourites are hand-made wallets, straw tote bags, t-shirts featuring the Borneo Island and its wildlife, fabrics, seashell dreamcatchers and a lot more. Stroll over to the Waterfront after a round of bargaining and spend an hour or two dining there sounds like a good plan too!

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Kota Kinabalu Accommodation: Cititel Express Hotel in the background
Kota Kinabalu Accommodation: Cititel Express Hotel in the background | Source
Kota Kinabalu Accommodation: The Magellan Sutera Resort
Kota Kinabalu Accommodation: The Magellan Sutera Resort | Source
Kota Kinabalu Accommodation: Interior of the Pacific Sutera Hotel
Kota Kinabalu Accommodation: Interior of the Pacific Sutera Hotel | Source

Hotels

With more than 100 hotels scattered around Kota Kinabalu, it is understandably hard to make a choice on where to stay. Many of the hotels are located a stone throw away from the airport and the city centre, making it easy for active tourists to travel; while some are located around the outskirts to accommodate tourists wanting a tranquil surrounding to relax, away from the whirring city. Nevertheless, most 4-star and 5-star hotels provide complement or paid scheduled shuttle bus services to and fro between the respective hotels and main tourists destinations around the city centre.

When I visited in July, I had stayed in two hotels, namely Cititel Express and The Pacific Sutera Hotel. In terms of location, both hotels are located at equally strategic spots of approximately 10 minutes drive from the KK International Airport. Star-rating wise, however, Sutera Harbour Resort was rated a 5-star, while Cititel Express a 3-star.


CITITEL EXPRESS:

Overview: Simple and clean hotel, budget-friendly.

Distance to airport: 10 Mins

Shuttle bus service: Not Available (Taxi can be ordered via lobby)

Star-rating: 3-Star

Cititel Express is pretty budget friendly and should suffice the stay of youths, backpackers and budget travellers. Among the obvious contrasts which contribute to the difference in the star-rating between the Cititel Express and Sutera Harbour lies in the aspect of infrastructures. Cititel Express seemed to have adopted more of a budget-boutique hotel concept. They do provide free buffet breakfast for customers but choices are somewhat limited and the quality of food isn't that impressive. For instance, the fruit juices that they offer are merely made from syrup. Another notable aspect is that the size of the rooms are extremely "mini" although we were staying in what was called a "Deluxe Room". The deluxe room is only about 30 square metres including the washroom. Basically, a washroom, a deluxe bed and a tiny walkway leading to the door has nearly filled the entire space; but albeit the space being small, the room and the toilet, otherwise, are quite clean, and more importantly everything is functioning. Cost-wise, it costed us around MYR100 per night per deluxe room (other types of standard room should only be around 80-90MYR per night per room) during non-peak seasons (July is not considered a peak season in Malaysia). Shuttle bus service is unavailable but taxi can be ordered via the lobby.


SUTERA HARBOUR:

Overview: One of the major luxury hotels in Kota Kinabalu.

Distance to airport: 10 Mins

Shuttle bus service: Available at 3MYR/pax (Taxi can be ordered via lobby)

Star-Rating: 5-Star


This hotel is more for family and honeymoon travellers. Located right by the seashore, you can almost smell the ocean regardless of which corner of the hotel you are in. Sutera Harbour is divided into two parts, namely The Pacific Sutera Hotel (known as Pacific below) and The Magellan Sutera Resort (known as Magellan below). While both are rated 5-stars and are operated under Sutera Harbour, difference between the two is that Magellan is a resort that comes with a golf course and a marina. In terms of rooms, Magellan is slightly (just slightly) more fancy hence slightly pricier, but if you aren't that picky and won't mind the little bit of difference, Pacific should be good enough; but if you are a golf player or you want your vacation experience in KK to be near perfect, then go ahead and pick the Magellan.

Generally our stay at the Pacific was very pleasant and we find the hotel and its services almost flawless. The family suite that we booked was extremely spacious (about 100 square metres and comes with two toilets) and is perfect for family vacation. Room rate for family suite stands at 900MYR per day per suite, and approximately 600MYR per day per room for Deluxe seview/golfview room, during non-peak seasons. These rates are not as budget friendly as in Cititel Express but the luxurious experiences will definitely worth it if that is what you are looking for.

Adventures and Expedition


The Kinabalu National Park

Entrance fee: 3MYR per Malaysian adult; 15MYR per foreigner adult; 1MYR per Malaysian below 18, 10MYR per foreigner below 18. Additional fees may apply for activities like hiking and canopy walking.

The Kinabalu National Park is where the Mount Kinabalu is enclosed. Standing at the height of 4095 metres above sea level, it is a peak that hikers love to challenge, and a place where many who made it to the top would observe S.E. Asia's breathtaking sun rise.

The authorities have been holding annual “international climbathon”, an marathon-like activity where hikers from around the world compete to reach the peak of Mount Kinabalu in the shortest possible amount of time, on every September/October. Elite hikers can take as short as 3 hours to reach the top (they literally jog to the top instead of hiking to it), whereas most normal people like us need about two days. Hikers will be required to pay fees depending on how far would they like to hike to. Newbies may just want hike up to the first checkpoint, simply to feel what hiking is like; so they will only have to pay for the rates from the main entrance to the first checkpoint, and make their way back to the main entrance once they have arrived at the corresponding checkpoint. Additional fees apply if you would like to hike further. Those who wish to hike to the peak will be required to buy packages which include accommodations and meals since it will take more than one day to get to the top. You may inquire further details from your hotel as selected hotels are authorised retailer of the packages. Note that packages are subjected to availability as quota limit applies to each batch of hikers.

Viewing the majestic Mount Kinabalu from far.
Viewing the majestic Mount Kinabalu from far. | Source
A foggy view of Mount Kinabalu.
A foggy view of Mount Kinabalu. | Source

The Poring Canopy Walk

This is the thrilling one. Canopy bridges are hung at least 25 metres above the ground, and these bridges are only tied to the trees, not concrete structure (so that means you shouldn't feel safe although it is really quite safe). The canopy bridges are very narrow and are somewhat fragile, hence each bridge can only sustain the weight of 6 adults at a time, once a batch of 6 people finished crossing a bridge, the next batch will be allowed in. There are several bridges to cross and will eventually lead you back to the entrance. Do not just scream out of fear when crossing the bridges, try to look around because since that is the only way to pacify yourself. Get yourself to appreciate the tropical forests as old as a few billion years old, enjoy the breeze and chirps of the birds, hear the the noisy crickets out and touch the randomly dancing butterflies.

Note that people with acrophobia and heart related disease are not recommended to do the canopy walk.

Way to go: A view of one of the Canopy bridges. Each bridge can only sustain the weight of 6 adults at a time.
Way to go: A view of one of the Canopy bridges. Each bridge can only sustain the weight of 6 adults at a time. | Source

The Poring Hot Spring

This is the place where you can enjoy a relaxing dip after scaring your heart out from the canopy walk. Poring hot spring is one of the very few natural hots springs that can be found in Malaysia. For many locals, going to the Poring hot can be part of their weekend routines. Give it a try, you may like it as much as the locals do.

Down under these rocks is where the hot spring is coming from.
Down under these rocks is where the hot spring is coming from. | Source
Poring Hot Spring Area
Poring Hot Spring Area | Source
Take a dip of the hot spring under one of these cute little booths!
Take a dip of the hot spring under one of these cute little booths! | Source

The Rafflesia Garden

I can't tell you where this place is, because it can be anywhere. It can be somewhere in the middle of the forest reserve area where you do the canopy walk, it can also be somewhere near the first checkpoint on Mount Kinabalu, it is also highly possible to have grown in some local household’s backyards located in the middle of nowhere. Okay first of all let me tell you what a Rafflesia is: It is a type flower, which, for some reason, stinks when it blossoms (in fact the even the flies love to buzz around it so you can actually imagine how much it stinks); it is also a species of endangered flower which can only be found on the Borneo Island. According to the locals, the blossoming rate of a Rafflesia is only around 10%, well, a pretty low maternity rate among its floral counterparts. Moreover, a Rafflesia is also the largest flower in the world. Yes, you amy not even be able to trust your eyes even after seeing it in person. The diameter of a Rafflesia can range between 60-80 centimetres, can you imagine comparing a rafflesia to a sunflower?

This is how i came a cross a Rafflesia Garden: we were on our way to the Kinabalu Park, driven by a local friend, and we were passing through what looks to me like a countryside dirt road, and then we suddenly saw a signboard sticking up by the roadside, it says “Rafflesia Garden, Blossoming for the 21st Day” with an arrow pointing towards a junction into a village. and so we walked into the village and one of the kids from the village directed us to a tent where an old woman was sitting. We told her we were there to see the Rafflesia, and she said entrance fee is 25MYR per person but we managed to cut it down to 20MYR per person, and then the kid who directed us to the tent led us into the backyard of one of the village houses, and there we are! In a vast garden and among quite a large number of Rafflesias, only one had blossomed (The unblossomed ones look like black-coloured cabbages, as you can see in the photo, on the top left of the widely blossomed one.). Many tourists were already in there WOW-ing at the size of the flower but at the same time EEW-ing at the stinking smell. Well, only the blossomed Rafflesia would stink, so this is also quite rare given the blossoming rate is so low. It seems like the bigger it is, the more it stinks, and therefore taking a photo of it s never easy. Pinch your nose or hold your breath, press down the shutter release,and take a few steps back, and……mission accomplished!

A blossomed Rafflesia. The object on the top left that looks like a black-coloured cabbage is one that has yet to blossom...well, hopefully it will...someday
A blossomed Rafflesia. The object on the top left that looks like a black-coloured cabbage is one that has yet to blossom...well, hopefully it will...someday | Source
Another look at the beast from a different angle!
Another look at the beast from a different angle! | Source

The Up-Side-Down Residence

An interesting single storey house which is entirely up side down, including its furnitures. The house is said to be a 1:1 replica of a real life residence located in Kota Kinabalu, well perhaps you should ask for the exact address of the real house and visit the household at some point, just to make sure the real house isn't up side down.

Visitors will be given some time to take pictures at the front yard and the backyard of the house, which include an up-side down garage with a car parked up-side down in it. When visitors have taken enough photos outdoor, they will be asked to keep their cameras away before being allowed to go indoor. Just before you go in, remember to hit the gong three times (there is a gong located near the entrance) and someone will open the door from the inside. Okay, now that you are inside, you will be guided by a personnel who will explain how and when the residence is constructed, how were furnitures placed up-side-down, and bla bla bla. Every single piece of furniture inside except the CCTV is up side down, you will see ceiling fans “hanging” on the floor, while basin, beds, fridge and dining table over your head. There was a master bedroom, a washroom, a verandah, a kitchen and a living room. Visitors, however, are only permitted to walk along the designated red carpet, which is far from heavy furnitures overhead; a measure to prevent visitors from getting hit in case the real heavy stuffs like the deluxe bed suddenly fall down. Well, a visit to the residence shouldn't take you too long, 45 mins is more than enough, but you may need a couple of hours to re-orientate yourself when you finally get out of it.

The Up-Side-Down residence. Imagine if you are the tenant!
The Up-Side-Down residence. Imagine if you are the tenant! | Source
You may need quite a few centuries of driving experience before you can go against the gravity and park your car up-side-down.
You may need quite a few centuries of driving experience before you can go against the gravity and park your car up-side-down. | Source

Kundasang War Memorial

Built in 1962, the Kundasang War Memorial is located in Ranau, approximately 10 minutes drive from the Kinabalu National Park. It is a memorial park that encloses part of the ugliest history of human race during the WW2, the DEAD MARCH. The memorial park serves the purpose of remembering the Prisoner of War from the Great Britain and Australia who had died during the cruel Death March. It also remembers the local people who had risked their lives trying to help these prisoners. The Dead March is a long march from Sandakan to Ranau involving about 2,500 British and Australian prisoners held captive by the then Japanese Empire Army. They were captured at the Battle of Singapore (1942) and were initially transported to North Borneo's Sandakan to conduct constructions of an airstrip for the Japanese Empire Army and a concentration camp. The airstrip was bombarded by the Allies and the Commandant captain decided to move these prisoners in to Ranau, about 220 km away from the concentration camp in Sandakan. These prisoners travelled by foot under thick forests and marshland under the Japanese Army's gunpoints. Due to malnutrition and illness due to insufficient food supplies given to them, most of the prisoners died en route, and eventually, only 40 prisoners managed to survive the march and make it to Ranau!

There were four gardens inside the memorial park, namely the English Garden, the Australian Garden, the Borneo Garden, and the Contemplation Garden. On the wall of the Contemplation Garden are plaques listing each and every name of British and Australians who had died from the Dead March, also listed were the names of the locals who had died from helping these prisoners.

The Kundasang War Memorial is a place where every peace lover MUST visit as it presents to us one of the ugliest episode in human history which has snatched thousands of innocent lives, hence, a history which shall never-ever be forgotten and repeated.

Entrance of the Kundasang War Memorial
Entrance of the Kundasang War Memorial | Source
The Contemplation Garden.
The Contemplation Garden. | Source
The British Graden
The British Graden | Source

Food

Okay calm down, i know talking about food is rather exciting; but take several deep breaths before you continue to be excited.

Out of all kinds of food, seafood is indeed the most popular in KK, but many must think that having a seafood-based dinner may cost a fortune especially in tourist areas. Well, now you should know why you are benefiting from my Hub, because i am going to bring you to a popular but cheap place for seafood dining, satisfaction guaranteed (those who don't like seafood are excluded).

Welcome Reastaurant (aka "Da Jia Lai Restaurant" in Chinese) :

Yes, that's the one! If you are taking a cab, tell the driver to bring you to "Da Jia Lai/Welcome Restaurant" depending on what language the cab driver speaks; if shuttle bus/public bus is what you prefer, make sure you are taking the one that is going to "Asia City" (another shopping complex), because the restaurant is only right in front of Asia City. Apart from prices, Welcome Restaurant features a typical Malaysian open-air hawker centre, allowing customers to enjoy the breeze while dining; or maybe you are not that "outdoor type of person", never mind because indoor, air-conditioned seats are also available at no additional cost. You can choose among cat fishes, lobsters, tiger prawns, crabs, scallops, squids and many other creatures that you may not have even seen in your lifetime. Most are still alive in the partitioned aquariums and are only removed from the aquarium for weighing upon customers' order. As i say, the prices are very reasonable and it shou take around 180MYR for a family meal (4 pax).

Cuisines along KK Waterfront:

A good place to watch the sun set while dining in, or walk along the entire wooden deck before you chose a restaurant to dine in. There is quite a commendable amount of bars and restaurants at the Waterfront offering a variety of international cuisines. Vegetarian, Italian, Mexican, French, Indian and Malay cuisines are only part of the long list of choices available. Cost-wise, prices can be significantly higher here than in Welcome Restaurant, and of course the romance of the sunset and the breathtaking scenery by the ocean must have contributed to the driving up of prices.

Source
Dining in KK: A view of the ocean from the deck of KK Waterfront.
Dining in KK: A view of the ocean from the deck of KK Waterfront. | Source

© 2014 Thomas Chan

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