Have you planned a trip to Borneo and wondering what are the top things to do in Kota Kinabalu? Are you deciding how to best spend your time on your Borneo adventure and working out what the highlights of Kota Kinabalu are?
If you are planning a visit to this amazing Malaysian island, it is highly likely that you will need to pass through Kota Kinabalu, as it is the gateway to Borneo and its many amazing attractions.
Kota Kinabalu is in the north-west of the island of Borneo and is the capital of Sabah. It is a coastal town at the foot of Mount Kinabalu and is surrounded by rainforest. It has an international airport, so is an ideal place to start your travels.
Whether you are looking for nature, wildlife or adventure, you will find plenty of things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Honestly, it is not the most beautiful city, but it’s in a great location near the coast, jungle and a mountain, so there are many things to do in Kota Kinabalu. It is the ideal gateway to a world of adventures.
Here are our top things to do in Kota Kinabalu:-
Snorkel at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is made up of a group of 5 islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. We booked a day trip snorkelling with Diverse Borneo and were able to visit 3 different diving sites.
Each session lasted 45 minutes in the water and we had lunch at an island. The boys had the most awesome time swimming around with fish and even spotted a green turtle passing by. The sea was fairly choppy on the day we went and constant bobbing meant it wasn’t my best day out, but I was clearly in the minority.
Go white water rafting on the Kiulu River
We booked a stage 1-2 white water rafting expedition with Riverbug. The starting point at the Traverse Adventure Centre is about 1 hours drive by minibus. Our package included our transfer in the price.
Overall, we spent about 1 ½ hours rafting and splashing in the river. It is an ideal trip for families, as it never gets too rough and there are stops for children (and us) to mess about in the water.
There are higher level stages available for more experienced rafters and thrill-seekers!
Sign up to a children’s activity programme
We were staying at the luxury Nexus Beach Resort, which is about 30 km North of the city centre. Our children were very keen to join in activities at the recreation club. After a very thorough study of the programme, the boys signed up for tae kwondo, arts and crafts and Batik painting.
Hit the beach
The Nexus Beach Resort has 6km of white, sandy beach so is a perfect play area for children. It also has some spectacular sunsets in the evening.
There are other beaches nearer to Kota Kinabalu city centre, such as Tanjung Aru.
Alternatively, you could head out to one of the beautiful islands, such as Manukan, Sepi or Gaya Islands, where you’ll find long stretches of golden sand and clear aqua waters. To access these, you would need to take the ferry out from Jesselton Point.
Ride the waves
Surprisingly, the sea at Nexus Beach Resort was quite rough. I didn’t allow the children to swim unsupervised, but it was a perfect opportunity for jumping some giant waves. The was a fun thing to do with the family, but you really need to hold onto your swim wear!
Visit Kinabalu National Park
If you want to get away from the water and enjoy some of Sabah’s spectacular nature, head for Kinabalu National Park. This park is set in 75,000 hectares of rainforest and has been designated as Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site.
Kinabalu Park is about 1 ½ hours from KK city centre. However, there are many organised trips to get there, either for a day or overnight.
At the park you can find thousands of species of rare, exotic flora and fauna. There are also trails to follow, waterfalls and a canopy walk. Alternatively, you could admire the orchids at the botanical gardens or visit the butterfly farm.
Towering above Kinabalu National park is Mount Kinabalu. You need an overnight stay for this trip. However, it is a tough walk and not really suitable for little children.
Relax at the Poring Hot Springs
About 40 km from the Kinabalu Park is the Poring Hot Springs. The main attraction here is the natural hot springs. Tourists can soak their muscles and relax in tubs flowing with hot sulphurous water.
A visit to Poring Hot Springs is often included in excursions to Kinabalu National Park.
See the world's largest flower
The rafflesia flower is the national flower of Malaysia and the world’s largest bloom. It can grow up to one metre in diameter, but only grows in a few places on earth, including the Borneo rainforest. Unfotunately, the rafflesia only blooms for 3 to 5 days a year, so we weren’t lucky enough to see it.
However, if you are there at the right time (April-May or September-October), head to Rafflesia Information Centre. This is in Tambunan, about an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu. From here you can trek through the rainforest in search of the elusive giant flower. A number of organised trips will take you there directly from Kota Kinabalu.
A word of warning – the rafflesia is apparently very smelly. Consequently, it has the nickname “corpse flower”, as it smells like decaying flesh!
Sample Malaysian food
Kota Kinabalu has many different family-friendly eateries which kids will enjoy. There were lots of rice or noodle dishes and some very special desserts.
Our children were keen to drink milk from a coconut and eat banana fritters at Jesselton Point waterfront.
Be fascinated by orangutans
Of course, Borneo is renowned for its unique and stunning wildlife. It’s highly likely that you’ll want to make the most of this during your visit. The world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is about 6 hours by car from Kota Kinabalu. We wanted to save time, so took a flight, which was only 40 minutes.
This gave us a wonderful opportunity to stay in Sandakan and Sepilok, where we could see orangutans and Bornean sun bears up close. We then ventured even further for a jungle adventure on the River Kinabatangan.
How to get to Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu has its own international airport (KKIA), which is located about 20 minutes outside of the city. You can fly direct from Kuala Lumpa, the capital of Malaysia in about 2.5 hours. Alternatively, you could come direct from Singapore or Hong Kong.
We chose to come via Singapore and stopped off there for 4 days en route. It is worth a visit just to see Singapore’s amazing airport, The Jewel Changi.
Getting around Kota Kinabalu
We used a Grab (Asian equivalent of uber) for nearly all our journeys. They were readily available and reasonably priced. One of the advantages of using Grabs is that we always knew how much we should expect to pay for any journey.
Kota kinabalu to Sandakan
If you’re visiting Borneo, it’s highly likely you will want to visit Sandakan, to make the most of all the wildlife on that side of the island.
The easiest way to get from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan is to fly direct, as it only takes about 40 minutes. There are 3 airlines that offer cheap flights, Air Malaysia, Firefly and Air Asia. They offer about 66 flights a week, so you have plenty of choice when to fly.
Alternatively, a cheaper option is to take the bus, which takes about 6 hours.
Accommodation in Kota Kinabalu
There is a wide range of accommodation available in Kota Kinabalu and something to suit every budget. We chose to stay at the Nexus Beach Resort, which is actually in Karambuani, about 40 minutes outside of the city.
Language in Kota Kinabalu
The main language spoken in Kota Kinabalu by the Chinese community is Hakka, but Mandarin and Cantonese are also widely understood and spoken. English was also widely understood at the tourist places.
Currency in Borneo
The official currency of Borneo is the Malaysia Ringitt (RM). You can order your currency from the bank before you travel or take US dollars to exchange.
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