5 Things I Did in Kota Kinabalu

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Kota Kinabalu…what can I say?  It is quite an interesting place… It reminds me a lot of Honolulu, just a lot smaller.  It is a city with traffic and trash and all that, but there are hoards of tourists and it has that laid back vacation all the time feeling.  Honestly, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either.  I was there for a quick trip, so I missed a lot, but, I’m happy to share 5 Things I Did in Kota Kinabalu.

Aerial view of Kota Kinabalu

  1. Mari Mari Cultural Village. Sabah is home to more than 40 different tribes, all with different language, culture, and history.  At the Mari Mari Cultural Village, you get to experience 5 of the largest tribes.  The village features traditional houses, food, crafts, costumes, and dance of each tribe.  You walk around the village with a guide who explains a bit about each tribe and answers questions.  You also get to taste something in each place, like raw honey, rice wine, and some sweet treats. At the end of the tour, there’s a dance performance and a buffet style lunch.  It’s definitely a must see if you visit Kota Kinabalu.  The village is about 45 minutes from the city center, so you will need your own transportation or book with a tour company. 
  2. Ferry to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. There are no good beaches close to the city center, but one good option is a quick ferry ride to the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.  The marine park is actually made up of 5 islands.  From the ferry terminal at Jessleton Point, you can take a speed boat directly to one of the islands or buy a hopper ticket for between RM30 and RM50.  When you arrive at your first destination, you will also have to pay a RM10 conservation fee.

    A bit crowded but clean with good snorkeling.

    I chose Sapi Island.  It was clean with showers, toilets, and a restaurant.  The beach, though clean, was quite small and it was very crowded when I was there.  You are not free to just swim wherever.  There are roped off areas for swimming, snorkeling, and diving, and the lifeguards enforce the zones with whistles and kayaks.  According to my research, there used to be a couple more private beaches away from the jetty, but these are now closed off from tourist traffic.  So, my experience on Sapi wasn’t quite the picturesque, quiet stretch of sand I was looking for.  However, I’ve been told that Mamutik is better.

  3. Sunset at Tanjung Aru Beach. This beach is not for swimming, in my opinion.  It was quite polluted with lots of plastic about.  However, just before sunset, the tide goes way out and the water is very calm.  There is a large grassy area to enjoy a picnic or just some quiet time in the shade of the trees.  As the sun goes down, the sky lights up wish shades of blue, red and orange.  Truly, the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever witnessed.  With the calm ocean waves and islands in the backdrop, I got some killer shots for my Instagram! The beach is easy to reach from the center of town, and there are a few restaurants and resorts along the beach too.

    Perfect Sunset!

  4. Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. This place is part rescue/rehabilitation center and part zoo.  It’s a good place to see lots of animals that are famous in Sabah, like the orangutan, Asian elephants and the hornbill.  The animals seem to be well cared for, though the facilities could use some updating.  The naturalists there are very knowledgeable and friendly.  Be sure to go at feeding times, around 1:30-2.  Personally, I liked the aviary the most.  It kind of feels like that scene in Jurassic Park where the pterodactyls are about to escape, but much more safe.  Inside, there are plenty of birds flying freely as well as some other small mammals walking about.  I even saw a flying fox bat.  For the most part, I support what the wildlife park is doing.  They house animals that have been rescued from poachers and private collectors, and they release them back to the wild if possible.  However, they do also have an animal show that I didn’t watch.  This place is also a good 30-45 minutes out of town, so plan accordingly.
  5. Take a ride with GoGo Sabah. If ya’ll been following me at all, you know my preferred way to travel is by motorbike.  But GoGo Sabah gave me new life! I rented a semi-automatic bike there with a real helmet, actual contract and deposit.  I’m talking real deal professionals here.  They have a lot of bikes to choose from and competitive prices.  They gave me a little tutorial and sent me on my way.  Let me tell ya’ll, there is nothing like driving as fast as you can down a deserted stretch of open roadway, feeling the vibrations of the beast between your legs.  Borneo is a huge island, so there is lots of open road.  If I had to do it over again, I probably would have rented a motorcycle and road tripped it.  It was really nice to explore some of the local areas and get out of the tourist zone.

I’d also like to mention my amazing Airbnb hosts, John and Sue.  Their place was about a 10-15 minute ride from the city, but in a well-appointed local area.  There were tons of restaurants and stores within walking distance, and after a long day in the city, it was nice to be away from the lights and noise.  Their place is comfortable and extremely well stocked.  The real gem, though, are John and Sue themselves.  They were friendly and kind, and never more than a quick message away.  They provide free airport transfer, helped me book tours and find info.  They even took me to lunch when I first arrived.  They are truly one in a million! If you’re in Kota Kinabalu, I highly recommend staying with them.

Kota Kinabalu is a gateway to Sabah and worth spending a couple of days exploring.  Have you been to Sabah? Plan on going soon?? Share your thoughts on Kota Kinabalu in the comments below!

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