Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu


The night market was loud and lively, the smell of grilled fish was wafting through the warm evening air to meet with the cooling sea breeze that drifted through the stalls. This was Kota Kinabalu’s famous night market, held every day on the shore front of the city, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the fresh seafood.

Stack upon stack of crab, lobster and prawns were piled high through the market, while an array of fish, from snappers to stingrays were lined up and buried in ice.

Noodles and rice were being cooked and the seafood was given generous lashings of spicy sambal sauce, and I got stuck in quickly to a pile of seafood, and a cold beer while I looked out over the Kota Kinabalu harbour.

The local night market was a delicious introduction to the culinary delights of KK – as the locals call Kota Kinabalu – the largest city and capital of the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, but there was much more in store too from this diverse and beautiful place, that I would soon discover waiting for me.

The next day I visited KK’s spectacular marine reserve, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a protected area that lies just a few miles off the Jesselton Harbour, a bustling port where speedboats ferry tourists and travellers around the many islands.

The water was clear and full of colour and life. Sandy beaches fringed the tropical islands and monitor lizards ran through the trees. I went out into the water snorkelling, drifting around the shoreline and quickly realising that Kota Kinabalu is much more than just a city, it’s a destination with endless outdoor opportunities to enjoy too.

After an even larger seafood dinner at the night market again, I went out the day after to the Mount Kinabalu National Park. KK is surrounded by wild rainforest and mountains and I spent the next few days hiking trails and experiencing the outdoors of Borneo, as any traveller to this huge island should. I didn’t Summit Mount Kinabalu itself – the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia – because an earthquake had closed the route up, but I did vow that I would return again because this land is a place that just doesn’t stop exciting and enthralling. This is Borneo at its finest.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Fresh Sea Food

Fresh Sea Food

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Night market

Night market

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park1

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Enjoy a seafod at night market

Enjoy a seafod at night market

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Fresh fruit market (2)

Fresh fruit market

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Fresh Fruit Market

Fresh Fruit Market

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GO – Getting There

Kota Kinabalu is the largest city in and capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah in North Borneo. The international airport in KK – as the locals call their city – is well connected domestically and internationally within Southeast Asia. There are regular flights across Malaysian Borneo as well as to Peninsula Malaysia, in particular to Kuala Lumpur. From KL it’s easy to connect to the rest of the world. Air Asia and other local airlines operate directly from Kota Kinabalu to destinations such as Bali, Indonesia and the Philippines too.

From Kota Kinabalu, there are also land connections through Malaysian Borneo and to nearby Brunei. There are buses across Sabah and also to the Malaysian state of Sarawak in the west. There are also ferries operating to Labuan Island – a duty-free island off the coast of Borneo – and from there to Brunei.

WSE Travel - Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - Map

Exploring the islands and rainforest of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Kota Kinabalu itself is really best used as a gateway to the surrounding areas in Sabah, where you can experience much of the wild beauty of Borneo, from tropical islands to rainforest.

Adventure lovers can easily book onto tours which take you to the rough rapids of the nearby river for white water rafting, or on jungle treks to meet the local indigenous tribes that live in villages in the forests.

Mount Kinabalu and the surrounding Kinabalu National Park is nearby – the city is named for the mountain, which is the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. The National Park itself is spectacular, and there are lots of hiking opportunities. If you desire to summit Mount Kinabalu though, you need to arrange this far in advance, as spots are limited and guides are required.

Just off the coast of KK, is the tropical archipelago of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, which is a marine reserve not far from the Jesselton Harbour. Boat tours leave constantly, and if you scuba dive or snorkel then this is the perfect place to experience the diverse aquatic life found in the waters of Borneo.

In the city itself, there are some great local markets to visit, full of fruit, veg and fresh fish, while the seafront boulevard is always a great place to take a stroll and to spot monitor lizards running amongst the rocks.

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Stay – Accommodation

Kota Kinabalu has a wide range of accommodation options befitting a large city. Backpackers will find that there are numerous hostels and guesthouses offering cheap dorms and basic private rooms. The hostels usually tend to act as travel agencies too and can help arrange tours to the surrounding areas. A solid option for backpackers is the Borneo Lodge.

There are many upmarket hotels too, including the standard international chains, and many luxury resorts set away from the city itself, overlooking the beaches.

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Eat – Restaurants

In KK you can find a range of culinary delights. With so many different cultures to be found in the city, there’s a lot of food too, with Malay dishes, Indian and Chinese to be had. The best foodie experience though can be found at the night market, held every evening at the shore front. As well as a range of noodles and rice dishes, the highlight is the freshly caught and freshly prepared seafood. You can try everything from crab to stingray and it’s all cooked in front of you and served with spicy sambal sauce.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

Kota Kinabalu is lucky enough to experience a year-round warm climate, meaning that as a city destination it can be visited anytime. Being in Borneo and being surrounded by rainforest, the city does experience a high level of annual rainfall so you can expect a downpour at any time. The wet season though, when it can rain hard and much more frequently than the average day is between October and March, but this can be the best time to experience white water rafting. If you are interested in snorkelling or diving, the water is always clearest at the end of the dry season, so travel here in June, July or August to really experience the dry summer weather and excellent water visibility.

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Safety – Possible risks

Kota Kinabalu is one of the safest cities in Sabah. You will find it easy to get around and to have an enjoyable stay. The dangers in KK come in the surrounding areas. Don’t underestimate the jungle hikes or in particular, Mount Kinabalu. Be prepared physically and be ready, because these can be strenuous outdoor experiences. When visiting the islands, be careful of the scorching heat of Borneo, and take plenty of water and sunscreen.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

Kota Kinabalu is a relatively cheap city when it comes to food and accommodation. Basic dorms will cost around $10 while a meal out at a local eatery will cost only $3 or $4. Food at the night market, of course, will be a similar price, but always check the cost before ordering huge portions of fish or seafood. The biggest expense you may face would be a climb to the top of Mount Kinabalu, an endeavour which can end up totalling in the hundreds of dollars, as permits and guides have to be paid for.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Sabah and Borneo in general face many, many problems in the face of modern world demands on its vast resources. This is a unique and vital land, but the rainforests are under threat from palm oil plantations and the wildlife is endangered by poachers. Do not fuel demand on these resources, don’t buy palm oil and try and travel on tours with recognised eco-friendly policies that will help to sustain this environment for the future.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Sabah is a very diverse state, and in Kota Kinabalu, you will find a representation of all the cultures in Borneo. Many Malay Muslims are very conservative, so be wary of their beliefs and attitudes, although you will find for the most part it is a laid-back city. Many indigenous and Chinese will not adhere to the same beliefs as the Malays either, so be careful of local customs in this respect too! Overall though, KK is unique and welcoming, with much to enjoy and to experience in the city and in particular in the surrounding areas.

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!

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