Home to the tallest peak in the Malay Archipelago and brimming with natural gifts, Kota Kinabalu lives it up as a trophy destination for mountain climbers and thrill seekers eager to scale heights, survive its virgin forests, ride the rush of white water rafting, or go deep sea diving.

But beyond the shadow of Mount Kinabalu and extreme adventures, the Malaysian state capital of Sabah also offers a bevy of unique experiences and ecotourism that suit different vacation palates. From wild to mild, expect breathtaking encounters embraced by nature and a flavourful blend of heritage and urbanity in this city that has seemingly sprung out of a rainforest.

Towering at 4,095m, Mount Kinabalu is like a trophy of Sabah that avid mountaineers hope to claim in their climbing conquests.

Travel itineraries in Kota Kinabalu (commonly referred to as “KK”) need not always be sweat-soaked. Taking it slow and easy here can often lead to delightful finds and moments that make for a restorative holiday. Letting hardcore adventures take a backseat, this post rolls onto a path of easily accessible adventures that puts a magnifying glass over the myriad charms of Kota Kinabalu.

Getting to Kota Kinabalu from Singapore

Heeding the call of nature has just gotten easier. On 10 August 2018, Malindo Air launched a daily direct flight from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, offering travelers great value with its full-fledged onboard services (food, inflight entertainment, and 25kg baggage allowance) at affordable rates. At the time of this blog post’s publication, an all-in return fare costs around S$230. Check the latest fare here.

Welcome to the Land Below the Wind, Sabah’s moniker for being located just below the typhoon belt. Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah, which is on the northern tip of the island of Borneo and a part of Malaysia.

 

Inflight entertainment, USB charging and snacks onboard Malindo Air from Singapore to KK. Flight duration takes approximately 2hrs 30mins. Tip: Bring your own earphones.

Enjoy a Front Row Seat of the Sabahan Sunset

Accommodation choices in Kota Kinabalu range from backpackers to luxe. With a little splurging, the newly opened Marriott Hotel Kota Kinabalu is a choice pick as it serves as a mini attraction in its own right. Apart from beautifully crafted interior design, handsome rooms, and a sumptuous breakfast spread, the hotel’s winning advantage is a front row view of the renowned Kota Kinabalu sunset. Check out the property here.

Marriott Hotel Kota Kinabalu sits at the beginning of the city’s downtown district, offering solace from the hustle and bustle yet convenience to explore the rest of Kota Kinabalu. Tip: Request for a sea-facing room.

 

The hotel’s pool offers an unobstructed view of the ever enchanting Sabahan sunset over the South China Sea. It’s like having a private stage with the changing evening hues for a backdrop.

 

Meet the Flora Giants of Kota Kinabalu Park

A designated UNESCO heritage site since December 2000, Kota Kinabalu Park sprawls over 740 square kilometers, which is bigger than the size of Singapore (710 square kilometers)! The park is home to an eye-popping diversity of flora and fauna, many of them endemic and found nowhere else on earth.

Various land tour agencies in the city centre offers group as well as private day tours that cover Kota Kinabalu Park, DESA Dairy Farm and Poring Hot Springs with some minor scenic stops along the way. You can also book a GRAB ride and negotiate with the driver for a day rate to go to the various attractions. It takes about two hours to get from Kota Kinabalu city centre to the park.

Majestic views of Mount Kinabalu unfold on the way to Kota Kinabalu Park. As the top of the mountain is usually shrouded in clouds, luck has a lot to do with getting a clear view of the jagged summit.

Various trekking trails vein the park ranging in effort level from a light stroll to a medium hike. One of the mid-effort treks is the Silau-Silau Trail which weaves through a section of the park’s heavily forested interior, plunging the senses into the thick of a lush green world. The air is cooler at Kota Kinabalu Park due to its elevation at 1,500m and a proliferation of montane moss. Tip: Wear long pants and long sleeves when trekking to prevent insect bites and cuts from sharp plants.

The key attractions at Kota Kinabalu Park are three giants of the plant kingdom that call this place home. As they are pretty rare, one must be very lucky to see all three:

  1. Nepenthes Rajah – the world’s largest pitcher plant that can grow to over 40cm in height and 20cm in width!
  2. Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid – the world’s largest and most expensive lady slipper orchid.
  3. Rafflesia Flower – the world’s largest bloom that is now endangered. As the flowers bloom for only up to five days and cannot be cultivated or transplanted, a sighting is dependent on a stroke of luck.

Because of the enormous size of the Nepenthes Rajah pitcher cup, the carnivorous plant has been known to trap and “eat” rats!

The Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid can take up to 15 years to flower. Due to its rarity and beauty, a single plant can command up to RM30,000 in the black market. Hence, it is also known as the gold of Kinabalu!

 

A Slice of New Zealand at DESA Dairy Farm

Located about a half hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu Park is DESA Dairy Farm, the area’s Little New Zealand. Here, a troop of the famous black-and-white Holstein-Friesian milk cow imported from New Zealand supplies the local market with fresh dairy produce while serving as nonchalant ambassadors who give visitors a behind-the-scene peek into dairy farming.

Feeding milk to get milk. Visitors to the farm can feed cattle, watch the machined milking process and purchase fresh milk as well as other dairy products to savour.

With its white fences, mountainous ranges and vast green, it is hard to believe that this place is Malaysia!

Escape to the Idyllic Islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Marine Park

Moving from the green places of Kota Kinabalu, another day trip is a perfect getaway to soak in the blue spaces of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Marine Park. Studded with five islands – Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik, and Sulug, the marine park boasts aquamarine hues that range from surfs of opal to jade green to inviting emerald to mysterious sapphire.

And the best thing is that these idyllic islands are easily accessible from Kota Kinabalu’s city centre via the Jesselton Point ferry terminal. It takes no more than 30 minutes to reach any of the islands in calm weather.

Jetty of Sapi Island atop glassy waters that reveal the aquatic life below. Very snorkel friendly.

Pristine beaches at Manukan Island invites lull, a spot of paradise where doing nothing is the best thing to do.

Raise the Heart Rate with Coral Flyer Island-to-Island Zipline

If chillaxing under the tropical sun feels a little sedate, inject some thrills in the form of Asia’s only cross-island zipline! Known as the Coral Flyer, the island-to-island zipline goes from Padang Point on Gaya Island to Sapi Island at a distance of 250m with speeds up to a scream-inducing 65kmh! Get into the action here.

Tip: Get the operator to fasten slippers to the harness to eliminate the risk of them dropping into the sea while ziplining.

The zipline ride lasts an average of 30 seconds. With the exhilaration of the spectacular islandic scenery exploding into sight after shooting out of the dense foliage, this will definitely be a sensation to remember Kota Kinabalu with.

Catch the Day’s Golden Drop on North Borneo Cruises

The Sabahan sunset is legendary and there is no lack of places in Kota Kinabalu to get awash with the evening’s colour parade. But to up the romance ante or enjoy an exquisite reverie at sundown, a sunset dinner cruise onboard North Borneo Cruises is that crowning jewel experience. Check out the cruise packages here.

Departing from Sutera Harbour, the 2-hour dinner cruise features a buffet of mixed flavours, live entertainment, and panoramic view of Kota Kinabalu’s waterfront and the day’s farewell.

End the day on a beautiful note by catching the bewitching sunset of Sabah. Tip: The Sabahan sunset starts around 6pm, so be sure to be on the boat’s open deck by then to catch every moment.

Set Curiousity Free at Gaya Street Sunday Market

Street markets are a walk-in guidebook to the local way of life. Every Sunday, the historic Gaya Street in the heart of KK city swells with rows of tents selling souvenirs, homemade snacks, unusual fruits, a plethora of flowering and fruiting plants, curious local specialties and most interesting of all, pets.

From 6:30am to 1pm on Sundays, Gaya Street is closed to traffic and transformed into a walking street market where tourists can mingle with the friendly locals.

A street of heart-tuggers… One of the main draws of Gaya Street Sunday Market is close encounters with pets of all kinds – dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents, fish, frogs and even baby lobsters!

Richly endowed with some of nature’s most extraordinary and grand creations, Kota Kinabalu is a natural wonderland and an endless playground for the adventurous. Be it challenging one’s physical limits or just a pampering hermit’s retreat, there is something in Kota Kinabalu’s epic nature that is ready for your every adventure!

For more Kota Kinabalu attractions and insights, visit Sabah Tourism.