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My favorite 16 Things to do in Kota Kinabalu – Understand
Kota Kinabalu is Malaysia’s biggest city in Borneo. It only takes about 500,000 people to achieve this! Kota Kinabalu has been a major tourism hub for decades for Koreans and South Eastern Chinese mainlanders and the recent spike in visitors have jaded locals visibly. No this is not (yet) Phuket but the majority of tourists come in big groups and/ or just pass through on their way to the resort or the outlying islands (see below).
Life in KK runs at a much slower pace than peninsular Malaysia – it takes a while to get used to. Once you have adjusted to this and the hot and humid climate, the pace of life the city become more pleasant.
The locals are addicted to their cars – both as portable ACs as well as transportation machines. Public transportation runs on unmarked buses and sidewalks or pedestrian crossings have not yet been invented in KK. Taxis are expensive – expect to pay 2-3 times what you pay in peninsular Malaysia for the same distance.
If you can stand the heat KK is perfectly walk able – it is a compact city.
My favorite 16 Things to do in Kota Kinabalu – Sights
This pretty mosque is located near the coast line about one mile north of the city center. It’s surrounded by water and if you can work out the angels seems to be really floating (I clearly brought the wrong lens that day). There is no entrance fee and taxis will get you for MYR 20 – the minibus for MYR 1.50. To catch the minibus just walk on the side of the road and wait for the driver to start honking behind you.
Masjud Negeri Sabah is located off the only ‘favela of Kota Kinabalu’. Malaysia has really few of those but this stilt village gives you an impression how bad things can get.
Anyways the mosque is a pretty one though and the neighborhood is safe enough for you to walk through at most times.
Suria runs the famous KLCC mall in Kuala Lumpur and has managed to open an upscale mall in KK as well. The shops are not as otherworldly but there is a Regus (get a Regus BusinessWorld card to work in all Regus centers for free) and there are a number of decent restaurants at the ground floor.
My favorite 16 Things to do in Kota Kinabalu – Eat and Drink
Sushi Zanmai has been my favorite in the Suria mall- it feels like in Japan – very clean lots of sushi options that are all very delicious.
There is also a bubble tea (Boba) place called Ochado in the first floor that serves up delicious milk tea
Sri Latha Curry House is famous for their rotis which are just insanely delicious. However this super cheap curry house only opens in the morning and for lunch hours. Go for the ‘plain roti’ or the one filled with potatoes and be amazed.
October has a number of coffee outlets in the city and they are decidedly hipster. The beans come from any coffee region in the world, the WiFi is fast and the location cooled down to a joyful 70 degrees. The food isn’t great though.
Right opposite to October is this print shop that also serves good coffee and food. I liked the coffee more than the food though. Both places stay pretty empty so I hope they are still there when you visit.
Inch Coffee Movement is yet another great looking coffee shop in town – I did not visit though.
This place comes highly recommended but has very average looking Italian food and service staff with a serious attitude.
The Pacific Sutera Hotel is a beautiful resort. It’s right at the water and the Breeze Beach Club has the best sunset view in the hotel. Amazingly the Happy Hour lasts from 6-8 PM (the sunset falls right in between) and beer is just $2.10 here during happy hour. That beats out every grocery store in Malaysia! Plus you have the beautiful setting and pretty good food. There is no reason not to come here!
The very beautiful Shangri-La hotel also features a sunset bar with a similar view as the Pacific Sutera. There is no happy hour though. The Shangri-La hotel is about twice the distance from the KK town center.
All over town you will find nondescript eateries with street food. It’s usually safe to eat but be choosy on where you sit down.
My favorite 16 Things to do in Kota Kinabalu – Day Trips
The big draw of Kota Kinabalu has been the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. It consists of a number of pretty islands just a few minutes by speed boat offshore. Now the secret is out about these islands and they get their share of day trippers. The crowds are compounded by the fact that only a tiny portion of the island property is easily accessible and has a beach. If you go you will have to share the beach, lunch area and water with hundreds of eager and very noisy tourists.
The boat tickets are available at the Jesselton pier. Expect to pay about MYR 40 for a Round Trip to two or more islands. The boat transfer are done by speed boat. Since the is precious little surf (at least before the afternoon rain hits) the drivers race – and by race I mean race. I have been on Speedboats but this must have been the fastest ride I ever had. Sit upfront and try to take pictures without dropping off into the seas. Send me that picture.
I went to Pulau Sapi and Pulau Mamutik. Both look like paradise from the air or boat. Small jungly islands with a coral reef and white sand beach. However Pulau Sapi had so much jellyfish that I did not dare to venture into the water. It also was really crowded since the beach area is rather small on the Eastern side of the island.
Pulau Mamutik had no jelly fish that day but the tide was so low that you could not avoid touching the corals when getting into the water (only a small water area is zoned off for beach goers) The rest is used by the speed boats. There IS a lot of fish in this water though. Bring reef shoes that protect your feet while walking (the water was just about kneed deep).
I’m split on the islands – they are really pretty and the boat ride is fun (though scary initially). The crowds and the quality of beaches wasn’t great but different weather, tide and crowd level may change the picture immensely.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu – Where to stay
Kota Kinabalu chain hotels are plenty but they aren’t cheap. The Hyatt Regency and the Le Meridien will set you back $130 and/or 8,000 points.
I skipped both and stayed at the Sky Hotel and Oceania Hotel – I found the latter to be extremely good value. Both have huge rooms, well working ACs, friendly staff and the Oceania also had fast Internet. They price at just around $30 or less for most days – crazy value in my book.
You can search them both using trivago.com.