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Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo and the gateway to this enchanting jungle paradise.
It is known for its beaches, rainforests, proximity to Mount Kinabalu and protected coral reefs.
A mojito cheers Sabah!
Most people often end up in Kota Kinabalu, or KK as it’s often called, and then immediately exit the jungle or Kinabalu Park.
But we urge you to stay in town for a few days before heading out to be enchanted by Sabah. Why? Here are 10 reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu as a destination in its own right and not as a gateway…
10 reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu
If you’re thinking about jetting to the mysterious land of Borneo but aren’t sure whether to visit Kota Kinabalu for a few days first, here are all the reasons to add it to your itinerary.
1. To see the Mari Mari Cultural Village
The Mari Mari Village is possibly the best reason to visit Kota Kinabalu as it offers visitors a chance to see how the country’s ancestors used to live.
The Mari Mari Village shows how five tribes used to live, showing tourists traditional hunting techniques with the murut blowgun, as well as their traditional clothing, fire making and cooking skills.
You’ll get a truly immersive experience and authentic insight into the jungle tribes of Borneo. The village is about preserving its culture and heritage – what it was like is what it is.
Learn about the tribe’s myths and legends, hear stories, and participate in the experience. This is a journey into the jungle you will never forget.
2. It is the gateway to Kinabalu Park and Mount Kinabalu
Natural landscape at the top of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia
Kinabalu Park is best known for hosting the highest mountain in Borneo and even Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu.
Standing at 4095 meters, many visitors come to Kota Kinabulu to hike this monumental landmark.
Hiking to the top of the mountain is not considered difficult but does require a good level of fitness due to the altitude.
From the summit the view is incredible. On a clear day you can see as far as Kota Kinabalu (although it’s 86km away) and the rocky peaks are a wonder in themselves.
If you want to climb Mount Kinabalu, we recommend booking a tour as there are some areas where rocks can fall, so a guide can tell you where these treacherous spots are.
Even if you don’t climb the mountain, a visit to the park is a must. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a nature reserve and is home to some rare plant and animal species.
You can take a canopy walk through the treetops, soak in hot springs, or visit Mount Kinabalu Botanical Gardens to learn about the area’s plant and animal species.
3. There are some great snorkeling spots
You don’t have to travel far from Kota Kinabalu to find thriving marine life. Take a boat tour to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a sheltered reef off the coast of Kota Kinabalu where you’ll find countless colorful fish and corals.
The marine park is home to five islands, Sapi, Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan and Sulug, each accessible by boat.
Some islands, like Gaya Island and the smaller Mamutik Island, also have beautiful beaches where you can sunbathe on the white sand, and a small stretch of beach is reserved for snorkeling, but the best snorkeling is from the boats.
You can find boat tours that depart daily from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal to the best snorkeling spots, or you can book a tour in advance here.
4. For the beautiful sunset at Tanjung Aru Beach
If you come to Malaysia for the stunning beaches then you will be pleased to know that Kota Kinabalu has some gorgeous pure white sandy beaches but you have to take a boat to them!
However, you don’t have to travel far to reach a beautiful beach with the most beautiful sunset you will ever see in Southeast Asia.
Tanjung Aru Beach is a small beach near Kota Kinabalu Airport that faces directly west and therefore offers the most surreal sunset.
Since the beach is somewhat sheltered in a bay, the waves here are gentle and give the water a kind of mirror effect. Pair that with a bright orange sunset and you have a surreal sight.
Photographers especially like to come here at sunset.
5. For the hiking trails
You might think that the only hiking trail in Kota Kinabalu is Mount Kinabalu, but there are actually a variety of great hiking trails closer to town.
Just a short drive from the city center you will find the Bukit Padang hiking trail, which takes you to a lake at the top of the mountain. This circular route is about 4 km long and has a vertical drop of 244 meters. It’s fairly easy and offers incredible views of the city below.
Another popular hike in Kota Kinabalu is the moderately challenging Bukit Botak Trail, which offers incredible ocean views. It’s only 2.9km return but there are some steep sections so be careful. This is a popular sunrise or sunset hike.
6. To see orangutans at the Orangutan Sanctuary Borneo (Rasa Ria Reserve by Shangri-La).
For those visiting Borneo in search of orangutans, you might think that the Sandakan Orangutan Sanctuary is the only place to find them.
Although there aren’t many left in the wild, it’s still possible to see them in wildlife sanctuaries and sanctuaries. The closest place to Kota Kinabalu to see these elusive jungle primates is the Orangutan Sanctuary Borneo, which is actually part of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort.
Orphaned orangutans are rehabilitated at this sanctuary before being released back into the wild in Sepilok, South Borneo. Here visitors can learn about conservation efforts and see how orangutans are cared for before they are released.
There are other places where you can see orangutans but these are usually zoos and unethical places so we don’t recommend them.
7. To see the famous floating mosque Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu
You may have seen this iconic landmark in Kota Kinabalu on every postcard, and now it’s time to see it for yourself.
I say this is a floating mosque because it sits on the water’s edge of an artificial lagoon and appears to be floating, but isn’t actually floating.
The mosque is the second largest mosque in Kota Kinabalu and was built in 1989. The mosque is stunning, with an architectural design inspired by the Nabawi Mosque, Islam’s second holiest site in Saudi Arabia.
The blue and gold dome shimmers in the sunlight and the entire building is reflected in the water around it.
It is an architectural triumph and an important religious site. If you are interested in photography, photographing this landmark should be one of your main reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu.
8. For its price
City of Kota Kinabalu against islands at golden sunset.
Kota Kinabalu is still a very affordable travel destination today. Malaysia is one of the cheapest countries in Southeast Asia in terms of food, accommodation options and price of attractions.
You can find accommodations between $10 and $30 per night depending on the time of year you visit.
And that’s for the nice hotels. Normally for this price you would expect the most seedy hostel with a bed behind the toilet.
In addition to low overnight rates, meals average around $2 per meal and taxis are $0.46 per 1km.
At these prices, you can live like a king and queen in Kota Kinabalu.
9. For its convenient location
Kota Kinabalu is often visited as the gateway to the rest of Borneo and there is no doubt that its location is perfect for exploring the Sabah region.
Its location puts jungles, national parks and hot springs within a few hours’ drive.
Those wanting to see the remote jungles of Borneo can reach the wildlife corridor at Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary within 6.5 hours by car, with many amazing sites along the way.
In addition, Kota Kinabalu Airport connects you easily with other parts of Malaysia and Borneo.
You can take a short direct flight to Langkawi, Penang, Tawau, Labuan, Kuala Lumpur or Sandakan in Malaysia.
When you’re done exploring Kota Kinabalu, you’ll even find direct flights to South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Taipei, Brunei, and Hong Kong.
It’s the perfect starting point for jumping from place to place.
10. For its luxury hotels
Shangri-La private beach
You might not think that Kota Kinabalu or Borneo in general would be the destination for a luxury vacation, but you would be wrong to rule it out.
Kota Kinabalu has some world famous luxury hotel chains like the Shangri La – which as we mentioned has its own conservation area – The Marriott, Le Meridien and The Hilton.
If you love luxury and like staying in 5-star hotels, then you will enjoy the numerous options available to you in Kota Kinabalu!
Before you go to Kota Kinabalu
So these are the top reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu and I think you will agree that there are many good reasons to visit this enchanting city of Sabah.
Before you go, we just have some advice. While you may be thinking of packing your hot pants and tank tops to prepare for Borneo’s hot and humid climate, please reserve these items for the beach and pack modest clothing.
Malaysia has a high Muslim population and even the non-Muslims are conservative – this is not Bali.
Always wear insect repellent and bring waterproof clothing.
You should also make sure you have at least three full days to explore Kota Kinabalu.
You could easily spend a week there and never have enough to do, but in my opinion the best time there is three days.
We hope this guide has helped you learn more about Kota Kinabalu and why it is a great travel destination.
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Comment: Have you been to Kota Kinabalu? Can you share tips on where to go and why you love it?