Last Updated on October 28, 2018 by Tina
Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah, a Malaysian state located in the northern part of the island of Borneo. It is often referred to as KK and the gateway to Kinabalu National Park, the home of Mt. Kinabalu. When I booked my flight to KK last year during an AirAsia seat sale, I didn’t have any idea what to see there. The only thing I had in mind was to climb Mt. Kinabalu. And even days before my flight, I didn’t bother research about the places to visit. I went there without an itinerary. I was alone anyway so I can do whatever I want.
In case you don’t want to be like me who travels without a plan, here is my 6 days 5 nights travel itinerary in Sabah, Malaysia:
Day 1: Arrived in Kota Kinabalu; Walked to Atkinson Clock Tower and Signal Hill Observatory Tower
My flight to KK was at 9 in the morning but it was delayed for about 20 minutes. Flight from Manila takes 2 hours and 5 minutes. We arrived in KK at past 11 in the morning and after collecting my checked-in bag, I had some of my dollars exchanged to Malaysian Ringgit then bought a local sim card. The sim card costs RM 25 (~6 USD). It comes with 27.8 GB of data and is good for 1 month. Do note that you need to provide them your passport to be able to purchase one.
Tip: Don’t exchange all of your money at the airport. Exchange only enough to get you through your first day. Wisma Merdeka located at the city center has plenty of money changers. Rates there are better.
When I was already connected to the internet, I booked a Grab car to Downbelow Adventure Lodge located at KK Times Square. Since I booked my climb package to Mt. Kinabalu with Downbelow, I decided to stay at their lodge as well. Cab fare to KK Times Square is RM 8 (~2 USD). It was only past 12 noon when I arrived at the lodge and their check-in time is at 2 PM so I decided to have lunch at the nearby mall first but left my big backpack with them.
Tip: Download the Grab Car app and use their private driver service to get around Kota Kinabalu. It’s cheaper and more convenient than cabs. Register using this referral code: GRABQO1ISZ44 or use this link to get a discount on your first ride.
I went to Imago Mall which is about five minutes walk from the lodge to have lunch. After lunch I checked some of the shops at the mall and at 2:00 PM there was a cultural show in front of Coach shop. The performers were doing Magunatip, better known as “Bamboo Dance”. It is considered as one of the most popular traditional dances in Sabah. The performance at the mall is daily at 12 noon, 2:00 PM, 4:00 PM, 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM.
After watching the performance, I went back to the lodge to check-in. I stayed in a dormitory room, but I had no roommates that time so it was like staying in a private room. I checked the maps I got from the airport to see which places are possible to visit. At 5:00 PM, I started walking to Atkinson Clock Tower. It’s about 3.7 km from the lodge and took me about 30 minutes to get there.
Atkinson Clock Tower is a quaint wooden structure that has been showing time since 1905. It stands in an area that was the first developed part of the city. It is one of the only two structures in Kota Kinabalu that survived the World War II bombings (the other is the Old Post Office, which was fully restored and now the Sabah Tourism Building).
From the tower, I continued walking to Signal Hill Observatory Platform. It is the highest point in the city, and is one of the best places to get a good view of Kota Kinabalu. It has an airy deck where you can get amazing views down over the city and extends to the outlying islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park and further.
There is a restaurant in Signal Hill. After having a snack and enjoying the sunset, I decided to walk to Wisma Merdeka to have my dollars exchanged to ringgit before it gets completely dark. From Wisma Merdeka, I booked a Grab Car to Imago Mall where I had dinner, then went back to the lodge.
Day 2: Island Hopping- Sapi and Manukan Island
There are 5 islands near KK that you can choose from for your island hopping. These are Manukan, Gaya, Sapi, and small islands of Mamutik and Sulug. I wanted to visit three but I didn’t know that you have to start at 8 in the morning to be able to do that. I arrived at Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal at 9:40 AM so I had no choice but to go to 2 islands only.
Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal is where you book your island hopping tour. There are several travel agencies inside offering the tours. The standard price is RM 23 (~5.5 USD) for 1 island, RM 33 (~8 USD) for 2 islands and RM 43 (~10.35 USD) for 3 islands. A terminal fee of RM 7.2 (~1.7 USD) is also collected. Upon arrival on the first island, you have to pay a conservation fee of RM 20 (~4.8 USD). You only have to pay this once. Keep the ticket because you will have to show the ticket again at the next island as proof that you have already paid the conservation fee.
When you book your tour, the travel agent will give you options of the time you will depart for the next island. Travel time from Jesselton Point to one of the islands is 15-20 minutes by speed boat. For my tour, I chose Sapi and Manukan Island.
Tip: If you want a complete package for your island hopping tour, you can book with Klook. Their package includes English speaking guide, entrance fees, jetty fees, snorkeling equipment, BBQ fees and lunch, return boat transfer, and hotel land transfers.
Our first stop is Sapi Island. It is smaller than Manukan Island, and when we arrived there it was crowded. There is no accommodation on the island but there is a small convenience store. Because the island was too crowded, I decided to just chill by the beach. One of the lifeguards noticed that I was alone so he invited me in their post to have a chat with them. At 1:20PM, I went back to the jetty to wait for the boat that will take us to Manukan Island.
Manukan Island is way bigger than Sapi and from what I’ve read, it’s the most developed among the 5 islands. The island hosts a couple of restaurants, and several water sport operators, if you’re keen on snorkeling or diving. Accommodations-wise, there’s Manukan Island Resort by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, a luxury resort offering a world-class stay.
I was already hungry by the time I arrived in Manukan so I had lunch at one of the restaurants there. When I finished eating, I have very little time left to go swimming as the boat is picking us up at 3:20 PM, so I decided to just walk around. Have I known that there are plenty of things to do on the island, I should have chosen the 4:30 PM trip back to KK.
After the island hopping trip, I decided to stay at the lodge and catch up with my writing assignments. I only went out in the evening to buy my favorite smoothie from Boost Juice Bar in Imago Mall.
Day 3: Explored the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park and had late lunch at KK Waterfront
On my third day, I visited Lok Kawi Wildlife Park which is located in Penampang and is about 30 minutes car ride from the city center of KK. To get there, I booked a car through Grab. Fare is RM 22 (~5.3 USD). I went to Lok Kawi because I wanted to see orangutans. But if I wanted to see them in the wild, I will need to take a 5 hour land trip. I didn’t have much time so the zoo is a better alternative.
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park has 2 parts: zoological and botanical side. The zoo houses animals such as Borneo pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, orangutans, Malayan tiger, Javan deer and Malayan sun bear. The botanical component offers visitors the chance to go jungle trekking along the botanical trail. It looked like it was about to rain when I got to the botanical trail and I was alone there so I decided to go back.
The park has an admission fee of RM 10 (~2.4 USD) for Malaysians and RM 20 (~4.8 USD) for foreigners.
From Lok Kawi, I booked a Grab Car to Wisma Merdeka to buy some postcards then walked to the post office to send the cards. Afterwards, I walked towards the central market to buy bananas for my climb the following day.
After buying fruits, I continued walking without any particular destination in mind. I kept on walking and passed by the Filipino Market, the Handicraft Market, the Local Fruits Market until I reached Waterfront Kota Kinabalu. There I looked for a restaurant to have my late lunch.
The Waterfront is famous for both locals and foreigners. There are plenty of food outlets to choose from, and it is a nice place to enjoy your food with the view of the sea.
After finishing my meal, I continued walking until I reached the lodge. I again decided not to go out at night to prepare for my climb the following day. I only went out to buy again my favorite smoothie from Boost Juice Bar.
Day 4: Climbed Mt. Kinabalu
Woke up early for the climb to Mt. Kinabalu. As mentioned a while ago, I booked my climb with Downbelow Adventures. I together with 2 more hikers were picked up by Downbelow’s driver Helmy at 6:30 in the morning. We traveled for less than 2 hours to Kinabalu Park HQ. After sorting out the necessary things prior to the climb, we were then transferred to Timpohon Gate where we started our hike. The climb was difficult and it was raining during our ascent which made it even harder. After more than 6 hours of hiking, I finally I arrived at Laban Rata Rest House where we spent our night in preparation for the climb to the peak the following day.
I shared a room with two bunk beds with my fellow hikers, Ben and Ong. At 4:30 PM, we went down to have buffet dinner and before 6 PM, we were already in bed ready to sleep. We had to sleep early because by 2 in the morning the following day we had to wake up to eat buffet supper and continue with our journey to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu.
Day 5: Descended Mt. Kinabalu
We woke up at 1:40 the following day to eat supper before continuing our ascent. It was still raining hard. We were ready to continue the climb at 2:30 AM but were advised to wait for another hour and see if the weather will improve. Unfortunately at 3:30 AM, the weather was still the same. The park ranger announced that because the trail to the summit was too misty, the rain and the wind still too strong, they will not allow climb t the summit that day. All of us were sad because we were eager to reach the summit but they had to do it for our safety. We had no choice but to go back to sleep. At 7:20 AM we woke up to have buffet breakfast, then start with our descent.
Before descending, we decided to look around Panalaban and take photos. The rain already stopped. We finally got to see how beautiful the views are at the top. We descended around 8:45 in the morning. The weather was very nice. Not too hot and not too cold. Going down wasn’t as exhausting as going up. It was much easier. But after about three kilometers, I started to feel my knees getting weak. It’s like it’s going to break any minute. I concentrated on going down and tried as fast as I can to reach Timpohon Gate. I reached the gate at 11:50 AM, and Ben and Ong were already there, resting. Helmy was already there waiting for us.
Interested to climb Mt. Kinabalu? Check out my previous post to read about the complete story of my climb experience as well as costs and other details.
Before taking us back to KK City, Helmy took us first to Balsam Buffet Restaurant where we had our lunch. Then on our way back to the city, we passed by a viewing deck where you could see Mt. Kinabalu. We stopped there for a few minutes to admire the place and take pictures.
My body started to feel sore the moment I arrived at the lodge. Much as I wanted to explore the city for the last time, I decided to just stay in my room and rest.
Day 6: Flight back to Manila
My flight back to Manila was at 11:40 in the morning. My whole body was super sore on my way to the airport. But the body pain was super worth it. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu even if I didn’t reach the summit is one of my greatest achievements so far.
I enjoyed my six days in Sabah even if I was alone. It is a great place for nature lovers and solo travelers. People there are very friendly, from the cab drivers, to the waiters, the life guards and the receptionists at the lodge. If only I could stay there a little longer. One thing’s for sure, I’m going back to Sabah again.
How to get to Kota Kinabalu?
Kota Kinabalu International Airport is the international airport in Kota Kinabalu and serves the entire west coast of Sabah. After Kuala Lumpur International Airport, it is the second busiest airport in Malaysia. There are regular flights to the major Asian cities like Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul–Incheon, Shanghai, etc. as well as Malaysian cities like Kuching, Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur. Major airlines serving this airport include AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines, Malindo Air, SilkAir, Dragonair, etc. (https://www.yatra.com/international-tourism/kota-kinabalu/how-to-reach)
Hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you have any questions about travel to Sabah/Kota Kinabalu, feel free to leave a message below or send me an email. 🙂
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