Awesome things to do in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

The charming city of Kota Kinabalu is the gateway to the diverse and untamed state of Sabah, Malaysia. Spending a few days in ‘KK’, as it is affectionately called, to enjoy its bustling markets and fascinating heritage trail.

Then enjoy amazing day trips from Kota Kinabalu to experience the best of Borneo, from the granite peaks of Mount Kinabalu to the idyllic islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Not many other cities can say they are just minutes away from sandy shores, paradise islands, coral reefs, tropical rainforests and exotic flora and fauna.

A city surrounded by nature in KK

For nature lovers looking to see Sabah’s wild side, Kota Kinabalu is partly surrounded by rainforest and the jumping off point for Kinabalu National Park, an epic wilderness at the heart of which is 4,095-metre-high Mount Kinabalu.

Experience untamed Borneo after dark on a night river safari at Kawa Kawa, where fireflies decorate the mangrove swamps and proboscis monkeys play in the trees fringing the river.

Swim and snorkel Tunku Abdul Rahman

Just off the coast, spend some of your Kota Kinabalu holidays exploring the five unspoilt isles of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. You can go hiking through mangrove swamps on Gaya, snorkel with rainbow-hued fish on Mamutik, sunbathe on Sapi’s ivory sands, relax on developed Manukan, or escape to rocky Sulug for secluded peace and quiet.

Walk the Kota Kinabalu Heritage trail

Stroll from the Atkinson Clock Tower on Signal Hill to the colourful godowns of the Jesselton Point Waterfront, then carry on along the waterfront boardwalk to the elegant Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, which looks like it is floating on a lagoon.

Back in town the grand old Jesselton Hotel is one of the few remaining colonial buildings in Kota Kinabalu. It serves a delicious afternoon tea.

The vibrant Gaya Street market

If you are there on a Sunday the Gaya Street market is a vibrant melange of food stalls, handicrafts and essentials.  Colourful umbrellas shade a multitude of stalls and a huge variety of fresh produce, including a huge pile of pink dragon fruit. One of the most popular stalls is just an old man sitting at his table writing what I presume are people’s names, or perhaps prayers, in exquisite calligraphy.

Fresh fruit - Gaya Street Sunday Market Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

Wandering Kiwi Jr wasn’t keen on coming out to the market, complaining of the heat and being tired. Well she had been on a plane for a long time the day before and it is hard to explain jetlag to a four-year-old. We ignored her protests, obviously.

Against the side of the street a line of blind people provide massages on low stools. A couple of coffee stalls are equally well patronised. Young men with bags of beans and a small generator running a grinder. The fragrant coffee is quickly bagged up for customers.

Gaya Street Sunday Market Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

Wandering Kiwi Jr brightened up considerably when we found the colourful hair clips, the pink Hello Kitty bags and the cheap plastic toys. I enjoyed browsing through the piles of craftwork. Everywhere, local Sabahan families were busy shopping up a storm and enjoying the fair-like atmosphere.

Kaka - Gaya Street Sunday Market Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

At first I was hesitant when we got to the animal section – were these being sold for food as I had seen elsewhere in Asian markets? How to explain this to a western child! But no, the fluffy bunnies, kitties, puppies, birds and fish are all sold from pop-up pet stalls. At this point my daughter decided that she does like markets after all.

The Gaya Street is held from 6am to 1pm every Sunday in the central business district of Kota Kinabalu.

Culinary adventures in Kota Kinabalu

The Fuen Hook bakery is a popular lunch spot, despite its slightly complicated purchasing system. I chowed down on a delicious parcel of Nasi Lemak – a pyramid of rice with a spicy sauce, some chopped egg, strewn with peanuts and tiny friend anchovies. All wrapped firmly in banana leaf. The others had pastries and buns.

Nasi Lemak in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Look out for Sabah’s own special handmade noodles called Tuaran Mee that are crispy and golden on the outside, soft on the inside, and served fried with egg roll slices, roast pork and vegetables. Another classic Sabah Malaysia dish to look out for is Sang Nyuk Mee pork noodles featuring smooth and tender fresh pork slices.

An essential coffee stop on your Kota Kinabalu holidays is at Kopitiam, a heritage building that has preserved something of its 1940s vibe with framed historical photographs on the walls.

Nature’s adventures in Borneo

Explore Kinabalu National Park and if you’re feeling fit, climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu for epic views over the cloud forests of Borneo. If you want to climb Mount Kinabalu it is mandatory to have a guide and only so many permits are issued for each day, so it’s best to arrange a package ahead of time with a Kota Kinabalu tour agency. This two-day trek is physically tough but very rewarding.

CLimbing Mt Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo

Experience untamed Borneo after dark on a night river safari at Kawa Kawa, where fireflies decorate the mangrove swamps and proboscis monkeys play in the trees fringing the river.

Get your adrenaline pumping with whitewater rafting on the grade one and two rapids of the beautiful Kiulu River.

Get up close to Borneo’s Orangutans

You can see orangutans swinging through the trees without travelling to Sepilok – only 20 minutes’ drive from Kota Kinabalu is a sanctuary where young orangutan orphans are looked after in a jungle environment, preparing to be released back into the wild.

Orang-utans in Borneo at the Rasia Ria Nature Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia

It is part of the 64-acre Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort & Spa but you don’t have to be staying at the resort to visit – just call ahead and let them know you are coming.

By Natasha von Geldern

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