Kota Kinabalu is the Best Place for Unplanned Travel in South East Asia, But Why?

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Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah, Malaysia is often overlooked in favour of Kuala Lampur, Penang or Langkawi. Find out why it’s an ideal destination for a short break.
The Pride of Sabah - Mount Kinabalu

The Pride of Sabah – The Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in South East Asia

Sometimes the best adventures in life are unplanned. Multiple experiences have reinforced this belief in me and the Kota Kinabalu experience was no exception. Thanks to a busy work life, I had no time to read about Kota Kinabalu and also plan for it. Additionally, I wasn’t too kicked about this trip because of the hangover of my splendid Vietnam trip. I was mentally reliving my Vietnam moments. Also, to tell you the truth I was kind of forced into booking this trip because a friend desperately wanted to travel out of Philippines and wanted me to accompany her but she chickened out at the last moment and this ended up becoming yet another solo trip.

I had two options. Either to cancel my trip or venture into the unexplored. I chose the latter, like I always do! A few adjustments were made- a luxury hotel was swapped for a hostel, budget was doubled and more importantly, I became the pilot rather than a mere co-passenger.

It is natural for you to wonder when I say that Kota Kinabalu is the best place for unplanned travel. It is not without reasons and here are three of them:

1.Travel Easy

Kota Kinabalu is well connected with frequent low cost flights (at attractive prices) from all major cities in South East Asia. You can reach Kota Kinabalu in 2-2.5 hrs from most of them and within 15 minutes, the city centre. Most hotspots in the city are within walking distance and the distant ones can be covered with the pretty good public transport. You can either choose a city bus or a minivan or a taxi to get around. For traveling out of KK there are long distance buses or taxis available quite easily.

Public Transport, Kota Kinabalu

Public Transport, Kota Kinabalu

2. One place. Assorted Experiences

Kota Kinabalu is a ‘Nature Resort City’ located on the tropical island of Borneo, Malaysia, which possesses the natural treasure of unique ethnic cultures, endearing hospitality of friendly and English speaking locals, sumptuous cuisine from around the world, breathtaking marine and exotic preservations. And if you go a little further from KK you’ll find incredible landscape variety.

It is a living Biodiversity island comprising of a complex ecosystem with mangroves stretching till the eyes can see, tropical rain-forests with great trails, majestic Mount Kinabalu with crisp air and marvelous view, marshlands with astounding natural beauty, unending rivers with abundant wildlife, pristine long sandy beaches, paradise islands and virgin coral reefs among other natural wonders. I’ve never come across such rich variety!

Kota Kinabalu offers wide variety of experiences to choose from

Kota Kinabalu offers wide variety of experiences to choose from

3. Suits any kind of budget

Kota Kinabalu is one place which caters to all kind of travelers. Basis your pocket you can choose your accommodation and tours. While the best place to stay at Kota Kinabalu is Shangri-la’ Rasa Ria Resort you can always have your pick from a wide variety of hotels, Hostels, Motels, B&B or house apartments to suit any budget.

Stay Options, Kota Kinabalu

Accommodation options for every budget at Kota Kinabalu

I hope the above mentioned reasons have convinced you to come on board with me to virtually relive those beautiful moments again. I am breaking this adventure into three parts.

Here is the first installment:


On 27th Nov, 2015 I boarded the as usual delayed Cebu Pacific flight to reach Kota Kinabalu. Even at wee hours, the Masada Backpacker hostel staff welcomed me with great smile and open arms. The hostel was neat and clean with travelers from across the world. The breakfast was not bad. I inquired about things to do around Kota Kinabalu.  The friendly hostel staff suggested lot of DIY trips and group tours. I was still kind of exhausted from not having slept last night so I decided to opt for a seemingly comfortable fully planned half day tour to Mari Mari Cultural Village. At sharp 1.30 pm a van arrived at the hostel to pick me up.

Now let me tell you why I chose Mari Mari cultural village over a wildlife river cruise or Sepilok Orang Utan Centaury or North Borneo Railway tour.

Mari Mari Village Cultural Show

Mari Mari Cultural Village is located deep in the countryside away from the hustle bustle of the Kota Kinabalu city. The village operates as a museum that preserves Borneo ethnic culture. It aims to share the knowledge, history, culture, and tradition of Borneo with the world at large so that it is not forgotten. Thanks to this tour I got an opportunity to see and experience the culture and lifestyle of how the indigenous ethnic groups of Borneo used to live in the olden days when they were oblivious to electricity and other modern day comforts.

The village features 5 different ethnic tribes in one village. They are the rice farmer Kadazan – Dusun, the longhouse resident Rungus, the hunters and fisherman Lundayeh, the cowboy and sea gypsy Bajau, and the famously feared headhunting tribe Murut. It was the headhunting tribe that caught my attention and instead of opting for a scenic sea or land tour I opted for this cultural tour. And I am so glad I took it. It was very insightful tour and got to taste some great local freshly made food and wine. However, the icing on the cake was at the end – the Bamboo Musical Orchestra and ethnic Dance performance. Even today when I close my eyes and think about that day I can still hear the musical notes playing in my ears. Yes, it was that magnificent.

Mari Mari Village cooking

Mari Mari Village Tribal way of cooking, Kota Kinabalu

Mari Mari Village Ethnic Tribal way of Making Wine

Mari Mari Village Ethnic Tribal way of Making Wine

The Colour Filipino Sea Gypsy Bajau Tribe Hut - the wedding ceremony place

The wedding ceremony hut of the Bajau Tribe, Mari Mari Village, Kota Kinabalu

Dusun – the Head Hunting Tribe, used to cut the head of thieves and display it at their entrance

While returning from the Mari Mari Village I decided to catch the sunset at Signal Hill, the highest point in the city, which is one of the best places to get a good view of Kota Kinabalu at that golden hour. And when the day transformed into night instead of taking the longer path running parallel to road I took the shorter walkway trail from the jungle. In 5 minutes I was at the base. Though I was the only one walking on that trail, it was well lit

Kota Kinabalu City View from the Signal Hill

Kota Kinabalu City Top View from the Signal Hill

Sunset at Signal Hill, Kota Kinabalu

Sunset seen from the Signal Hill, Kota Kinabalu

Signal Hill to City Trail

Jungle Trail from Signal Hill to Kota Kinabalu City

Despite the sumptuous high tea at the Mari Mari Cultural Village , hunger pangs were awake. I decided to visit the “foodies and romantics” one-stop dining and entertainment destination – the Waterfront. It has plenty of food options to choose from – from fresh South East Asian style Seafood to the Indian cuisine to authentic Chinese food to Spanish food to Mexican food to fusion food to local Malay food. You name it and The Waterfront has it. The place comes alive at night, as besides being a good wining and dining place, it is a great place to watch the sun set over the South China Sea. The craving to have a piping hot gulab jamun made me choose Kohinoor Restaurant over others. But my craving wasn’t satisfied as they ran out of Gulab jamuns. So I ordered the next best thing on the menu – Gajar ka halwa 🙂 The food was OK. I found it spicy but not tasty. The manager and staff were friendly.

Kohinoor Restaurant at KK

Kohinoor, The North Indian Cuisine Restaurant at Kota Kinabalu

The Waterfront seen from the Kohinoor, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

The Waterfront View seen from the Kohinoor, Kota Kinabalu

For people who don’t want to spend too much on food and view there are always cheaper options available. Being a cosmopolitan city you can enjoy on an array of culinary delights from all over South East Asia when you dine at the Kota Kinabalu Night Market popularly known as “Pasar malam”.

Night market

Night market at Kota Kinabalu

Malaysia is popular among Indians and Pakistani immigrants therefore you can easily spot Indian subcontinent restaurants and departmental stores in by lanes selling every kind of spice you require to make your famous Indian curry. One piece of advice – when you relish your Idli sambhar vada don’t be Grammar Nazi 😛

Indian Restaurant in Kota Kinabalu Market

Indian Restaurant at Kota Kinabalu Market

And if after a sumptuous meal you are in a mood to shop, there is always the night market waiting for you.

Night Market at KK

Night Shopping Market at Kota Kinabalu

So that was a much relaxed Day-1 for me.

The next two days were far more adventurous. Day 2 has been etched in my memory for FOREVER. Super fun. Super adventurous. Super scary too.

Do wait for the next chapter in this series that combines adventure, fun and some scary moments!


  1. WHAT TO DO: Climb Mount Kinabalu, Sandakan Wildlife Day Tour, Mari Mari Cultural Village Tour, Island Hopping in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Sunday Gaya Market, Seafood at Night Filipino Market, Sunset viewing at Signal Hill, Proboscis Monkeys & Fireflies River Cruise
  2. HOW TO TRAVEL: Taxis for local travel. Mini vans or shared taxis for day tours. Long distance buses for visiting other Borneo attractions. Train for scenic view. Boats for island hopping
  3. WHAT TO EAT: Being a vegetarian I did not try the local delicacies but I was told when in KK one must try Kon Lau Mee, a popular egg noodle dish served with your choice of pork or chicken and Tom Yamseafood noodle soup.
  4. WHERE TO EAT: Shangri-La Rasa Resort for luxury dinning, the waterfront restaurants for mid-price fine dining or night market located at Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen for fresh and cheap seafood.
  5. WHAT TO WEAR: Comfortable cotton clothes. Western wear is acceptable. But be considerate about the local people. Though Kota Kinabalu has sizeable population following different religions, a majority follows Islam, so try not to wear too revealing clothes. If not properly dressed you’ll have to rent out a burqa and hijab at the mosques.
  6. WHAT TO SHOP: Borneo Orang Utan or the Mountain man Souvenirs, Sabah tea and aromatic Tenom coffee
  7. WHERE TO SHOP: The Handicraft Market for inexpensive souvenirs. Don’t forget to wear your bargain hat when you visit this market. For clothes and branded shop at Centre Point, Suria Sabah Shopping Mall, Oceanus Waterfront Mall and Imago Mall



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