There was a time when the name “Kota Kinabalu” evoked images of a sleepy seaport town by the jungles of Borneo. Today, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah—nicknamed “KK”—still sits next to lush rainforests and tropical islands, but it’s now a growing city accessible by plane, ferry, or cruise ship.
You travel to Kota Kinabalu, not to shop or splurge, but to see the natural sights. Kota Kinabalu is named after Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain (13,435 feet or 4,095 meters above sea level) in the whole Malay Archipelago, which overlooks the city from 80 kilometers away. In fact, Mount Kinabalu National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the city’s major tourist draws. Physically-fit visitors can climb all the way to the top of Low’s Peak without special mountain climbing gear or skills, using a “trek and scramble” trail with guide ropes in certain sections. Due to its height, temperatures on Mount Kinabalu can range from 25 degrees Celsius to near freezing, despite the year-round warm climate (22 to 32 degrees Celsius) of the areas surrounding it.
If you don’t like a mountain hike, check out the Kota Kinabalu’s other main attractions: There’s Tanjung Aru Beach just 10 minutes away from the city center, where the locals flock to for its food stalls and bars. For more unspoiled views, travel to the northern coast of Kota Kinabalu to see the Lagoon Park at Karambunai, Dalit Beach, the Mengkabong River’s water village, and the seafood restaurants along the Salut River. The Kokol Hills in Menggatal are still undeveloped and offer good views of Kota Kinabalu. You can also visit the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park south of Kota Kinabalu, Tun Fuad Park at the boundary between the city and the hill jungles of Crocker Range, or the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre’s 24-hectare mangrove conservation area.
Don’t overlook the sea around Kota Kinabalu, either. If you dive or snorkel, see the Gaya underwater wreck within the five-island Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Mayne Rock, Palau Tiga, or Usukan Bay north of Kota Kinabalu. For deep-sea fishing, you can travel with deep-sea operators-for hire from the Kota Kinabalu Central Market’s jetty. To see real seaside village life, travel to the traditional stilt villages along the city’s coastline.
For a cheap Kota Kinabalu vacation, there are plenty of budget accommodations in the city, from Borneo Backpackers, to Globetrotters Lodge. But if you insist on splurging, make your vacation at the Shangri-La Ria Resort or the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort.