If you’ve heard of Sabah then you already know that it’s the ultimate destination for nature lovers. The Land Below the Wind is home to azure waves, pristine beaches, massive mountains, and ancient tracts of rainforest, after all!
But your exciting adventure in Sabah actually starts way before you even see all of that! It begins the moment you land at the airport and make your way to the state capital, Kota Kinabalu. Read on to find out why travelers from all over the world find this amazing city located smack dab in the tropics absolutely irresistible…
1) It's a relaxing, beautiful place
When we think of the city, we usually imagine huge crowds of people buzzing around streets surrounded by huge, sky-scraping buildings. The concrete jungle, the culmination of human civilization! But that’s not exactly the case with Kota Kinabalu (or KK, as it is more affectionately known). Lush greenery, lazy seaside views and friendly locals make for a city famous for its chill vibes. Once you’re here, you’ll be coming up with all sorts of excuses just to stay one more day.
KK comes with the modern amenities you’d expect from a major city, like shopping malls, hotels, resorts, cafes, restaurants and the like, along with beautifully designed attractions such as the Signal Hill observatory tower, ‘floating’ City Mosque and the spacey-looking Tun Mustapha Tower. Though you’ll find most locals, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, happily burning the hours away together at their neighborhood ‘mamak’ establishment, chatting about everything from the weather to politics.
It’s just such a refreshing break from the hustle bustle of everyday life often seen in some of the busier cities. That isn’t to say that the streets of KK don’t get crowded every now and then, though. They do, but for totally different reasons…
A long time ago, Sabahans from different villages would convene regularly at a particular location to exchange goods. Over time these places, known as tamu, would evolve into the many open markets scattered throughout the land today. Saunter over to one of these markets and you’ll find yourself spoiled for choice with the amount of snacks, local delicacies, fruits, vegetables, spices, handicrafts, and other assorted goods (e.g. clothes, accessories and so on) available.
Kota Kinabalu has at least two open markets that are a must-try for visitors. Gaya Street, located right in the middle of KK, transforms into a splendid tamu every Sunday with dozens of stalls lining up the walkways and plazas of the city interior. If you’d rather spend your Sunday lazing off at home or in your hotel room however (we understand – the AC can be pretty tempting in this warm and humid climate), you could always visit the Night Market, which opens every evening to the sight of fresh seafood, street snacks, and other tantalizing delicacies.
Whether you’re looking to stuff yourself with local treats or simply enjoy the art of haggling, KK is the place to be!
The city of KK has a long and storied past. It was once known as Jesselton, back when Borneo was still under the administrative rule of the British. Much of that history is still preserved in several buildings and landmarks such as the Atkinson Clock Tower and Sabah Tourism Board building (formerly used as a post office). Many of the infrastructures established back then, such as the North Borneo Railway system, are still in use today!
Of course, as part of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is also home to many native tribes and ethnicities that make up its unique cultural DNA. If you want an authentic experience of local culture then there are few places only a couple of miles away that you can visit. The Mari-Mari Cultural Village, for instance, showcases the traditional lifestyle of many Borneon tribes such as the Rungus and Murut. Or, if you’re so inclined, you could make an off-the-grid excursion to the countryside of Kiulu, where the Kadazandusun and Bajau make their homes amid the misty valley.
If you’ve got little time to spare, then consider joining a day tour to explore some of KK’s highlights, including a visit to the State Museum to cap the day with a fascinating tour through the city’s rich and colorful heritage.
You may have heard Kota Kinabalu being mentioned as one of the best places in the world to watch the sunset… and it’s all true. Whether you’re lounging by one of the famous nearby beaches or simply having a casual stretch at your hotel balcony, it’s hard to miss the skies being draped under one of KK’s gorgeous red, orange, and magenta-hued sunsets.
Those interested in catching these fleeting but priceless moments can do so at many places throughout KK, such as at the Signal Hill tower, the Waterfront area, or at the various small islands that dot the coastlines of Borneo.
You may be in the city when you’re in KK, but remember: this is Borneo, where nature reigns supreme! Even here, amid the streets and buildings and urban landscapes, it’s hard to escape the beautiful greenery, gorgeous seaside view, and the sight of majestic Mount Kinabalu peeking just over the distance.
In fact, you don’t have to stray too far from the city to enjoy nature’s treasures. You could, for example, head on over to one of the many beaches such as Tanjung Aru and Tanjung Lipat and have a whale of a time. Exotic wildlife – in particular birds, are easy to spot and can be found throughout the west coast of Sabah. Those short on time could do a lot of exploring within the span of a day, such as exploring the city, going on an excursion to one of the cultural villages, or visiting one of the nearby islands.
For the more adventurous, you should already know that KK city is the gateway to Mount Kinabalu. If a trip to its national park (a World Heritage site!) or exploring the challenging trails on its foothills does not satisfy you, you could always attempt to conquer the mountain itself…
But let’s not forget about the beautiful city itself! Here’s a short teaser to give you a glimpse at some of the urban attractions of Kota Kinabalu: