Why Kota Kinabalu is perfect for first-time travelers abroad

Kota Kinabalu is a destination I can recommend to first-time travelers abroad. Traveling this small Malaysian town is easy, cheap, and friendly, with a variety of activities to offer. This blog explains in detail why.
Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah state and a territory of Malaysia. It’s tucked in the northern tip Borneo island that neighbors the country of Brunei. Separated from mainland Malaysia, Kota Kinabalu presents a slightly different culture and vibe compared to when you travel in the capital, Kuala Lumpur

Easy travel

Kota Kinabalu is just small, so it isn’t too overwhelming to know where to go and what to do. This, therefore, goes to to the advantage of first-time travelers. I can say Kota Kinabalu is also a good jump start to those who want to try solo traveling abroad. 
Several points of interest in Kota Kinabalu aren’t that far from each other, and you can easily reach them on foot. If there’s a need to ride though, transportation network company Grab is very common. Unlike in the Philippines where Grab has insane rates even for short-distance rides, Grab in Kota Kinabalu (and in the rest of Malaysia) is a lot cheaper. From the airport to the city center, for example, it may only cost around MYR 11 (PHP 150) and takes 20 minutes or less, depending on the traffic.
For a much cheaper transportation from and to the airport, an Airport Bus is available at MYR 5 per ride. It runs on a schedule with the first trip from airport to city center at 8 AM and the last trip at 8:30 PM, while the first trip from city center to airport is at 7:30 AM and the last trip at 7:15 PM.

Cheap travel

Flights from Manila to Kota Kinabalu are usually the cheapest, with or without promo. It’s usually low-cost since Kota Kinabalu is very near the Philippines. The flight only takes 1 hour and 45 minutes and perhaps one of the shortest international flights coming from Manila.
Compare flight rates at skycanner.com!
When I booked mine with Air Asia, I scored a round-trip regular ticket for around P5,000 only. Compared to other Southeast Asian destinations like Singapore, Bangkok, or Macau, I find Kota Kinabalu flights the cheapest. This is why it’s best for budgetarians as there’s no need to wait for a seat sale to travel abroad!

Friendly area

Kota Kinabalu is like a neighborhood where the locals know each other really well. If you need to ask for directions or have other questions, they’re also very approachable.

Hostels are the trend in Kota Kinabalu. If you’re a first-timer or solo traveler, it’s recommended to stay in this accommodation type where facilities are usually communal or shared. Not only it’s very cheap to stay in a hostel, but it’s the best place to meet and socialize with guests who are mostly backpackers.
With my experience, I stayed at B&B@21, a friendly hostel that costed me around MYR 32 per night including breakfast. It’s located at Lorong Dewang, a backpacker lane in Kota Kinabalu where you can find the strip of hostels and cheap local restaurants. 

Variety of activities

Despite its small size, Kota Kinabalu can offer a few activities. On top of all, of course, climbing Mount Kinabalu is the most popular. However, this requires at least 2D1N climbing, some heavy cash (price starts at whopping MYR 1400 per person!), and a fit body as it’s said to be a challenging trail. Skipping it doesn’t make you feel missed out though, as there are other activities you can do and places you can visit. 

Visit mosques

In Kota Kinabalu, there are several interesting mosques that you can visit. For one, the Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu, also called as the “floating mosque,” is a beautiful white-and-blue mosque surrounded by a man-made lagoon.

To enter the mosque grounds and see the interiors of the mosque, there’s an entrance fee of MYR 5. Renting proper vestiture (i.e. arms, knees, and head are covered) is required that costs MYR 5. 
For its distinctive and striking color, most tourists also visit the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) Mosque, more popularly known as the “pink mosque.” It’s primarily meant for UMS students but is also open to the public. To enter, there’s also an entrance fee of MYR 5 and vestiture rent of MYR 5. It’s located on top of a hill and part of the UMS campus. 

Go island hopping

The Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is the collective name given to the 5 closest islands from Kota Kinabalu namely: Gaya Island, Manukan Island, Mamutik Island, Sapi Island, and Sulug Island that can be visited in a day. 
Jesselton Point is the starting point when you want to go to the islands. Aside from being the port where you ride the boat, it's also where you can buy tickets or book packages at any ticketing counter. You can simply buy on the spot and choose the island/s you prefer to visit. Among the 5 mentioned islands, you can visit from 1 up to 3 islands with their respective rates:

One island: MYR 23
Two islands: MYR 33
Three islands: MYR 43

On top of island hopping rate, there’s a terminal fee of MYR 7 collected at Jesselton Point. There’s also a conservation fee of MYR 20 collected at the island you’ll first land on. Note that conservation fee one-time only, which means even if you visit more than one island, no need to pay anymore in the next islands (so make sure to keep the receipt!).
The first boat trip is usually at 8:30AM and last boat trip is at 4:15PM. I suggest you start early to maximize the day and to avoid the crowd. There’s a schedule of transferring from one island to the other so be mindful of this. But anyway, once you reach the island, the marshal who checks the receipt usually informs you of the transfer time. 
While most people visit 3 islands in a day, I only took 2 islands which felt more relaxed and I didn’t feel rushed with the transfer. In Mamutik Island, the first island I went to, I got to do some snorkeling and spent 2 hours there. While its beach and water were okay, I find not as enchanting as Manukan Island, my second island. The only setback with Manukan is that I find it very commercialized and tends to get crowded. 

Experience the local market

There are several open-air markets in Kota Kinabalu to fill in your stomach all the time. One of which is the Gaya Sunday Morning Market located at Gaya Street, a street that’s considered the Chinatown in Kota Kinabalu. Gaya Street also holds night markets to find interesting local and Chinese cuisines, except on Saturday night. 

Since Kota Kinabalu is in the coastal area, seafood is the staple food. At the Waterfront Seafood Night Market, you’ll get the variety of seafood. The idea is to buy the seafood first, then let them know how you want it cooked. The ambiance is very similar to the paluto at Macapagal Road in Metro Manila. 

Go for trekking

For a quick exercise, climb a few stairs to get to the Signal Hill Observatory. The steps are easy and doesn't take more than 15 minutes to reach the top. The different trails are usually surrounded by trees, thus the trekking experience is nature-friendly and relaxing.
The view at Signal Hill Observatory gives you a bird eye’s view of the city. From afar, you can also get a glimpse of the sea. 
A lower and shorter trail, you also climb the Atkinson Clock Tower. It’s one of the very few historic places in Kota Kinabalu that serves as memorial to Francis George Atkinson, the town’s first district officer who died of malaria or the so-called Borneo fever. The clock tower is also one of the oldest structures in Kota Kinabalu that dates back before World War II.

Have you been to Kota Kinabalu? Do you also recommend it to first-time travelers abroad?

If this blog has given you helpful information, or has inspired you in any way, a little amount would help me maintain it!

Why Kota Kinabalu is perfect for first-time travelers abroad Why Kota Kinabalu is perfect for first-time travelers abroad Reviewed by Shelly Viajera Travel on 18.3.19 Rating: 5


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