Tips for staying in Kota Kinabalu


5 days in a city that I knew very little about taught me a hell of alot. I didn’t do many touristy things but there are things about the city that you might want to know before you go whether you’re tour driven or just go with the flow.

Boats Catch the boats at Jessleton point… not the questionable boats just before Jessleton. You will encounter men with little picture books that try rope you into taking their boats to the islands, I don’t recommend it. My friend and I did this the first two days, the first day was successful besides the late pickup and the bruised butts we acquired which I blame on stormy weather and the adrenaline junkie driver. I am a bit of a dare devil and found myself laughing until my stomach hurt the entire way, it was rather exhilarating but if you’re the type that’s prone to sea sickness and not looking for a boat ride that can be compared to a rollercoaster then this isn’t a good idea. That first day the boat came and fetched us late which had us worrying that they weren’t actually going to pick us up at all. The second day, the boat ride was not as crazy but they forgot us and we ended up riding back on a boat who’s driver was generous enough to take us without paying him (the kindness of the people is so surprising). You’ll pay 30 ringitt (only 7 ringitt more than a sketchy boat) for a boat at Jessleton and you’re guaranteed to be picked up and avoid a bruised butt.


Braving the sketchy boat ride.


Colourful boats that are usually jam packed with locals to take them from mainland Kota Kinabalu to their huts across the bay.


Money Make sure that you have change. If you are going to be shopping at the markets and taking questionable boat rides, you’ll be lucky if you get your change. I found the best thing to do is to pop into the convenience store in the morning before your daily adventures and buy something to get change. A plus is that at Jessleton point and on the islands they do have change so don’t worry too much about it there.

Clothes Malaysian Borneo is a majority Muslim country and naturally the people are conservative in the way they dress. This is not Bangkok where anything goes (crop tops, tiny dresses etc). You can wear whatever you like but if you want to feel comfortable walking down the street and show respect, you should dress appropriately. I made the mistake of bringing my regular summer attire that I’d wear back in South Africa, thinking there would be loads of foreigners and it wouldn’t matter, well it did. If you don’t dress conservatively expect to be stared at and more than likely hollered at. I found loose, flowy, long pants and tshirts were a better option.

Market and food There is a popular food market in Kota Kinabalu that’s the best place to eat. It’s cheap, delicious and an experience like no other. Each little vendor has an area with tables and chairs where you can sit and eat while taking in your surroundings, this was one of the things I looked forward to every night because it was the best way to experience a bit of the culture, especially due to the fact that there are very few foreigners. My favourite dish was Mee Goreng which is a noodle dish, it was about 5 ringgit for a huge plate, that’s around $1.50!!! BARGAIN! Fresh fruit juice and coconuts are easy to come by, served at almost all the vendors and dirt cheap, you’ll leave with a full tummy having spent barely a thing. You’ll notice these markets are overflowing with fruit, the signature fruits are; Durian, Rambutan and Mangosteen. Something that everyone should try while in Borneo is the ABC special, its their signature dessert dish with canned fruit, ideal milk, sago, avocado and  possibly noodles. There are different variations so you never quite know what you’re going to get but its quite tasty. Sharing is a good idea when you’re trying it for the first time, it’s super sweet. There is also a food market at Tanjung Aru beach where they have fresh fruit juice of every kind, cheap food and ofcourse the beach. It’s not really a good spot for swimming, although some do, it’s quite romantic for a walk along the beach after dinner.


One of the eating areas


Freshly cooked chicken butthole, tasty but strange. Don’t think this guy was keen for a photo.


Durian, absurd tasting but a must try because of it’s popularity. Fruity, cheesy, garlic, nutsack is the best way to describe it. Im not a fan…


Exotic looking crayfish


We were lucky enough to catch this stunning sunset while sitting waiting for our food at one of the vendors.

Beaches My friend and I had grand plans for Kota Kinabalu which included hiking, scooting around exploring and fire fly night cruises… we did none of the above. The first day we got there we went to Mamutik island and fell head over heels for the beach. All we wanted to do from then on was sip beers and fruit juice, lie on the beach, swim, read and people watch. This is what we did for 5 days and I wouldn’t change a thing. The beaches are just stunning, the water is warm, the weather was great (most of the time), it was perfect! I felt so relaxed and content after those 5 days.  There are 4 main islands that are close to Kota Kinabalu, it takes about 20-30 minutes to get to each one. Gaya island is apparently the jungle island for hiking so we didn’t go there, we wanted beach. Mamutik, Manukan, and Sapi Island are the ones we ventured to.

  • Sapi Island – This was my favourite purely because of the crystal clear, turquoise water, however it is really small and during high season you are going to run into tons of tourists.
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  • Mamutik Island – A little bigger than Sapi and less tourists. There’s a patch on the far right end of the island near the dive center that’s fairly private as the seaweed isn’t swept away by the staff, nice if you want some privacy and don’t mind a bit of seaweed on the shore. This is also where we encountered the largest sea monitor I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see.

What a beast! Right near where we were tanning!


We took a little hike to the other side of the island and I found a mermaid 🙂

  • Manukan Island – The largest beach of the bunch, like all the islands, has beautifully clear and warm water. Having been to Sapi and Mamutik aswell, this would not be my first choice, it’s very popular amongst locals and tourists which results in it being rather busy.

The weather was very ‘iffy’ that day so everyone had taken shelter at the cafeteria or underneath the buffet tents.

All the islands have a small cafeteria where you can order fresh fruit juice as well as local and Western food for lunch. Beers and snacks can be bought at the little shop on each island too. We preferred buying a few beers from the convenience store near our hostel before leaving for the island because it was a little cheaper but  even if you do decide to buy them on the island they are dirt cheap (around 9 ringgit each).

Weather If you are going during August then I’d recommend waking up early to take advantage of the pristine weather in the morning. Everyday we experienced a downpour around 12/1pm, usually it clears up in 20/30 minutes and is followed by sunny skies but it could go either way. My friend and I experienced a very blusterry thunderstorm one of the days we were beaching it up, this didn’t stop us, the water babies that we are, we swam in the torrential downpour and whipping winds until a marshal told us to get out of the water… Looking back we were taking a bit of a risk.


Afternoon thunderstorm

When you’re planning your vacation to Kota Kinabalu, and Borneo in general, keep in mind that it’s not the Philippines or Thailand where reggae bars serving cocktails and massage huts line the beach. This being said it boasts breathtaking beaches, rich culture and a uniqueness that I will never forget. I absolutely loved it and I’ve made a vow to return one day. IMG_4787

Riding in cars with boys – A night in Kota Kinabalu

My third night in Kota Kinabalu was a crazy one where I look back and think… WHAT THE HELL WAS I DOING? … SHIT THAT WAS AWESOME.

It all started with my friend Emily and I immersing ourselves in Kota Kinabalu’s culture as fully as we could by crashing a local sit down bar. We wanted pure local and that is what we found, think, little plastic tables and chairs crammed in wherever there was free space, old ass Malaysian men, fish being bbq’d on a little grill at the entrance and $1 beers. Emily and I instantly became celebrities the minute we walked in, I don’t think a foreigner, let alone two rather attractive foreigners, had ever stepped foot in there before. Although if I’m being completely honest, we’d spent the day on the beach, we had smelly, sweaty, beach pits, our hair was full-on knotty and manky, we had sloppy beach attire on, sand in our ears and who knows where else and not one hint of make up… we looked delightful. Well, this didn’t deter the locals, free beers were flowing! By the time we had our 4th round of beers bought for us the female waitresses were getting slightly perturbed at the attention we were attracting, we were getting serious dirty looks. Em and I decided it was time to get some H2O and head to the next joint (wherever that may be). Unfortunately this little treasure of a place didn’t serve water. We were however desperate and asked one of the waitresses to fill the bottle up at the tap. WORST DECISION EVER! It was like she took the bottle and filled it with toilet water, Emily took one big swig, then I did, and immediately she had to hurl. The bathroom didn’t help the situation, it smelled like there was pee on every surface available. Some advice when in Kota Kinabalu: Never drink tap water. I didn’t escape unscathed… the runs and myself became very good friends the next day. This little stint at the local bar was just the beginning.

Malaysia Bar fish

We tried out the bbq’d fish, nothing to rave about

Malaysia Old man bar

Some friends we made at the sit down bar

Em had met a really nice bus driver a few days before who wanted to show us a bit of KK. We wanted some adventure… we called him up and next thing we know we in the bus on our way to a restaurant to meet his band. The band members were really nice guys, a tad old, but some interesting conversation was had. I vaguely remember us singing Phil Collins, In the Air Tonight, I’d said he was my favourite rocker… who knows why I didn’t say Guns n Roses or Van Halen, my memory had decided to leave me with Phil Collins! It seemed to go down well enough, we were singing after all. These guys bought us dinner and drinks while we were there, Em and I had spent a total of $1 since the night began! The generosity of Malaysians is astounding. When conversation became a little dry and boredom began to set in it was time to leave. Em and I were ready to grab a cab back to our hostel. Little did we know there was a whole night of shenanigans still to come.

Malaysia Restaurant

Dinner with the band on a river

We left the restaurant, were waiting for a cab and a car full of very young, very cute Malaysians drove by… they asked us where we were going and if we’d like to go partying with them. By this stage the night had been so successful already we thought this the perfect opportunity to make it an even bigger success. Yes… we got in the car with them. Now you may think this horrifying and dangerous (my mom is getting grey hairs just reading this) but this little occurrence enabled us to meet some of the nicest people in Borneo. We felt like old ladies hanging out with these boys as they were all aged around 18-20. The youngest, was just too cute and Emily and I took to him instantly. I’ve vowed to return to KK in 10 years when he’s old enough for me LOL. Music blaring, bass pumping and Em and I were just in our element, laughing at our luck. The boys took us to a popular club in KK called club bed, it was still surprisingly early and the club wasn’t very “alive”, Em and I tried as best we could to bring the party but 10 minutes dancing by ourselves, with everyone staring, was a tad awkward. The live band was superb and I kinda wished we’d gone later but the boys wanted to move on to the next place.

Led and Daniel

My two favourites, Led and Daniel ❤

We arrived at a pool bar, played a game of pool with 2 of the boys (where Emily won…) and the driver who’d been driving us around since the restaurant had grown tired of us. We took this as our cue to go back to our hostel. He was kind enough to lift us there but then one of the boys asked if we’d like to chill with him and some of his other friends. Em and I weren’t quite ready to call it a night so we agreed to hang out with them. His friends were a little older (around 25) and were from Kuala Lumpur, my word these guys were such gentleman! We mentioned we were hungry and they took us to McDonalds… Paid for all our food and then took us to the beach to feast. Once at the beach, the water babies that Emily and I are, we convinced the boys it was a good idea to swim. So there we were in Borneo at 3 am swimming in the ocean with some guys we’d met that night. This was possibly the best part of the night. The water was brown, filthy and polluted but at that moment we couldn’t care less, the moon was out and the city lights created the perfect backdrop.

After that the boys dropped us at our hostel where Emily and I stayed up for another hour talking and reliving all the craziness of that night, two hysterical giggling gerties. We met up with a few of the boys 2 days later, it was so tough saying goodbye that night because it was one of those goodbyes where you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again.

Riding in cars with boys, drinking with old band members, using the most dodgy toilets known to man and swimming with utter gentlemen under the moonlight, I think for many years to come Em and I will reminisce about this night where we felt, quite literally, young and wild and free in the most complete sense.