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Discover Kota Kinabalu


The capital of the state of Sabah is a culturally-rich, historical place, that serves both as an important commercial centre of East Malaysia, and as a base for exploring some of the boldest nature & wildlife attractions the country has to offer. Whether you are planning a climb over the majestic Mount Kinibalu; fishing, diving, or water sports around the many nearby tropical islands; or simply arriving to the city as a gateway to the Borneo, Asia’s largest island—Kota Kinibalu, known across Malaysia as KK, promises to take a sweet spot in your memories.


The arrival of the British to an area that had been under the control of the Bruneian empire since the 15th century spelled the beginning of the settlement of Jesselton, which was to become Kota Kinibalu. British trade interest across the South China Sea required protection from piracy and ports of calls for British ships. The nearby island of Labuan was obtained from the sultan of Brunei and later the British extended their protection to the northern shores of Borneo. By the time of the Japanese invasion during ww2, the protectorate of North Borneo had become a crown colony. The eventual Allied victory led to the grating of self-rule to the colony, which decided to accede the new federation of Malaysia together with Malaya (peninsular Malaysia), Sarawak, and Singapore.


Islam, specifically the Sunni denomination, is predominant in Malaysia. Although constitutionally there is freedom of religion, there is also a legal requirement that all ethnic Malays be Muslims. Moreover, Islam is the “official religion” of the federation and of every state that was never a formal British colony. There are Islamic courts for family law and matters of religion and Islamic police to enforce them. Historically, Islam had ceased to be dominant in Sabah, and the Malay population on the territory used to be very small. A series of concerted efforts by the federal government have brought significant number of Muslim immigrants from Indonesia, southern Philippines, and peninsular Malaysia—causing friction with established ethnic and religious communities in the state.


Kota Kinibalu, like the rest of Sabah, is a kaleidoscope of different ethnic, even more so than peninsular Malaysia. Almost half of the population is of Chinese descent, although Hakka and not Hokkien is the major ethnolinguistic group. Natives of Sabah such as the Kadazandusun and the Bajaus follow the Chinese in numbers. These groups speak Malayo–Polynesian languages which are related to but unintelligible to Malay speakers. Moreover, the Kadazandusun (but not the Bajaus) are predominantly Christian. There are also substantial communities of Brunei Malays, and naturalised Philippine and Indonesian Muslims.


  • PDA frowned-upon, as well as immodest dress (especially on women or visitors to religious sites).
  • Besides handshakes, avoid touching people, and never do so with your left hand as it is considered ‘unclean’.
  • Do not proselytise or discuss religious matters in public, or even in private with the pious.
  • No public raging (even loud speech) or loss of face.
  • Pay particular attention around the elderly, the pious, and modestly-dressed women.


Kota Kinibalu is located on the northwestern shore of Borneo, 260km northeast of Brunei and 1,624km east-northeast of Kuala Lumpur. The city experiences a tropical rainforest climate, with year-round high temperatures and humidity, as well as frequent rains, which abate somewhat during the drier months of February and March.


The city is located mostly on coastal flatland. To the west is the South China Sea, with several islands in the KK bay. To the east is the Crocker Range that separates Sabah’s east and west coasts. On a clear day, the prominent peak of Mount Kinibalu can be seen from the distance.

Wild life

A plethora of special inhabit or are endemic to the island of Borneo and can be appreciated through one of many day trips from KK. At the Klias Wetland about 90 minutes from town dwell shy Proboscis monkeys, and rare and large Rafflesia flower can be spotted some 80km away from KK on the road to Tambunan. Also popular are day trips to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where the endangered primates roam in their natural habitat.

Before you go


  • Language: Malaysian, or Bahasa Malaysia, a standardised registry of Malay
  • Currency: Malaysian ringgit (myr)
  • Time Zone: Malaysia Time, utc+8
  • Voltage: 240
  • Electric Socket: Type G


  • You can conveniently buy a sim card at the airport, or any transport terminal, shopping mall or even convenience store.
  • There are 4 major operators in Malaysia who offer prepaid, local network sim cards compatible with the gsm network, as well as several other mvnos offering their services.
  • Celcom (Xpas) and Maxis (Hotlink) have the highest coverages (country-wide) but higher prices, while DiGi and U Mobile have more limited coverage but cheaper prices.
  • Expect to pay around $3.5 for a 7-day, 300-megabyte data credit.


  • Banks opening hours are usually from 9.00am to 4.00pm and close on Saturday, Sundays, and Public Holidays
  • Some bank branches such as KLCC are open seven days a week.
  • Moneychanger are very straightforward and post their rates in electronic boards.
  • It is almost always better to change your money into ringgit once in Malaysia.
  • Credit cards are widely accepted and atms are also conveniently located and work with all major international networks.


  • Nasi lemak: Fragrant rice accompanied with the spicy sauce sambal, fried ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, and a boiled egg. Usually eaten for breakfast.
  • Sang nyuk mian: Thick yellow noodles with poached-to-order slices of tender marinated pork served in pork broth which is flavoured with fried lard bits. 
  • Tuaran mee: Noodles made from an egg yolk and flour batter, fried for 5-10 minutes until a crunchy consistency develops at the bottom, then tossed with vegetables and sweet char siu roasted pork and fried egg rolls.
  • Hinava: Raw fish marinated in lime and herbs with pickled fermented bambangan, a local wild mango. 


  • Tipping is not mandatory in Malaysia

  • Taxis: Reward your cabbie for using the meter by rounding up the fare to the nearest ringgit.

  • Restaurants: it is customary to leave behind any loose change as tip. In high-end restaurants, a service charge of 10% applies. Hawkers and other eateries do not expect to be tipped, but if a place is full, a 5-10 ringgit tip to the hostess helps to reduce your wait.

  • Hotels: Most hotels charge the mandatory 6% goods and services tax, as well as another 5-10% of service charge to your bill. Porters can be tipped 10-20 ringgit for 1-2 guests. Leaving some tip bellow the pillow for the cleaning staff is also generous, at least on the first day.


  • Having your vaccination schedule up-to-date is never a bad idea when travelling. Vaccines against hepatitis A and typhoid are recommended, especially for travellers habitually resident in temperate climates.

  • Be wary of pretty women offering free help or inviting you to their homes for no good reason.

  • Kota Kinibalu is mostly free from violent muggings or gun crime, but as a heavily touristic area there have been a number of scams that the local police seems unwilling or unable to tackle.

  • Be aware that Malaysian law makes public drunkenness illegal and requires you carry your passport at all times (Malaysian police and volunteer militias enforce immigration laws zealously).

  • Tap water is safe in Malaysia, but the pipes might be untrustworthy, so do buy bottle water

  • Drug use and contraband is heavily punished  – with trafficking carrying a mandatory death penalty.

  • Respect all local laws and stay away from demonstrations.


  • Emergency Line:  999
  • Fire services: 994
  • Gleneagles Kota Kinibalu (private hospital): Address: Riverson@Sembulan, Block A-1, Lorong Riverson@Sembulan, 88100 Kota Kinabalu, Tel: (+60) 88 518 888
  • Hospital Queen Elizabeth (public): Address: 2029 Karung Berkunci, 88586 Kota Kinabalu, Tel: (+60) 88 517 555
  • Tourism Board: Address: 51 Jalan Gaya, Tel: (+60) 88 212 121


  • Hello (in general): Selamat datang
  • Excuse me. / Sorry: Ma’af
  • Thank you: Terima kasih
  • You’re welcome: Sama-sama
  • Good morning/evening: Selamat pagi
  • Goodbye: Sempai jumpa lagi
  • How much is this?: Berapa harganya ini?
  • Cheers! (Toasts when drinking): Santi!
  • Bon appetit!: Makan makan
  • Where’s the toilet?: Di mana tandas?
  • Help!: Tolong!
  • I understand: Saya faham
  • I don’t understand: Saya tidak faham


How to get into this area, and how to get around it!


KK is quite isolated from the rest of Malaysia—even Kuching, the capital of neighbouring Serawak, is over 800km away. It is, however, possible to travel to Brunei in one day if one takes the ferry to Labuan (rm56, 3 hours) and continue from there to Brunei. There are also roads connecting KK with other locations in Sabah such as Sandakan, Beaufort, and Tawau.


KK is quite isolated from the rest of Malaysia—even Kuching, the capital of neighbouring Serawak, is over 800km away. It is, however, possible to travel to Brunei in one day if one takes the ferry to Labuan (rm56, 3 hours) and continue from there to Brunei. There are also roads connecting KK with other locations in Sabah such as Sandakan, Beaufort, and Tawau.


The city is quite compact, so walking from one end to the other should not take more than 30 minutes (although it may be quite humid!). Luckily, Kota Kinibalu has both a city bus service and buses to the suburbs. There is only one terminal to avoid traffic jams, the Wawasan Bus Terminal located opposite Wawasan Plaza. The fare is rm0.50 for intercity trips and up to rm2 for suburban trips.


Taxis in the city are not as friendly as in other major Malaysian destinations. KK taxis do not use meters and do not always give good prices to tourists. It is best to haggle before getting in the cab and make sure the driver sticks to the agreed price by repeating it clearly. Still, if the driver gets shifty at the end of the ride or feigns ignorance and takes you to a wrong destination, name-dropping the police will likely end the charade. Budget rm10 for short trips and rm20 for longer ones, with a whole-day not more than rm300.


There are car-hiring counters at the airport and in the city there are also several car & motorcycle rental companies. Renting a motorcycle starts at rm40. Car rentals come in a diverse range of prices, but remain a popular option with visitors to Kota Kinibalu.

Things to see

Top sights

The top locations to visit in this destination.

Kinabalu National Park

Come Face-to-Face with Sabah’s Flora and Fauna at Kinabalu National Park

Filipino Market

Delicious food and bargains at the Filipino Market

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

The Five Islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Garama River

Take a Tranquil Journey on Sabah’s Garama River

City Mosque

Kota Kinabalu’s City Mosque: A place of Worship on top of Water

Mabul and Sipadan

Become Part of Mabul and Sipadan’s Marine World

Kampung Bavanggazo, Gombiazu and Sumangkap Village

Day Trippers: Kampung Bavanggazo, Gombiazu and Sumangkap Village

Filipino Market

Delicious food and bargains at the Filipino Market

Turtle Islands National Park

See Life Hatch before Your Eyes in Turtle Islands National Park

Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Being one with Nature in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Sukau and Sungai Kinabatangan

Fall in Love with Sabah’s Wildlife in Sukau and Sungai Kinabatangan