Backpacking Kota Kinabalu. State Mosque at the background.

Backpacking Kota Kinabalu

There is so much to see in Kota Kinabalu (abbreviated as KK) aside from climbing the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. During our 2013 trip, we familiarized the small city by walking 6km from the airport to Gaya Centre Hotel where we stayed the first night. Sounds like a great idea to warm-up with our backpacks, but the truth is—we don’t have enough ringgits for a taxi!

I’m the only one who exchanged money ahead. There was no money changer available yet at the time we arrived.

Kota Kinabalu City Tour Backpacking

Kota Kinabalu DIY City Tour

Touchdown. Walk from the airport with backpacks to have a free and easy tour to the city’s central district. This allows you see sites such as magnificent mosques and their baywalk. You also save Ringgits instead of paying for a taxi.

Get a free map from the tourism kiosk at the malls, or from the airport, or download one in your smartphone and ask around locals for directions in simple or broken English or basic conversational Malay.

During our trip, we arrived past midnight so we decided to just sleep in the airport. By sunrise, we started our morning exercise by walking down their streets. Selamat Datang.

Sleep at Kota Kinabalu International Airport
Sleeping at Kota Kinabalu International Airport. Not bad.
Food. Try out local meals at the food court at the malls or near the night market or at the Baywalk. We had Bak Kut Teh at Jalan Gaya. It is an exotic tasting broth soup mixed with herbs and spices. Literally means “meat bone tea”, popularly served in Malaysia and Singapore. As a supertaster, there was this lingering taste I didn’t like from one of the spices, probably white peppercorns. Also, its side dish ‘yu choy sum’ wasn’t particularly appealing to my taste buds. But drinking lemonade helped me handle it!

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On another evening, we treated ourselves at Little Italy—the pasta and pizza corner at Capital Hotel, Jalan Haji Saman. The place was packed—no wonder because they serve divine meals! We couldn’t help but laugh out loud because our friend’s mouth got inked from eating squid pasta, Al Nero di Seppia. That was a delightful carbo-loading dinner to prep up for an upcoming mountain hike. Eat to your heart’s content!

Gaya Centre Hotel Kota Kinabalu
Gaya Centre Hotel. Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, Kota Kinabalu.

Accommodation. During the first day in KK, we stayed at Gaya Centre Hotel with a nice overlooking view of the bay. It is located across a shopping mall and a few steps away from Baywalk restaurants. If you’re looking for an affordable and convenient place to stay with great service, I recommend this place.

Later in the evening on Day 1, we toured around and scouted for a cheaper accommodation in Gaya Street, and found Sensi Backpacker’s Hostel. We stayed there after our Mt. Kinabalu climb. The hostel is clean with shared bathrooms. They offer free bread and coffee in their kitchen for breakfast. There’s a bookshelf nicely displayed near the front desk and I was lucky to bring home old books left by the previous travelers! We had no trouble speaking to the hostel staff because they are Filipinos. They’ve been very helpful in giving us tips on what to do after our Kinabalu climb.

Sensi-Backpackers-Hostel-kota-kinabalu
Sensi Backpacker’s Hostel bunkbeds.
Shopping. They have many malls but don’t miss shopping around Gaya Street Sunday Market, or at their night market with many eateries around. At the Sunday market, you can buy souvenirs, T-shirts and other items for a cheap price.
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Other Activities. Aside from climbing Mt. Kinabalu and other nature trips, why not visit heritage villages like Mari-Mari Cultural Village. Sensi Backpacker’s Hostel offers different tour packages like Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve, Kiulu White Water Rafting, Proboscis Monkey River Cruise and Fireflies tour, Turtle Island Park etc.

I could only wish we had more days in KK. We’re supposed to join the Rafflesia tour but we arrived late from an earlier city tour, so we missed it and diverted to Mari-Mari Cultural Village evening tour which was cheaper and worth it. The cultural tour included a superb native food dinner buffet. It turned out to be such a fun evening and a great interactive learning experience.

More photos and info arrow down


Sabah State Mosque

We’re glad to walk on foot and passed by the beautifully constructed State Mosque at Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman.Sabah State Museum. Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

Sabah Museum

The state museum showcases Sabah’s art gallery, archeological artifacts, Islamic civilization and history, ethnobotanic garden, archetype cave with a zoo and a heritage village nearby. The 64ft long skeleton remains of Bryde’s whale welcomes you inside.

Sabah State Museum. Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
Sabah State Museum. Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

Atkinson Clock Tower 

The clock tower, completed in 1905, once served as a lighthouse to guide sailors. It is one of the oldest structures in Kota Kinabalu.

Atkinson Clock Tower

Kota Kinabalu Baywalk Sunset

Don’t miss the glorious sunset at their baywalk. There are many food stalls and restaurants around and a nearby market.Sunset at Kota kinabalu Baywalk.

Jesselton Point

A great place to visit in the evening, where waterfront restaurants are located. Jesselton is the former name of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah.

Jesselton Kota Kinabalu
Myself at Jesselton Point.

Gaya Street Sunday Market

You can buy souvenirs and other cheap items at their Sunday market. We bought our t-shirt souvenirs here. There are lovable cats, rabbits, parrots and other pet animals in the cages for sale. However, I don’t support buying souvenirs made from marine life–starfish, shells and other ornaments from the ocean.

Protesters for land title rights are present that time, but it was a peaceful rally meeting. Also, politicians with their supporters arrived to campaign to local voters as their election day was nearing during our visit. I don’t look like a tourist at all, so they gave me a campaign flyer, smiled and shook hands with me.

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Mari Mari Cultural Village

Mari Mari Cultural Village is amidst a rich spectrum of greenery wetland about 40-minute ride from Gaya Street. Mari Mari means “come, come” in English. It will take you back to Borneo’s tribal way of living.

In the village, you can find archetype houses of Borneo’s five tribes, namely: Dusun, Rungus, Lundaye, Bajau and Murut.

Go visit during the night so you get that eerie feeling of the forest with a custom welcome ceremony by the chief and his warriors. Before entering, you will choose a leader in the group to make hand gestures with their chief for acceptance. What makes it interesting and fun is that you get a taste (literally) of their tribal culture.

Engage yourself in tribe’s daily activities: learn how to cook using bamboo stems; bake cookies and eat it; start a fire using bamboo saw; learn how to make honey, ropes and vest from scratch; drink rice wine and pandan juice; try shooting using a blowpipe; get a free henna tattoo, and dance and jump with other tourists at the lansaran (trampoline) in hey-sexy-lady beat.

I love Kota Kinabalu! Terima Kasih.

You might also like reading: Mt. Kinabalu via Ferrata

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4 thoughts on “Backpacking Kota Kinabalu

  1. Hi karen can u share with me the price of mari mari tour and also Do u know any other waysof getting there besides of tour packages.? Im going to kk this december . I hope u could share the prices . Salamat po 🙂 godbless.

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