Malaysia is one of those incredible countries where there seems to be a limitless amount of things to do and see, and a perfect example of this is Kota Kinabalu. The city—which many people refer to as KK—is the capital of the state of Sabah in eastern Borneo, and has the enviable geography of lying on the warm South China sea. Despite being home to less than a million people, KK is one of the main industrial and commercial centres in Malaysia. While that draws the business crowd, Kota Kinabalu is also a favourite spot for tourists who want a jumping-off point to explore the stunning nature that surrounds the city.
Being right on the water, fishing is a big industry in KK. To check out the action first hand, head down to the waterfront where you can see all the fishing boats tied up or coming in from a big catch. And just in case you forgot what’s under the water, there are fish-themed statues sprinkled throughout the city.
While it’s easy to pass a day eating delicious Malay-Chinese cuisine at the food stalls, drinking fresh coconut water, shopping or chatting up the friendly locals, there is also lots to explore outside the city. A popular pastime is to brave nearby Mount Kinabalu, a trek that takes about two days to complete. While it can be a tough haul, watching the sun rise from the peak is worth it—unless you have to run back down early to avoid suffering frost bite!
One of my absolute favourite experiences in all of Malaysia was heading to gorgeous Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. A 20 minute speedboat ride from Kota Kinabalu, it’s made up five spectacular islands featuring white sand beaches, swaying palm trees and crystal clear turquoise water. Our first stop was Pulau Sapi, which is one of the most developed out of the bunch and includes restaurants, bathroom facilities and a diving centre. After paying a conservation fee of about $3 (less if you happen to hold a Malaysian passport) and renting snorkel gear, we threw our beach bags down into the sand and dove into the sea.
We were in awe at the sheer amount of tropical fish everywhere we looked, including water snakes and friendly clownfish—aka little Nemos! We got a kick out of the fact that they kept trying to nibble on our toes, and seemed to be looking for playmates. Truth be told, the snorkeling equipment was completely unnecessary, as you only had to wade about one foot into the water to catch a glimpse of the vibrant underwater life. Just don’t forget your underwater camera!
Finally, head back into the city to check out one of the city’s most famous landmarks: the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. Surrounded by a lagoon, it is fittingly nicknamed ‘The Floating Mosque’ and can hold up to 12,000 worshipers at a time. Visitors are drawn to its vibrant blue roof, and are welcome to explore the sprawling complex any day except for Fridays. Admission is free.
Language: Malay and Mandarin
Currency: The Ringgit (MYR)
How to get there: The beautiful Kota Kinabalu International Airport has both domestic and international flights, linking travellers to other Malaysian cities like Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, as well as Asian hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong and Manila. There are also flights to nearby Brunei.
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