When I told my Malaysian aunties that we were going to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, they were equal parts curious and perplexed. “But why…”, they trilled. “You’ll be bored…”, they mused. “I don’t think they have any decent malls there…”, they fretted. And then they just laughed and put it down to us being so intrepid and crazy. Well, dear aunties who have never ventured to Sabah, I’m pleased to tell you (and anyone else who cares to listen) that though we didn’t come across many malls, we certainly weren’t bored! Quite the opposite actually… we spent five action-packed days in Kota Kinabalu doing such a mix of activities and experiencing different aspects of the culture, and still… I don’t think we even scratched the surface of what Sabah has to offer!
Sabah felt different to the other parts of Malaysia I have visited; it’s much quieter, greener, and has more of a focus on nature and adventure. If hiking mountains, traipsing through jungles, and diving in the oceans in your thing then Sabah definitely has to be on your bucket list. That said, even city slickers like us fell in love with the culture of the Bornean tribes and the lush surroundings! Here are my top ten things to do for first time visitors to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah; they might just convince you to book that trip now…
1 – Visit Mari Mari Cultural Village
At this interactive village just outside of Kota Kinabalu, you will be able to get your first glimpse into tribal life in Sabah by learning about each of the five main tribes: Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus and Dusun. As we visited each tribe’s house, we learnt about their rituals and way of life – we sampled their freshly prepared food and drinks including a local rice wine, watched one of the tribesmen create fire with little more than a few sticks and a lot of skill, and even got to test out our blowdart skills. At the end we were treated to a traditional dance show and a spot of afternoon tea!
2 – Indulge in a Fresh Seafood Dinner
Kota Kinabalu is awash with seafood restaurants but one of the most popular places to get your fix is at Welcome Seafood. It’s in the heart of town, absolutely huge and always teeming with hungry and happy diners. Even with just two of us, we managed to have quite a feast of kam heong crab (stirfried in curry leaves, curry powder, garlic and chilli), butter prawns, and one of the restaurant’s specialities, Mongolian chicken!
3 – Spot Orangutan at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Founded in 1964, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre has been working tirelessly over the years to care for orphaned, injured or displaced orangutan. They provide medical treatment and help young orangutan develop basic skills such as climbing and foraging before releasing them into the surrounding forest. You will have a chance to spot these magnificent creatures at either the outdoor nursery or feeding platform, but as with any sanctuary type facility, there’s never any guarantee of seeing any – these guys just come and go as they please!
4 – Eat Kadazandusan Cuisine at D’Place Kinabalu
On the second floor of a flashy office building, you will find one of the best places to try traditional Kadazandusan cuisine. The variety, flavours and freshness of the dishes on offer was impressive and everything was utterly delicious. We loaded up our linopots (fragrant steamed rice wrapped in leaves) with everything from fried fish and curries to local ceviche and salads, before enjoying a tribal dance performance!
5 – Visit Kinabalu Park
Many travel to Sabah to conquer Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, even if you don’t intend on doing the two day hike, you should still visit Kinabalu Park for some fresh mountain air, visit the Botanic Gardens and do a couple of the day hikes.
6 – Go Island-Hopping at Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
These cluster of islands are only a twenty minute speedboat ride from the Sutera Harbour, but you will feel like you’re speeding off to another world. Day trips to Manukan Island and Sapi Island are incredibly popular and get very crowded, but if that doesn’t phase you, then these are great spots for activities such as diving, the island to island zipline, and the very unique ‘seawalking’.
7 – Try a Bowl of Tuaran Mee
Almost every part of Malaysia has a special mee (noodle) dish, and in Sabah they have their beloved Tuaran Mee. It consists of thin, springy egg noodles lightly fried with a beaten egg, and topped with various combinations of pork or seafood and choi sum! The best place to eat it is in the small town of Tuaran itself, but you can easily find it in Kota Kinabalu these days.
8 – Visit or Stay in a Traditional Rungus Longhouse
Step into the shoes of the local Rungus tribespeople and visit or even spend the night in one of their traditional longhouses, built on stilts and almost entirely out of natural materials. Once there, you can try a selection of native vegetables alongside fish or chicken dishes, help out in their daily tasks, and spend the evening getting to know the traditions of your hosts.
9 – Sink Your Teeth into Tarap
Native to Borneo, the spiky tarap might look a little dangerous but it’s actually remarkably soft on the outside and if ripe enough, you can literally rip it open to reveal the juicy flesh within. It’s got a slight pungent aroma (not as bad as durian), is soft and creamy, and tastes quite sweet. I found it quite addictive but be warned… don’t get too greedy as it’s quite a rich fruit!
10 – Venture to the Tip of Borneo
If you want to see a rugged, dramatic sight then venture out to the Tip of Borneo, the scene of many colourful tales of pirates and battles. The journey from Kota Kinabalu takes a good two to three hours, but once there you will be rewarded with stunning views of where the South China Sea and Sulu Sea collide, and beaches perfect for swimming or surfing on a fine day!
Have you been to Kota Kinabalu? What were your highlights?
We traveled as guests of the Sabah Tourism Board, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!
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