Kota Kinabalu: a Backpacker’s Review

In front of the hostel receptionist, my boyfriend and I found ourselves arguing whether to take the 2 package tours or wander around this foreign land on foot.

ready for some walkin'

This is our first night in Kota Kinabalu. Via Air Asia flight AK6265, we arrived at the KK airport by sundown. I had to take a leak when get to the airport. While on the flight I was desperately holding it. I tried to pee on a plane once in my life but after that, I never did it again. These lavatories make me feel as if it’s gonna suck me out off the plane and throw me out on the outer space. Holding when nature calls for it was really excruciating. I rushed to the airport’s comfort room. The first thing I noticed was their toilet bowls gouged on the floor. That’s out of the ordinary. Peeing on that unusual hole felt awfully awkward. But I had no choice.

Before leaving the airport we made sure we got KK maps with us.

We took a cab from the airport to our hostel at Jalan Dewan. Their cars are right hand drive. KK drivers? Oh.. They’re not into slow cruisin’ the streets. They want it fast and furious. It’s like KK streets have been their daily rally tracks. Cab from the aiport to Jalan Dewan costs 30RM.

The receptionist was staring at us while we were arguing. We got two package tours in mind. The Twin Island Tour (190RM per pax) where we can go to any two of the 5 Islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. On our 3rd day we can go to Mt. Kinabalu Park (170RM per pax) where we can trek the short trails of Mt. Kota Kinabalu. We checked our budget we had converted to ringgit before we left the Philippines. The combined money we had was just enough for the 2 package tours. About 100RM was left for food. Wowoo has decided not to take the package tours. Instead, we go to those places ourselves.

Manukan Island

This was the first time we were backpacking international and I was thinking maybe it’s not a good idea if we go to places our own without a tour guide. I checked the map once again and asked the receptionist how to go to those places. It seemed all were just around the area. The boyfriend won! The trip was 100% purely backpacking: no reservations, no pricey hotels, no tour guides, no package tours, just our backpacks, slippers and our new bestfriend, MAP.

Final agenda: we go touring the two islands on our 2nd day and go trekking Mt. KK on our 3rd day.

We woke up early the next day extremely excited for the adventures waiting for us on a foreign land.

Damn it was so hard to cross their streets! Vehicles back in our country are left-hand drives and when you go to a place which does it the other way, you have to forget what you got used to and start from scratch. I was in panic everytime I crossed their streets while Wowoo was making fun of me. Yeah, my boyfriend can be extremely bully sometimes!

We walked to the Jesselton Point where we could ride a boat to the islands. One island costs 17RM per head. The more islands you visit the cheaper the price. We got two islands, Mamutik and Manukan Islands for 27RM per pax. On the speed boat were Wowoo and I and a Dutch couple. I was right when I said drivers in KK want it fast and furious. That same goes with the boatmen. Man! The ride to Mamutik Island was a flash! We were on the island in 15 mins, could have been 30 mins here in the Philippines. We’ve paid 10RM per pax for the entrance fee to the island. Mamutik Island is a small white sand island, home for Borneo Divers. We just enjoyed the sun, took some pictures and asked the boatman to pick us up for the next island. Manukan Island is the most popular island in Tunku Abdhul Rahman. Most tourist were there, doing jungle trekking, sun bathing, snorkeling etc.

Jesselton Point

Our 1st day ended with  some gelato at Dream Cones, Jesselton Point. We’ve got 80% savings from the tour package that could have cost us 190RM per pax.

Early the next day, we’ve passed by a market place they call Jalan Gaya Sunday Market where you could buy pasalubongs.

We headed towards the provincial bus station. This was where we could ride a bus or mini bus (what they call a shuttle) to Mt. Kota Kinabalu Park. One way costs 15RM. The trip to Kota Kinabalu Park is almost like a trip to Baguio. You’ll see abundant lush green mountain ranges, house styles are the same as Filipino houses, even these Malaysians look like Filipinos. No distinction really! I could see we’re near the park when I saw the enormous Mt. Kota Kinabalu boasting from the mountain ranges of Borneo. The view was like a photo from those blogs I’ve read. Sadly, I wasn’t able to take a picture. Before I got my camera, the mountain was already cloaked with clouds. The bus ride took us 2 hours. We’ve paid 15RM park entrance fee. We got the map of the

Mt. Kota Kinabalu Park

mountain from the National Park Headquarters. I was envied by those mountaineers on backpacks looking so ready to conquer the mountain. Due to time constraints, we’re not able to climb the summit, we just decided to trek the shorter trails on KK park.

The tour that could have cost us 170RM had cost us only 45RM per pax. We’ve saved 125RM. That’s a total of 275RM savings for 2 days. When we got back to the city was a shopping spree. We went to Centerpoint Mall, Wisma Merdeka Mall, Suria Sabah mall and even their night markets to look for some great finds.

Indeed expensive hotels, tour guides and tour packages can give you less of a hassle but we have preferred to take risks and challenges by backpacking and travelling on foot. This is where you get to explore more, learn more, save more. It’s the ultimate slow travel, taking your time to get from one place to the next, as close to the ground and the people as you possibly can. It’s more than just sport – walking places is about proximity, intensity and experience. Rather than seeing as much as possible, it’s about going as deeply as possible as coordinated as possible. This is the best way for you to prove how independent you are on an unfamiliar land.

Here are some reviews and information that would be of help on your visit to Kota Kinabalu:

Transportation – I would suggest you take a cab from the airport to the city. But if you’re already in the city and you want to go to their malls, markets, restaurants, bars etc. I highly suggest you wander around by foot. All these establishments are in close proximity.

Food – Malaysian food can be really spicy. If you’re not into spicy foods or not too adventurous on foods, you can go to KFC in front of Hyatt Regency along Jalan Datuk Salleh Sulong. You may also go to McDonalds at the back of the Centerpoint Mall.

BB Cafe

Night Life – most of the foreign backpackers hang out at the BB Café near Jalan Gaya. It’s situated in front of the Summer Place Hostel.

Malls & Markets – If you’re in KK on a Sunday, you can go to Jalan Gaya Sunday Market. You can find good and cheap buys there. Just don’t forget to haggle. Suria Sabah Mall has just recently opened. Some shops are still closed and some areas are still being fixed. You may go to the Centerpoint Mall instead.

Sensi Backpackers Hostel

Hostel/Lodge – We’ve stayed at Sensi Backpacker’s Hostel owned by a Dutch businessman. Their receptionist, Ate Becky is a Filipina. You may book your reservations through contact number +6088272796 or send your enquiries to sensihotel@gmail.com. Their rooms cost 80RM per night. The hostel has been recently renovated from interiors to beds so it looks new, clean and safe.

Laundry Service – you may go to Laundry Mart along Jalan Kilang, just two blocks away from Sensi Backpackers Hostel. 1Kl = 10RM.

Money Changers – there’s one accredited money changer inside Wisma Merdeka Mall. just a few stores to the left from the Haji Saman entrance.

would you still smoke?

Some reminders:

  • Once you get to the KK aiport, you can get a Map near the exit. It’s free.
  • If you’re a smoker, you may want to bring extra packs with you. Their cigarette packs have gross pictures of pre-mature babies, large wounds etc. Their way of helping their people avoid smoking.
  • Credit/Debit cards are not widely used here. It’s best to bring cash with you.
  • You may have you cash converted to ringgit at Maybank once you get to the airport.
  • They have 7 eleven along Jalan Gaya and one across Wisma Merdeka in case you need something late at night. You can also go to Guardian convenience store across Sensi Backpacker’s Hostel.

Great finds I bought in KK:

momo bag I bought frm Gaya Sunday Market - 15RM
another momo bag from Gaya Sunday Market - 15RM
slippers from Familia store inside Wisma Merdeka - 7RM
vintage earings from Centerpoint Mall - 5RM
cute ladybug massage hammer from Wisma Merdeka - 7RM
fashionable rings from Daiso at Centerpoint Mall - 5RM

People are used to seeing Petronas and other skyscrapers in KL, busy streets and busy people as a picture of Malaysia. Kota Kinabalu is where you could see Malaysia in a different perspective. This is the countryside, the silent part of Malaysia where life is simpler and closer to nature.

After four days of hearing foreign, eating foreign, smelling foreign and walking foreign, we were taken by Air Asia flight AK 6264 back to Clark Airport Philippines where 2 of our friends were waiting for us for another road trip up North of the country.

And that’s another story to tell…


5 thoughts on “Kota Kinabalu: a Backpacker’s Review

  1. I love the simplicity my dear Gail! Remember how I was so excited when I first saw your facebook account filled with photos depicting your zest for life, the genuine sense of adventure and captured in a non-professional-but-could-pass-for-one manner.

    I really enjoyed your take on Kota and the hope it brings to people who can’t seem to get past having tour packages, luxurious accommodations and the whole caboodle. Brings you back down to loving the basics that we often take for granted. Keep on taking us with your trips with the power of your keyboard strokes! =)

  2. Hahaha… You’ve discovered the ciggie with the prematurely born baby picture, eh? Wait till you see the rest – the gangrened foot and the terribly damaged lung. Pretty graphic! 🙂

    1. oh no dear! i think seeing the pitiful baby is enough.. =) did that really help in discouraging Malay people to smoke?

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