Kota Kinabalu

City centre overlooking the sea.

The capital of the state of Sabah located on the island of Borneo, this Malaysian city is a growing resort destination due to its proximity to tropical islands, lush rain forest and Mount Kinabalu. Constantly referred to as KK, it is located on the west coast of Sabah within the West Coast Division. KK is one of the smallest districts in Sabah but has the largest population and is the largest city in the state.

KK lies by the coast overlooking the South China Sea on a narrow flatland and occasional hills bordered by the Crocker Range which hosts Mount Kinabalu. Hence the urban sprawl is concentrated along the coast towards the north and south of the city.

Understand

Kota Kinabalu is a growing city of around 500,000 inhabitants. Recent economic growth has resulted in urbanisation of the city reaching adjacent districts of Penampang and Putatan with a total population of almost 800,000. Recent growth and importance is due to being the administrative capital, a major transportation hub, growing port, manufacturing hub, growing tourism as well as being the major gateway into Sabah and East Malaysia. Kota Kinabalu was granted city status in 2000 becoming the sixth city and also currently the sixth largest urban/metropolitan area in Malaysia.

Kota Kinabalu was previously known as Jesselton while under British colonial rule from the late 1800s until 1963 when the British left and after Sabah became part of Malaysia. Most of the town was destroyed due to bombings during World War II hence there are not much pre-war historical sites around the city. Before the British arrived, the area was also known by a number of other names such as Deasoka (below the coconut tree), Singgah Mata (pleasing to the eye), Api-Api (fire!) and Gaya Bay.

The people of KK consists of Chinese, Kadazandusun, Bajau, Brunei Malays, as well as significant migrant population from Indonesia and Philippines, many of which are naturalised citizens. There are also many migrant/expat population from India and a growing number from Korea.

Central Kota Kinabalu is often referred to as Kota Kinabalu City Centre or the Central Business district (CBD) or simply Downtown KK and is located on the narrow coast overlooking Gaya Island. This is where most hotels, travel agents, transportation bases and most of the action are found. Most of the city centre lies on reclaimed land due to shortage of land in the area as it is blocked by Signal Hill (Bukit Bendera). Areas which lie within the city centre includes Kampung Air, Api-Api, Segama, Sinsuran, Bandaran Berjaya, Gaya Street, KK Port and towards south are Karamunsing, Sembulan, Tanjung Aru and Sutera Harbour.

Due to lack of land in the city centre, other important commercial areas have sprouted outside CBD. Some of these areas have been long in existence as small townships (pekan) such as Luyang, Inanam and Menggatal and in adjacent districts of Penampang (Donggongon) and Putatan while some are recently developed residential-commercial areas such as Alam Mesra, Kingfisher and 1Borneo near Menggatal; Lintas, Penampang Baru and Bundusan.

The climate in KK is characterised by uniform year-round temperature of 32°C (avg. high) and 22°C (avg. low). Rain falls quite often with occasional dry streaks. Low rainfall begins in January till April, increasing in May till August, intensifying in September till November and slows down in December. Climate summary:

Get in

By plane

Kota Kinabalu International Airport (IATA: BKI), abbreviated to KKIA, is Malaysia's second busiest airport and the main gateway to Sabah and situated around 7 km from the city centre. There are two terminals in the airport, Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. Terminal 1 serves full-service airlines such as Malaysia Airlines, Asiana Airlines, etc. while Terminal 2 serves budget airlines such as AirAsia and Cebu Pacific.

Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 are located on different sides of the runway, so it is not advisable to walk between terminals as it is quite far from each other (but if you insist, the journey might take about 50 minutes). Apparently there are no shuttle buses between the terminals and the most convenient way is by taxi which might cost around RM15-25. Terminal 1 is accessible from Jalan Kepayan near Kepayan and Terminal 2 is accessible from Jalan Mat Salleh in Tanjung Aru.

There are ATMs and a currency exchange in Terminal 1 and 2 of the airport but if you're arriving late it will almost certainly be closed and the ATMs are not always working. Make sure you've got some Malaysian ringgit before you arrive as you'll need it for the taxi or the bus. If you find yourself having just arrived and without any ringgit, you can have a taxi take you to an ATM on the way to wherever you're staying.

As of 2013, there is some (not always reliable) free Wi-Fi in the departure zone of the airport.

International

There are direct international flights from these destinations to KKIA:

Within Malaysia

Getting out from the airport

The airport is 7 km away from the city.

Shuttle bus

Leaves approximately every hour and drops passengers off at the Wawasan Centre south of downtown Kota Kinabalu. No buses depart from Terminal 2 after 7PM.

By minibus

Bus 16c stops at terminal 2 (the Low Cost Carrier Terminal), right outside the north-most entrance into the terminal where all cars drops passengers off (there is no bus sign or anything though). The bus cost RM1.50 and goes to the Kota Kinabalu bus terminal, Terminal Wawasan. The bus only goes once an hour or so and the schedule is highly irregular. The last bus leaves at about 5:30-6PM.

For terminal 1, Minibus No. 17, Kota Kinabalu-Putatan buses, will bring you to the city. Minbuses are available along the main road away from the airport and the bus stop is next to the bridge. Cost RM1.50 each way, will stop you at the south end of the City Centre, at Terminal Wawasan. It is around 1 km to the centre.

From Terminal Wawasan, you can take City Bus into the city centre for RM0.50.

By taxi

These are hired by buying a ticket from the window on the Arrivals level, then presenting ticket to the driver.

The standard rate from the airport to the city is RM30.

By foot

Walking into town from the airport is possible if you like walking and have 1-2 hr to spare. Pick up a city map in the airport terminal, and you won't have any problem finding your way. You can also stop by the Sabah State Mosque on the way.

Another option is to walk from Terminal 2 into Tanjung Aru by Plaza Tanjung Aru and look for the bus stop, here you can catch van number 16 that goes to the bus station by Plaza Wawasan, from there walk along the waterfront. Cost is RM1.

By road

All main roads in Sabah radiate out from Kota Kinabalu. The main road to the Sarawak border at Sindumin heads south from the city through the suburbs of Kepayan and Tanjung Aru and goes past Papar, Kimanis, Beaufort and Sipitang. From Sindumin, the road continues to Lawas and on to Brunei and it is possible to travel from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land. Another main road goes north to Kudat via Kota Belud. The main road to the East Coast (Sandakan and Lahad Datu) branches off from this road at Tamparuli. Another main road heading southeast leaves the suburbs of Penampang and Donggongon towards Tambunan, Keningau and Tenom. Travel by private car to KK is quite popular with visitors from around Sabah including Sandakan and Tawau, Labuan, Miri and Brunei.

By bus

There are two long-distance bus terminals.

From east and north Sabah

  • Tung Ma Express ☎ +60 198827334
  • Andisba Express ☎ +60 881 3879 7779
  • Alitopan Express ☎ +60 881 3886 2348, +60 881 9863 4797, +60 888 976 7858. Bus from Kota Kinabalu at 7AM, 8AM, 10AM, 12PM, 2PM.

From south

  • Sipitang Express Bus Sdn Bhd ☎ +60 88213722 or +60 168149332 runs one bus at 7AM daily from the City Centre bus terminal to Lawas in Sarawak. From Lawas, buses depart at 12:30PM The journey takes about 4 hr and costs RM20 one way.
  • Lawas Bus Company also operates an express bus daily to Lawas, departing Lawas at about 8AM and returning from Kota Kinabalu City Centre terminal at 1PM. Both buses go through Beaufort and Sipitang. You can also make the journey by minivans but you may have to change at Beaufort or even at Papar and Sipitang. Catch them from the minivan station opposite Wawasan Plaza. If you are continuing to Brunei, see Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land.
  • Sipitang Express Bus departs the City Centre Terminal for Beaufort (1 hr 45 min, RM9) and Sipitang (2 hr 45 min, RM14) at 8:30AM, 12PM and 2:30PM. The 7:30AM bus to Lawas also goes through Beaufort and Sipitang. From Sipitang, buses depart at 8AM, 12PM, 1:30PM (bus comes through from Lawas) and 4:30PM and 1 hr later from Beaufort.
  • Lawas Bus Company's express bus between Kota Kinabalu and Lawas. Again, you can do this do this by minivans throughout the day, although they are more frequent in the morning. You may also have to change at Papar if you cannot get a direct minivan.
  • From the City Centre terminal to Menumbok - multiple bus companies operate express buses between KK and Menumbok where there are ferries to Labuan. They depart frequently in the morning since 6AM from KK City Centre terminal next to the City town hall. From Menumbok, buses depart at 10:15AM and 3:15PM. One way tickets cost is RM18. Minivans also do the journey although you may have to change at Papar and Beaufort.

From south-west interior

Most public transport to this part of Sabah is by minibuses and vans which leave from the minibus station opposite Wawasan Plaza. Again, it's best to get started early. You should be able to catch a direct minibus from Kota Kinabalu to Keningau. Change there for Tenom.

By sea

The only regular access to Kota Kinabalu by sea is from Labuan. The ferry service takes about 3 hours and there are two services from Labuan every day: 8:30AM and 1PM. From Labuan, you can continue on to Bandar Seri Begawan in one day if you get an early start. A package ticket to Brunei costs RM56. See the Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land page for details. Ferries from Labuan docks at Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal on the northern edge of the city centre.

Kota Kinabalu is one of the port of call for many cruise ships passing through east Asia such as Queen Victoria, Queen Mary 2, Diamond Princess, MV Arcadia and SuperStar Virgo via cruise lines such as Cunard, Star Cruises, Princess Cruises and P&O Cruises. Cruise ships will usually dock at Kota Kinabalu Port north of Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal.

Get around

By foot

Central KK

The city centre is quite small, and you can walk from one end to the other in less than 30 min. Safely crossing the street can be an issue, but most streets are at least equipped with sidewalks. You can also walk to and from the airport (1-2 hr each way). Even the highways outside of town usually have a walking path or a wide grassy shoulder to walk on.

Taxi

Short fares are around RM10, longer trips around RM20. A whole day shouldn't cost more than RM300. Haggling is absolutely vital in order to get a fair price. Many taxi drivers in Malaysia are infamous for raising their fare prices, even after a price has already been determined by thorough prior negotiation. They frequently attempt to manipulate and deceive unknowing tourists by feigning ignorance and delivering tourists to the wrong hotels, which sometimes provide kickbacks to the drivers. Mentioning a call to the authorities may resolve the situation quickly.

Bus and minibus (van)

The main depot for buses and minibuses from the city center to the suburbs such as Putatan, Tanjung Aru, Kepayan, Luyang, Penampang, Likas, Inanam and Menggatal is the Wawasan Bus Terminal opposite Wawasan Plaza. All buses coming in from the suburbs can only stop in this depot to avoid congestion in the city center. Bus fare is around RM0.50 to RM2 depending on the distance.

Wawasan Bus terminal also serves as a depot for long-distance buses towards south of Kota Kinabalu. A new southbound long-distance bus terminal has been planned for construction near Terminal 1, KKIA in Kepayan. North- and east-bound long-distance buses departs from the North Bus Terminal in Inanam, 25 minutes from the city centre. There are shuttle buses between the terminals.

To travel within the city centre, the City Bus is used. The green and yellow City Bus departs from Wawasan Bus Terminal and circles the city center using 4 routes: Route 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B. City Bus fare cost RM0.50 and are quite frequent. However the conductor and driver often encourages more people to get on the bus until totally crowded before it leaves.

Self drive

Road signs in Malay

Some road signs does not have English translations. Here are some of the important ones:

  • Awas - Beware or Danger
  • Kawasan Kemalangan - Accident-prone Area
  • Kurangkan Laju - Reduce Speed
  • Beri Laluan - Give Way

Cars can easily be hired on the spot from the hire car counters in the arrivals hall in the airport. Rates can be negotiated so compare the offers. Rental companies do not offer hand-controls for the disabled. There are also many car rental companies in the city:

Road signs are prevalent throughout KK and Sabah. So driving within KK and towards other parts of Sabah is not difficult. There are however some signages which are only in Malay. Signboards in brown colour indicates recreation / places of interest. Most major roads in the city are dual carriageways however highways leading towards other towns are mainly single carriageways which might put your overtaking skills to the test especially in hilly areas. Be very careful when overtaking and no overtaking over double lines. More information on Malaysian road signs: or check out the Malay phrasebook.

Highways are sometimes marked according to their numbers. The following are some of the major highways from Kota Kinabalu:

Motorbike rental

By train

Sabah State Railway recommenced operations in February 2011 using new air-conditioned trains on a single 134 km route from Tanjung Aru south of the city centre to Tenom in the interior via Papar, Kimanis and Beaufort. Four trains operate daily except for Sunday, when there are only two trains, running between Tanjung Aru station ☎ +60 88254611 and Beaufort, where you change trains if you want to continue your journey to Tenom. Journey time between Kota Kinabalu and Beaufort is about 2 hr, making it more attractive for travellers to take the bus for part of the journey. The train stops the following places: Kota Kinabalu (Tanjung Aru), Putatan, Kinarut, Kawang, Papar, Kimanis, Bongawan, Membakut, Beaufort, Saliwangan, Halogilat, Rayoh, Pangi and Tenom.

Trains for Tenom run from Beaufort once a day at 7:45AM so to take the train to Tenom, you will have to stay over night in Beaufort. Full details on the refurbished. Train schedule are available online:

A leisure train service known as North Borneo Railway caters to tourists and uses an old steam train and designed to resemble trains in the colonial era. This is a joint venture project between Sabah State Railway and Sutera Harbour Resort. Currently trains only travel up to Papar. Tickets cost RM270 and RM170 for children and includes breakfast and lunch. Official website with information:

By boat

There are speedboat services from KK to the islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu from Jesselton Point Jetty with regular departures to Manukan, Sapi, Gaya and other islands. Cost per person is between RM17 and RM40 depending on island. There are also departures from the Sabah Parks Jetty behind Wisma Merdeka and Sutera Harbour. There are also speedboats for charter where travellers can have the flexibility of time and destination.

Talk

Like most other Malaysian cities, Kota Kinabalu is a melting pot of various cultures. Almost all locals are able to understand and speak at least basic English. There is an emerging community of educated locals who are able to converse in fluent English and, in fact, speak English as their first language. As almost 50% of Kota Kinabalu's residents are of Chinese descent, visitors who speak Chinese will not encounter any language problems. The main dialect spoken by Kota Kinabalu's Chinese community is Hakka, but Mandarin and Cantonese are also widely understood and spoken. Unlike many other Malaysian cities with substantial Chinese communities such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang, the Hokkien dialect is not in common use among Kota Kinabalu's Chinese residents. In addition to English and Chinese dialects, Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) is also widely spoken, albeit with a distinct Sabahan flavour. Some residents also speak the languages of native Sabahan races such as Kadazandusun and Bajau, but these are not commonly used in daily conversation. Additionally, a small number of the younger generation speak limited Korean and Japanese.

See

Atkinson Clock Tower
City Park, the only park within the city center.

Museums,galleries and libraries

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

Places of worship

Sabah State Mosque

Do

Scuba diving & snorkelling

Try dives, leisure diving, technical diving and snorkelling are all available from Kota Kinabalu.

Several interesting dive sites can be enjoyed as day trips from Kota Kinabalu with nearby World War II wrecks accessible for scuba diving. Some are in the 24-45 m depth range whilst other wrecks are only suitable for technical diving. Advanced and basic diver training courses are run from Kota Kinabalu by several dive centre operators.

Dive destinations

Dive operators

Pulau Manukan beach overlooking Pulau Mamutik is an ideal place for snorkelling and other beach activities.

Deep sea fishing

Kota Kinabalu is also one of the best and cheapest places in Malaysia for exciting deep sea fishing trips. Boats depart from the makeshift jetty next to the Kota Kinabalu Central Market, the boats are to be found behind the small night market/parking lot.

Trips of all kinds can be arranged with the charter operators. Popular options include day trips that go for prices that start from around RM 2,000/boat and 2D/1N or 3D/2N trips (you sleep on the boat) that go from RM 3,000/boat. Most boats take around 10 persons per trip. Locals usually head to the Mengalum and Mantanani islands or near some oil rigs that are all a few hours away from Kota Kinabalu. Beginners can also opt for shorter trips to fish in a shipwreck off Gaya Island. For the very adventurous and advanced anglers, there are also several fishing competition held annually. The most popular one is the Labuan IGFA Competition which is usually held around the Layang Layang island (Swallow Reef) area. The trips for this competition last for almost 1 week and cost at least RM 15,000/boat.

The boats are mostly pretty rudimentary medium sized wooden fishing vessels, don't expect any luxury or too much comfort for those prices. Basic toilets are available on board, but you won't be able to shower for the duration of the trip. Basic meals are also usually available and included in the hire price. Rental of fishing equipment can also be arranged by most of the boat charter providers. Do ensure that life vests are provided for all occupants well before setting out.

If you want to check out the boats before you head out, just drop by the open air parking lot near the Central Market and Hyatt Hotel, most of the for hire fishing boats are parked there. You can also see some of the catch for yourself when the boats return from their trips at around 2PM. You will probably see more boats coming and going on Sunday or Monday.

The boat is berthed in one of the most beautiful marinas in South-East Asia - Sutera Harbour Marina.

White water rafting

The nearest place for rafting would be in Kiulu River, Tamparuli, about 1 hour away (by coach and 2 open-door trains) from KK. The white water is classified Grade 1-2 which is suitable for beginners. A more adventurous rafting experience is Padas River near Tenom which is about 2-3 hours away from Kota Kinabalu. Padas is classified as Grade 3-4. There are many tour companies offering day packages for rafting in Kiulu and Padas and would normally include return transfer and meals.

Wetland river cruise

Klias River is located within the Klias Wetland Mangrove Forest Reserve which is located near Kuala Penyu district about 1.5 hours away from town. The cruise offers visitors a chance to see various wildlife including the proboscis monkey and fireflies. There are also other river safaris nearby Klias in Garama and Weston which are also interesting in their own right albeit slightly further away from KK.

Sailing and yachting

The main starting point for sailing or boating is in Sutera Harbour Marina which has 104 berths. Yacht charter is offered by North Borneo Yachting. Tel: +60 88-318888 Kinabalu Yacht Club in Tanjung Aru offer various boating activities. Tel: +60 88 240070

Parks, walks and traditional village visits

Hall of Skulls at Monsopiad Cultural Village

Sports

Likas Sports Complex is the main sporting venue in Kota Kinabalu and Sabah. The complex includes a soccer stadium and fields, hockey fields, badminton courts, tennis courts, squash courts, swimming pool, gymnasium, and many more. The complex also play host many local, regional and international sports event.

There are also many golf courses in Kota Kinabalu including the Sabah Golf and Country Club (18-hole) in Bukit Padang, Kinabalu Golf Club (11-hole) in Tanjung Aru, Sutera Harbour Golf Club (27-hole), Karambunai Golf and Country Club (18-hole) and Dalit Bay Golf and Country Club (18-hole). Driving range available in Lintas and Likas.

Festival and events

Buy

Centre Point Sabah

Eat

A 24 hours 'kedai kopi' with free WiFi.

Kota Kinablu is a cultural melting pot. Here Chinese meet Malays and Bruneis, Javanese, Filipinos and even a couple of Europeans, all of whom have brought along their own cuisine. Try out the many specialties offered at the various kedai kopi (often in buffet form making it easy to order) and shun fast food chains.

For meals, head to the outdoor food stalls fronting the sea or coffee shops along the streets. The less adventurous could make a beeline for fast food outlets in the Centrepoint shopping centre while those with deeper pockets could try the pier-side restaurants just after the open air fish market. The promenade restaurants between the Filipino Craft Market and the fish market are poor value and only frequented by tourists. Try SEDCO Square in the evening for top value.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Seafood

Seri Selera seafood foodcourt in SEDCO, Kampung Air.

Seafood in Kota Kinabalu is very popular, so getting a dose of it is a must. Here are some places to try:

Drink

Bar and cafes in KK Waterfront.

The main entertainment areas in Kota Kinabalu can be found in KK Waterfront (opposite Warisan Square) and Times Square. Other areas include Beach Street, Jalan Datuk Salleh Sulong and Tanjung Aru (First Beach). There also smaller bars concentrated in the areas of Inanam, Lintas, Donggongon and Penampang Baru. Types of drinking places popular in Kota Kinabalu are coffee shops (kedai kopi), cafes, normal bars, karaoke joints and nightclubs. Most nightclubs and some bars would have live bands performing almost everyday except Mondays. Some karaoke joints have private rooms for big groups who prefer some privacy. Some nightclubs and karaoke bars have hostesses especially for male customers in exchange for buying them 'ladies drink'. Intuition would be needed if you need to look for or avoid these establishments as they are not explicit.

Sleep

Kota Kinabalu has accommodation in all price brackets. For lodgings in and around Mount Kinabalu, see the Mount Kinabalu article. Backpacker dorm beds cost approx RM30 and their very basic private double rooms with shared bathrooms cost approx RM80. For more delux budget en-suite rooms priced RM99 to RM200, try the close together hotels Little Gaya and Eden54.

Budget

Sunday Market in Gaya Street (Chinatown). Many budget accommodations in this area.

Mid-range

89500 Penampang, Sabah, Tel: 088-766117, (Fax ) 088-768858 e-mail: enquiry@lembahimpian.com.my, http://www.lembahimpian.com.my/ offers 32 rooms and chalets with breakfast included. The resort sits in a large green garden, has a bakery house, a restaurant an pool and a bar. Rooms are large, nicely decorated. There is also a SPA and a gym. Anyway, a car to the city of Kota Kinabalu and to visit nearby attractions is necessary - contact Bernard Bauwens,very knowledgeable local touristic guide, tel: 0060138897809, e-mail: bernard.bauwens@gmail.com, http://bernard-borneo.com/home.html, who is able to organize different tours to nearby as the Monsopiad House of Skulls, to Kota Kinabalu city, but also to Mount Knabalu,and to other places in Sabah.

Splurge

Stay Safe

Kota Kinabalu is a very safe city by Malaysian standards. The crime rate is lower than in the likes of Kuala Lumpur or Johor Bahru, or any city of similar size in Peninsular Malaysia. Violent crime is especially rare, and it's generally safe to roam the streets at night, though of course it's still best to remain alert as you would in any other city.

Connect

The telephone country code for Malaysia is +60 and the area code for fixed-line telephones in Kota Kinabalu and for most districts in the west coast of Sabah (including Papar, Kota Belud, Ranau and Kudat) is 088. Mobile phone numbers normally begins with 01x throughout the country. If a telephone number is not displayed in international format, such as "088-222222" or "012-222222", simply add "+6" before the number, e.g.: "+60 88-222222" and "+60 12-222222". The zero need not be repeated.

WiFi is available in most lodgings. There are also internet cafes (aka cyber cafe) in most places.

Consulates

The following countries have set up consulates in Kota Kinabalu. For other countries, you may need to contact the respective embassy in Kuala Lumpur or nearer consulates in Sarawak. There are British and Chinese Consulate offices in Kuching and British and Dutch Consulates in Miri.

Go next

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