Sabah: sun, sea, city, food and mountains


We took the teens on a trip to beautiful Sabah, with Kota Kinabalu as our base. It’s now perhaps my new favourite place in Malaysia. Kota Kinabalu is the state capital of Sabah and just two and half hours from Kuala Lumpur by flight. The airport is only 15 minutes from the city, and the islands a short 15 minutes by boat. Perfect!

The first things that stood out for us in Sabah are the people. They are warm and generous, and everyone we met was super laid back and happy to oblige. We stayed at the Mercure Kota Kinabalu hotel. Although the breakfast buffet was not the best, it’s quite central, just opposite the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, next to Suria Sabah mall and near lots of cafes.

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We loved Little Italy, Mamasita, and October Coffee. We rented a car for the first couple of days, then went snorkeling on the fourth day. Here is what happened…

Going out and about

Renting a car from Big Momma for two days was easy. A car costs RM120 per day, but you could get some cheaper ones though if you shop around. Soon we were driving up to breathtaking Kinabalu Park, one of the first established parks in Malaysia (1964) and Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site (2000).

To do it justice you need to really stay up here for two or three days if not more – we just went for a day trip and did a few walks. It wasn’t nearly enough, as we didn’t get to see the Ranau Poring hot springs and canopy walk, which were another hour away.

Tip: if you use google maps, you may stumble across Aki Aki trail. Do not go here, as fees are exorbitant and you can get free trails at the park.

Do bring enough supplies for a trip to the mountains – sneakers, bug spray (yes there are leeches!), sunblock, hat, sunglasses, spare shoes, slippers, and warm clothes. You also may need hiking poles and to train walking down many flights of stairs if you have bad knees like me. And if you’re planning to climb the mountain, please do research – spaces are limited, and you need to book sometimes months in advance.

We stopped at the nearby Kundasang War Memorial, which was an eye opener. More than 2000 Australian and British POWs were forced by the Japanese army to march 222km from Sandakan to Kundasang in horrendous conditions during the Second World War.

Such a testament to the locals, some of which who died trying to help the POWs by sheltering and saving six emaciated and weak escapees, the only ones who survived the ordeal. The English newspapers framed at the memorial are full of interesting information.

We then headed down the mountain after eating at Restoran Panataran – very good food especially on a cold day, but our dishes took a while to arrive. We got stuck in a traffic jam coming down. Tip: don’t go out venturing during local school holidays!

The five tribes of Sabah

The next day we went to Mari Mari Cultural Village. This place is highly recommended. We had a great guide, and we got to sample lots of local food and drinks, whilst learning about the five tribes of Sabah – no cannibals here! So they say… The tour costs RM100 each, but it was definitely worth it. We had lunch and a cultural show after.

On the way home we stopped to buy a bottle of local rice wine called lihing and then visited the 1Heart maze café. The maze is very small and not worth it, if you’re paying visitor rates. Malaysians are charged RM20 each and we finished the maze in less than 8 minutes. We wouldn’t go back, unless we had maybe 10 small kids to entertain and lots of spare cash.

Amazing sunsets at Tanjung Aru beach

We then decided to check out Tanjung Aru beach, famous for the beautiful sunsets and very popular in the evenings. We went early, so there were still lots of parking spots, but by the time we left there was a long queue of cars to get in. The main area was a bit too noisy for us, with lots of clothing and food vendors – we got some cute beach pants – so we moved further down.

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There was quite a bit of rubbish on the beach and in the water, but as we moved further away it got better. We would definitely go back to that beach as once you’re in the water, the conditions were lovely. There are no steep drop offs and waves are easy.

Off to the islands

The fourth day saw us on a boat heading to the nearby Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. It is by far the best marine park we have seen so far in Malaysia. Well kept, clear sandy beaches, blue seas, some sea animals (someone saw a reef shark!), but not much coral, alas. Do bring mozzy spray – we go bitten a few times by mosquitos. Food is quite basic on the islands.

We visited just two of the islands coming from Jesselton jetty – Mamutik and Sapi. It costs RM20 per person to go one island and an additional RM5 to add an extra stop. We rented snorkels and fins from the Jesselton jetty office as well. Don’t go with individual boat owners, as you could get stuck on the islands.

For us, Mamutik was more pleasant to hang out. It is small though, so there is not much to do. They don’t have any kayaks for rent and the one we saw we couldn’t take outside the 100m buoyed area – boring! Next time we’ll bring our own SUP and explore around the island.

We can’t wait to plan our next trip to Sabah – maybe next time to Sandakan, or Kudat, and we definitely want to spend more time in Kinabalu Park. So much to see, so little time. End your holiday with a visit to Salt & Paper souvenir shop – lots of cute trinkets and ideal for pressies for Christmas. Enjoy!

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