Not many tourist cities have sprawling mountains, open calm seas and plentiful surrounding islands clubbed together in one location. Add low accommodation costs, cheap seafood, great shopping options, an airport to its own and you have a ‘complete’ holiday tourist destination in Kota Kinabalu (KK), Malaysia. But for an absence of any prominent culture, arts and architecture in this small seaside town, KK would have been a ‘perfect holiday destination’, like Bali is. I would rank it as Malaysia’s third best city to visit after Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi. I strive to keep my holiday recommendations strictly for budget-conscious families with young kids, so here are my key pointers for Kota Kinabalu.
Over my two trips, I have stayed in Hotel Sixty Three (a quaint hotel highly recommended, in fact, ranked #2 in Trip Advisor) and this time I stayed in Marina Court Resort Condominium (via Airbnb). Located at both strategic ends of KK, barely 2.5km apart, the first place is near the jetty, Signal Hill Observatory, Suria Sabah Mall and the Sunday Gaya market. The second location is on the Harbourfront and walking distance to the string of fresh seafood foodcourts. Either has its own advantages, so staying on either end of the KK town stretch is advisable. Kota Kinabalu is generally cheap, so it’s a location you can afford a luxurious stay at lower prices.
For Kota Kinabalu tours, Masenang travels was our tour partner and likely I will use them for future tours too. Their prices are unbeatable and the service is good. I had to make many changes in my tour program due to unavoidable circumstances and Mr Chin (owner firstname.lastname@example.org) managed it nicely through WhatsApp. The Kinabalu Park and Desa Cattle farm tours went exceptionally well as our driver (Rahman) took us to the important places in the vast park and saved us from trekking long distance with the kids. Many tour agents will drop tourists at the main gate of the vast park and wait, but Rahman was smarter. The airport transfers were smooth but personally, in future, I will recommend doing airport transfers through cheaper Grab taxi – and save bucks at the airport to city travel time is barely 15mins.
Day 1: Two Island Tour (D.I.Y.)
The Sapi and Manukan island tours can be done by own without the need to go for a tour. Walk up to the Jetty and there are several counters selling cheap tickets for ferry rides to the islands. The islands have cafes for lunch, the beaches are clean, the views spectacular, the sea still – all in all they combine to provide a nice relaxing day. However, the snorkelling options they advertise aren’t great. It’s a basic snorkelling spot where you just need simple underwater glasses to see the fishes around you near the beach. This isn’t deep sea snorkelling. It’s snorkelling for ones who have never done it. The islands are best for enjoying the crystal clear waters, relax and trek around the islands. That should be the Day 1 program. Per head won’t be more than 15$ USD spend per person including ferry costs, cafe lunch and an odd drink. For people seeking real quality snorkelling experience on the cheap, I strongly recommend Palawan Islands, Philippines – the world’s second-best islands.
Day 2: Explore Kota Kinabalu (D.I.Y.)
Laze in the morning (to relax from previous day’s stress) and later walk up to explore the Filipina market (or if it’s a Sunday, then go to the Sunday Gaya market). Lots of cheap fruits, vegetables, trinkets and souvenir options to shop. Have lunch at Chilli Vanilla or at El Centro restaurant. Post lunch, say 5pm, trek up to Signal Hill observatory (2km distance) and watch the sunset. On return, have an early dinner at Gusto Food and Wine restaurant on the Harbourfront. Hit the bed early.
Day 3: Kinabalu Park, Desa Cow Farm and Poring Canopy walk (Use tour Masenang travels)
Book the private tour so that you don’t waste time picking other passengers as in group tours. Start at 6am, so that you will reach Kinabalu Park by 8:30am. Explore the wilderness, pick few trek options (as per map below), play with the Borneo squirrel rats and move to Desa Cattle Farm by 12pm. The treks are fun, moderately steep and filled with greenery. So water bottles, wet tissues and sports shoes are recommended.
At 12 pm you are at the Desa cattle farm. Here, the location is the best part – feels like a New Zealand within Malaysia! Feeding the cattle there is the second best activity there and kids love it. Finally, have one sample each of the food products – Desa Ice cream, Desa Pudding and Desa frozen yoghurt. One cup each is enough for the family to share. The pudding is the best of the lot. Leave Desa Cattle Farm in 45 mins and reach Poring Canopy Walk by 1:30pm. Have lunch there and then do the 800m trek to the canopy walk which is a must do. The poring hot springs aren’t great, so recommend to avoid.
You should be done by 4pm and can reach back your hotel by 630-7pm. All in all, this would be an adventurous day with memories plentiful. Total damage – the car will charge close to 100 USD including entrance tickets and water. At Desa Cattle farm your total expense including feeding cattle and sampling their products will be maximum 5 USD total! The lunch at Poring another 25 USD total! Total expense for a family of four 130 USD = 170 SGD = 8500 INR – a bargain considering it’s a private customised tour covering some of the best spots of Kota Kinabalu at your luxury.
Eats: Top 10 Best places to eat at Kota Kinabalu
Being a Budget location and a Muslim country (both are great indicators for heavenly food), I did a food tour of this city and listing below for you the best ten must go places to eat. Halal food is guaranteed and most of the places I listed below have some vegetarian options too. All in all, do note this is a seafood haven place.
1. Welcome Seafood Restaurant
Cheap and Seafood are words that never go together. Our sole intention of revisiting KK came down to just cheap fresh seafood. Do note Welcome Seafood closes by 10pm so early dinner is recommended. The Chilli scallops was the outstanding dish. A seafood meal for four will come to about 40 USD = 53 SGD. at Singapore, the same meal will cost four times the price.
2. Chilli Vanilla (Hungarian & Middle East)
A Hungarian speciality restaurant in the middle of KK would be a unique find. Chilli Vanilla has excellent staff service and their Moroccan chicken kebab is an outstanding dish. Most other dishes including the Hungarian chicken curry and stews are great eats. Meal for four including light drinks would not cost more than 20 USD = 27 SGD.
3. Suang Tain Seafood Restaurant (Part of the Sedco complex Seafood court)
Suang Tain Seafood was the first restaurant we dined at and it provided a great start. I experimented with their ‘Special Coconut pudding’ and soon realised its a KK speciality, must have and I ended up eating it as a dessert at every seafood restaurant we dined. The other must-have dish at KK every night is the fried butter prawns. Each of the seafood restaurants serves it priced roughly at 6 USD = 8 SGD per plate and that’s every ounce worth it.
4. El Centro (Mexican)
By now you would have realised that Kota Kinabalu doesn’t really score high on local food. The locals eat cheap so local food is restricted to food courts and open-air street stalls – something I wouldn’t readily recommend to tourists. Plus the fact that it’s a cheap destination assures that you can get a (normally high priced) European or Seafood meal on the cheap. So why not take advantage? El Centro is a quality Mexican restaurant. Each of their dishes was good, the drinks are cheap and their Turkish pizza was outstanding.
5. Hua Hing Seafood Restaurant (Part of the Sedco complex Seafood court)
Fresh Fish, Crab, vegetables .. spicy flavours .. and in cheap food court locations. Honestly, the Sedco complex Seafood court is one of it’s kind in the world and across our travels nowhere could we find such a concept. It’s a must visit place at KK. Use each of your evenings to eat at a different outlet. Malaysian service isn’t great, so do exercise patience. The food quality and prices more than makeup for everything.
6. Cow Dung Tart cafe
Cow Dung Tart cafe attracted me more for its name but true to it, the products are extremely unique and worth your visit. Kids loved it. The outstanding dish is the peanut waffle!
7. Suria Sabah Mall Food Court
I needed to dig out a local food place and that too the cheapest. Suria Sabah Mall food court is an excellent place to eat. With views of the sea, I was left wondering if it’s the cheapest food court in the world with a sea view!!! Our order ranged from Japanese Katsu curry to Seafood fried rice to Thai Tom Yum Soup to Malay shrimp curry. Meal for four barely costs 10 USD = 14 SGD and each of the dishes was rich in flavour and excellent to eat. Must visit place unless if you don’t like the sight of food courts. If not for the cheap seafood restaurants available at KK, this food court would have ranked much higher.
8. Mad Ben Cafe
9. Sri Latha Curry House (Indian food)
10. Gusto Food & Wine (For Harbourfront dining by the sunset)
Hope this blog helps you plan a trip to Kota Kinabalu. There are enough cheap priced budget flights from Singapore. This is a destination worth clubbing along with Kuala Lumpur or do the ‘best of Malaysia’ complete trio – adding in Langkawi. Malaysia often gives visa for 1 year, so advised to use that visa to the limit! Malaysia is a fascinating destination for luxurious stays at cheap rates, basic attractions, lots of nature and above all, gastronomical explorations.