Borneo 2016, Part 1: Kota Kinabalu

I love short escapes from the mundane life. It just relaxes my mind and free myself from stress for a while. It was another eid holiday season this September, so it was meant for me to go out again for a long weekend. On the earlier part of the year, I booked a cheap flight from Manila to Kota Kinabalu, knowing that tentatively, the work-free day would fall on a Monday, September 12, as listed by some of the sources I checked online. Good news, the holiday was announced to be on that date.

Gaya Island, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

Kota Kinabalu, the city where I would land, is the capital of East Malaysia’s Sabah in the island of Borneo, the third largest non-continental island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. This island offers a lot of natural sights and is famous for its diverse wildlife, white sand beaches, excellent diving spots, and huge national parks. Borneo is shared by three countries: Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), Brunei, and Indonesia (Kalimantan). Kota Kinabalu is the main gateway to East Malaysia that’s why it is the second busiest airport in the country. The main sight I was planning to visit there is the well-known Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a group of five islands some kilometers away from the city.

I planned to have a four-day vacation there. This would be my itinerary, supposedly:

  • September 10, Day 1: Arrival in Kota Kinabalu, Island Hopping, Camping at Night in Sapi Island
  • September 11, Day 2: Back to the City; Kota Kinabalu Tour
  • September 12, Day 3: Land Transfer to Brunei in the Morning, Arrival in the Afternoon
  • September 13, Day 4: Bandar Seri Begawan Day Tour; Departure for Manila

But because there was a bad weather on the first day, there were some minor changes in my schedule. So here’s my timeline:

September 9, Manila: After work, I went home and reviewed my things, then traveled to NAIA Terminal 3 for my flight. I was on the check-in counters at 9:30PM. Immigration checks and boarding was fast because there were few people on the airport at that time. The plane left Manila at 11:30PM.

Manila at Night

September 10, Kota Kinabalu City Centre: The plane arrived in KKIA at 1:30AM. I stayed there for the whole night, and slept until morning to wait for the airport bus to city centre which is the cheapest way available. I also changed some of my money at Maybank before leaving. Ticket to Kota Kinabalu costs RM5, the first bus leaves at 8AM and the final destination is in Padang Merdeka.

On the Road

After alighting from the bus, I walked directly to Jesselton Point where I would book the island tours. My original plan was to do island hopping at two or three islands, and camp at night in Sapi island, my last stop. But the weather did not permit me. The moment I arrived at Jesselton Point, the clouds became darker and it started to rain hard. It was frequently raining that time, said by a staff. The boat transfers were cancelled before noon, so there was no other choice but to do the activity the next day, and camping would not be possible anymore as I would be leaving KK in the morning of the third day. I instead did the city tour which was supposed to be done on the second day.

The Blue Marlin Statue with the Dark Sky on the Background

I walked back from Jesselton Point to Suria Sabah, a nearby mall where I bought an umbrella and had my lunch. Finished my meal, I decided to check in at Borneo Global Backpackers hostel first before going around. I visited the State Mosque and Sabah Museum (RM15) being near to the hostel.

After a short stop, I went to the city centre and saw the Atkinson Clock Tower, and climbed up to Signal Hill Observatory Tower to witness the city below with the islands at the background. I descended after sunset and had a snack at Fook Yuen Cafe and Bakery. After strolling around the malls and markets of Kota Kinabalu at night, I went home and took a rest.

September 10, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park: I woke up at 6AM, and prepared my things. I arrived in Jesselton Point at exactly 8AM. This time, thankfully, I was able to immediately get an island hopping tour which would leave at 8:30AM. I chose Sapi and Manukan Island, and instead of camping, I booked for a parasailing activity. Island hopping tour costs RM30 for two islands, including the terminal fee; RM10 each for rental of snorkel, life jacket, and beach mat; RM100 for parasailing, and; RM10 for conservation fee upon arrival on the first island. There are a lot of tour operators lined up inside so no worries on not finding a good deal.

Tour Operators inside Jesselton Point

We left the jetty at 8:30AM and head to the first destination, Sapi Island. It was a 20-minute ride, and on the way I was able to see Gaya Island’s informal settlers with their stilt houses on the right side. It was known to be a dangerous place so tourists are discouraged to visit that area. On the left side are Manukan, Mamutik, and Sulug Island. The view on the arrival was already spectacular as I was able to see fishes on the shallow water and the vicinity is so picturesque. I paid the conservation fee at the reception area and immediately laid my beach mat on the shore and changed clothes.

Twenty minutes later, we were called to prepare for parasailing. I went to the boat with a Sabahan couple, Kent and Jacquelyn. We headed to the back of Sapi Island and I gave them the privilege to be the first one to try. For about fifteen minutes of a wonderful flight, it was my turn. As my parachute flies, I took a lot of pictures and videos while enjoying the sight of the surrounding sea. I also handed my other camera to the staff on the boat to take pictures of me too. The view above is breathtaking! I can feel the wind on my feet and as I look around, I was able to point out the islands and recognize them. I didn’t feel any worries even though I have a fear of heights. I surely forgot that I have one.

After the fun activity we went back to Sapi Island to enjoy the beach. I laid again my beach mat, left my things, and head to the waters. There are corals nearby and the fishes are present, welcoming the guest swimmers and tourists. There is a part on the back side of the beach where the water is clearer and when it’s low tide, people can even swim to the nearby Gaya Island. One can also see on that spot the longest island-to-island zipline between Sapi and Gaya.

At noon, it was time to move to the next one, Manukan Island. It was another fifteen-minute ride. I continued to enjoy the beach life and searched for a good spot to lay my mat. Among the facilities, I saw a store that offers lockers so I tried to rent one for RM10 and put my important things such as my passport and gadgets.

I stayed on a nearby area. I wandered around the beach and sadly, some parts are dirty. But as always, I found a good spot, at the eastern side of the island. The waters are clean too but there are less fishes compared to what I saw in Sapi Island. I could see the structures of the city on the other side as well. By 3 o’clock I took a shower, changed clothes, and appreciated my remaining time on the paradise.

We went back to Jesselton Point at four, and by that time I felt satisfied to cross the marine park on my itinerary. I walked to Suria Sabah and bought souvenirs for the trip, and had my snack and dinner at the same place. By that time, I still can’t get over my adventure while I browse the photos I made during the day. At around eight in the evening I went back to the hostel so I can sleep early and rest for tomorrow’s trip.

Last Glimpse of the Island

So that ends the first part of my journey in Borneo. I will share my trip to Brunei on the next post. I hope you enjoyed my stories and photos!

I had a great day, Kota Kinabalu!

10 thoughts on “Borneo 2016, Part 1: Kota Kinabalu

  1. Hi John,

    How did u manage with the currency exchange between KK and Brunei?
    A friend and I are leaving in a week for 8 days but arriving at and leaving from KK.
    Any recommendations re: accommodations/(cheap) island and nature tours?
    What about women’s swimsuit etiquette?
    Also, we are on a budget so any tip would help.

    Renee (I’m not a guy, btw)

    Liked by 1 person

    • In KK, I changed my money to MYR at the airport, and upon arrival in Brunei, I changed my money into BND at the market. It was just a walking distance from the bus terminal.

      Island tours in KK are found at Jesselton Point. A lot of tour companies are offering with almost the same rate. You have many choices of islands in the national park but I think, visiting 2-3 is the most recommended for a day tour. What I found the most exciting is the parasailing experience for only 100myr. I don’t know any nature tour at Bandar in Brunei but I remember there is one tour you can do at Ulu Temburong National Park.

      Swimsuit etiquette.. I don’t remember any strict rule about this. You can wear anything except nothing lol

      My tip I can give is you try to learn to ride the minibus in KK and Brunei as it is the cheapest mode of transportation. Taxi rides in KK is expensive, especially if near the port. It’s easy to find cheap foods there. Dorms are typical too in KK so it’s the best way to live there. In Brunei, I couldn’t find any so I tried to search for the cheapest hotel. I’m not sure about now but during my time of visit, it was Jubilee Hotel.

      So that’s all, I hope you have a wonderful trip to Sabah!


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