Kota Kinabalu

You only know Kota Kinabalu because of the mountain. After all, Kota Kinabalu was named as such because of Mt. Kota Kinabalu. Cool isn’t? But little did you know that this capital city of state of Sabah in Malaysia has a lot to offer, ranging from food to nature to places to people. And you wouldn’t want to miss anything in the list.


Kota Kinabalu is a two-hour flight from Manila. Air Asia offers cheap flights going there so watch out for seat sales. Fare could get as low as Php600, round-trip. Kota Kinabalu, formerly Jesselton, is predominantly a Muslim city. It was designated as the capital of North Borneo by the British Malayan empire whose major influence include the flow of traffic and the driver’s seat on the right. These are really major. LOL.


There are many Filipinos working and living in Kota Kinabalu. You would be surprised when the restaurant you are eating in has Filipino crew or the staff in your hotel or the driver of your Uber. You would definitely survive Kota Kinabalu when you meet Filipinos there.

BUT, these countrymen of ours are not always with you throughout your trip. Of course, you would also be needing the below life hacks to survive Kota Kinabalu, especially if you are on a budget.

Hack #1: Change your Philippine Peso in the airport

The night before the flight, I went to Mabini Street in Manila to change my money. Mabini Street has many money changers than any other street in the country. With this thinking, I thought that buying a Malaysian Ringgit there would be cheaper but I was wrong! When I was in NAIA, I saw that 1 RM is Php11.50. In Mabini, it was Php12.50.

Hack #2: Never ride a teksi (taxi)

From Kota Kinabalu International Airport, ride the RM 5 airport bus going to your hotel or book for Grab or Uber which would only cost you RM7-8. Either way, this is cheaper than riding a teksi. Drivers don’t use the meter. Instead, they will charge you RM15-20 for a ride.

Hack #3: Haggle for a hotel price

You read it right. Hotel can be haggled, too. We, Filipinos are fond of haggling for anything especially if the situation warrants it.

Months before our trip, we booked a room in a backpacker’s hotel using Agoda app. But we were cancelled by the hotel because we weren’t able to pay days before our flight. We didn’t worry the hotel cancellation that much because I read somewhere that Kota Kinabalu has a lot of hotels. And that’s true.

From the airport bus terminal in the city centre, we literally went hotel hopping just to get a good price. We were then brought by our feet in Hotel Traveller. We were able to haggle a RM80 per night room to RM78. The receptionist was friendly. The hotel has elevator which is lacking in most hotels in Kota Kinabalu. It is in the city centre. It is so near in everything – KK Waterfront, Filipino market, Centrepoint mall, night markets, seafood restaurants, laundry shops, Gaya street, 7-11 and so much more. The hotel also has a cheap but good Chinese restaurant with Filipino staff.

Hack # 4: When going island hopping, don’t book a tour

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is just near the city centre. You either walk your way to get there or book a Grab or Uber for RM4. TARP has 5 islands namely, Manukan, Mamutik, Sapi, Gaya and Sulug (which has no jetty). Choose one, two or all islands and book a ticket going there. Ferry services going to these islands are every 30 minutes.

Fare is so cheap at RM33/pax for two island hops. You just have to pay an additional RM7.63/pax in Jesselton and RM10/pax in your chosen island as an environmental fee. These fees are paid for one time even if you choose to hop 5 islands. For fees, visit this link: http://www.mysabah.com/wordpress/go-islands-around-kota-kinabalu-city/

If you want to snorkel, Manukan Island is definitely not recommended. Sapi is good, especially on the other side of the island. We didn’t go to Gaya but I heard it is good there, too.

Hack #5: Walk

Kota Kinabalu is a walkable city. It is only off when the main mode of transportation in the city is not train nor bus. Car is. The city has even parking lot in the middle of the streets, praising cars.

So, if you’re off to somewhere, open a Google Map first and decide whether to book a Grab or Uber. But it is recommended not to. Walking will always take you there. You would also get the chance to explore the city by just walking.

Also, try to follow the Heritage Walking tour stated in the free map that you could get in the airport. The Heritage Walking tour will take you to Padang Merdeka, Atkinson Tower, Gaya Street, Signal Hill Observatory, Jesselton Point, etc. Visit KK Waterfront as well at 6pm to view one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.

Hack #6: Book a tour in Kota Kinabalu

Don’t book a tour in advance, online. Just. Don’t. I won’t recommend it as they get so expensive even if you book them four or five months before your flight. Kota Kinabalu has so many travel and tours arrangers so the competition is fair enough to get a good price.

We book a tour for Padas White Water Rafting in Jesselton Point for RM200/pax only. This is RM40-50 cheaper than you see online. The Padas White Water Rafting is a recommended tour, especially if you seek for more adventure and extreme activity in Kota Kinabalu. You would also get a chance to ride a century-old train of Malaysia going to Padas. A plus right?

Contact Sunny, our tour arranger, at 010-958-7239 in Whatsapp when you get there. She was accommodating.

Hack #7: No fast food please!

Kota Kinabalu has good food. It’s everywhere. You miss eating seafood? KK has them. Want to taste authentic curry flavor? KK has more of them. What about a Chinese-style fried chicken with Nasi Goreng rice and the famous Bah Kut Teh? KK can serve them.

You just have to follow hack #5 to find good food.

Though, I would recommend eating in this restaurants as they have good food that are worth the price:

  • Old Town White Coffee – Gaya Street (walkable from Hotel Traveller). Go here when you have too much curry in your stomach.
  • Yu Kee Bah Kut Teh – Gaya Street
  • Night Food Market at Asia City – so many Filipinos here
  • New Rahmat Restoran – this is everywhere in the city. Must try is their goat curry.



While Kota Kinabalu is a good place to snorkel especially is you book a tour going to Mantanani Island or other islands not in TAR, the Philippines still has the best waters for snorkel and for anything. You wouldn’t actually appreciate TAR if you already went to Hundred Islands National Park or any other islands in the country.

All in all, Kota Kinabalu is a good place to go to especially if you still want to feel the Philippine vibe while having a taste and experience of Malaysia. Overall experience is unforgettable.

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