Guest Blogger: Melanie, her husband, and two kids are traveling the world from South Africa to Vietnam. Together, they’ve visited eight countries, with many more planned. Accompany them on their adventure on Instragram and YouTube.
Sabah is a Malaysian state, located in the northern portion of Borneo Island. Sabah shares a land border with the Malaysian state of Sarawak as well as Indonesia’s Kalimantan and shares maritime borders with Vietnam and the Philippines. Sabah’s earliest human settlement can be traced back 20,000-30,000 years, and its trading relationship with China dates to the 14th century. Because of its location, Sabah is notably diverse in both ethnicity, culture, and language.
My family and I already planned to be in Malaysia, so we decided that no trip to Malaysia would be complete without spending at least a few days in Sabah. Intra-Asia flights are relatively inexpensive, thus making travel so much more affordable. We flew from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, into Kuching where we relied almost entirely on public transit and the ride hailing service Grab (a car service similar to Uber) to get around. Although the rules vary depending on which passport you hold, we were granted 90-days visa-free entry to Malaysia, which was also valid for traveling to Borneo, the island on which Sabah is located.
With limited time and a limited budget, we narrowed our trip down to four primary destinations.
#1: Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah and where we chose to start our journey. Known by locals as “KK,” we loved walking from the marlin statute to the KK Central Market, which is located on the busy waterfront. The Central Market is lined with displays of the most amazing fresh seafood, which can be prepared at the onsite restaurant. My family and I were able to do this, and we highly recommend it.
The Central Market graduates into a Handicraft Market, formerly known as the Filipino Market. The Filipino Market is extremely busy and full of activity, but can be claustrophobic when extremely busy. Overall, this was a wonderful stop for us and we loved experiencing the true culture.
The KK Waterfront itself has a variety of upmarket restaurants to pick and choose from. Although not as local an experience as the Central Market, we enjoyed the lovely view from the waterfront with a sundowner.
If you are in KK on Sunday, the Gaya Street Sunday Market is not to be missed. The market closes early (13h00), so go early for the best selection of cheap buys and good food.
KK BUDGET ACCOMMODATIONS:
Hotel Tourist – great location, close to Gaya Street and within walking distance to the waterfront.
Switz Paradise Hotel – set in an old shopping mall, but clean and close to the waterfront.
We stayed at both the Hotel Tourist and the Switz Paradise Hotels. The rooms are very basic, but clean and comfortable and located in the town center (thus minimizing the need for walking and car sharing services). Our entire family shared only one room, but since we were out and about most of the time, we only needed a comfortable and clean place to sleep. I was happy to be able to book our reservations in advance online.
#2: Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is a world heritage site and the highest mountain in Malaysia with a height of 4,095 meters! We made the trip to see Mount Kinabalu by renting a car and driving about one hour from Kota Kinabalu. If you are able to spend the night, wake up EARLY to see the mountain in all her glory as the mist sets in around 10am, thus obscuring the view. The weather gets chilly at night, so pack jackets. Although a hike up the mountain is challenging and NOT suitable for kids, we were able to take advantage of the surrounding jungle around the base of the mountain, and took a morning hike on one of several trails. If you are not comfortable renting a car, there is a tour bus that will take you on a day excursion.
MOUNT KINABALU BUDGET ACCOMMODATION:
Crystal Hill: We were able to book a room with a balcony and the most amazing view of Mount Kinabalu. Our reservations were booked online in advance of our arrival and the hotel provided free WiFi and also had a serviceable restaurant. It was approximately 15 minutes driving time away from the entrance of Mount Kinabalu and the main hiking trails.
#3: Kokol Hill
From Mount Kinabalu, we did a road trip to Kokol Hill, a city set on a hilltop with the most amazing views of Kota Kinabalu and Mount Kinabalu. Kokol Hill was approximately 2.5 hours away from Mount Kinabalu by car, but it is a beautiful place to stop and enjoy the view.
KOKOL BUDGET ACCOMMODATION:
Kokol Haven Resort – We spent one night at the Kokol Haven Resort, which is set on a hilltop with the most spectacular views. They have the best pizza that we have had in the whole of Malaysia and a lovely restaurant overlooking Kota Kinabalu on one side and mountains on the other side. The hotel was very secluded, with no other shops or attractions nearby.
#4: Kinabatangan River
The Kinabatangan River is Malaysia’s longest river. There are cabins nestled in the woods amongst pygmy elephants, orangatuns, and proboscis monkeys. There are a number of attractions available – guided night walk in the forest, overnight camping in the forest with the sounds of the jungle. You can also take a river cruise during the day and see the proboscis monkeys fall from branch to branch as well as the airborne flying lizards. This is definitely a place for nature lovers and adventurers but be forewarned: no hot showers! Our kids absolutely loved the rainforest, which was very kid friendly and save – we encountered no snakes! We used the public bus system to get to Kinabatangan from Kota Kinabalu and the trip took about 7 hours. We were able to book our bus tickets online, but hotels are also very helpful in assisting with bus schedules and bookings, so ask if you have questions!
KINABATANGAN RIVER BUDGET ACCOMMODATION:
Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp – The camp offers numerous packages that you can tailor to your liking. There are several different activities to choose from and a guide can be included during your stay. The food at the camp was fantastic and our guide provided us with a lot of information about Sabah’s wildlife.
- We typically relied on public transportation, including the bus system, which is extremely organized and easy to use and can also transport you to nearby national parks. While in Kota Kinabalu, we used Grab to get to places that were not near our hotel, but did rent a car to travel to the mountains when we wanted to escape the crowds.
- For currency, we found it best to withdraw money from ATMs, which we found nearly everywhere.
- Of the Asian countries we have visited, Malaysia is the country with the best English and thus, we had no language barriers whatsoever.
We really enjoyed our stay in Sabah. We were welcomed with open arms, and we learned so much about the culture and the food. We would definitely recommend visiting Sabah with kids. There are so many more places to explore in and around Sabah, which we did not get to this time, but hopefully will another time!
We hope you enjoyed Melanie and her family’s adventures in Sabah as much as we did!
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