Often referred to as KK, Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of the state of Sabah and also the capital to West Coast Sabah Division. It is geographically positioned in the northwest coast of Borneo island and faces the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park in the South China Sea, with Mount Kinabalu as its backdrop. Kota Kinabalu is known to be a beautiful nature resort city that stretches miles inland and beside the coast. The Malay word for “fort” or “city” is Kota and a direct translation of the name ‘Kota Kinabalu’ into English is, therefore ‘The City of Kinabalu’ or ‘Kinabalu City’.
The locals lovingly call their city “Api Api” whereas for the rest of the world it is known as Kota Kinabalu. On the surface, Api Api is far from a pretty town. However, it doesn’t take more than a small amount of time to find its charms and as Kota Kinabalu is the gateway for most travellers’ arriving for their Malaysian Borneo adventures, the warmth and friendliness of its laid back citizens will instil the feeling that you are already well in the heart of Borneo.
Kota Kinabalu used to be known as Jesselton while under British colonial rule - which ran from the late 1800s until 1963. Sadly most of the original town was destroyed due to bombings during World War II and today there are not many pre-war historical sites left around the city.
Nowadays, Kota Kinabalu is a city of around 500,000 inhabitants and a growing resort destination due to its proximity to tropical islands, lush rain-forests and Mount Kinabalu. Like many other Malaysian towns and cities, Kota Kinabalu is a true melting pot of culture and ethnicity.
Central Kota Kinabalu, often referred to as Kota Kinabalu City Centre or simply Downtown KK is located along a narrow strip of coast overlooking Gaya Island. This is the area where the majority of hotels, travel agents, transportation and most of the action in the city is found. Large parts of the city centre lie on reclaimed land due to shortage of land in the area as it is blocked by Signal Hill (Bukit Bendera)
KOTA KINABALU WEATHER
The climate in KK is fairly uniform all-year-round with average temperatures varying between 32°C and 22°C. Rain falls quite often with occasional dry streaks. Rain starts falling in January until April, increasing in volume from May till August, reaching full intensity in September till November and only slows down again in December.
Although Sabah certainly is a year-round destination, August and September are generally considered the best months to visit Kota Kinabalu. Broadly speaking the east coast of Sabah gets wetter during October, November and December whilst areas around Kota Kinabalu, in the west, get somewhat drier.
GETTING AROUND KOTA KINABALU
The city centre is rather compact, and you can walk from one end to the other in around 30 min. Safely crossing the street can be an issue in places, but most streets are at least equipped with sidewalks.
Cars can be hired from the hire car counters in the arrivals hall in the airport. Make sure to compare the offers and negotiate the rates. Grab ride-share is available throughout the city and is very affordable and convenient.
FROM KOTA KINABALU AIRPORT
Airport Buses leave the Airport roughly at every full hour, starting at 08:00 and the last bus leaves the airport at 20:30. Ticket booths for the bus service are easily visible once you leave the arrival area.
From Terminal Wawasan, you can take Minibus No. 17, Kota Kinabalu-Putatan City Bus into the city centre for RM1.00.
Taxi's are hired by buying a ticket from the window on the Arrivals level, then presenting the ticket to the driver. From midnight (but usually already as soon as 11.45 pm) until 6 am there is a 50% surcharge, which will result in outrageous fares of 45 RM for the journey to downtown which barely takes ten minutes.
Grab operates from the Arrival Area at the Domestic Terminal (Sabah arrivals), next to Starbucks and should be around RM15 to downtown.
KOTA KINABALU FESTIVALS AND EVENTS
Kota Kinabalu City International Marathon is an annual event held around March or April.
Sabah Fest, organized by Sabah Tourism Board from 5 May to 7 May.
Harvest Festival, a festival typically held during the end of May every year, celebrating the harvesting of paddy by the Kadazandusun people. Events include "Unduk Ngadau" beauty pageant, cultural dances, food, and plenty of drinking.
Sabah International Dragon Boat Race is a Chinese tradition which has evolved over the years into one of Sabah’s prominent sporting events.
KK Jazz Festival.
Sabah International Tattoo Convention, every October.
Christmas Celebration, an annual event organised by Kota Kinabalu City Hall at Gaya Street.
WHERE TO STAY IN KOTA KINABALU
Kota Kinabalu tourism is taking off and this means every level of accommodation has had to up their game. Many new backpackers haunt, as well as 4 and 5-star establishments, have popped up lately, with some older places (having undergone some much-needed renovations), means that several good choices are now available. The area surrounding Gaya Street / Australia Place remains the main backpacker haunt, but a handful of new hostels and budget hotels in the Banderran Berjaya area are giving them a run for their money. Around this area, you will also find plenty of great value, local eateries. However, the city centre of KK is rally compact and all of it is easily walkable, so it really doesn’t matter where you stay.
An important question to ask would be, “Does the room have a window?” Not only are the many windowless rooms soulless, but they are also often smelly due to the difficulty of airing them, even in the somewhat better hotels. Fancy resorts are found a bit further out of town, and over on the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
FUN FACTS ABOUT SABAH
Sabah is known as ‘Land Beneath the Wind’ as its location at 6ᵒ north of the equator is just below the tropical typhoon belt! This means it largely misses the devastating effects of typhoons that frequently hit the neighbouring Philippines.
Sabah is truly a diverse state and home to 32 different indigenous ethnic groups which together make up the 3 million inhabitants.
The name Sabah is actually taken from the abundance of the Pisang Sabaa tree on the west coast, where “pisang” means “banana” in Malay, Indonesian, and interestingly enough Afrikaans (whereto it migrated with enslaved Javanese transported by the Dutch East India Company to Cape Town during the 18th century).
When approaching a stranger, it is common to use the word “boss”. So when you are approached by someone you don’t know and they say “Hey boss, do you have the time?” don’t take it as a literal gesture! It is taken as a casual and friendly term for greeting.
The Borneo Rainforest is over 130 million years old. The tallest tropical tree in the world is located in Sabah in Tawau Hills Park. It is from the species called Shorea faguetiana (Yellow Meranti) and measures an incredible 88.1 meters.
The Rafflesia is a large red flower with no leaves, roots, or stem and the biggest flower in the world, named after its founder - Sir Stamford Raffles who also founded modern Singapore.
Headhunting was common among Sabah ethnic groups and the Murut tribe was the last group to finally give up on this tradition. Collecting the heads of enemies was seen as a sign of strength and were a warning to neighbouring villages.