Borneo. The name alone conjures images of exotic, unknown experiences steeped in adventure and environmental wonder. A land of wild orangutans and oversized rafflesia flowers, the capital city of Kota Kinabalu is the perfect (and most practical) place to start your Borneo adventure. Here’s a quick guide to kick off your first three days in Malaysia’s most mystical destination.
Day 1: Get lost in the Kota Kinabalu markets
Although it can be a heavily industrialized city in many parts, the most vibrant aspect of Kota Kinabalu is undoubtedly the amount of colorful and exotic markets which lay scattered about town. Plan on starting your day by wandering down to the Central Market, a non-descript looking warehouse where you can find anything from ripe red rambutans to caged snakes ready for boiling. Located next door is the Filipino handicraft market which slings inexpensive souvenirs ranging from bamboo handiwork to pearls of questionable authenticity.
If you need a break from all of the haggling the KK waterfront is an excellent place to go shopping for a drink, and seeing as the city faces due west the sunsets afforded from the oceanfront bars are some of the best in all of Sabah. If you still haven’t found exactly what you’re looking for head over to the Kota Kinabalu night market, a frenetic maelstrom of knockoff wares that encapsulates the authentic flare of a true Southeast Asian market.
Day 2: Take a cultural or eco-tour
Most visitors travel to Borneo for the environmental and cultural diversity, and just because you’re in the city center doesn’t mean you can’t take part in the indigenous or ecological attractions. Early risers can start their day at dawn for the best chance of seeing an exotic purple heron at the Kota Kinabalu Bird Sanctuary, or, those looking to sleep in are better off taking a speedboat from the waterfront to the offshore islands which comprise Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Diving and snorkeling opportunities are available for those wanting to experience the tropical marine life, or, for a more relaxing afternoon, while the day away strolling the length of multiple white sand beaches.
Combine your eco-adventure day with a cultural tour of either the Mari Mari cultural village or with a visit to the Heritage Village located in the state museum complex. At both locations it’s possible to get a feel for indigenous Borneo ways of life, although the Mari Mari village offers visitors a more hands on experience.
Day 3: Explore Kinabalu National Park
Located about a two hour drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu, Kinabalu National Park is the most widely visited attraction in the Sabah area and home to towering Mt. Kinabalu, the park’s 4095m namesake. Although climbing to the summit of Kinabalu requires an overnight stay on the mountain (and early reservations), day trippers from the city can still amble amongst lowland trails which are surrounded by over 5,500 plant species and over 100 species of mammal.
While the cooler air of the uplands can be a welcome respite from the tropical heat, those who need to warm up again can pay a quick visit to the Poring Hot Springs located 30 minutes from the Park Headquarters.