Malaysia Part 3: Kota Kinabalu

The City of Shopping Centers

From the rainforest and its reservations around Kuching we headed to the concrete jungle of Kota Kinabalu by plane. Kota Kinabalu (KK) is the capital city of the Sabah state and is completely different from what we’d experienced in Sarawak before. One big shopping center lines up to another one. If it’s not a mall, it’s a tower block, a tall hotel building, or just the hot, stifling air that tries to breathe between the concrete. We didn’t find a charming hostel or airbnb nearby, so we had to stay in one of the hotels that fitted the rest of the city’s grey look. Our first steps on the asphalt and the overwhelming heat made us missing the lush green nature.

"Pepper Chicken" at Liew Chai Vegetarian, Kota Kinabalu

We made our way to the vegetarian restaurant “Liew Chai Vegetarian”, which unsurprisingly was located in a shopping center, and ordered black pepper “Chicken” with rice. It was the only appetising meal pictured without fake seafood (we’re always sceptic about that), and loved it, despite the fact that we were sitting on plastic chairs under neon light in a mall’s basement.  

Kota Kinabalu Night Market

The harbor of Kota Kinabalu

The local fruit market at the waterfront is a vegan’s paradise. Mango, papaya, and watermelons are stacked up high, competing against pineapples, bananas, ginger, and various leafy greens. You can see the piles of fresh fruit and vegetables already from far away and in the evening, the place gets really crowded. Unfortunately, the stalls behind the fruit market belonged to the Night Seafood Market and even though they both were clearly separated, the smoke and smell of dead fish knew no boundaries.

Kota Kinabalu Night Market

We took our time strolling past the hills of exotic fruit and ended up with half a watermelon (still insanely huge, 10 MYR), a papaya (3 MYR) and two mangos (10 MYR). Our breakfast was guaranteed, although the sappy watermelon did not survive the evening. There’s also an abundance of coconuts in all sizes, all going for the same price (5 MYR). As greedy as we are, we took the two biggest ones. 

Kinabalu National Park

While planning our itinerary, we thought about visiting the Kinabalu National Park. We have to admit, climbing Mount Kinabalu seemed an awesome idea, yet off the table, as tickets are not only limited, but also very, very expensive. In addition, the surrounding National Park offers a few trails that did not seem to be too spectacular compared to Bako, Kinabatangan or any of the other National Parks we did not cover, like the Gunung Mulu, Danum Valley or Deramakot. We even dare to go as far and call the Poring Hot Springs a bland tourist trap. Now that the Kinabalu National Park was out of the question, we decided to do some island hopping instead. After all, the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park with its 5 islands lies only a few kilometres from the city’s shore and promised a great escape from the concrete jungle.

Breakfast at the "Vege Garden"

Before we hopped on a boat, we grabbed breakfast at the Vege Garden, which was, you guessed it, also situated in a mall. Only was it this time harder to find (2. Level of Wisma Merdeka, from the stairs head right). It opened at 8h30 am with a small buffet and the friendly owner’s question: “are you vegetarian or vegan?”. He then put the eggs aside and we piled up noodles, vegetables and fried tofu on our plates for 9 MYR (1,80€). We also took the opportunity to fill our snack box with a meal we could enjoy on one of the islands.

Our breakfast at the "Vege Garden"

"Island-Hopping" (Sapi & Manukan) - Kota Kinabalu

Arriving at Jesselton Point, we immediately got approached by a ticket seller who tried to convince us that we had to wait 45 minutes for the next boat if we wouldn’t quickly get on his one. Sceptical as always, we thankfully declined and entered the big hall. Inside were about ten different ticket offices, all with a long waiting line in front of them. Our man had followed us stubbornly and given that the office with the shortest line was his, we bought our tickets (41 MYR) and were sent to the dock. About twenty minutes later (so much forquickly getting on the boat”), we could finally get on board. With a few other passengers we rushed over the water to the very first island, Sapi. Once on land, we had to pay the entrance fee for the National Park. The price depends on the number of islands you want to visit, for our two hop offs it was 20MYR. 

Sapi Island

On Sapi, there’s a hiking trail that leads in a loop around the whole island. We headed to the right after leaving the dock, past the board with the map and the rest rooms, along the small beach. That’s where we stumbled upon two Monitor Lizards, chilling next to the path. You can encounter them in the water as well if you go for a swim and even though they’re usually calm, you should always stay at a safe distance, as they’re venomous. After a few photos taken, we left the reptiles alone and continued the path uphill. There’s also the zip line that gets you to the neighbouring Gaya Island. The trail then led us into dense, yet dry jungle. It wasn’t lush green as we were used to. Dry, brown leaves crackled underneath our feet while we made our way over the island looking out for other wildlife and some great viewpoints.

We froze in front of a black snake that was coming out from behind a tree. I gazed at its shiny and colourful pattern while I slowly tried to lift up the camera in my hand, to no avail. The serpent disappeared so quickly behind roots and leaves that we didn’t have a chance to get a single picture. Unfortunately, that was the only animal we encountered on Sapi – if you don’t count the jellyfish in the water. Jessica chose to ignore them and the sign “Jellyfish Season” we’d seen back at the dock and went for a swim. After all, the small bay we had found for ourselves looked too inviting and according to the rangers, the small white ones weren’t dangerous and easy to dodge.

After the short break we continued our hike and thus headed back to the dock where we could get immediately on the next boat. It was 12pm, so we still had two hours left to explore the second island of our choice. After ten minutes we arrived at Manukan, the largest island of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park.


Even though Manukan is the largest island, the beach wasn’t as crowded as one might expect it to be. That’s why we stayed under the shade of palm trees for a brief time before Jessica went off into the clear water again. The lack of a jellyfish plague made it much more enjoyable this time.

The incredible heat forced us to stay in the shadow instead of exploring the trail of Manukan. Still, we appreciated the silence of the island, far away from the noisy city we didn’t dare to think of.

So after two hours a boat brought us back to the “Jesselton Point”, from where we went again to the “Liew Chai Vegetarian” and made plans for the evening.

Wetland Park Kota Kinabalu, the City Mosque & "Grab" as cheap transportation

As we still had lots of time before sunset, we decided to take a look at the “Wetland Park” hidden in the middle of KK. It was supposed to be a great spot for birding and a superb walk through a mangrove forest. To get there, we tried for the first time the Grab app, the Uber version of Southeast Asia. It turned out to be a great and cheap way to get around, why didn’t we do it earlier? The ride to the Park took us about 10 minutes from the city center to the entrance and cost 7 MYR.

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Park

Just as we arrived, the darkened sky showed no mercy. Even though it looked like the heavy rain wasn’t about to end, we paid the entrance fee of 15 MYR and headed out, equipped with umbrellas and mosquito repellant. The staff was kind enough to give us two umbrellas, else we would have been drenched completely, even with our faithful rain jackets. A stilted wooden path lead over the immense mangrove roots that made us forget we were still in a city and not out there in the complete wilderness. The downpour aside, the park deserved to be called “wetlands”.

We passed several times under roofs that gave us the chance to free the camera out of our bags without risk. After fifteen minutes we reached a large hide under which we found shelter with two other people. The cabin overlooked a broad clearing that must be vibrant with wildlife under other conditions. Even in the rain we observed herons for a while until a Monitor Lizard stealthily swam in front of us to hide between the brown and grey roots. Far away in the distance, Jessica had spotted a King Fisher that soon got company by another one. This place was special, so we lingered there for a while until it almost got dark.

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque during sunset

For sunset we wanted to be at the biggest mosque of KK, the “City Mosque” or “Masjid Bandaraya”. With a calm water surface next to the structure, we were bound to shoot some cool architecture photography with splendid reflections. We grabbed another “Grab” and made it to the place just before the sun disappeared behind the horizon. To get next to the railing and actually see the reflections, one has to pay an entrance fee of 10 MYR. A bit annoyed, I handed the money over to the guard. Jessica crossed the street instead and enjoyed the sunset in front of a large lake.

After dark we needed to get a small snack and found a coconut at the Night Market as well as a quite expensive curry at Gaya Vegetarian. On the way to the restaurant we made sure to get a few supplies like oats, cereal bars, soy milk and cookies at the nearby supermarket. As for the next days, our vegan options were a bit mysterious. We were going to spent a night in Sepilok and two nights at the Kinabatangan River, in the middle of the jungle. At least we were now prepared for the worst case scenario. 

How that worked out? You can find that out in the next blog post.


Malaysia Travel Log

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