Located near the northernmost point of Borneo, the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu is one of the premiere destinations the island has to offer. Beautiful, luxurious, and incredibly safe, the city plays home to some of the best things to do in Borneo. Whether it’s orangutan encounters, hiking up a mountain, or soaking up sunshine on a remote beach, Kota Kinabalu has it all.
What To Know
For such a remote island, Borneo is surprisingly easy to reach…once you get to Asia. Flights from hubs such as Guangzhou, Seoul, and Kuala Lumpur provide access to Kota Kinabalu, and as per my information at the moment of writing, the least expensive flights come in just under $800 (USD). Even though, deals can likely be found for cheaper than that if you’re willing to book as far in advance as possible. Keep in mind that low costs on the ground will help to mitigate the airfare somewhat.
Please make sure to get all necessary vaccinations, especially if you’re planning on going into the jungle itself. Additionally, bring insect repellent, even if you’re simply going to the beach. And of course, bring plenty of sunscreen!
Where To Stay
In most places, resorts may offer a pool, or perhaps easy access to the beach. Borneo’s resorts go far beyond these standard amenities, going so far as to offer full-on wildlife encounters. One of the best places to encounter orangutans in Kota is also one of the best places to stay: the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort and Spa. While the resort has its own private beach, the real draw here is the Rasa Ria Nature Reserve that surrounds the entire resort.
Run in conjunction with the local state government, the Reserve works as a rehabilitation area for rescued endangered animals. Eventually, most animals (and orangutans in particular) are moved to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre before being released back into the wild. The reserve provides great opportunities for children and adults alike to learn about orangutans and get up close to them in encounters that are safe for all involved. This is one of the few places in Kota Kinabalu (and Borneo) that you are guaranteed to see orangutans, and it’s an opportunity that should not be missed!
If you prefer to stay closer to the city and all the activities it offers, consider staying at Shangri-La Tanjung Aru. This resort not only has its own beach and pools, but offers free shuttles to visit Rasa Ria as well. While both hotels are somewhere between $150-$300 a night, the convenience each resort offers is worth the price tag.
(Note: Non-guests can visit the Nature Reserve, but numbers are limited and tickets will need to be booked several days in advance. If staying off Shangri-La property, consult your hotel to arrange a visit.)
Once you get away from the resorts, Kota Kinabalu takes on an entirely different personality. This is where you get to really dig into the culture of the area, which takes cues from local and Malaysian heritage as well as the surrounding natural landscape.
A very popular pastime with tourists here is to climb Mt. Kinabalu. Take note: the mountain is a two day hike along nontechnical trails that can nevertheless prove challenging at times. Rest assured that the views along the way are gorgeous and well worth the time and effort. Be sure to bring plenty of water, and don’t forget the layers you’ll need for the higher altitudes.
Highlights at lower elevations include a cruise along the Kilas River to view monkeys, mangroves, and evening fireflies, as well as snorkeling off of Tanjung Aru beach or in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. After having your fill of adventure, there’s no better way to end the day than kicking back on the beach and watching the sun fade into the horizon.
Header photo by Wallula on Pixabay