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Top Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu Sabah

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As an engineer, Mazlan had the opportunity to travel and work abroad. He has traveled to over 30 countries.

Travel to Kota Kinabalu

Unless you are on a business trip or lived and worked in Kota Kinabalu or KK as it is fondly known as most travelers will use KK as a base to travel to other tourist destinations. This could be a trip to Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia's highest mountain and the first World Heritage site designated by UNESCO. It could be a scuba diving adventure at Sipadan Island, rated as one of the best diving spots in the world. It could also be a trip to Tambunan, to see Rafflesia, the world's biggest flower.

Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of the state of Sabah, one of the 13 states in Malaysia. Despite its low profile compared to the many attractions in the state of Sabah, it still has some unique and interesting things to do and see.

Follow me and discover the thirteen top things to do In Kota Kinabalu. But first, where is KK?

Visiting Gaya Street market is one of the things to do in Kota Kinabalu

Visiting Gaya Street market is one of the things to do in Kota Kinabalu

Where Is Kota Kinabalu?

Kota Kinabalu is located on the west coast of Sabah, one of the two states in East Malaysia. It lies on a narrow flatland sandwiched between the Crocker Range and the South China Sea.

Flights to Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu International Airport, the second busiest airport in Malaysia, has direct international flights from Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, Manila, Taipei, Brunei, and China. The domestic flights serve several major towns in Sabah and other towns in Malaysia.

Kota Kinabalu Sabah

Local handicrafts at Gaya Street Market

Local handicrafts at Gaya Street Market

Things To Do In Kota Kinabalu Sabah

Kota Kinabalu is a compact city and is easy to explore its charms or you can take the short day trip out for the wildlife.

1. Gaya Street Sunday Market

Sunday is the day when the busy Gaya Street will be closed to traffic and transformed into an open air Sunday Street Fair. It is the place where you can find and buy almost anything and where locals will come and buy their goods. You will find seasonal local and imported fruits, fish, meat, vegetables from local farms, local handicrafts, flowers and plants, pets, toys, souvenirs, home-made local cakes and delicacies, Chinese medicine, the famous local Tenom coffee and many more.

If you do not have time to go and see your doctor, you can do it here at the mobile health clinics that offer minor medical check-ups. Some politician will take advantage of these large crowds to meet their constituents.

This is the place to practice your bargaining skills and come back home with some good buys.

Work is now under way to upgrade Gaya Street to give more spaces for shoppers, pedestrians as well as for traders. Parking bays have always been an issue and this is another area of improvement under this upgrading works.

Attractions in Kota Kinabalu

Girl selling fish at Filipino market

Girl selling fish at Filipino market

2. Filipino Market

Filipino market, also known as Handicraft Market is just across the Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens in front of Le Meridien hotel. This is a well-known stopover for most tourists who are looking for handicrafts, costume jewelry and local delicacies.

The market is divided into the handicrafts and souvenirs section, dried seafood section and fresh fruits and food section. You need a strong stomach to be in the dried seafood section. The salted fish and other dried seafood smell can be overwhelming if you are not used to it. This section is very popular especially with Peninsular Malaysian and Singaporean as the prices of these dried seafood are a lot cheaper than what they can get back home.

Another popular section is the handicrafts and souvenirs section where the ladies will be browsing and bargaining on the costume jewelry, some of which are handmade at the market itself.

Filipino Market is manned and run mostly by Filipino immigrants and you will find several varieties of Filipino handicrafts alongside local handicrafts. if you love Filipino food, you will find it here.

It is open every day from 7.30am until 7.30pm. In the evening, the market transform into a night market cum food bazaar. There are many varieties of local and Filipino delicacies but if you are not used to these foods, it is best to give it a miss.

Atkinson Clock Tower, a mother's love for his son

Atkinson Clock Tower, a mother's love for his son

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3. Atkinson Clock Tower

Before Sabah became independent and joined Malaysia, it was under the British rule. It was then called North Borneo and during the Second World War, it was occupied by the Japanese. To liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation, Allied Forces bombed and destroyed a major part of the town, which was then known as Jesselton. Only a few buildings were left intact from this assault and one of them was Atkinson Clock Tower.

A young British by the name of Francis George Atkinson was posted to faraway North Borneo to be the first District Officer of Jesselton. Unfortunately, the climate and the environment had not been so kind to him and at a young age of 28, died of malaria.

His mother, Mary Edith Atkinson built the Atkinson Clock Tower on Brace Hill in 1905, as a memorial and in memory of her son. It was originally build with the local mirabau hard wood but had been replaced over the years.

The tower was used as navigational aid by local ships up until 1956 when taller buildings had blocked its view. In 1983, Atkinson Clock Tower was gazette as a heritage building.

This tower is located close to the Kota Kinabalu main police station and fronting Jalan Dewan.

4. Kota Kinabalu City Bird Sanctuary

Not far from Menara Tun Mustapha is Kota Kinabalu City Bird Sanctuary. These 60 acres (24hectares) of natural mangrove wetlands is home to many birds including migratory birds that come to find refuge, breed and feed during winter season. Here you will not only see herons and egrets, but also crabs and prawns, which are foods to some of these birds. Best time to do bird watching is at dusk. This is when they will come back to roost for the night.

This bird sanctuary is managed by volunteers and supported by WWF Malaysia, Sabah Wildlife Department and corporate donors.

It is open on Tuesday until Sunday, from 8am until 6pm and close on Monday.

City Mosque at Likas Bay

City Mosque at Likas Bay

5. Places of Worship in KK

Malaysia is a melting pot of many races with many cultures, traditions and religions. You will find many places of worships and in Sabah, there are numerous old and new mosques, churches and temples. Below are some of the prominent places of worships.

Sabah State Mosque

Build in 1977; this State Mosque architecture was influenced by both contemporary and ancient Islamic architecture. It has a single minaret that stand at 215 feet (65.5m) and a massive golden dome surrounded by 16 smaller domes.

KK City Mosque

This was recently built in 1997 at Likas Bay and since the location is near the sea, at certain angle, it looks like a floating mosque. It is the biggest mosque in Kota Kinabalu.

St. Michael Church Penampang

Initial work started in 1936 but was delayed for several reasons. The architect had wanted to use solid rock as a major building material. This was available about 1.2 mile (2km) away but it had to be blasted, cut, shaped into 1-foot by 3-feet block and transported by buffaloes. Unfortunately, this eco-friendly and carbon free mode of transportation took ages to travel up and down the hill. World War 2 came, halted all works, and later resumed in 19477. It was finally completed two years later in 1949.

All Saints Cathedral and Sacred Heart Cathedral

All Saints Cathedral and Sacred Heart Cathedral were completed in 1959 and 1982 respectively. The latter, located at Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, is bigger with seating capacity for 800 worshippers.

Puh Toh Tze Temple

This Buddhist temple built in 1980 is located on a small hill off Jalan Tuaran, about 9.3 mile (15 km) from the city centre. It has the traditional Chinese architecture with orange roofing and mythical Chinese motifs. Ten large statues of deities including Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, stand at the main entrance of the temple.

This is the largest Buddhist temple in Kota Kinabalu and is open from 8:00am to 5.00pm daily and admission is free. There is no guided tour and visitors can explore the temple, on their own.

Peak Nam Tong Pagoda & Temple in KK

Peak Nam Tong Pagoda & Temple in KK

Peak Nam Tong Temple

This is another Buddhist temple off Penampang Road and one of only two with a pagoda. Unfortunately, this pagoda is not open to the public.

This temple may not be listed in your guidebook and is usually off the tourist usual haunt.

In the evening, temple devotees will do their daily religious rituals, which may get them into a trance. Do be careful when you visit the temple at this hour.

During Chinese New Year, there will be several performances including Lion Dance.

Stilt houses along Kota Kinabalu waterfront

Stilt houses along Kota Kinabalu waterfront

6. Stilt Houses and Villages

If you travel from the airport towards the city center, you will notice houses on stilts build along the coastline.

These stilt houses or stilt villages are typical homes for the Bajau and Suluk people. They were originally from the Sulu Archipelago in Philippines and are sometime referred to as the Sea Gypsies, for their nomadic seaborne lifestyle.

Further, away from this coastline, you find more stilt houses at Gaya Island, about 10-minutes by boat from KK. These stilt villages are home to illegal immigrants from the Philippines since the mid-19th century. This illegal Filipino settlement is also a political issue that has been debated for several years.

If you are curious and want to explore this village, there is no such organized tour. The only way to see it up close is through friends that you know well, that will accompany you to these villages.

Other Reasons Why You Must Visit Malaysia

For more interesting things to see and do in Malaysia, read these articles:

Mount Kinabalu in Sabah

Mount Kinabalu in Sabah

7. Kota Kinabalu Heritage Walk

if you are interested in Sabah's heritage, then you should take the Heritage Walk that was founded by Grace Leong.

This guided two and half hour walk around Kota Kinabalu, will take you through the various monuments and historical sites. It will start at Merdeka Field, then to Atkinson's Clock Tower, Gaya Street, Jesselton Hotel, Kota Kinabalu Municipal Council, Malaysia Monument and several other places of significance before ending the walk at Museum Kopitiam.

This Heritage Walk starts at 9:00am, ends about 11:30am and is held only on Tuesday and Thursday. On any other day except Sunday, you will have to join the participating tour operators (minimum of 4pax).

Call KK Heritage Walk in Sabah at +6012 802 8823 for more information or email them at

8. Sabah Museum

This 43.3 acre land used to house the former British Colonial Governor's Residence and later, used for the Sabah State Assembly. Subsequently the land was redeveloped and turned into Sabah Museum, which opened in 1984.

The Museum consists of Sabah Art Gallery, Heritage Village, Science and Education Centre, and Museum of Islamic Civilization.

Amongst the exhibits at Sabah Museum are traditional weapons, costumes, ceramic ware, ritual paraphernalia and local musical instruments. At the Heritage Village, there are different styles of traditional houses of the many local Sabahans, on display.

The museum is at Jalan Bukit Istana Lama, about 15 minutes from the city center. It is open daily from 9am until 5pm.

Fishing in the River inlet

Fishing in the River inlet

9. Monsopiad Cultural Village

The Monsopiad Cultural Village, named after a great Kadazan warrior Monsopiad, is a living museum displaying Sabah's largest ethnic group, the Kadazan-Dusun, on their culture and traditions.

Kadazan were originally Pagans and when the missionaries arrived in Sabah, a majority of Kadazans embraced Christianity, mainly Roman Catholic.

Here you can see staffs dressed in traditional Kadazan costumes, see traditional Kadazan dances and musical performances, the House of Skulls and see a typical Kadazan native house. A traditional Kadazan house is built using a certain type of palm tree and bamboos.

While you are there, do not forget to try their rice wine.

This cultural village, which is about 10 km south of the city center, was opened in 1996. It is managed by the direct descendants of Monsopiad.

10. Mari Mari Cultural Village

At Mari Mari Cultural Village, you will get to see the cultures and traditions of the other ethnic groups of Sabah, which are Bajau, Dusun, Murut, Lundayeh and Rungus.

Just like Monsopiad Cultural Village, at Mari Mari Cultural Village you will also see the traditional native houses, costumes, dances, rituals, musical and dance performances of these ethnic groups.

To enter this village you will be crossing a suspension bridge and will be guided through the various live demonstrations such as the traditional tattoo-making, rice wine process, bamboo cooking, cooking of traditional delicacies (which you can try) etc.

The last part of the tour will be in the long house of the headhunter tribe, the Murut. Fortunately, there is no live demonstration of their ancient skill of headhunting!

Mari Mari Cultural Village is about 25-minutes from the city centre. As no drop-ins are allowed, to visit this village, you will have to buy a package tour that will last about 3-hours, from one of the tour operators.

Heading to the island

Heading to the island

11. Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

This marine park is a group of 5 islands comprising of Pulau Sapi, Pulau Gaya, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Sulug and Pulau Mamutik. You can visit any of these islands to enjoy the white sandy beaches, clear shallow waters and beautiful corals. It is only a short speedboat ride from KK and you can spend the whole day there snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming or just lazing around sunbathing or a stroll along the beach.

To go to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, go to Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, right at the end of Jalan Haji Saman to catch the boat. Depending to which island you will be heading to, it will take about 10-20minute speedboat ride.

12. Watch the Sunset

If you have nothing to do in the later part of the late afternoon, then pack a light dinner and go watch the sunset.

KK is claimed to offer the 'best sunset view' and you can do this at Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort, at the Waterfront, at Tanjung Aru Beach, Sutera Harbor Resort or at Signal Hill,

Sunset at Tanjung Aru KK

Sunset at Tanjung Aru KK

My friends enjoying seafood dinner at KK waterfront

My friends enjoying seafood dinner at KK waterfront

13. Eat Seafood

Once you are done with the sunset view, then try KK's next offering, the seafood

Sabah is known for its fresh and relatively cheap seafood. Any visitors to KK will definitely have either a seafood lunch or dinner before flying home. Some will buy and bring back the dried seafood as souvenirs for friends and relatives or for own consumption.

The diehard seafood lovers will visit Kota Kinabalu just for the seafood itself!

© 2012 Mazlan A


Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on September 24, 2012:

@teaches12345 : I am writing this in my hotel room in KK and was looking forward to that sunset view. Unfortunately it is a raining season here right now and when I am back here again for work in 2weeks time, I hope I can see the sunset view again!

Dianna Mendez on September 22, 2012:

I love the sunset photo you posted and I know I would truly enjoy sitting and watching it every day. The markets are an interesting venue and it looks like they have some really beautiful wares to sell. Lovely cities and villages that I would really enjoy touring.

Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on September 20, 2012:

@leahlefler ,The photos by Scholastica Ee are superb and you can see more of her work on Flickr. Stilt houses are great and we have a few resorts based on this concept. However, some of these villages are not well organized and residents will throw rubbish into the water, which spoils their own 'backyard'

Leah Lefler from Western New York on September 20, 2012:

What a gorgeous place to visit, greatstuff! I love the picture of the man fishing in the river inlet - it looks so peaceful and beautiful. The stilt houses are so cool! We don't have those in our area of the world, as we live in ice and snow and not along the water. Thanks for the beautiful travel guide!

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