Kota Kinabalu is the centre point of Sabah. The town itself is very small and easy to get around. Although limited tourist sights (apart from the Sabah Museum), the place really comes alive at night with its many restaurants and Karaoke bars. Stroll along the seafront passing different sung versions of classic hits, pick a gigantic colourful lobster to be grilled in the Seafood Market and munch on fresh fruit and Barbecued chicken parts (liver or heart anyone?) at the Night Market. A good restaurant and bar that hosts weekly pub quizzes is El Centro, with reasonably priced food with good drinks deals and a great atmosphere- its popular with the expat crowd.
Not in Kota Kinabalu but a short boat ride away, is Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. For a speedy trip you can visit one of its many majestic islands for a 10 ringgit entrance fee. Leaving the views of KK (what the locals call Kota Kinabalu) full of fishing boats, office buildings and the towering view of Mount Kinabalu, look straight ahead at the uniquely sized islands that are little green gems on a portrait of sapphire. I visited the island of Pulau Sapi– being told it is the most beautiful, although not the best for snorkelling. The island is busy, filled with snorkellers and beginner divers, but don’t let that put you off, many of them leave in the early afternoon. Being with 4 German guys meant my thoughts of heading straight to a beach were laughed at and we trekked through the jungle that inhabited the island.
It led us up and down, through various types of vegetation and plantation, making us scratch our skin on spiky plants and trample over decayed tree trunks. Making it to Sunset Point for a break in the jungle, we stood on the cliff edge, looking out onto the horizon, a stretch of never ending light blue merging with a deep inky blue. As the wind blew on our sweaty skin we drunk the beautiful view in. Descending back into the jungle, we discovered a private beach where no other tourist had reached which seemed to be a “form of paradise”, said Paul, the youngest guy with us. Stepping away from the depths of the jungle filled with noisy insects to a calm aquamarine sea was heavenly, and I thought to myself, this is how beaches in Borneo are like- straight from the jungle. If you have the time, island hop to as many islands you can and want to see- I’ve been told its fantastic.
Another activity that some tourists do, and something I signed up to many months in advance (which meant no backing out) was hiking the highest mountain in South-east Asia: Mount Kinabalu. The journey is tough. Stretched over two days you climb (not trek, or hike but climb) the oldest national park in the world. I struggled with the first day because of its makeshift steps of stones and rock which use a tremendous effort to scale- even without a heavy rucksack and a tripod in one hand. Surrounded by beautifully gnarled trees and exotic flowers, there is little else to spot for scenery and the entire journey is uphill, no variation but continuously uphill. There is no scope of views because you are in the clouds when you ascend, only passing rest stops and ravenous squirrels on your way up. Although I reached the accommodation of Laban Rata quicker than average, I had struggled.
Arriving at the accommodation, the friends I made and I found out our beds were overbooked, with the the booking we had made with the respectable and prestigious tour company of: Amazing Borneo (I had booked at least 6 months ago!). We learnt we would be sleeping on a mattress after the first days endurance of hard work. As well as this, the food in our accommodation was plentiful, but poor quality and lacked any flavour, and sharing a dorm room with 14 people made our stay restless and uncomfortable. Needless to say, it was the cherry on top of the cake. (Especially as I’ve stayed in a room with 31 other people but was granted an actual bed so slept easy). Here, rest was not an option. The next day, although the toughest, was more enjoyable for me.
Leaving the warm depths of my bed in exchange for the chilly blanket of darkness of night, I skipped past large groups of Asian tourists on the steps who lived by the phrase “slow and steady”, and began to scale the side of the mountain with a rope across the steep and dangerous cliff edges. Although more hazardous, I preferred it as it was more extreme, but I also felt I was actually climbing a mountain and making some progress about it. Using the stars to guide my way, and after fighting bouts of altitude sickness, I made it to the top at the same time as my friends to watch the sunrise, painting the sky an assortment of bright colours of the rainbow which peeked in and out of clouds. The landscape was craggy rock, as if something from the moon, and looking at the world below our feet we saw grass plains of fields and jungle that looked as if a magic carpet and saw the glorious stretch of sea hugging the curvy coastline.
It is a magnificent sight to see and worth the exhausting endeavours you go through. However, for other backpackers, I would recommend hiking with Jungle Jack– a comfortable hostel at the Kinabalu Headquarters, where is cheaper, friendlier and more professional – my guide would continuously make me stop for his cigarette breaks and was always late. Jungle Jack is also rated number one best hostel in KK on Trip Advisor. With my two experiences of going with respectable companies (Borneo Discovery for their River Tour and Amazing Borneo), I have found the tour guides are not up to the standard you pay for and have poor quality food- so always go cheap, it will be the same standard anyway!
Hostels in KK are bountiful and vary in price and style. I stayed in Masada backpackers for one night, whom has clean and cool rooms, great breakfasts, free internet and decent showers with soap dispensers. The staff are friendly and helpful, although the location is a little out the way. For the most part I stayed in North Borneo Cabin– cheaper from 35 ringgit to 27, where it has an excellent location, free internet and breakfast although the rooms are a little rough around the edges. However, this hostel is a good choice for real backpackers, rather than flash backpackers and has a great social balcony and living room.