If you’ve always wondered what the Philippines would be like when we finally get our act together, Kota Kinabalu would be it.
A mere two hours travel from NAIA, there are striking similarities between the streets of Kota Kinabalu (locally referred to as KK) and Metro Manila—that is if we’re talking about the streets of BGC, Makati CBD, and similar areas.
Much like our capital, Manila, the city center of Kota Kinabalu is surrounded by coastal waters. It spans only two kilometers. If you’re so inclined, you can walk its entire length.
But most tourists go outside the city center to see its natural wonders, much like the people in Manila would. We have our Rizal hiking spots, they have Mount Kinabalu. We have Baguio, they have Kinabalu Park. Where the similarities end are the usual comparisons we make whenever we visit other ASEAN countries. The roads are wider and cleaner, the traffic flows smoother, the air seems fresher.
There are other marked differences, the most notable of which is the way Kota Kinabalu was able to pull off ecotourism and generate revenues sustainably.
Kinabalu Park: World Heritage Site
Pre-pandemic, Kota Kinabalu would receive over four million tourists annually. One of the most common stops for tourists is KK’s famed Mount Kinabalu. It is the highest mountain in all of Malaysia, and its main entry point is 1,520 meters above sea level. It's relatively easy to climb, and it’s attractive to both new and seasoned climbers.
But before you haphazardly book a flight to KK with the intention of climbing Mount Kinabalu, know that you cannot just show up and climb the mountain on your own. I was told that slots for climbing are booked until August of 2022. You may check this site for rates and slot availability.
Mount Kinabalu is housed within Kinabalu Park, Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site. The park also has Mount Tambayukon. Kinabalu Park’s rich and diverse flora and fauna are the reasons why it was awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. It is also impressive how authorities were able to integrate local communities and empower them to ensure the preservation of its natural wonders. The Malaysian government calls this “community based tourism”.
There are a lot of things to do within the park’s 75,370 hectares of land. Upon entering, you may visit the Botanical Gardens and enjoy the cool canopy of its rainforest. There are a total of eight trails you can explore, but that would take you more than the whole day to get around. There's also lodging available for those who want to explore the many offerings of Kinabalu Park.
The park is about two hours away from the city central. Entrance fee is RM15, or about P180. As you drive through high elevations, you can catch a glimpse of the mighty Mount Kinabalu (clouds permitting). There's also a stopover where you can take pictures of the mountain, or buy souvenirs and local crafts.
Kadamaian White Water Rafting
At the foot of Mount Kinabalu lies Kadamaian village, where the waterfall rages from its drop from the top of the mountain. Several tour operators saw this as a perfect opportunity for a water adventure. There are two rafting grades, depending on the rapids. Most operators include lunch on their package, which usually costs around RM130-160, or around P1600 to P2000. That also includes transport from your hotel in the city and a tour around the village.
About an an hour away from Kadamaian is the Mari Mari Cultural Village. There are five major ethnic groups in the village, and you can get a glimpse of how the lives of Sabah natives were like in this tourist attraction. Entrance is RM100, or around P1200.
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Kota Kinabalu is also famous among tourists for its beautiful beaches. The most famous among these can be found on Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, which consists of five islands. All these islands have fine white sands and share clear turquoise waters. The most famous of these islands is called Manukan, which means the same in Malaysian Bahasa as it does in Filipino.
Manukan also has the most developed facilities for tourists, with good-sized cottages as accommodations, and restaurants that serve both Malay and international cuisine. The island also has hiking trails and dive facilities. But the tranquil beauty of the crystal turquoise waters and the azure sky as background are already enough reasons to hop on a ferry and enjoy a lazy day in the white sands of Manukan.
You can ride a ferry from Jesselton Point Terminal, and a trip to an island cost RM35, or P420. Jesselton Point is conveniently located in the city center, and you can reach the terminal from anywhere in the city in around 15 minutes. There is also an entrance fee in Manukan, which is RM10, or around P120. You may also opt for a day trip via a travel tour, which costs around RM200, or P2400. This includes your lunch. Bear in mind that as a world-class resort, food and accommodation in Manukan can be very pricey.
Getting around the city center
Like most countries, Kota Kinabalu just recently opened its borders to tourists. You will need to download Malaysia’s contact tracing app called MySejahtera prior to landing.
Currently, Air Asia is the only airline that flies directly to KK. Alas, there are still no public transportation options available in Kota Kinabalu though they do have e-hailing services such as Grab. You can ask your hotel’s concierge to book one for you.
I was able to get around the city center doing this, and there was one mall where I was able to ask the concierge to book a ride for me. Do note that WiFi is not available in most public places. This means that for every where else, you will need to turn on your roaming services to book a ride. If you have a spare phone (make sure that it is not locked to your telco service provider), you may buy a SIM card. I got the Tune Talk Traveller SIM card, and availed of its Lite Plan which gave me a huge 15GB for seven days.
There are a lot of excellent dining places within KK’s city center where you can enjoy seafood dishes and authentic Bak Kut Teh (a popular Malaysian pork rib dish). The city even has designated ‘zones’ for different activities. There are zones for foodies, and zones for those looking to enjoy drinks. These places won’t take you longer than 20 minutes to reach.
If you are planning on visiting any of the places mentioned above, like Mount Kinabalu or the Kadamaian village, it would be best to book a tour as fares can become astronomical when taking an e-hailing service. Air Asia will soon launch its Super App in KK where you may conveniently book flights and hotels, and provide e-hail services when you plan to go around the city. This would be very convenient in a place like Kota Kinabalu.
Don’t be surprised to see Filipinos in KK. Located in Sabah in the island of Borneo, this federal territory of Malaysia shares maritime borders with the Philippines. It is near our Palawan and Sulu islands and there are even several Filipino-owned restaurants in the city. We came upon one called “Tambayan”, and the Filipina owner said she's been there for over 20 years.
It may seem like a hard sell for Filipinos to travel somewhere that we can closely identify with.
Yet it might benefit us to realize our heritage and aspire to be a people where culture and tradition should be the foundations upon which we try and build a future as a nation. For this, Kota Kinabalu can serve as a mirror through which we can see what we could potentially become.
Special thanks to Air Asia. Air Asia offers direct flights from Manila to Kota Kinabalu twice a week.