When it comes to nature travelling, Southeast Asia is pretty much on most people’s itinerary, which is known for its sky high mountains, lush forests and clear blue waters. Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of the Malaysian state Sabah, is especially high up on the list. Just two hours by plane from Manila, it is an obvious destination for Filipinos seeking an untamed tropical getaway outside the country.
For my 24th birthday, I decided to treat myself to a five-day trip to this laid-back city, with round-trip tickets for only ₱1,300! Having read about Mt. Kinabalu and after seeing its outstanding posture through pictures, I was convinced to book a hiking package that would take me right to its very top, despite not having much experience. After some research, however, I found out that I’ll be needing more than just the guts to do it. Let’s just say that the price for a 2D1N package back then (March 2016) would’ve taken my entire allowance (and the next month’s too!) for the trip and I could end up homeless for the next three days of my stay there if I did go for it.
Realising I wasn’t all ready for it, I decided to at least get a place where I can see the mountain up close. Fortunately, there’s one right at the foot of the mountain along the highway and about a five-minute walk from the Kinabalu National Park’s entrance. It wasn’t a typical hostel, but a couple of used container vans transformed into rooms with a hut attached to it containing the kitchen, dining area and comfort rooms. I paid about MYR50 for two nights inclusive of ALL meals!
Since I was sure I could no longer do the hike, I focused on spending time with the staff of my lodge. It was through them I was able to make my own itinerary and they even offered to provide a driver and tour guide solely for me for an entire day for only MYR30. A volunteer from the hostel also came along.
Our first stop was the Desa Dairy Farm in a Kundasang, which was about a 20-minute drive from our place. Thanks to my driver, who apparently turned out to be a grandson of a high-ranking public figure, I was able to enter the farm at a discounted price.
Besides a field of Friesians imported from New Zealand, known as the top producers of milk among the cattle breeds, the site also has a shop where you can buy dairy products literally fresh off the farm. I also found out that tourists can even witness the milking of cows and the processing of the products on specified times. However, I wasn’t able to do it because of a mismatch with my schedule. Instead, my company and I wandered around the fog-covered fields while admiring the unblocked view of Mt. Kinabalu from time to time.
After the farm, we went up a nearby hill where an enormous exclusive golf course can be found. Just some brief nods and words between my driver and the guard and we were allowed access to it. I figured it must be a private area because there were zero tourists to be seen except us and only a few staff maintaining the property.
In the same day, my driver and I visited the Kinabalu National Park. I thought if I couldn’t hike the mountain itself, why not take a tour of the park below? So in about two hours, I was able to see rare faunas and floras scattered around the area and even got to stick around the bottom of the climbing trail where a viewing deck was located. There, tourists who are not able to hike can admire a nearby sighting of Mt. Kinabalu as well as that of the tropical paradise surrounding the mountain.
After I got tired of the cold mountain weather, I decided to move to a hostel back in the city, which is closer to the ocean this time. My next plan was to ride the North Borneo Railway, which only operates on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Although I found it expensive for a four-hour tour ride, it ended up being one of my most memorable experiences in Sabah. The train took us to the rural areas of the city and through jungles. Our lunch on board was in a Tiffin box and had a total of four Asian and Continental-inspired meals in it. The entire ride reminded me a lot of Jumanji and being in an adventure film all in all.
Kota Kinabalu is also commonly known for its beaches which resemble some of what we have in the Philippines. However, hearing from recent visitors how crowded they tend to be especially during the time I was there, I skipped this from my itinerary. Instead, I set my mind on experiencing another body of water widespread in the region. The rivers.
The nearest one to the city happens to be the Klias River in Beaufort. My hostel helped me book a cruise tour for half a day where I shared the boat with four other tourists. We were able to spot the famous Proboscis Monkeys and other animals encircling the river. The package also included a heavy snack that resembled some of our merienda delicacies and watching fireflies in the evening. Aside from some insects biting me every now and then, I’d say the tour was definitely worth it!
After finally getting the hang of the Kota Kinabalu, I decided to skip my flight back to Manila and stay there for a few more days so I could see more of the city without the need to rush. My newfound friends from the hostel and I also dropped by the Sunday Market, went up the Observatory Tower and stuffed ourselves with amazing seafood at the Night Market.
Despite not being able to hike its most celebrated mountain and swimming in its sun-kissed beaches, I managed to have a blast in my extended stay in this low-key Malaysian city. Here’s to more having more flexibility during travels!