I ventured on a solo backpacking trip to Sabah, Kota Kinabalu for 6 days after accidentally booking it over the internet a few months ago. I was hesitant to push through it but solo backpacking has always been on my list, so after not planning anything at all, I literally jumped over the bridge when I got there.
For most people who does not know where Kota Kinabalu is, it is the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state in the northern part of the island of Borneo. There is something about this place that makes it special though you don’t particularly get to experience it at first sight. It requires a meticulous process to understand and unravel its unparalleled beauty.
1. Gaya Street Sunday Market
After arriving at KK at 11 AM (Sunday), I went directly to the so called “Gaya Market” because it opens from 5AM-1PM of Sundays only. I didn’t want to miss it because the locals told me that I should get a glimpse of it. From the airport, I took a bus and dropped at the last station, which was a few meters away from Gaya Market.
The street was busy and was about to close by the time I arrived that’s why I didn’t see much there. I had my lunch at Fe Yung Restaurant instead, and tasted their famous Laksa together with their unique tasting lemon juice.
Note: This combo meal is highly recommended.
2. Atkinson Clock Tower & Observatory Hill
After which, I did my first DIY tour around the city. I visited the Atkinson Clock Tower which is famous for being the oldest structure that survived World War II in Kota Kinabalu. It was said to be all wood and no nails yet it manages to stand firmly and magnificently over a hill.
The highest peak of the city is the Observatory Hill. There is a trek trail going up to this slope near the Atkinson Tower, and from here, you can get a whole view of the metropolis and get a good vibe of sunset too.
3. KK City & Water Front
Sabah, also known as Jesselton, is a small city bustling with markets and modern boardwalk so it’s easy to explore the area by foot. I personally think that this is the best way to know more about its people and culture.
One of the main activity here is chasing sunset. Anywhere near the beach front provides an alluringly unique backdrop for all photography enthusiasts. My personal favorite spot is the Waterfront because you can watch and observe people from here while admiring the picturesque scene.
PS. You may also want to visit the Night Market/Filipino Market located just around the area. They offer a lot of fresh seafood here and is definitely a must try.
4. Kinabatangan River Cruise
The next day, I was determined to visit Kinabatangan River to experience the “wildlife“, so with the help of internet, I googled the directions and found myself traveling to the eastern part of Sabah.
Kinabatangan River sustains one of the world’s richest ecosystems and it takes about 8-9 hrs of travel to reach it. Other than being home to Borneo’s indigenous orangutan and proboscis monkey, a trip to the river at dawn/dusk is the best opportunity experience nature itself.
The atmosphere in here felt like a jungle inside a province. The sky becomes so lit up at night, which gives a magnificent view for stargazing. Also, a lot of animals are free to wander around. It was interesting to get up close and personal with them. Ha-ha.
5. Mount Kinabalu Park
The main attraction here is none other than the mighty Mt. Kinabalu, the 2nd highest mountain in South East Asia and Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site.
I wandered around but I couldn’t get my self to trek because I was wearing white shoes and the soil was damp from rain. I will probably come back here again for the summit.
Note: Wear trek shoes, bring extra shirt and a lot of water.
6. KK City Mosque
This is also called the “floating mosque” and the largest one in the city. I am not a Muslim but the ambiance in this place felt warm and welcoming. It has this majestic color and is often flocked by tourist. Well. I wouldn’t blame them.
7. Sabah State Mosque
People say that Sabah Mosque is one of the most outstanding pieces of architecture in KK. The dome was said to have been made of pure gold. Though I’m not so sure about that, it does shine brightly from afar.
8. Tanjung Aru Beach
Tanjung Aru Beach boasts its beautiful view of sunset too, and I couldn’t agree more. I enjoyed watching people blow bubbles and play with jelly fish while watching the crimson sun dip slowly into the horizon– Amazing.
9. Buddhist Temples
I decided to visit some Buddhist Temples because of its bright and lively color. I witnessed an ongoing prayer during my visit and decided to stay a little bit longer to observe them.
Buddhism believes that our existence is endless because we are reincarnated over and over again. They believe that if we do good now then we will have a good life on our next rebirth #karma. They usually form a line, walks into circles while humming a tune, then bows 3-5x before listening to a preacher. It was a nice experience having to know more about it.
8. Island Hopping (Ft. Manukan Island)
Despite having a lot of beaches in the Philippines, I decided to visit to one of the islands in Sabah. I was, after all, in a foreign country. I picked Manukan Island because they said that there’s a lot of activities here.
The beach was bright and calm which is perfect for swimming and snorkeling but I decided to explore the island first before diving into it, which then brought me to the jungle trekking area. It looked welcoming that I decided to follow the trail without anyone knowing. After 30 mins of walking, I still couldn’t find a clear area (note: our boat was supposed to leave at 4PM and it was already 3PM), and as frustrating as it can get, I decided to just go back. I walked and ran faster until I reached a dead end. That’s when I knew that I was perfectly lost inside the jungle!! I was screaming for help but there was none. There were no signs of people there. I decided to go forward and ended up on a cliff. I went back again and this time, I felt really scared. I thought about the possibility of spending the night on that jungle, the abusayyaf, the beheading culture of some ethnic groups in Sabah. I prayed really hard and that was the time I remembered the island map which I took before I started exploring. Luckily, I had a compass on my i-pad too, so I just followed North. I walked faster not minding the thorns, fallen trees and blocks until I saw a roof. I felt absolutely euphoric after reaching the shore.
Until now, I couldn’t be more thankful to get out from there, alive. It was probably the most memorable experience on this trip.
The thing about going to a foreign country “alone” is that you get to feel comfortable with just being yourself because you can rest assured that nobody will care about you as long as you don’t violate the rules. It was my first ever solo travel and I was lucky to actually have a one of a kind Borneo experience.
I am more than grateful to all the amazing people I met along the way who helped me with so many things like: directions and how to make life easier while solo-traveling.
To those who shared a piece of them and to the stories that were told in between, albeit having not told in this post, they sure had a space in my memory that will continue to enlighten and inspire my ignorance of this world.
To the breathing jungle that speaks of so many things and to the calm and silence that comes with the unknown, I will never forget how it binds difference to make this world a better place to live in.
Terima Kasih! Kota Kinabalu, you will forever have a place in my heart. You made my dream of solo-traveling come true. I hope to come back soon. –XO