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Sabah for First Time Visitors

Sabah for First Time Visitors

Sabah, the Land Below The Wind as it is also called is and has been one of the premier destinations in Borneo offering all sorts of touristic experiences over the years.

As I have been here many times, I thought that this article highlighting Sabah for first-time visitors will come in handy for anyone planning to come here.

Before you read on, you should know that the Malaysian state of Sabah is on the island of Borneo and is part of Malaysia.

Sabah for First Time Visitors

Kota Kinabalu will be your main gateway into Sabah as it is also the capital of the state and my article will be featuring this fascinating place.

The amazing thing about Kota Kinabalu or KK as the locals call it is that the international airport is a mere 10 minutes away from the city.

This is actually one of the shortest distances from the airport to the city in the world. KK is also a coastal city, therefore, visitors are spoiled for choices when it comes to what to do in KK. 

Let's start with the basics; most visitors would be asking how long should I spend in Kota Kinabalu or even Sabah.

Well, it is quite subjective based on different travelers but I will do my best to please both worlds. Ok, here's my breakdown based on local travelers and international travelers.

Kota Kinabalu International Airport
The Kota Kinabalu International Airport or KKIA
How long to spend in Kota Kinabalu? 

For the local travelers or even those from around Southeast Asia, the ideal time to spend in KK is about 3 to 4 days.

For international travelers or backpackers, you can opt to spend at least 4 to 6 days here to fully experience what KK has to offer.

Again, the recommended time can be adjusted to ones itinerary or what they want to see and do here in Kota Kinabalu. 

Where to stay in KK?

There are numerous hotels, resorts, guesthouses and boutique hotels available here and most of them are centrally located within the main city area so walking around is not a problem at all.

It is also recommended that you double check the location of the hotel before booking for convenience.

Kota Kinabalu Sightseeing
Suria KK, one of the premier shopping malls in Kota Kinabalu
What to do around KK?

Kota Kinabalu offers various options for sightseeing, ranging from islands, beaches, diving, hiking, climbing, trekking, shopping, markets, water rafting and so on.

At the end of the day, it is all about your time management here as one can easily visit two attractions in a day if you manage it well and still have time to do a bit of shopping and try the local Sabahan food.

Sapi Island Sabah
This is Sapi Island, part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, just outside of KK
KK Island Visits

The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park or TAR Park is a mere 20 minutes boat ride from the Jesselton Jetty in KK town so this means, day trips are possible here.

Here, you will be amazed at the crystal clear waters and many activities to do including snorkeling, scuba diving, sea walking or simply sun tanning.

There are three main islands to choose from - Manukan Island, Mamutik Island, and Sapi Island for day-trippers.

Borneo Reef World Pontoon
Borneo Reef World Floating Pontoon
One of the new attractions found around Sapi Island is also the Borneo Reef Pontoon, a floating paradise that houses an underwater live aquarium, sea walking experience and also water sports.

For those wanting to try scuba diving, they also have a safe platform for this. Highly recommended too! 

Another fun adventure experience on Sapi Island is trying the Coral Flyer, an island to island flying fox which will surely excite anyone.

This is currently the longest island to island flying fox in the world too and very reasonably priced. 

Total Time Required: 4 hours to one full day

Mari Mari Cultural Village KK
Local tribesmen at Mari Mari Cultural Village
Mari Mari Cultural Village

This is Sabah's living museum and showcases the many different ethnic tribes of Sabah in one beautiful place.

The Mari Mari Cultural Village is located after Inanam, about 30 minutes from KK and visits here have to be booked by one of the travel agents or counters around KK.

They will send guests there and back. Suitable for anyone visiting Sabah as you will learn much about the local ethnic people here. Very educational, interesting and great for photo taking. 

Total Time Required: 2 to 4 hours

Gaya Sunday Market in KK
A common scene at the Gaya Sunday Market in KK
Gaya Street Sunday Market

Only if you are in KK on a Sunday, this is one market worth exploring as it is probably the best market in the entire Sabah.

Starting from as early as 6.00 am, you can find all sorts of things, crafts, souvenirs, food, plants, clothes and sometimes even domestic pets being sold here.

This is a must-visit for anyone who loves markets and the Gaya Street Sunday Market closes about 11.00 am. 

Total Time Required: 1 to 2 hours

Cooking Class in KK Sabah
The Sabah Cooking Class takes you to local markets to buy your ingredients
Sabah Cooking Class

Yes, for those who enjoy cooking, there is a unique cooking class in Sabah operated by Sabahan - Hajjah Halimah who teaches local Sabahan cooking.

The location is at her specially designed outdoor cooking area at her home in Kinarut which is about 40 minutes from KK city. 

The experience takes guests to the local market to do some shopping before heading there to learn how to cook.

This is also a hands-on experience where you will cut, chop, stir and fry and then enjoy your cooking for lunch.

Classes start at about 9.00 am where they will pick you from your hotel and send you there and back. 

Total Time Required: 3 to 4 hours, done after lunch.

Pasar Ikan Masin KK
The unique Salt Fish Market or Pasar Ikan Masin in KK
Interesting Markets in Kota Kinabalu

For the market lover, there are quite a few very interesting markets located in KK itself which are all walking distances from one another.

Start with the Sabah Handicraft Market (Old Filipino Market) where you squeeze through lanes and lanes of souvenirs, clothes and Sabah Pearls.

Exiting, just walk next door to the Salt Fish Market for a unique experience and then to the Fruit Market to see the unique Sabahan fruits sold.

There is also the huge Kota Kinabalu Wet and Dry Market and finally, the Night Food Market which is an amazing experience.

All of these markets are by the waterfront area and they are all just next to each other. The place is very safe too and the best time to visit is before lunch. 

Total Time Required: 1 to 3 hours

What to do outside of KK? 

Adventure seekers will find a load of things to do just out of KK city, provided you allocate sufficient time to explore.

Namely water rafting, trekking, bird watching, cultural experiences, river cruises, and even a classic steam locomotive trip just to name a few.

The outdoor activities are also broken down to give you a rough idea for timing too.

White Water Rafting Padas River
Challenging the mighty Padas River
Padas River White Water Rafting (Advanced)

Padas is about 2 hours from KK city and you need to book this tour from any of the tour companies around KK.

This is suitable for those wanting an adrenaline rush as the rapids are from class 3 to 5 and not for beginners. The rafting here is also the best in the entire Sabah.

Prepare to spend half a day for this trip and the amazing moment is taking the old diesel local trains to the start of the rafting point. Some crazy rafting action is available here and not for kids. 

Total Time Required: 6 to 7 hours

Kiulu River White Water Rafting
View of the Kiulu River where the water rafting is done
Kiulu River White Water Rafting (Beginners)

Also about 2 hours from KK city but the other way. You can also book the Kiulu Water Rafting Tour from any of the tour companies around KK.

This is suitable for those wanting to experience white water rafting as the rapids are from class 1 to 2 and very suitable for beginners, kids or even pensioners.

The rafting experience along the Kiulu River lets visitors see the natural beauty of the local Sabahan countryside, villages, and nature.

Raft guides are professional while the centers are equipped with toilets and changing rooms. Remember to bring a dry bag is you have one.  

Total Time Required: 5 to 6 hours

Mesilau View of Mount Kinabalu
View of Mount Kinabalu from the Mesilau Golf Course.
Kinabalu Park Visit (Outdoors, Trekking, Sightseeing) -

About two hours drive from KK, you can book a tour in the city or rent a car to self-drive there. The park provides a cool climate experience and there are various easy treks available around the park.

This is providing you are not climbing Mount Kinabalu as many visitors just come here for a day trip to take photos.

A tip for photographers - You need to come here before 7.00 am to get that shot as, after that, the clouds start to cover the mountain. 

Kundasang is the town near the park and here you can find local produce being sold while there is also a local dairy farm similar to the ones in New Zealand with Friesian Cows!

There are numerous hotels and homestays available for those wanting to spend the night here and prices are quite decent. 

Total Time Required: Half a day to one full day

Klias River Cruise
Visitors doing the Klias River Cruise
Klias River Cruise (Nature)

About two hours from KK, you need to book a tour to get here. The journey starts about 2.00 to 3.00 pm from the city and you get here just in time for the late evening cruise.

After that, there is a local dinner provided and then you get back on the boats for the FireFly watching which is spectacular. 

At the Klias River Cruise, you stand a chance to spot the very unique Proboscis monkey, birds, monitor lizards, macaques and if you're lucky, the local otters.

This experience is very safe for families and children as safety is highly practised here. 

Total Time Required: Half a day, from after lunch.

Upside Down House Tamparuli
The unique Upside Down House in Tamparuli, Kota Kinabalu
Upside Down House, 3D Museum and Chanteek Gallery

About 45 minutes drive from KK city and you will find the unique Upside Down House of Sabah and is known in Malay as Rumah Terbalik. 

There is also a 3D museum and the very interesting local Chanteek Gallery Borneo which highlights the ethnic people of Sabah.

All this on one road which is great fun for anyone. There are tours here but usually, locals will self drive here and back to KK.

Each place charges a minimal entrance and there are restaurants, cafes, toilets and souvenir shop facilities at these places. 

Total Time Required: 4 to 6 hours.

North Borneo Train Sabah
The Vulcan Steam Train, North Borneo Railway
North Borneo Railway Experience

How about taking a nostalgic trip on the only railway system in Borneo which still uses a classic steam locomotive engine.

The North Borneo Railway takes visitors on a trip from KK to Papar town and then back after lunch and this unique experience operated by Sutera Harbour Resort runs on various days of the week.

The classic steam train has about 4 to 5 carriages where every detail is preserved to the original specifications.

And even the staff tending to you wear classic British era uniforms and lunch is served out the classic tiffin carriers. Slightly on the pricey side but well worth the experience.

The Vulcan Steam Locomotive takes you to Papar where you depart for a walkabout around the old town.

The Locomotive then makes a u-turn from a special turning station and then everyone boards to head back to Tanjung Aru Station just outside of KK. 

Total Time Required: 4 to 6 Hours or Half a day. Trains depart at about 9.00 am.

Sabah Resort Villa
Gayana Eco Resort on Pulau Gaya, 15 minutes from KK city
Overall, all the places above have been personally visited by me over the years and all real experiences.

Do not be fooled by those lists of 'What to do in KK' which are all done for hotel booking sites and those seeking traffic.

You can also read about my other Sabah articles, and for those on a budget, you can experience some of the free things to do in Kota Kinabalu which is all walking distance in KK town.

I have also written a basic article about the 5 things to do in Kota Kinabalu for those wanting something different.


Again, for first-timers to Sabah, it is recommended you explore the city before heading out to other places.

Unless of course, you are spending a week or two here, then you can plan a few days in KK before moving on to other places. 

If you have any feedback or questions, feel free to leave them in the comment form below and for anyone heading here to North Borneo, I hope this list of Sabah for first time visitors will be helpful. 

1 comment

Anonymous said...

This was very helpful, thank you!