Solo Trekking in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo

Sabah, the northern state in Malaysian Borneo is a relatively little-known slice of Southeast Asia. Visitors can hire tour companies to help them hike, swim, climb, and zip line through Sabah’s jungles, shopping malls, and crystal clear reefs. But if you really want to put your finger on the pulse of Malaysian Borneo, you must be willing to be your own guide. As a seasoned advocate of by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventures, I decided to find out if I could put together my own itinerary in Sabah. Here’s a few things I learned during my experience in Negeri Di Bawah Bayu; the “Land Below the Wind.”

Nestled about 170 kilometers south of the tip of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu rests in between the awe-inspiring shadow of its mountainous namesake, Mt. Kinabalu, to the east and the shores of the South China Sea to the west. The city has miles of picturesque coastline and boasts some spectacular views of the Bornean jungle that surrounds the small city of 200,000 people. The residents of Kota Kinabalu are themselves a hodgepodge of heritages. From Malay, Chinese, and Filipino, these friendly people are a delightful blend of different cultures, customs, and religions.  Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, but people of all backgrounds are made to feel welcome and the hospitality in Sabah is ever-flowing.



Once you clear customs at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport, head down to the arrivals terminal on the ground floor and make a beeline for the taxi service window. A quick 10-minute cab ride to the city center will cost about 20 Malaysian Ringgit. Kota Kinabalu, or KK if you’re into the whole brevity thing, is a great city for walkers. Nearly every place you want to be is a few hundred steps away from where you are. It’s an affordable alternative to taking a taxi, and KK’s unique blend of smells and sounds are not to be missed. It’s even a nice walk to Jesselton Pier, which is home base for any snorkeling or diving cruise.

The best way to get out of the city and visit the surrounding jungles, tea plantations, and outlying villages is to take a mini bus.  Across from Padang Merdeka, (a large park and soccer field near the KK city center), you can pretty much just show up, find a ticket booth and tell the clerk where you would like to go–  And if you’re headed up to Kinabalu National Park you certainly won’t be alone. 



At 4,000 meters tall, Mt. Kinabalu dwarfs the surrounding verdant peaks of the Kinabalu Park. Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, Mt. Kinabalu offers hikers and outdoor lovers the climb of a lifetime.  The climb itself requires two days of trekking with an overnight stay at one of two mountain lodges near the summit.  Companies like Amazing Borneo Tours will provide you with everything but your gear to ensure you have a safe passage up the peak.  Most climbers choose to hire a tour company to guide them up the mountain, but you could take your chances and hire a guide upon arriving at the park.  It’s first come, first serve, so get there early!

A few things to remember before you climb:

  • Bring the right gear.  It gets wet and cold up there!  Pack layers for maximum comfort, and a hat and gloves are essential for summit day.
  • Eat enough food and drink enough water.  Climbing a mountain is hard work.  Make sure you pack enough protein in your pack to sustain your energy and plenty of water to stay hydrated.  A few Snickers bars is my go-to trail food.
  • Slow and steady wins the race.  Go at your own pace and don’t push yourself too hard.
  • Enjoy the view!

If you’re not quite up to the challenge of climbing the mountain, you can still appreciate a day out in nature. Kinabalu Park offers dozens of hiking trails, unique gardens, and plenty of guided nature walks for visitors of all ages and abilities. 



Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a chain of small islands just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu that offers a variety activities to sun-lovers of all varieties.  This is the place to snorkel, swim, build a sand castle, and enjoy a barbecue lunch.  To make a reservation with one of the many tour groups that depart to the islands daily, just head to Jesselton Point and book onsite.   



Night Fish Market

It has no address.  It has no doors or windows.  It has no dress code.  In fact, the only prerequisites needed to attend KK’s nightly fish market is a healthy appetite and a few Ringgit.  The best and freshest seafood you’ll ever have in your life (absolutely no exaggeration here) await you.  Pick a stall with the best looking lobster, grouper, parrotfish, crab, prawn, or mussels and grab a seat among the ocean of picnic tables.  The salesmen will even cook it for you, and with a variety of seasonings and dressings, picking which sauce combo you want on your perfectly boiled lobster will be the toughest decision you make all day.  Don’t forget to wash down the day’s catch with a generous glass of pineapple juice.

Gaya St. Sunday Market

If you’re fortunate enough to be in Kota Kinabalu on a Sunday, don’t miss the Gaya St. Market.  Between 6:30 am and 2 pm, a dozen city blocks close their streets to vehicle traffic and the scene is set for a gigantic swap meet-meets-souvenir-shop extravaganza.  This is the place to buy jewelry, keychains, t-shirts and sarongs— and even try a piece of Durian; often referred to as the smelliest fruit in the world.  Stop by 5 Star Hainanese Chicken Rice & BBQ when you feel those hunger pangs tightening… or if you just want to get the taste of Durian out of your mouth!


Sabah has it all.  Food, beaches, nightlife, and outdoor activities.  It’s a place where you can really hit the ground running— no training needed.  Pick your map, pick your hostel, book your flight and go.  You won’t regret it.

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