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Destination name: Kota Kinabalu (KK), Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Common nickname: "The Land Below the Wind"
Location: At three degrees below the equator, the capital city of Sabah is located off the South China Sea on the northwest coast of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. The Kota Kinabalu International Airport can be accessed easily by flights all over Southeast Asia and beyond.
Kota Kinabalu is the gateway to one of the world's most fascinating islands where warm seas and white-sand beaches diminish into lush, tropical forests and Southeast Asia's 10th highest mountain looming over the city. Adventurers are thus invited to experience lazy afternoons snorkeling, moderately challenging jungle treks, or a lung-searing climb up Mt. Kinabalu. Most adventures lie outside city limits and require pre-dawn starts, so try to get to bed early!
At 4,095 meters above sea level (13,435 feet) in the Crocker Range, Mt. Kinabalu is not only Malaysia's highest peak; it's also a sacred site for the 30 regional ethnicities who call Sabah home. Take a two-hour bus ride (~$5USD) from KK to Kinabalu National Park. To reach the stunning summit, obtain a climbing permit (~$50USD), a guide(~$60USD), and lodging for the 2-day, 1-night, 23-kilometer (15-mile) trek. Only 135 climbing permits are issued each day, so book early. No prior climbing experience is necessary, but climbers should be fit to tackle the 2,300-meter (7,500-feet) ascent that passes from tropical and cloud forests to sub-alpine vegetations at the peak.
Day one's hike climbs steeply up rock stairs and pathways to the guesthouse, Laban Rata (~$120USD), that serves as a basecamp for hikers. If you're worried about the mounting cost of this excursion, know that food is included in the lodging fee. Day two's hike departs around 2am to best secure a good sunrise viewing point and arrive at the summit before the inevitable daytime clouds and weather roll in. The final 2 kilometers follows the smooth rock face of Kinabalu that's slippery when wet and requires the occasional use of both hands and feet. Should time permit, there's an optional via ferrata (the world's highest!) to tackle for an extra fee. For the uber-athlete, there is a slight potential of receiving a single-day climbing permit, but you must speak with a park ranger. Otherwise, consider signing up for the famous Mt. Kinabalu International Climbathon race that takes places each October. Regardless when or how long you take to climb, bring trekking poles, gloves, warm clothing, and windproof gear.
Note: In June of 2015, 18 hikers and guides were killed by an earthquake that shook the mountain and surrounding area, causing a landslide with force enough to sweep away anything in its tracks. This closed the trails for a time, but some reopened as of May 2016. Locals believe the quake occurred because the gods were angered by disrespectful tourists desecrating the mountain weeks before the natural disaster. Please follow the rules and leave no trace.
After the arduous climb, reward yourself with a soak in the Poring Hot Springs in Kinabalu National Park.
From a Kinabatangan river cruise to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, opportunities for espying Sabah's iconic orangutans, proboscis monkeys, flying foxes and pygmy elephants are yours to behold in this wildlife-rich region. As with most activities in Sabah, early mornings are your best chance for spotting these fascinating creatures set amongst a marvelous display of flora.
For a more relaxing outing, take a 30-minute ferry ride to snorkel and hike around Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a series of five reef-rimmed islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. Gorgeous beaches promise odd wildlife sightings with monitor lizards swimming in the shallows, and macaques, pangolins and bearded pigs roving through the mangrove swamps.
If you're planning on trekking in the jungles, don't forget your leech socks and anti-malaria medication! As well, numerous vaccinations are recommended for travel in Sabah, so check with your healthcare provider and get yourself protected. And, no matter how cool it sounds, don't eat monkeys or bats.
Despite constant rain, Kota Kinabalu is warm year-round with high humidity and plenty of sunshine before and after deluges. Protected from the monsoon and typhoon belt to the north, Sabah is considered "The Land Beneath the Wind" because storms do not hit land as aggressively, though rain falls in buckets. April and May are the hottest months, but this is also considered prime time to climb Mt. Kinabalu, where temperatures dip below freezing. Lodging and airfare is less expensive from October to March, which is considered ”low season” for tourists.
Sabah holds many natural wonders within its borders. Beyond Mt. Kinabalu and the outdoor gems of the Crocker Range, travelers can experience an epic dose of adventure in just a few days. For instance, if you love sea turtles, spend some time on Sabah's east coast with a visit to Lankayan and Pom Pom islands for a life-giving (and not touristy) encounter witnessing these remarkable reptiles lay eggs and make their bold journeys back to sea.
In Kota Kinabalu, accommodation options abound, from luxury suites at Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa for $200USD to superb rooms at Hotel Sixty3 in the $100USD range and innumerable decent hostels starting around $10USD a night. To kick off your Mt. Kinabalu adventure, stay at the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge for tasty hot drinks, refreshing showers and vegetarian meals. Cuisine in and around Kota Kinabalu is an eclectic mix of European and Asian influences. Checkout the night market in KK for Indian, Malaysian, and Chinese, or if you have a hankering for something familiar, go to Wednesday Night Pub Quiz at El Centro for homemade tacos. If you've spent any amount of time traveling in Southeast Asia, you'll have developed a craving for Vietnamese coffee, and the best is found at Peppermint Vietnamese Restaurant. Little Italy hits all of your pizza and beer needs.
The sweeping vistas of and from Mt. Kinabalu's gorgeous summit are breathtaking. There is nothing quite like grinding your way up the humbling climb past fellow trekkers, porters, and innumerable dripping leaves to break out of the forest and onto the massive granodiorite-formed pluton soaring over Borneo. The mountain represents one of the most important biological sites in the world and earned UNESCO World Heritage Site status with its 6,000 species of plants, including the Rafflesia (the world's largest flower), and no less than 450 species of birds and mammals.
For solid details and updates on climbing Mt. Kinabalu, visit www.mountkinabalu.com, but don't feel pressured to purchase one of their tour packages, as permits can also be obtained through Sabah Parks and any number of companies in Kota Kinabalu. Information for Kota Kinabalu is easily found online, but for a start, check out Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor forums for current rates and offerings.