The first stop on our recent vacation was to Kota Kinabalu (or KK, as the locals call it), a little city in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. After spending just a couple days there, both David and I feel strongly that everyone should visit Borneo. It’s a hidden gem!
Great food, beautiful beaches, dense rainforests, amazing wildlife, developed cities, friendly locals, and bonus: virtually everyone speaks English! What more could you ask for?
Here’s a breakdown of our first few hours in Malaysia…
For the most part, we consider ourselves a pretty well-traveled pair, but even we make rookie mistakes….this trip started off with an expensive (and embarrassing) mistake.
After a series of unfortunate events — i.e. a delayed flight from Chiang Mai, our confidence that a one-hour layover was plenty of time to make a flight connection, and AirAsia’s ridiculous policy of closing check-in a full hour before departure — we ended up missing our connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu.
The most frustrating part is that we actually would have made our second flight on time if AirAsia had simply let us check in when we got to the counter. Our plane was literally sitting on the tarmac for a full 35 minutes while we were stuck at the counter begging them to let us check in. But in the end, AirAsia wouldn’t budge and we were forced to pay a $125 USD penalty fee to get tickets on the next flight.
Incredibly annoying for any budget but especially when that fee is about 15% of your monthly salary. Ugh.
Arrival at KK Airport
Luckily, we only had to wait an hour for the next flight to take off, but when we went to grab some cash and eat while we waited, we learned that literally all of the ATMs in the airport were broken. Then it was the same story at the KK airport. So for our very first activity in KK, we had to exchange some money at a currency counter (something we usually try to avoid since they usually have unfavorable exchange rates).
Pro Tip: If caught in the same situation at KK airport, make sure to exchange your money at the yellow Maybank counter, not the other place in the airport (can’t remember its name, but their sign is red); Maybank’s exchange rates are way better and they sold smaller bills.
After getting some cash, we hopped into one of the airport-sanctioned cabs for the 15 minute drive into city, which cost 30 MYR (about $10 USD). We tried to get past the annoying delays and ATM issues, and we focused on our excitement to finally be in Borneo.
And as soon as we left the airport, we immediately fell in love with the place.
We couldn’t believe how developed KK is! It is a big, bustling city! And it feels so much cleaner than anywhere else we’ve been in Southeast Asia. In contrast to Vientiane, Laos or Chiang Mai, Thailand, KK feels like it’s actually got a functional infrastructure. It just feels organized and stable. There are big concrete buildings, proper sidewalks and pedestrian crosswalks, people dress well, and nearly everyone drives cars not motorcycles. Our cab driver spoke great English, and the radio during our drive was even playing an American station, which made us feel right at home.
Check in at North Borneo Cabin
We got dropped off right in front of our hostel, the North Borneo Cabin around 6 PM that night. We chose to stay there because it has great reviews on Hostel World, and it was in our $20/night budget.
Here’s what we thought of the place…
• Great location in the center of the city
• Soft bed
• Friendly staff
• Wifi in the rooms
• Hot shower with great water pressure
• Western toilets (albeit dirty ones) that could handle toilet paper
• Decent price
• Dingy, jail-esque cubicle of a room with dim lighting
• Broken A/C
• The included “breakfast” was just toast and coffee/tea
• Towels were an extra fee to rent
• Stains on towels and sheets
Overall, it was a fine place to stay, but it did make me wonder…if this is the one of the best rated hostels in town, how bad are the other places?
Yummy Dinner at Syarikat Yu Kee
Once we settled into the room, we were both starving since we hadn’t gotten a chance to eat all day, so we went to the restaurant directly beneath our hostel, a busy place filled with locals called Syarikat Yu Kee.
The place was jam packed, and it took a little bit of bravery to be able to walk in there as the only foreigners, having literally stepped into the country for the first time only minutes before. Luckily, one of the employees took pity on our poor tourist selves and nicely explained in English that we should just go stand behind someone’s table and wait for them to finish. So that’s what we did.
A kid no older than about 13 took our order, which was “lean meat” (still not sure what that means), rice, and vegetables for the two of us. And somehow we ended up with all that, plus two soups, hot tea, and two plates of tofu. It was SO delicious. And it all came out to only $7 USD!
Random Malaysia Observations and Tips
Make sure to take the airport shuttle bus in KK, as it’s significantly cheaper than a taxi. For only 5 Ringgit (about $1.50 USD), there is an air conditioned bus you can take from multiple stops downtown to the airport. The bus leaves every hour from about 9 AM to 7 PM. We caught it to the airport at the bus stop right outside the Horizon Hotel. There’s a big sign that says “Airport Shuttle” so it was easy to spot.
There didn’t seem to be an abundance of motorcycle rental places in KK, so if you’re planning for that to be your main mode of transportation, I would reconsider. We were really surprised by the lack of businesses catering specifically to tourists in general, actually. Unlike Chiang Mai, there wasn’t a tourist office on every corner.
In general, be prepared to spend a little more money in Malaysia than other Southeast Asian countries. We found everything to be a little more expensive, especially transportation.
Ladies: Malaysia is primarily a Muslim country, so it doesn’t hurt to try to cover up. None of the local women show any skin besides hands, face, and feet, and I would have felt really uncomfortable here (unlike Chiang Mai) in shorts and a tank top.
Also, before we went on this trip, I imagined Borneo to be so wild and untamed and riddled with exotic diseases and animals just waiting to attack me. Well…it’s totally not like that. It may have been at one time and it probably is like that if you go deep into the jungle but if you’re just sticking around the touristy areas like us, you shouldn’t worry like I did. No need to buy leech socks or anything (something I may or may not have considered haha).
Even considering all our issues getting there, we really loved our first few hours in Malaysia.
Our next couple days in Borneo were spent hanging out with toddler orangutans (yay!), lounging by the pool, avoiding monitor lizards, and basking in the sun on secluded islands…check back here soon for blog posts!