Once in a Lifetime Journey was a guest at Sutera Sanctuary Lodges which is a member of the Secret Retreats collection and of the Sabah Tourism Board on this trip. As always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own.
As an expat living in Singapore, I’m constantly trying to find new places that are close by so that I can escape for a relaxing weekend. I have written about Bintan and Batam in Indonesia before, and while they are great getaways for a relaxing weekend on the beach and should not be overlooked, I found myself wanting a new experience. So when the opportunity to explore Malaysian Borneo came up, we couldn’t pass up on the offer.
If you have been following me for a while, you will know that I have visited Malaysia and Borneo countless times before. I had an adventure among the mangroves in Langkawi, picked strawberries in the Cameron Highlands, explored the culture and heritage in Brunei and swam with turtles in Borneo.
I have also dived in world renowned Sipadan. Yet the call to encounter a new part of this region was an experience that I did not want to miss out on. So here’s my guide to Sabah State including Kota Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park.
Where is Sabah and Kota Kinabalu
Situated close to Brunei and sharing land space with Kalimantan, Kota Kinabalu, or what locals call KK, is a quick 2,5hr flight from Singapore. Its location, just below the tropical typhoon belt, is warm year-round with temperatures usually not dropping below 22ᵒC in the day. This is why it is given the nickname “Land Below the Wind” and it was perfect for me as I’m not a fan of cold climates.
The infrastructure-ready and coastal capital city of the Sabah state in Malaysian Borneo has all bells and whistles you’d expect of a modern city, yet surrounded by the most lush jungle and tropical reefs to easily escape to, such as Manukan Island which is a short 15min ferry ride away or UNESCO-listed Kota Kinabalu Park, also a short 2hr drive away.
A brief history of Kota Kinabalu
Once part of the Bruneian Empire, Kota Kinabalu changed to the hands of the British in the 19th century when the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) established its first settlement near Gaya Island. Kota Kinabalu has seen various changes in its tumultuous history. Its various names it has been given signify state of constant flux.
It was originally known as Deasoka (“below the coconut tree”), then Api Api (“fire”), which became Singgah Mata (“pleasing to the eye”), Jesselton during the British occupancy (after Charles Jessel, vice-chairman of the BNBC), and finally Kota Kinabalu, where kota can mean “fort”, “town”, or a “city”. Kinabalu comes from nearby Mount Kinabalu which is said to be the highest peak in Malaysia, standing at 4,095m. To the west lies the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
The BNBC occupied the area of Gayah Bay from 1882 to 1897, after which the the indigenous Bajau-Suluk chief Mat Salleh, destroyed the settlement by burning it to the ground. After a brief relocation in what is now known as Sepanggar Bay, the BNBC moved once again to Api Api as it was near the North Borneo Railway and was a prime location to establish a port. The name of the area changed to Jesselton and became a hub for trading in the North Borneo area, mainly dealing in rubber, rattan, honey, and wax.
When the Japanese took over Borneo during World War II the name was changed back to Api. A famous uprising known as the Jesselton Revolt occurred in 1943, where local inhabitants known as the Kinabalu Guerrillas unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Japanese.
The Borneo Campaign in 1945 saw the Allied Forces bomb most of the area afterwhich only 3 buildings were left intact. The Japanese officially surrendered North Borneo in September 1945, leaving the remains of the ruined location to the BNBC. The expenses to rebuild the area were so devastating that North Borneo was ceded to the British Crown in 1946.
Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Guide to Sabah State including Kota Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park.