The coastal town of Kota Kinabalu is a great place to base yourself in Malaysian Borneo. There’s not only a heap of places to stay and eat, but it puts you in a great place to explore this part of Borneo and to come back to your hotel at night. There are some great hikes to take here, including the incredible Mount Kinabalu, there are some lovely islands just off the coast, and some fabulous wildlife opportunities too. You’ll be spoiled for choice! Here are our 11 best day trips from Kota Kinabalu.
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#1 DAY TRIP
Whether you choose to snorkel, dive or just visit, this is the best thing to do in Kota Kinabalu – visit the Marine Park of Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Head out for a fabulous time – but book early.
While you’re making KK your base in this part of Sabah, there are some fabulous places to explore just a little further afield, These are longer trips and you will need the full day from Kota Kinabalu to enjoy them. Most of these day excursions from Kota Kinabalu feature outdoor activities and the natural landscape that Sabah is very (rightfully) proud of.
The Best 11 Day trips to take from Kota Kinabalu
You have a lot of choices when it comes to taking trips from Kota Kinabalu. There are wildlife options, seeing orangutans for instance, or you can take a boat trip and head out to the islands. If gardens are your thing, then there are tea gardens and a botanical garden too.
1. Visit the Klias Wetland Mangrove Forest Reserve
The Klias Wetland Mangrove Forest Reserve is located about a 90-minute drive south of Kota Kinabalu and it makes for a perfect day trip from Kota Kinabalu.
We all know that Borneo has some of the most diverse forests and wildlife in the world. And coming to this Mangrove Forest Reserve is an amazing way to see it. A safari cruise to the Klias Wetland Forest is one of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu. To see the reserve properly is an entire day’s adventure. You’ll want to start with hiking to spot monkeys that can only be found in this region, include a boat cruise, and take some lunch featuring local dishes. The easiest way to see the Klias Wetland Mangrove Forest Reserve is on a trip from Kota Kinabalu, as for the perfect experience you’ll be driving back in the dark. As there’s a surprise here. You get to see the famous Sabah fireflies and they’re amazing (we also saw them in Mulu). At the end of the day it’s a great thing to do here, to enjoy the sunset and then see the unique fireflies lighting up the entire mangrove. If all of that isn’t enough, then signing up for white water rafting is also an option where you will have great fun on a 9.2 miles (15 km) long stretch of the river. Check out these options for visiting the Klias Wetland Reserve.
Or if you want to see the fireflies, then this is magical
- Address of Klias Wetland Mangrove Forest Reserve: Klias River Cruise, Kampong Kota Klias, 89800 Beaufort, Sabah, Malaysia
2. Have an Island Away Day from Kota Kinabalu
Going to a coastal town means island hopping and finding the best beaches in the area. Apart from Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, there are other islands to explore such as Dinawan Island and Sepanggar Island.
You should be able to book an island hopping tour that will visit popular islands and other spots for snorkeling and diving. Dinawan Island is just an hour from the city and is a world away. There’s kayaking, snorkeling, and paddle boarding available (and on this tour all equipment is provided). Come and chill out on Dinawan Island, a perfect day trip from Kota Kinabalu.
3. Climb Mount Kinabalu
Now, this is the biggy when it comes to Kota Kinabalu Day Trips, although you may need a little longer than a day! Mount Kinabalu is just 2-hours from Kota Kinabalu. This mountain is 13,435 feet (4,094 m) tall and is rich in flora, fauna, and orangutans. It’s a nature preserve and is managed by the local government.
During the rainy season (June to August), it’s not possible to summit the mountain, so plan carefully. There are accommodations throughout the trail and the hike is advised to be done in 2 or more days depending on your physical fitness. This is a hike that needs all the right equipment, you’ll need a good pair of hiking boots and a set of hiking poles too.
This hike might also require a day to acclimatize yourself. Outside of the climbing season, you can hike lower altitudes on the mountain and even have camping experiences. You can check what is possible in terms of hiking Mount Kinabalu during your visit to Sabah here.
If you like hiking, then you should head to the Cameron Highlands, there are some spectacular hikes there – and I wrote about the 7 best hikes in Cameron Highlands.
4. Go to Poring Hot Springs
Poring Hot Spring is 3-hours away from Kota Kinabalu and is situated just past Mount Kinabalu Mountain. An outdoor pool with mineral-rich hot spring water. Apart from enjoying the fresh and warm spring from the mountain, you can also enjoy a canopy walk, a butterfly house, unique flowers and plants, and even water slides. A perfect place to visit after climbing the mountain.
The water here comes from a series of springs and contains high levels of sulfur, which is said to have medicinal properties (plus the water helps with aching muscles too). The pools actually date from when the Japanese occupied during World War II. (There’s more on World War II in Malaysia in our post on Sandakan to Ranau here)
As well as the hot springs there are also canopy walkways and waterfalls to visit here. You may even get a chance to see the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia here.
- Address of Poring Hot Springs: 89300 Ranau, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Poring Hot Springs: 8 AM to 3 PM daily
- Entry Fees for Poring Hot Springs: Depending on which attraction you want to do, price ranges from RM5 ($1) and up
5. Go White Water Rafting near Kota Kinabalu
There are two main places to go white-water rafting near Kota Kinabalu. The prettiest is the Kiulu River, about an hour from Kota Kinabalu, in Tamparuli. Or if you want something more challenging, then you’ll find Grade 3 and Grade 4 rapids at the Padas River, which is 2 hours from Kota Kinabalu.
At Kiulu River, there are activities even for children, however, the place is closed during typhoon season for safety reasons. Apart from white rafting, you can also go camping and hike around the area.
- Address of White Rafting at Kiulu River: Kiulu Town, 89250, 89250 Tamparuli, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of White Rafting at Kiulu River: 8.30 AM to 6 PM
6. Explore the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park offers more than a snorkeling and diving spot. There are other things to do here through exploring the islands that make up the marine park which include Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manuka, Pulau Sulug, and Pilau Mamutik.
In these areas, you can find eco-resorts, golden sand beaches, fine white sand beaches, sea urchins, monitor lizards, and monkeys. For serenity, head to Pulau Sulug. Spending an entire day here will not be wasted.
7. Visit Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu
Sandakan is on the other side of Sabah, in fact, the exact opposite side. It is about 6 hours away (or a 50-minute flight), and so the only way to visit Sandakan on a day trip from Kota Kinabalu is to fly. (But if that’s all the time you have, I seriously recommend it). Many of the places you can visit from Sandakan include tours and trips where your local guides will pick you up at Sandakan airport and take you back for your return flight! Travel distance aside, Sandakan is home to incredible caves and the endangered proboscis monkeys, and it is pretty much the gateway to Sabah’s diverse nature and wildlife animals. If you’re looking to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Center, you should get to Sandakan first. Our guide to Sandakan is here – and you can explore further into the Kinabatangan River area here.
8. Visit Sepilok Orangutan Centre in Sabah
I’m taking a bit of a leap here, but I’m guessing that one of the reasons that you’re in Sabah is to see the glorious Orangutans. And this means that you’re truly going to have to leave Kota Kinabalu. So this is no longer part of things to do in Kota Kinabalu but it must be added to your itinerary. Sabah is the home of many wild orangutans.
This also means that there are people taking advantage of them and harming them. This is why the work that Sepilok Orangutan Center does, is fantastic and so important for these animals. There’s more about the Sepilok Orangutan Center here, but briefly…. At this orangutan rehab center, orangutans who are injured or found abandoned or orphaned are nursed to health before being released to the wild. It is an amazing place to visit. But please do watch out and keep your belongings close because some orangutans can be naughty and might steal your possessions. Don’t get too close to them (remember you are in their living space, this isn’t a zoo), to avoid startling the apes and causing any distress or hostility.
- Address of Sepilok Orangutan Centre: Sabah Wildlife Department, W.D.T. 200, Sandakan, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Sepilok Orangutan Centre: Every day, 9 Am to 11.30 AM then again from 2 Pm to 4 PM
- Entry Fees for Sepilok Orangutan Centre: RM 5 ($1) toRM30 ($6.83), RM10 $2.28) for camera fee
You can also see Orangutans from Kuching, Sarawak, at the Semenggoh Orangutan Rehab Center, our guide to visiting is here.
9. Visit the Botanical Gardens/Taman Botani
Located 2-hours from Kota Kinabalu, this botanical garden is worth a visit especially if you love being around nature, learning about different plants, and trees, and even seeing some birds. It sits right at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. You can walk around the garden in about 30 minutes depending on your speed. You can park right near the entrance.
- Address of Taman Botani: Kinabalu Park, 89300 Ranau, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Taman Botani: 7.30 AM to 4.30 AM every day
- Entry Fees for Taman Botani: RM5 ($1.14) or RM15 ($3.41) which includes a parking fee
10. Visit the Sabah Tea Garden/Ladang Tea Sabah
For tea lovers, a visit to this out-of-the-city destination is worth your time. It’s about 75 miles (120 km) or 2 hours drive from KK. They serve really great tea, and desserts, and offer an amazing view.
There are some information boards and posters about the area, however, there are no tours about the tea plantation or educational tours about the tea from Sabah.
- Address of Ladang Tea Sabah: KM 17, Jalan Ranau/Sandakan Kampung Nalapak, Beg berkunci, No.2, 89309 Ranau, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Ladang Tea Sabah: 7 AM to 8 PM daily
11. See the World’s Largest Flower from Kota Kinabalu.
This flower is one of the strangest and rarest in the world. It weighs up to 22 pounds (10 kilos!) and is only found in Sumatra, Java, Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, and the Philippines. The Rafflesia flower isn’t a flower, but a parasite that lives on a type of vine. Rafflesia flowers only bloom for between 3 and 5 days and at the end of their blooming, they smell like rotten meat. Rafflesia blooms between November and April.
If you’re here in Sabah during that time, ask at your hotel and check signs around the city, it tends to be publicized when there is a Rafflesia in bloom.
The best place to have a chance to see Rafflesia is at the Rafflesia Information Center, about 2 hours from Kota Kinabalu. The center is open from 8 am until 3 pm Monday to Saturday and it’s in Tambunan. You can either take a car, or taxi or get on a bus from Merdeka Field in Kota Kinabalu to Tambunan. Just tell the driver where you’re going and he’ll stop there.
- Address of Rafflesia Information Center: Rafflesia Information Centre, Tambunan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Rafflesia Information Center: 8 am to 3 pm Monday to Saturday
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Final Words on the 11 Best Day Trips from Kota Kinabalu
Staying put in Kota Kinabalu and enjoying the nightlife, and the fabulous food options available here means that you can head out for the day and return to the same great hotel each night. These day trips from Kota Kinabalu really do explore some of the best of this part of Borneo. And, you have so many options too!
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