Things Learned in KK (Part 1)

This is the first of a series of blog posts I plan to write about all the hiking, trekking, and tramping I’ve been doing these past few months, in between work and graduate school.

My trip to Kota Kinabalu last February was a manifold lesson in independence. It not only meant a lot of firsts for me—first time to travel without friends or family, first time to go abroad, first time to plan a week-long trip, first time to climb a high-altitude (more than 3500 MASL) mountain —I also went into it alone. These are the things I learned.


It all started with a phone call from an aunt late one night in October 2011: “May flight sale to Kota Kinabalu! Di ba gusto mo pumunta dun? Book kita? Sa February! DALI SAGOT BAKA MAUBOS YUNG SEATS!” (“There’s a sale for flights to Kota Kinabalu! Don’t you want to go there? Want me to book for you? Travel in February! Answer quick, the seats might run out!”) Bored and depressed, about to quit my job with no solid plans for the near future, and literally flailing in the darkness, I said yes, yes, yes.

At that point I only knew two things. One, Kota Kinabalu was somewhere in Southeast Asia. Two, the majestic Mt. Kinabalu stood there, and it offered a spectacular height from which one could fling oneself. So my next step was to supplement my pitiable knowledge and turn to Lord Google. Where, exactly, was Kota Kinabalu, and what do I do once I get there?

Location of Kota Kinabalu district and the cit...

Location of Kota Kinabalu district and the city within the West Coast Division of Sabah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Wikipedia quickly filled me in on the things I needed to know about my destination:

  • Kota Kinabalu, fondly called KK, is the capital city of the state of Sabah, which belongs to Malaysia, but which is also being claimed by the Philippines based on historical facts concerning the Sultanate of Sulu. Not here to give a history lesson, so turn to Lord Google for more information.
  • Its climate is very similar to the Philippines’ so I don’t have to add anything new to my wardrobe, except cold weather apparel for hiking Mt. Kinabalu.
  • The crime rate is pretty low, most of the people speak basic English, and there’s a considerable Filipino population in the capital. So I wouldn’t worry too much about getting mugged or getting hopelessly lost despite my abysmal sense of direction.
  • One could foot it from the airport to the city center, but as I would arrive there at night carrying luggage for a week, I felt it was not an option, haha. The standard rate for a cab from the airport to the city center was 30 RM.
  • The local currency is Malaysian Ringgit (RM or MYR) which is equivalent to about 14 Philippine Pesos.
  • From KK, one could go to other tourist destinations in Sabah, like the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (a collection of five islands—Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik—just 15-30 minutes by boat from KK), and further, Labuan (the “Pearl of Borneo”), Sandakan (for wildlife sanctuaries where one could see orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and marine turtles), Sarawak (where the Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage site, is. The park features Mt. Mulu and the world’s largest cave system. There are also wildlife sanctuaries and beaches here.) So basically, you go to Sabah for nature adventures!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to go to all them islands and beaches and wildlife parks, and I figured, we have enough of them in the Philippines, haha. I wanted to go to KK for this: to reach the supposedly highest*, arguably the most famous, and definitely the most prominent peak in Southeast Asia: Mt. Kinabalu.

*Mt. Kinabalu is actually the third highest peak in Southeast Asia; the top two spots go to Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, and Puncak Jaya in Indonesia

Mt. Kinabalu viewed from Mesilau Park

Mt. Kinabalu viewed from Mesilau Park

So I planned my trip around the goal of climbing Mt. Kinabalu.

The first thing to take care of is securing accommodations at Laban Rata, the rest house a couple of kilometres below the summit where climbers must stay overnight during the two-day climb** (camping is not allowed). Laban Rata (as well as other accommodations in Kinabalu Park and in KK) is managed by a private company, Sutera. It practically has the monopoly of Kinabalu activities, which it sub-licenses to other tour companies. The accommodations are limited and the waiting list, long, so it would be best to book like two months before the trip.

It’s a bitch to book directly with Sutera, so climbers usually book with tour companies. I did some googling and decided to book with Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures, which is accredited by the Sabah Tourism Board, and has a lot of good reviews. I had wanted to book with another company I found online, which offered cheaper packages, but decided not to push through with it, because they seemed shady (no business address, no full names given, just a blogging site) and weren’t on the accredited list. Plus, I wanted to climb Mt. Kinabalu via the Mesilau Trail, and Downbelow is one of the few companies that offer that option.

I’m glad I went with Downbelow, because they really were marvelous. They answered my queries promptly and comprehensively, addressed my concerns and requests, held my reservation though I paid late because of technical and scheduling problems, and even refunded my single-traveler surcharge when I ended up sharing their private transportation service with a few other travelers to and from Kinabalu Park. After I gave them my specifications, they emailed me the invoice for the tour package, along with the payment details, and I paid through my bank via telegraphic transfer.

**One could day hike Mt. Kinabalu, actually. According to this site, a day hike would cost about 225 RM, which is like a quarter of what it cost me for a 3D/2N climb package, haha!

street art in the KK city center

street art in the KK city center

After I secured my climbing slot, I looked for accommodations in the city center. I was to stay there for six days, and my climbing tour package covered only three days. I tried CouchSurfing, but unfortunately, none of the hosts I contacted could offer me a place to stay (although, granted, I didn’t send requests to a lot of people because I’m picky like that, haha! I contacted only hosts I felt I could get along splendidly with), so I just decided to look for a backpackers lodge. Again, I did some googling and settled on Lavender Lodge. Aside from being budget-friendly (30 RM per night in the dorm room, with breakfast), Lavender Lodge is also accessible, with shopping centers and ukay-ukays, markets, banks, money changers, cinemas, laundry places, restaurants and eateries, and so on a mere five minutes’ walk away.

I loved my stay there. The place was clean and comfortable and had several bathrooms per floor, as well as a laundry area, a TV lounge, and a computer room where I could surf the net for free (that was a big help, because I forgot to go on roaming and anyway, my cellphone battery got fried). Plus the staff were all Filipinos! It was a comfort to be able to speak in my native language when alone in a foreign country, and I enjoyed chatting with the staff over cups of coffee or tea. Thank you so much to the admin officers, Ate Lena and Tita Nora, for taking care of me and keeping me company in Lavender Lodge. When I go back to KK, I’ll definitely stay there again. :)

After getting my accommodations in order, I sat back, relaxed, and read more about Kota Kinabalu and climbing its famed mountain.

first view of KK from the plane

My general plan was this:

Day 1 – Check in at the lodge, get my money changed at the nearby Centre Point Mall, go to the night market for dinner, read tourist guidebooks

Day 2 – Walking tour of the city center; visit nearby tourist attractions, do last-minute shopping for climbing gear

Day 3 – Transfer to Kinabalu Park, get in some pre-climb hiking, then transfer to Mesilau Park, explore!

Days 4-5 – Climb Mt. Kinabalu

Day 6 – Explore more of Kota Kinabalu in the morning, buy pasalubong, then prepare for the evening flight back home.

I figured I’d prepare a more detailed itinerary when I got there.

Notes on budget

  • Roundtrip airfaire via Cebu Pacific: 3, 796 Php

  • Climb package with Downbelow: 1, 385 RM – 115 RM (single traveler surcharge refund) = 1270 RM or about 17 685 Php

  • KK City accommodation in Lavender Lodge: 30 RM/night x 3 nights = 90 RM or about 1, 253 Php
  • Food: About 10 RM/day x 3 days (because food is included in the 3D/2N tour package)= 30 RM or about 418 Php
  • Fare to go around KK: 60 RM (cab fare from and to the airport) + 6 RM (for roaming around KK) = 66 RM or about 919 Php

Total budget (excluding pasalubong and hiking gear expenses): about 24K Php. Add to that travel tax, and it would amount to more than 25K, homaygulay!


Thank you, Auntie, for paying for my airfare (late graduation gift).

Thank you, parents, for paying for half of the climb package (Christmas 2011 + birthday 2012 gift)
KALOKA, haha!

Up next:






4 thoughts on “Things Learned in KK (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Things Learned in KK (Part 2) | tenant on the top floor

  2. Pingback: Things Learned in KK (Part 3) | tenant on the top floor

  3. Pingback: Things Learned in KK (Part 4) | tenant on the top floor

  4. Pingback: The Year in Writing and Wandering | tenant on the top floor

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