Kota Kinabalu City Guide

by Jose Marc Castro on August 19, 2008

costoflivingMALAYSIA200Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of the state of Sabah in east Malaysia.  It is situated in the northwest coast of the island of Borneo on a narrow flatland surrounded by the Crocker Range in the east and the South China Sea in the west.  Kota Kinabalu, or simply KK, is a major commercial and industrial center in east Malaysia.  Its well-maintained airport and network of roadways and railways contribute to its commercial and industrial growth.  Its economy is supported by a strong agriculture, palm oil, and fishing industries, manufacturing industries, and service sectors.  The latter became more apparent due to Kota Kinabalu’s growing popularity as a prime tourist get-away.  Its long sandy beaches, pristine blue waters and coral reefs, tropical rainforests, and mountain ranges are popular destination for tourists.

Kota Kinabalu used to be a small fishing village called Api-api.  In the late 1890’s, the British North Borneo Company came to establish a deep-sea port and a settlement in the area. It was renamed Jesselton, after Sir Charles Jessel, who was then BNBC’s vice-chairman.  It was once again renamed into Kota Kinabalu in 1967, which was four years after North Borneo joined the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak, and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia.  It got its name from Mount Kinabalu, which stands 90 kilometers east-northeast from the city. Kota is a Malay word for fort, town, or city, hence giving Kota Kinabalu a literal translation of “Kinabalu City”.  It was granted city status on February 2, 2000.

It is the seat of the state government where almost all of their ministries and agencies are based. Most of the Malaysian federal government agencies and departments are also located in Kota Kinabalu. The Sabah State Legislative Assembly is located at nearby Likas Bay.

Kota Kinabalu’s population is made up of people from different ethnic groups and races, which practice different religions. The Kadazans practice Christianity, while the Bajaus and Malays practice Islam.  The Chinese in Kota Kinabalu are mostly of Hakkan descent and practice either Christianity or Buddhism.  Filipino, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, and Eurasian migrants are also living in the city.  Recently, a number of expatriates from South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Europe have also come to settle in Kota Kinabalu.

Hospitals and Universities of Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu has several private and public hospitals.  The first of these private hospitals is the Saba Medical Centre (SMC) at Lorong Bersatu off Jalan Damai.  It was established in 1986 and it is one of the most advanced modern general care hospitals in the state of Saba and east Malaysia.  The center has 24-hour emergency services and specializes in orthopedics and traumatology, surgery, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, cardiology, nephrology and haemodialysis, oncology, Dermatology, psychiatry, obstetrics & gynecology, pediatrics, urology, and gastroenterology.

The other private hospital in Kota Kinabalu is Damai Specialist Center located at Lorong Tepus off Jalan Damai.  The three public hospitals and health clinic in Kota Kinabalu are the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Likas Specialist Hospital, Hospital Bukit Padang at Jalan Kolam’ Luyang, and Klinik Kesihatan Luyang.  The Queen Elizabeth Hospital is located at Beg Berkunci, and is the largest public   general care hospital in Saba.  The hospital has 589 beds and provides services in internal medicine, surgery, anesthesiology, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics, ophthalmology, otoRhinoLaryngology, dermatology, cardiology, nephrology, and urology. It has won several prestigious awards in service from the state and federal government.

Educational Facilities

The Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) is the only university found in Kota Kinabalu.  UMS is a public tertiary educational institution established in 1994.  It is the 9th university in Malaysia   and stands in a 999-acre plot of land at Sepanggar Bay.  The university is divided into the schools of social sciences, psychology and social work, science and technology, engineering and information technology, food science and nutrition, international tropical forestry, business and economics, education and social development, art studies, medicine, and sustainable agriculture.    UMS encourages the application of international students in the university by providing various support services.  These include assistance in the university and student-visa applications, administrative advices, and a full orientation of the university and its facilities.  Communication will often not pose as a problem as English is used as a second language in Malaysia.

Kota Kinabalu also has private colleges, of which includes the INTI College Saba at Putatan Point, Kinabalu Commercial College at Wisma Sabah, Informatics College along Jalan Datuk Salleh Sulong, AMC School Of Business at the 2nd floor of the Karamunsing Complex, Kinabalu College at the 2nd floor of the Bornion Center, and TAR College along Jalan Tuaran.

Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) is the largest university in Sabah and was founded in 1994. Its main campus is located on a 999 acre piece of land, on a hill facing the South China Sea at Sepanggar Bay, about 10 kilometres north of the city centre. It also has a branch campus in Labuan. It is considered as one of the most beautiful universities in Malaysia. The oldest University in Sabah is Universiti Teknologi MARA Sabah Campus which was co-founded by UiTM and Yayasan Sabah in 1973. The university has earned local and national reputation.

Commercial Establishments in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu has a list of shopping malls like in most major cities in the world.  Its five major shopping malls are the Centrepoint Saba, Karamunsing Complex, KK Plaza, Wawasan Plaza and Wisma Merdeka.  The Centerpoint Saba, found on the corner of Lebuh Raya Pantai Baru and Jalan Duapuloh, is the largest of these shopping centers in Kota Kinabalu.  It is a 10-storey structure that features boutiques that carry top local and international brands, other specialty shops, spas, fitness centers, and several cafes and restaurants. Some office spaces are also located here.

Aside from shopping centers, Kota Kinabalu also has Tamu or Sunday Flea Markets, such as the Gaya Street Fair.  A variety of commodities and food items are sold in these   Sunday markets at much lower prices than that of those sold in the shopping centers.   The Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market is an excellent place to find local handicrafts, home decorations, sarong, batik, pearls, and crystals.  Formerly known as Pasar Filipino, it is situated along Tun Fuad Stephen Street across the Sinsuran Complex.

Restaurants and Dining Establishments

Kota Kinabalu has various ethnic groups that had influenced the local cuisine, such as Malay, Chinese, and Indian.  This affords for the diversity of flavors and presentation of the dishes.  Food establishments serving these regional specialties are found almost anywhere in the city, from the most luxurious fine dining restaurants to the hawkers in the street market.  The most famous of these food establishments is the @mosphere, which is a revolving restaurant, located at the 18th floor of Borneo’s tallest building, the Menara Tun Mustapha.  It presents a 360-degree view of the city, the Crocker Range, and the South China Sea.  @Mosphere specializes in Pacific Rim cuisine, as well as local dishes.  Anjappar at the Asia City Complex and Kohinoor by the waterfront are two restaurants that serve Chettinad or North Indian cuisine.  For Malaysian dishes, Jothy’s Fish Head Curry and Banana Leaf Restaurant at the Api-api Center is an excellent place to find halal Indian/Malay cuisine.  While the Moon Bell along Jalan Haji Saman serves traditional Chinese/Malay dishes.

Being a city by the sea, Kota Kinabalu has numerous restaurants that specialize in local seafood cuisine.  Such notable establishments are the New Gaya Seafood Restaurant, which sits next to the Gaya Sports Recreation Centre Ocean Seafood Restaurant beside the Promenade Hotel and Parkson Grand, Portview Seafood Restaurant at the waterfront across Centerpoint, and Salut Seafood Restaurant near the Sepanggar Bay and Telipok.

Kota Kinabalu also has a list of restaurants serving western or European cuisine.  Some Italian restaurants in the city are Grazie Ristorante Pizzeria & Café situated at Wawasan Plaza Complex, next to the Tang Dynasty Hotel and the Little Italy Restaurant located within the city center.  Other prominent western establishments are Jeff D’ Corner in Luyang whose specialty are lamb and beefsteaks, oxtail soup, lam shank, and barbecue lamb and the German/Italian restaurant Gunter’s Gasthaus  on Tuaran Road in Likas.  The  Tanjung Ria Café at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Cafe Boleh at the Pacific Sutera Hotel, and Five Sails at the Magellan Sutera Hotel all offer buffets with international cuisine.

Night Spots

The best place for a night out in Kota Kinabalu is at the city’s hotels and in the areas surrounding it.  Most of these clubs would feature live bands or a dance floor with DJ’s supplementing the music.  One of these prominent establishments is The Office Pub in the Api-api Centre, near the Promenade hotel.  This establishment is famous for its Quiz Night and is a favorite among locals, Australians, British, Americans, and South Africans.  The Cottage in Taman Luyang is Kota Kinabalu’s oldest English pub.  It features live bands and  nightly pool and darts competitions.  The Hyatt Hotel has the Mosiac Wine Bar and Shenanigans, which are both upscale establishments.  Other notable nightclubs  around these area are Upperstar right across Shenanigans, Cocoon which sits around the corner from Upperstar, Blue Note wine bar at Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort,  and the Latino bar Rumba below the Le Meridien.

The Waterfront, opposite the Promenade hotel, is a narrow strip in Kota Kinabalu packed with pubs and nightclubs.  The most prominent venues in this area is B.E.D. which is a popular dance place with live bands and DJ’s, the Irish-themed pub Shamrock, and the Loft which presents an excellent view of Kota Kinabalu’s famed sunset.

Service Establishments of Kota Kinabalu

Telephone service in Kota Kinabalu is provided by Malaysia’s largest telecommunication company, Telekom Malaysia (TM).  It has a wide coverage and has monopoly over the fixed line  network in Malaysia.  TM also provides mobile network services and internet connection through its subsidiaries, TM Touch and TM Net.  Internet connection may be narrow band or a DSL broad band.  Application for any of its services may be done by visiting any of its branch offices or TM Points.  Kota Kinabalu has the following TM Points: TM Point Sadong Jaya at Tingkat Bawah in Sadong Jaya Karamunsing and TM Point Tanjung Aru at the ground floor of Plaza Tg. Aru on Jalan Mat Salleh.

Electric power in Peninsular Malaysia  and Saba is supplied by Tenaga Nasional Berhad.  TNB is Malaysia’s main power provider and has its head office in Kuala Lumpur.  Applications for service can be done via e-application by accessing their website or visiting their branch offices.

The Royal Malaysia Police has two district offices located in Kota Kinabalu.  They are the Kota Kinabalu District Police Headquarters in Karamunsing, and the Penampang District Police Headquarters.  These two headquarters also function as police stations in addition to the others located in the city.  Other  police stations are located in KKIA, Tanjung Aru, Putatan, and Menggatal.  Police substations, on the other hand, are found in Luyang, Likas, Telipok, and Babagon.  The Traffic  Police have its headquarters along Lorong Dewan nearby Gaya Street, and the Marine Police has its station located along Jalan Tun Razak nearby the city ferry terminal.

Embassies in Kota Kinabalu

Most foreign embassies and consulates have their offices located in Kuala Lumpur.  There are however, a few consulates found in Kota Kinabalu.  They are the  Honorary Consulate of Sweden at Jalan Minyak off Jalan Tuaran, the Office of the Honorary British Consul at Jalan Api-Api off Jalan Gaya, and the Consulate of Australia at the 10th floor of Wisma Great Eastern Life on Jalan Gaya.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Hart January 23, 2010 at 12:32 am

We will be in KK in September. My wife and I would like to go fishing. I would like a fishing guide to contact me.
Michael Hart
[email protected]


sim March 23, 2010 at 7:14 am

we will be in kk in july. family trip and i would like to find a guide can bring us to kk park for 3 days 2 nite stay there. one of the city tour charge me rm75o one day excludes fuel . so i just want to find any cheaper then these 🙂


Rick Glaser April 20, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I am an American man, currently working in Saudi Arabia. I plan to retire in six years. Malaysia’s MM2H program (10-year resident visa) sounds good, but I cannot decide which city or town would be best for me. So I would like to get recommendations from people who have experience living in different parts of Malaysia.

I’m looking for peace & quiet, and I want to be close to clean seawater for swimming. I also want access to shopping and medical facilities. A low cost of living is also a priority, but SAFETY is more important than anything else. (Safety means that I can walk around at night without fear of being kidnapped or murdered; it also means that I would be out of the “typhoon belt”.)

I’ve been reading about three places in eastern Malaysia: Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, and Miri. Let me know what you think of those places, or any other place that you’d recommend.

[email protected]


Moin Setimin August 15, 2010 at 6:44 am

Among the three places you mentioned in your posting, Kota Kinabalu is the obvious choice…most visitors have very good feedback about the city. There are many modern shopping complexes and medical facilities are superb. You can also visit our islands where you can swim or do scuba diving. Infact, if you are a diver, Sabah (Kota Kinabalu is its capital city) prides itself as having one of the best diving spots in the world located in Sipadan Island. Infrastructure is great while public transport is easily accessible. Then we have the highest mountain in South East Asia known as Mount Kinabalu, its view is sheer magic, believe me. The air is cool and refreshing while the locals are extremely friendly and helpful. I am talking about the natives here and I am one of them, only that I am in Labuan, a small island in the middle of the South China Sea, that is under the administration of federal territory of Malaysia.

I could go on to tell you about the nice things about Sabah but I suggest you make a trip to Sabah and obtain first hand information. You wont be disappointed.



Kamchaska May 8, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Can anyone please tell me, is there a shop in Kota Kinabalu where I can buy any Dutch cheese?


mel September 1, 2010 at 8:22 am

Hello…have you tried finding it in Tong Hing Supermarket?usually they sell imported products there:)


irene March 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm

try tong hing in kk town


jim smith May 30, 2010 at 12:25 am

Hello folks,

me, my wife and 3 kids (under 12) are considering moving to Kota Kinbalu in July, 2010. Can we live reasonably well on 10,000 ringgit per month?

we will pay usual living expenses except kids tuition is paid by employer

We will pay rent for 3 bedroom/2 bath apartment or house depending on monthly cost?

How muc is health insurance?

What about food/clothing?

Is it safe there for kids? Are the local people kind and to considerate foreignors?

Do you think the kids get along okay?

Can anyone tell me if this is dooable or am I out of my mind?

Thanks very much!



Drew McGhie November 27, 2010 at 10:23 am

Hi Jim, I was hoping someone would answer you as my wife and I also have a good offer to work/live in Sabah. Can you say more now you are there, appreciated.



emilia June 8, 2010 at 11:09 am

my husband,daughter and I moved recently to kk from sri lanka we would like to meet some people hereand enjoy kk…..he's cuban-American i from venezuela…..he's workin in Bella Italia Restaurant in jesselton hotel


Fred Harry October 19, 2011 at 1:20 am

Hi retired single white causcasian male moving to KK, would like to meet single women from Australia, Uk and so on, local Christian, Chinese, Indian etc.


Simon April 28, 2012 at 10:41 am

We are a UK family moving to Kota Kinabalu in September 2012 for a year. We are wondering if there are any good realtors who can help us find a house? We'd like to live near the KK International School. Any thoughts/ recommendations happily received!


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