Beautiful Borneo beyond the Rainforest – in search of Sun, Sand and Sea!

NO! Of course we didn’t travel 11,513 kms just to sit by a pool! But – I must admit that after 7 days in the jungle….well….a little self-pandering is allowed I think!!

After a week of early mornings – and I mean EARLY mornings (!) – and lots of organised activity, it’s very easy to succumb to the lethargy of a resort hotel sundeck. Pretty much everyone tags a few leisure days on to their jungle experience. For some, it means heading off to a nearby island for a spot of diving. A few leave to tackle the impressive Mount Kinabalu – the tallest mountain in Malaysia (OK – not very leisurely I know but one man’s meat is another man’s poison as they say!). Most head to a resort hotel for relaxation and maybe a bit of snorkelling.

And that’s what we did – 5 nights at the rather grand sounding Shangri-La Tanjung Aru in Sabah’s state capital, Kota Kinabalu.

Most visitors to Sabah find themselves in Kota Kinabula – or KK – at some stage. It’s a funny one – neither one thing or the other….. traditional fishing boats v party craft / hawker stalls v massive airconditioned malls / street food v trendy western style restaurants and bars…. The often successful blend of old and new didn’t work for me here and I didn’t particularly take to the place – but most people seem to love it so there you go!

This once humble fishing village was granted city status in 2000 and today is home to some 500,000 inhabitants- making it the sixth largest urban area in Malaysia. It has attracted a significant migrant population, from China, Philippines, India and increasingly from Korea. With its international airport, the city serves as a major transportation hub for the region, as well as experiencing growth and development in the administration sector, manufacturing, port industry and of course local tourism

Old but beautiful – traditional fishing vessels dot the bay…..

Gaya Street is a busy hub during the week but the street closes to traffic for its famous weekend market….

Foot massage anyone????

Along the waterfront, lies a string of markets offering fish, fruit, clothing, crafts and jewellery…

The cultural melting pot that is KK is reflected in it’s food and Malay, Chinese, Filipino and European have all brought their own cuisine. There are plenty of food stalls to choose from as well as small local restaurants. The malls offer fast food options and coffee shops.

The Waterfront is pretty much the heart of nightlife in the city and is where most of the pubs, clubs, bars and newer restaurants are located.

All rather idyllic – pleasure boats in the bay and Majestic Mount Kinabalu looming in the distance……

…..BUT……

A closer look reveals some of the famous / infamous stilt settlements sitting in front of the modern development…..

KK is known for its surrounding stilt villages which have been constructed in the nearby shallow and sheltered coastal waters. These clusters are home to various ethnic groups – most famously the Bajaus (often called Sea Gypsies) originally from the Philippines – and the jumble of plywood, corrugated iron and plastic is connected by a web of narrow wooden planks. Some families have been here for generations and are considered natives under Sabah law but recent decades have brought quite an influx of new migrants who are without proper documentation.

There are guided tours into some areas but visiting alone is not recommended.

A word about Mount Kinabalu……

The tallest mountain in Malaysia, sitting at 4095.2 meters (13,435 feet) above sea level, Mount Kinabula lies about 60kms in from KK. For those interested in a bit of a challenge, 150 climb permits are issued per day. Climbers must engage a guide and there is a compulsory overnight stay. If that all sounds like too much of an effort, the surrounding National Park is a great place for short treks and wildlife spotting.

Tanjung Aru Beach is very popular with locals – particularly at weekends. Here they come to enjoy walks, picnics, meeting family and friends, bathing, kite flying, pop up food stalls and watching the sun set on the South China Sea…..

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

This collection of 5 islands (Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik) forms a national reserve just 3 kms off the coast of KK and is one of the city’s main attractions. The actual park includes the islands, their reefs and the surrounding sea. Shuttles take about 15-20 minutes depending on the island and several boat companies depart from a range of jetties. The islands are mostly frequented by day trippers although two of them offer accommodation. Nature trails are available for those wishing to explore but most visitors are there for the beaches and snorkelling. Three of the islands are particularly accessible by boat and make up a popular day trip with tourists opting to spend a few hours on each island. The entrance fee to the park is RM5/adult and RM3/child. Non-Malaysians fees are RM20/adult and RM15/child. (RM20 = circa €4.50).

Planning for the day out needs to take weather into consideration and there might not be a great window of opportunity. The staff in our hotel Marine Shop were particularly helpful and we’d a few days to play with but in the end we unfortunately didn’t strike lucky…

We opted for just one island – Manukan – and headed off around 9.30am.

The island is lovely but alas – those grey skies, along with a bit of churning in the water, meant conditions didn’t suit us for snorkelling…

Having a look……..

No – he was right – I can’t see anything ……

Ah well – at least we have Pringles!!!!!

We stayed maybe 2 hours or so before deciding to head back to the hotel. We might have hung around and enjoyed a lunch etc. but we’d left our books behind us and although the island was beautiful, a few hours was enough. We could have tried again another day but we were happy with our outing despite not seeing any fish and left it at that.

Hotel Shang-Ri La Tanjung Aru

There is a great selection of pools (including adult only) and water slides. The animation team offer all the usual poolside activities…

There is a manmade sandy beach but it’s not as popular as the pool area…

The hotel boasts its own jetty and shuttle service to the islands…..

…. and of course all the usual water sports are on offer…..

We were on a breakfast only plan so cannot comment on dinner. Breakfast was impressive, catering for up to 1000 guests with their myriad of cultures and palates

The pool menu offers mainly western fare, with a selection of sandwiches, burgers and pizzas available at lunchtime.

The Sunset Bar is one of the most popular places in town….

The Positives

A lovely pool area and associated facilities.

It’s own jetty and shuttle to the islands.

Very good Breakfast

Niggly Bits

A good 15 minute drive into the city centre so there’s no wandering in on foot for dinner or a market.

The Pool Bar closed at 10.00pm and the foyer bar never opened (August, 2022). So our only option for a late night drink was via room service ( which could be delivered to the foyer or wherever you were seated).

Small Stuff

Getting There

Flight time from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu is circa 2.5hrs

Getting About

Taxis are (relatively) expensive and few and far between. For convenience, invest in a SIM card – (about €5 will cover 7 days). The retailer will change your card for you and install the GRAB app – (GRAB is Malaysian UBER). GRAB is cheap (€2 -€3 from hotel into city centre), reliable and easy to use.

Within the city itself, everything of note is pretty much within walking distance.

What to Bring

In deference to local culture, I was more comfortable having knees and shoulders covered when in town (rather than shorts and strappy tops). This also applied to breakfast at the hotel although resort wear is fine around the pool.

Attribution – Wikimedia / EHitchcock

27 thoughts on “Beautiful Borneo beyond the Rainforest – in search of Sun, Sand and Sea!

    1. WOO HOO!!!! Those months in between will fly by! Buy your leech socks on line – We booked very late and didn’t research enough until the last minute so I dashed into town for women’s white football socks which were harder to find and €10 per pair… You can buy the leech socks at the lodges but they varied in quality quite a bit….

    1. It is indeed but still a bit of a chore getting there – 3 flights. We reckon we’re getting beyond the back to back long haul flights – if we’re lucky enough to get long distance again we’ll have to break up the trip I think. XXXMarie

  1. Great post and such fantastic photos, Marie. I would love to visit Borneo for a chance to see Orangutans who are now endangered due to the loss of their natural habitat, poachers, and the illegal pet trade. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

  2. Another really informative post, thank you 😊 I enjoy a few days downtime like this after a busy trip, but on the whole I prefer smaller resorts. And like you I would rather be able to stroll into a local town or village!

    1. I generally can keep going as long as I must when I’ve the resort bit to look forward to. We actually booked this trip very quickly and without enough research time so the hotel location wasn’t ideal for us. But having said that, it worked out great and it was well able to cater for its guests – despite the large numbers – especially over the weekend, we always found beds and an umbrella at any time of day …

  3. Super exotic to get to travel to Borneo. The hotel looks amazing and I love the waterslides, so I don’t blame you if you spent a lot of time there! 🙂

    1. I’ve been in so many places over the years where the mix does work – but I just didn’t love this one… Having said that, we’d a lovely few days in KK so I wouldn’t put people off going there. XXXMarie

    1. I don’t do stand alone beach holidays very often but this was a great combination. The only problem is that so much of the lovely relaxation is undone by the length of the journey home!!

  4. Hi Marie
    Just going through old emails and realised I’m way behind on reading blogs!
    We stayed at the same resort almost 20 years ago and must say we loved it. It was great for our kids of 8 and 11 at the time. I remember there was a small deer wandering around that you could stroke. I imagine much has changed since.

    1. The town must have been quite undeveloped then………. Did you go to the rainforest also? It must have been a great experience with kids.

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