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Kota Kinabalu & surrounding area - Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu

The city which was formerly known as Jesselton is the state capital of Sabah, the northern Malaysian province on the island of Borneo.
Kota Kinabalu is located on the northwestern end of Borneo, enclosed by national parks. Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, 2 thirds of which cover ocean and islands, to the west. And Kinabalu Park with Mt. Kinabalu (which gave the city it's recent name) to the east of Kota Kinabalu.

Kota Kinabalu is also often referred to as KK, both nationaly as well as internationally, borrowing the abbreviation style of Kuala Lumpur (KL). KK is a fast growing asian city, being one of the commercial and industrial centres in Eastern Malaysia. Numerous tourist attractions and easy access to the province of Sabah make Kota Kinabalu a perfect entry or hub into Borneo.


The origin of the city's current name is still disputed and may be traced to a couple of different origins.
Widely accepted nowadays is the derivation of "Aki Nabalu" which roughly translates as "revered place of the dead". Where "Aki" carries the meaning of "ancestors" or "grandfather" and "Nabalu" is the moutains (Mt. Kinabalu) name in the Dusun language.
The second plausible derivation is from the term "Ki Nabalu". Here "Ki" means "have" or "exist" and "Nabalu" stands for "spirit of the dead".
"Kota" on the other hand is a Malay word and means either "fort", "town" or "city". You will find this word frequently used throughout Malaysian city names, such as Kota Bharu, Kota Tinggi, and Kota Kemuning. As such, a current translation of "Kota Kinabalu" would read as "City of Kinabalu".
Other, older sources state a town name of "Api Api". Variations of this survived as the Chinese still call the town "Api". Obviously there are more names the town has been called in it's history, most of them referrring to a place which is now part of the town but may have been a separate village at the time. But you will still find mentioning of Kota Kinabalus heritage in all it's street and plaza names.


Kota Kinabalu exists since roughly the 15th century, at which time is was under the rule of the Bruneian Empire. Though as in other parts of the world - as the 18th century drew to a close the British had set their eyes on the area. From 1882 to 1899 the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) was trying out spots to lacate their settlement until, after being forcefully driven of the Gaya Island in 1897 by the indigenous Bajau-Suluk freedom fighter Mat Salleh, they agreed on the location of the fishing village Api Api. It's proximity to the railway lines and a natural 7 meter deep harbor were the winning arguments.
Short after settling, the construction began and one of the first name changes in the city's history took place. In honor of the then vice-chairman of the British North Borneo Company Sir Charles Jessel, the town was renamed Jesselton.

During the second world war the city endured a lot of destruction from both sides, starting with the raze by the British during the Japanese invasion of Borneo. The japanese occupants lost no time and renamed the city to "Api". During the timeperiod until their surrender in 1945 there have been several civilian uprisings in Api and by the end of the war 3 houses were all that was left standing of then Kota Kinabalu.

After the war the British North Borneo Company attempted to gain foothold again and lost no time renaming the place to Jesselton again. Yet it became quickly clear that the comnpany either did not have the means or the guts to rebuild the area and signed control over to the British Crown. Until 1955 the British government spent about 6 million pounds to rebuild north Borneos Infrastructure.

In 1963 the crown colony joined the efforts to found the Federation of Malaysia together with Sarawak, Singapore and the eastern Malaysian states (Federation of Malay). Followed by a decission the State Legislative Assembly in 1967 to rename Jesselton into Kota Kinabalu. In February 2000 finaly the town received city status which is granted if the local government has a minimum population of 500,000 and an annual income of not less than 100 million Ringit.


As we already learned, Kota Kinabalu is located on the northwestern tip of Borneo. The city is mostly located on a narrow stretch of flat land between the south china sea to the west and a mountain range in the east.
The north-south mountain ridge which separates the northern Borneo west and east coasts also accommodates Mt. Kinabalu, the regions (and Borneo's and Malaysia's for that matter) highest peak at 4,096 metres. The region is known as "Kinabalu Park" and in addition to being a national park has been accorded UNESCO World Heritage status.

West of Kota Kinabalu in the South China Sea you will find 6 islands. Gaya Island is the largest of them and also the site of the first British colony. The other islands are Sapi Island, Manukan Island, Sulug Island, Mamutik Island and Sepanggar Island to the north. Five of these islands (Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Sulug, Mamutik) are part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.

Though the city is located in what is called flatlands, flat land within the city is becoming a rarity. The hills which are to steep for development are coated by rainforest to this day. One of the best known is Signal Hill which confines the Central Business District to the shores and sparates it from the rest of the city.


Due to Kota Kinabalu's location (Borneo crosses the equator) you will find a tropical to subtropical climate. Quite constant temperatures, humidity and rainfall will coincide with steady day lengths of about 12 hours sunlight. As in the rest of South East Asia, the two Monsoon seasons dominate the year in Borneo.
The average temparature lies between 29° and 28° with April and May being the hottest months. February and March on the other hand are the driest months though the city has an average rainfall of 2400mm per year. October will usually have the rain percentage due to the South West Monsoon during that period.

Things to do in and around Kota Kinabalu:

Well... go out and eat

With almost half the population of chinese decent and other large minorities from across asia the menu's in Kota Kinabalu do not miss out on diversity. That plus the long history of spanish and english colonisation means you can indulge into almost any food you could wish for.

Kinabalu Park

Established in 1964 this national park has been Malaysia's first World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO in December 2000. As Malaysia is counted towards the Ultra-divers countries anyway, the region around Mt. Kinabalu has been accredited for it's immense richness in flora and fauna. More than 4500 species are estimated to have a home in Kinabalu Park. Over 300 of these are birds and about 100 others cover mammals. So if you enjoy watching nature this is a must see. Furthermore do you have the ability to climb Mt. Kinabalu. You do not have to be an athlete to do so - we have assurances that 40 year old desk-jockeys did not have a hard time reaching the peak. Though the mountain is part of the Crocker Range, a mountain ridge running north to south, the Crocker Range National Park is an entirely different cup of tea and is located further to the south.
Roughly an hours drive east of Kota Kinabalu the Kinabalu Park is an easy to reach attraction for day or half-day tours.

Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

This national park includes 5 of the six islands found in front of the shores of Kota Kinabalu. Roughly two thirds of this park are ocean. Originating from the same sediments as the Crocker Range to the east, this group of islands were part of the mainland before the last ice age. The park was named after Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first Prime Minister.