Review of living in Kota Kinabalu on a budget

We left Kota Kinabalu (KK to its friends) yesterday! What's it like living in Kota Kinabalu, you ask?

After we leave a city, Monica and Warren (their powers combined make Normal Nomads!) like to sit down for a moment and reflect. "What did we like?" "What did we not like?" That sort of thing.

And since this is the 21st century, what used to be a nice conversation between a married couple absolutely MUST be posted online for everyone to see!!! How else will you know how important/special we are!?!? Praise us like you should!!!!

Anyway, KK was great. We met some super cool people, did some nifty stuff, and drank some cheap-as-chips booze. In short, we don't remember much, but are pretty sure we had a good time ;)

Before we get started, if you are visiting KK and would like to hang out with some fun people, join and attend a meet-up. We did and not only did we have fun at the meet-ups themselves, but ended up making friends that we hung out with throughout our time there (and hopefully will see again!).

As you may have gathered by reading our other posts, we are not on vacation. We are on life (and yes, all of you who have read our other city reviews, I will always make that joke), so we didn't do all the touristy stuff. If you really want to go there and spend loads of money (that one too!), then I won't help you much here.

If you are unsure about what the categories are referring to and you'd like a bit more clarification, then click here to see an in depth explanation of what we are on about. In fact, go ahead and check out the explanation even if you are pretty sure you've got a handle on it. It is here (and here [and here!]).

Moving along! The suspense is killing you, I know! So, without all the continuing "ado's," how'd KK do?


Kota Kinabalu, much like Kuala Lumpur (the previous city we visited), was a bit pricey.

We felt lucky to find a place in the mid 20s USD to stay per night and the meals were consistently 3-5 USD per person. That's not much compared to London or New York or Singapore, but it was double (or even triple) what we paid in Indonesia.

There were deals to be had, however!

We found a store that sold a 700 ml bottle of gin for 19 ringgit (4.62 USD), and it wasn't half bad!
No, seriously!
That same store sold a 700 ml bottle of whiskey flavored alcohol for 13 ringgit (3.16 USD)... but it actually was as bad as you think. Maybe worse.
The other places we found booze sold it at a minimum of 60 ringgit per bottle, so this was a steal.
Would you like to find it? A map with it pinned can be found here.

The only words on this label that were true were
"Golden Time."

Beyond booze, the markets in the city proper were full of great deals to be had on anything you can imagine. Although, every time we went there someone attempted to sell us sunglasses by hitting the lenses with a coin... which struck us as an odd selling technique. Do the lenses of sunglasses often break? Is that really their selling point? The indestructibility?

You can also buy all the shoes, all the dried seafood, all the veggies, all the generally shrimp flavored snacks, and all the tailoring your little heart can desire in the markets. Seriously, they just keep going and going.

Monica overlooking the land of veggies. And yes, I keep writing
"veggies" because I am unsure how to spell vegatables.

Oddly, KK charged us in a way I haven't experienced since parties in college: For using the bathroom. It wasn't much, like .30 ringgit to get in and an additional .30 ringgit for toilet paper (never did find out how much they give you), but still! Also, most people pay as they are leaving the toilet, and most of the bathrooms we used didn't have much in the way of soap... so make sure you pay the attendant in exact change (or just let her keep your change)! Eww.

Hot tip alert! If you find yourself hanging out near the markets or the waterfront in the city proper, and suddenly need to use the bathroom in a way only travelers really understand, then quickly walk up to Suria Sabah Mall (here is link for it in Google maps). The bathrooms were free, the toilet paper was plentiful, the air conditioning existed, and there was free wifi for when you finally call an Uber to get you home as "fast as possible."

It was the fancy mall, so we wouldn't recommend doing much other than window shopping or using the toilet there (even the movie theater was more expensive than at other malls), but it still served an important purpose.

Finally, many things in KK had two prices listed, one for Malaysians and one for tourists. And yes, the price for tourists was usually two, three, four times the price. Also, if a restaurant was being honest (something they waffled on a bit) they were supposed to charge a tourism tax on our bill.

This sort of thing doesn't upset us much. We looked at it as a country trying to incentivize their residents into spending their vacation savings in their own country (remember, countries in this part of world aren't that far apart nor very expensive to fly to) rather than flying to, say, Thailand and spending their money there. So, the prices weren't there to punish us, but to reward locals for seeing their own country. Which seemed fair.

Also, once we had met a few local people and started hanging out with them, many places started charging us the Malaysian price. We don't know why exactly, but we appreciated it all the same.

Conclusion- While KK may have some cheap shopping available, the necessities of living were still on the pricey side.



Yeah, there wasn't much to complain about here.

Sure, it got hot during the day (duh). But in the mid/early afternoon it would usually rain up a heck-of-a storm, which would cool it off.

Nothing to see here... just beautiful weather and picturesque clouds.

In the jungle, you will be covered in sweat like you've never been covered before (double duh). But it beats being covered by leeches (these two things have nothing to do with each other... if you hike in the jungle you are definitely going to be covered in leeches and sweating has no connection to the amount... I just wanted to point out sweat will not be foremost on your mind when you are in the jungle).

Our only complaints were the three or four days (out of four weeks of being there) that the rain just wouldn't freaking stop. Cause the thing about rain in KK, it's always at 100%. None of that "just a sprinkle" crap for them... more of a "should we start building an ark?"

Conclusion- The weather in KK was great except when it wasn't.



When we (the noble Normal Nomads) came up with the criteria for how we were going to rate cities, we were absolutely sure no city would ever get a 5 in this category.

Not the first time we've been wrong, I suppose.

See these two in the front? They were wrong.
See that guy in the back? He knew. He always knows.

KK had sidewalks, cross-walks, bridges over major roads, occasional malls to duck in for some air conditioning, and an understanding that if something is under construction then people need an alternate route (how freaking hard is that!?).

The distance between the airport and the city proper was a bit out of reach by foot, but one 10 ringgit Uber ride later and all of the city laid itself out to our feet.

And best of all, while we walked to and fro, we looked at the sea and sunsets and people and shops and markets (as compared to parking lots and highways).

See?! Even giant monitor lizards enjoy taking a walk in KK...  across wet cement...
Okay, honestly, fitting this picture in here is a thematic stretch, but we were just so
 tickled by the thought of a giant lizard (like 1 -1.5 meters in length)
 walking across wet cement that we HAD to include it.

Conclusion- *Slow clap.


Free activities-

So, KK has some nice sunsets. Like really nice. Like, every single day.

Want proof? Here are three pictures of sunsets on three consecutive days:

Three consecutive days in three different locations. I mean, how cool is that?!

The city faced west on the South China Sea and throughout the day all sorts of crazy clouds formed over the mainland (and on Mount Kinabalu itself) and blew over the water later in the day. Thus, KK was a perfect storm of beautiful sunsets.

In addition to sunsets, there were also markets to look at, people to watch, and even a very accessible and pleasant hiking trail on the edge of the city with a nice view.

The view didn't really turn out in this photograph, but believe me, it's there.

Unfortunately, all of this beauty was still an Uber drive away (albeit a relatively cheap one), which means it technically wasn't the most free.

Conclusion- Sooooooo close to perfection! Some usable public transportation and this one would have gone all the way.



Malaysia's tourist visa was free for three months.

And the city of Kota Kinabalu was really close to the airport (we saw planes getting ready to land at the airport flying over the city at altitudes that made us want to pee a little from shock... not that we did, mind you... at least not in a way we want to talk about it here on our blog... drop it!)

Conclusion- Getting into KK was as easy as it gets.


Tourism factor-

KK had a lot to offer tourists.

World class diving, a good starting point to hike Mount Kinabalu (the tallest peak in Malaysia), pygmy elephants and orang utans (that's how they spell it, so that is how we are spelling it now) to see, and that wasn't all!

In fact, check out our spotlights on a few of the touristy things we did while there:

Warren touristing with some kids! (No one told Warren about the 'obvious to
everyone else' age limit on volunteers)

Warren touristing with some mangrove trees (not pictured - one billion crabs).
Have you ever noticed that when Warren is making his "crazy" face, one
of his eyes tends to cross a little?

Warren and Monica (the Normal Nomads!) touristing with some dude. Warren's
vest thing was made out of wood, which is an interesting material to make
vests out of.

And the infrastructure was set up to handle it too! A good amount of hotels and hostels, easy access to and from the airport, and available Uber and Grab cars everywhere.

Best of all, KK had a sense of itself. It never felt like we were being sold/bartered/haggled/harassed all the time, the way some tourist dominated cities tend to feel. Rather, we felt like we were experiencing a city in which people live, and that was great!

There was only one thing that hadn't quite caught up to the level we needed when we were there:

High speed internet.

We needed the internet in order to work/study and couldn't be off the grid too long. KK pushed our limits a few times. Not often but more than once, the house we were staying at, a place that most definitely paid its bills and had splurged on the fastest and most reliable internet they could get, lost the internet for an entire day or more.

We handled it and all went well, but it deserves mentioning that KK might not be the best place for a digital nomad with a lot of deadlines during their visit. But it did give us an opportunity to write this "think piece"!

Conclusion- KK wore tourism well but we had a problem tweeting about it.






No matter what it is called, KK had a lot of it.

We don't think the locals bear all the responsibility; KK is very low altitude and directly on the South China Sea. It seems reasonable that much of the rubbish washed up on the shores of KK from loads of other countries and moved further into the city during storms and floods.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't a problem.

Gutters were full of it, some beaches were covered in it (less so on the islands), and (very sadly) the Wetlands Centre had a bunch.

It really hammered home to us that the world has a problem with plastic. The stuff just doesn't go away, but keeps building up on top of itself.

We don't want this deduction to dissuade you from visiting, but we felt it would be dishonest of us not to include it here. Also, perhaps it could also inspire you to refill your water bottle instead of getting a new one while waiting to get on your flight to KK? That'd be great!

Rubbish deduction - negative 1

All right! Thanks for joining us on this epic adventure in reviewing Kota Kinabalu!

We really enjoyed the city and hope to get back there someday.

Maybe we'll see you there?


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