If there’s one destination in Malaysia that I’ve never planned to visit, it would be Kota Kinabalu. It’s proximity to the Philippines make me ditched it on my travel list. But my urge to see Brunei forced me to include this Malaysian city on my itinerary. To my surprise, the activities available are truly endless that I was disappointed on allotting only two days for my visit. Meanwhile, for travelers with limited time to spare, here’s a do-it-yourself itinerary for Kota Kinabalu and Brunei for 4 days, including the travel to and fro.
Things to Remember
Malaysia and Brunei are both members of ASEAN making it easier for Filipinos to visit these two countries. Filipinos are allowed to stay up to 30 days in Malaysia while 14 days in Brunei. On the case of Brunei, the immigration officer puts a “permitted only” date on your passport upon arrival with an initial check of your ways of getting out; confirmed flight itinerary or date of exit (if going to/back to Kota Kinabalu). Double check this date for you to know your allowed numbers of days in the country.
With its proximity to the Philippines, the weather on these destinations is somehow similar to the country.
Malaysia’s currency is ringgit (MYR) and dollar (BND) for Brunei. You can change ringgit at the airport or bring Philippine peso or US dollar. On our way to Brunei, I changed some of my ringgit to Brunei dollars at Ranjit Currency Exchange in Labuan. I also tried directly changing my Philippine peso to Brunei dollar on a currency exchange at Serasa Ferry Terminal. Brunei Dollar and Singapore Dollar (SGD) have the same value allowing tourists to use SGD while in Brunei. I discovered this because I received a 2-dollar Singapore bill as a change in one of the restaurants I’ve dined.
How to Get to Kota Kinabalu/Brunei
Cebu Pacific Air has daily flights to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia and Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Flights to these destinations depart from Manila late in the evening and take two hours of travel time. My flight to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia left NAIA Terminal 3 at 11:30 PM and upon checking, the flight to Brunei usually leaves around 9 PM. There’s no time difference between these countries and the Philippines.
How to Get to Brunei from Kota Kinabalu
There are two major ways on how to go to Brunei from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
Via Bus. First is a direct bus from City Park Terminal in Kota Kinabalu to Bandar Seri Begawan Terminal in Brunei. The land travel roughly takes around 8 hours of travel time and costs MYR80. This way can earn your passport four additional stamps because the highway traverses a territory of Brunei before officially exiting Malaysia.
Via Ferry. Second is by a 3.5-hr ferry ride from Jesselton Point to Labuan, another Malaysian state, where you’ll have your immigration clearance before boarding the boat for another 2 hours to Serasa Ferry Terminal in Muara, Brunei. There are only two ferry schedules every day, one leaves at 8 AM and the last one at 1:30 in the afternoon. Total cost is MYR60 for the Kota Kinabalu – Labuan – Serasa ferry trip. From Serasa Ferry Terminal, take a Bus 33 to Muara Bus Station. Transfer to either Bus 38 or 39 that will drop you off at Bandar Seri Begawan Terminal. Fare is BND1 and you’ll only pay at the first bus. Just show your ticket when changing bus at Muara Bus Station.
How to Get to Kota Kinabalu from Brunei
You can utilize both ways mentioned above when going to Kota Kinabalu from Brunei, just do the reverse. Upon checking, the same schedule is being utilized by boats leaving Serasa Ferry Terminal to Labuan to Jesselton Point. The first schedule of the boat leaving for Labuan leaves 8 in the morning and the last one at 3 in the afternoon. For bus schedules, you can check bus times via Easybook.
How to Get Around Kota Kinabalu
Going around Kota Kinabalu is easy and considerably cheap. We weren’t able to try the local bus transport yet used Grab most of the time. Grab car for 1-4 people is only at MYR5 to MYR8 depending on the distance. From Jesselton Point to Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu (Kota Kinabalu City Mosque) will only cost you MYR7, as the time of writing.
How to Get Around Bandar Seri Begawan
For Bandar Seri Begawan, regular bus routes depart and end at Bandar Seri Begawan Bus Station in Jalan Cator. There are 13 routes and fare is only BND1. You can even take Bus 24 to the airport to save from the expensive BND25 usual taxi rate. Just take note that buses only operate from 6 AM till 6 PM daily.
SAMPLE ITINERARY: 4D3N Kota Kinabalu and Brunei
The sample itinerary here covers Kota Kinabalu to Brunei route. If ever you’ll be doing the reverse, kindly do some adjustments in terms of transportation schedules and activities.
DAY 1 – Early Arrival in KK and Island Hopping
My flight arrived at Kota Kinabalu International Airport at 2 in the morning. There’s a currency exchange near KFC on the rear side of the arrival hall. Going to the city center from the airport at these hours will require you to hail a cab or use Grab. Taxi is available but I recommend using Grab on getting from the airport to the city. It cost me MYR11 for the ride from the airport to my hostel in Karamunsing. Usually, most of the passengers on the flight are Filipinos so it’s okay to be friendly and look for some or groups with their accommodation same or near to yours. You can share the ride and split the fare with them.
Take the chance to regain energy and snooze after checking-in at your accommodation. You can start your island hopping experience by going straight to Jesselton Point for agencies offering tours at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. The park has five islands to hop on; Gaya (the biggest), Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik, and Sulug. Boats start to operate from 8 AM until 4 in the afternoon. You can maximize your hours at the park but the operators suggest to only cover 2-3 islands per day to enjoy your stay on the islands. We picked Sapi and Manukan on our visit.
The rate for the two islands is MYR33 plus MYR7 terminal fee and a one-time fee of MYR20 for the nature park entrance, a total of MYR60. If you plan to visit more than 2 islands, just add MYR10 per island. If you’ll be back at Jesselton early, you can visit the Atkinson Clock Tower and Signal Hill Observatory View Deck.
DAY 2 – City Tour and Weston Wetland and the Proboscis Monkey
Morning on the second day can be spent touring the key sites of Kota Kinabalu such as the Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu, Sabah State Museum, Tanjung Aru, and Mari-Mari Cultural Village.
In the afternoon, book a Weston Wetlands Monkey, Sunset, and Fireflies tour to see the proboscis monkeys and a majestic firefly watching in the evening. The tour usually leaves the city around 1:30 PM for a 3-hr drive to Beaufort, another city on the state of Sabah. Tour already includes the return land transfers, a high-tea snack upon arrival, and buffet dinner.
The tour will ferry guests on the Weston River to spot for the Proboscis monkeys, a long-nosed monkey endemic to the island of Borneo. Our guide was knowledgeable enough to explain the features of the monkeys as well as their social behaviors. We were given monocular to see the monkeys up-close. We didn’t only see one but dozens of them swinging on trees along the Weston River. The wetland tour ends with a spectacular firefly watching activity where some trees along the river turned into blinking Christmas trees with tons of fireflies dwelling in them.
DAY 3 – Travel to Brunei
One full day was allotted for the sea travel from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei. The ferry stops at Labuan, another federal territory of Malaysia where travelers will get their exit stamp from the immigration control. Labuan is a duty-free island making it a great shopping stop before continuing to Brunei. Shops selling chocolates, liquors, and perfumes are everywhere and will tempt you to spend those ringgits left.
DAY 4 – Brunei City Tour
Brunei is a small country to explore in terms of what it can offer to tourists. Bandar Seri Begawan is a laidback city and you can just stay at a random park, find shade, and read a book. Of course, don’t miss the usual spots such as the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, a 20th-century mosque situated on a lagoon. Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is another known mosque in the city. Explore its streets downtown and discover what’s in the Royal Regalia Museum, Malay Technology Museum, and markets such as Kianggeh Market and the famous Gadong Night Market.
Brunei is also the home of Kampung Ayer, a water village and historical settlement in the country and was tagged as the Venice of the East. You can take and pay BND1 for the ferry to the water village where you can roam around on stilt bridges. There are several tour options available where you can roam around the village on boats and also spot proboscis monkeys.
If you have more days to spare in these cities/countries, I recommend doing the following activities. Allot one day for each to ensure your enjoyment and experience.
- Mantanani Snorkeling and Kawa Kawa River Cruise
- Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Spring
- Sapi and Manukan Islands Adventure
- Kawa Kawa Fireflies Sunset Cruise
- Mari-Mari Village Cultural Discovery
- Kiulu Rafting
- Klias River Fireflies Safari Cruise
- Padas Rafting
- Sunset and City Dinner Cruise
Kota Kinabalu (MYR) 11 Grab Kota Kinabalu Airport to Hostel 2 Grab (shared) Hostel to Jesselton Point 33 Island Hopping (2 islands) 7 Terminal Fee (Island Hopping) 20 Tunku Abdul Raman Park Environmental Fee 2 Grab (shared) Signal Observatory to Gaya Street 5 Grab Gaya Street to Hostel 160 Weston Wetland Tour 60 Food Budget (3 days) 2 Grab (shared) Hostel to Jesselton Point 60 Ferry to Brunei 3.6 Terminal Fee (Kota Kinabalu to Brunei) 57 Skypod Hostel (3 nights) 422.6 Total (MYR) ~ PHP5,400 Brunei (BND) 1 Bus Serasa Ferry Terminal to BSB Bus Terminal 1 BSB Terminal to Hostel 21 Food budget (1 day) 3 Bus fares for DIY City Tour 1 BSB Terminal to BSB Airport 18 Co.Living Hostel (1 night) 45 Total (BND) ~ PHP2,300 7700 Grand Total (PHP)