Kota Kinabalu: Arrival in Borneo

Finally arriving on Borneo—just in time to witness one of the island’s world-famous sunsets…and a major meltdown.

By Dave

Filed in: Family Travel, Malaysia

Yep, that’s KLIA2 down there, between the tangle of runways and taxiways that is Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It’s been a bit stormy in the afternoons, which might be the reason for the tight spiral take-off we did, putting us one or two thousand feet directly above the runway from whence we left. Rest of the flight was smooth enough.

Noe only freaked out a tiny bit during take-off, but that quickly worked itself out. He’s definitely getting better at this with each go. He also fell asleep again, which is a very good thing, because this flight coincides with his usual nap time. These days, Noe will pretty much fall asleep anywhere on anything if it happens to be nap time.

Another flight with a row of three seats to ourselves. Noe’s not going to want to go back to being a lap infant! Which is just fine, given that he’ll be losing that particular privilege in two short months. And then we get to start paying for his tiny little behind…

We made it to Borneo!

Despite appearances, Noe’s thrilled to be in Borneo, too. Really.

The island of Borneo is shared across three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and tiny Brunei. We’ll be devoting the next two weeks to the northern Malaysian state of Sabah, dividing our time between Kota Kinabalu, Kudat and Sandakan regions.

Two cheap flights from Vientiane and just over four hours combined of flight time and we’re here—on this big, green island straddling the equator that just happens to be one of the most biodiverse regions on the entire planet—but we’ll get to all that soon enough.

It’s time to check in to our guesthouse in KK and grab something to eat.


The first place we tried for our late lunch (or “linner”?) wasn’t serving food at this crazy time (3pm?). But we did manage to find another place close by that not only served food at this hour, but really delicious food (and coffee)—October Cafe.

Yep, this is a place a vacationing couple—fresh off a flight—could really get their relax on…if this particular couple didn’t happen to have a 21-month-old who was just about to have quite the little meltdown.

We brought all of Noe’s favorite toys, got him set up in a comfy space and proceeded to look at the menu. But the Mister just wasn’t having it. None of it. Noe finally lost it—all of it—prompting Lori to grab him and rush him out front before we were unceremoniously kicked out of the the place. Her plan was to remain out front until the Mister was ready to come back in and join society…which never happened.

I ordered our delicious food, took all our yumminess out front, and proceeded to take turns with Lori scarfing down said deliciousness as Noe railed on and ripped into the two of us. Finally, I had no other choice but to try taking him for a walk, but he wasn’t having that either. He collapsed to the ground in protest—didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to play, didn’t want to walk—just scream.

Is this even our kid?

Turns out he is.

And…that he is very—you guessed it—tired.

Yes, he had just napped on the plane—a fairly solid nap at that. But we should’ve known better. Lots of changes, new environment, yaddy yaddy yaddy. Back at the guesthouse we also discovered he had a mild fever. That’ll also do it.

Fun stuff.

Rest was in order, but the Mister wasn’t having being in the guesthouse after being cooped in taxis, airports and an airplane for most of the day. So, I slapped the carrier on, strapped him in, and the three of us went for a walk.

It was a gorgeous afternoon and we were going to try and enjoy the few hours of daylight we had in Kota Kinabalu. A short while later, Noe was sound asleep.

Walking along the promenade on this beautiful afternoon in this beautiful place, we knew we were going to have to make some changes to our itinerary. It was turning out to be just too much travel, too many long days in a row for all of us. Lori was getting over a cold and Noe looked as though he might be catching one.

We were due to get on yet another flight the next morning across the island to the Tawau/Semporna region, where I was scheduled to spend three days fulfilling a long time goal—getting back into the water with a tank on my back after many years and diving the number one dive site in the world: Sipadan.

While Lori’s been loving her work in Laos, our time in Vientiane has been much less satisfying and much more restrictive for me. During some of the crappier days in the past few months, thinking of what we had booked in Borneo (particularly Sipadan) made all the difference in my feelings about things.

Sitting with Lori and catching our breath from Noe’s antics over the past several hours, we peered out at the bay enjoying the peace and quiet. I knew that something was going to have to give, and the fact that my dive package in Sipadan (including our accommodation) was the only fully refundable part of our trip made it pretty apparent what that might be.

And then I looked down at my baby boy.

“What’s going on with you, bud?” I asked quietly as he soundly snoozed away in the carrier.

It was clear we had some decisions to make, but they could wait. We wanted to take full advantage of this time while we could and enjoy where we are.



I noticed what appeared to be a string of restaurants on the water on my map app and we went to check it out. We found a simple little Italian eatery with seating right on the water and ordered a couple of beverages (Lori’s was not of the alcoholic-variety, just FYI).

Some time later, before the sun had dipped into the sea, Noe awoke in a fairly good mood, if only for the moment. He had some raisins (he’s obsessed with raisins currently) and crackers, and we watched the sun set.


On our way back, we cut through KK’s colorful night market.



We weren’t sure where we would eat, but knew it should probably be a more traditional type sit-down place (rather than grabbing something at the market to eat along the way). Trip Advisor said we were close to El Centro, a Mexican restaurant. We hadn’t planned on having Mexican in KK, but given how rare it is for us to find a Mexican restaurant in Laos, we were intrigued.

Noe lasted about ten minutes at the restaurant before he started throwing food…then beverages…then toys. Again, this just does not happen. Could it be that our boy decided to enter his terrible twos the day we set out on vacation? Yay us!

On our way back to the guesthouse, we managed to find some yogurt for Noe. He has plain yogurt every night in Vientiane (it’s his dessert and probably favorite part), but it’s been hard to find on vacation. We set him up in what is quickly becoming his usual yogurt-eating position (on the floor with his bib) and he happily devoured the whole thing before passing out for the next 12 hours.

We awoke the next day with a midday flight hanging over our heads—not knowing which side of the island we’d end up on that night.

I revisited my dive trip details and looked up the weather. The past several days had been perfect weather, and April was supposed to be the prime month to do this, so I didn’t anticipate any issues there. But the forecast surprised me. Rain—not just showers, but rain—for the rest of the week. I called up a couple of the dive operators in the area who confirmed the forecast. As far as I was concerned, the decision had been made for us. No sense in hauling the entire family across the island to pay a bunch of money to dive for three days in rain and choppy seas.

Heck yeah, I was bummed. But not worth going through a ton of effort and dragging the entire family along to do something that probably wasn’t going to be as much fun as it should be, anyways. Now, we could kick things down a notch and finally be on vacation.

So what now? The Kudat region and the Tip of Borneo in the far north (a three-hour taxi ride) seemed to speak to us. Three nights in a small seaside village with little to do but beach hop and eat? Perfect. Lori made a few phone calls, and sure enough, they had plenty of space available.

But all of that could wait one more day. We extended our stay in KK for one more night and devoted the current day to relaxing.

We stayed at the thoroughly agreeable (and highly recommendable) Hotel Eden54. I happened to book it on a lark several weeks prior, but it turned out it is a go-to place of sorts for expats living elsewhere in Sabah. And best of all, it’s run by an exceedingly friendly and helpful couple who just happened to be from Kudat, where we had decided to head to after KK.



After getting our ducks in a row with lodging and transport for the next several days, it was time for food. I’m not sure how we found Nook cafe, but it’s easily got to be the best breakfast cafe in town. If there’s a better place, then this city is absolutely extraordinary in its breakfast offerings.

And Noe loved his rattan high chair (and pocket full of pasas as he and mommy call them (I call them raisins)).


…and this wasn’t even our favorite dish we had! (just the most photogenic).

After breakfast, we found ourselves with an entire day on our hands and no plans. We stepped out of the cafe and were greeted by beautiful blue sky. Ahh.


We took a walk up to the town’s oldest surviving structure—Atkinson clock tower.

Allied forces carpet bombed what was then known as Jesselton during the Second World War in an effort to stymie the the advance of Japanese troops. Their plan worked apparently, but the entire city was leveled as a result…except for the clock tower. From the rubble sprung a modern city—1950s modern, of course.

Still, a picturesque city at any rate (an amazing natural backdrop helps).

A walk up to the Signal Hill observatory gives you a commanding view of the city center—along with a nice little workout.


Nap time!

Pretty amazing how quickly things changed after we adjusted our plans. I’m sure much of it was Noe finding his groove, sinking into some sort of an eating and sleeping schedule, and fighting off whatever it was that gave him the mild fever yesterday (that thankfully didn’t come back).

I tend to believe that much of it also had to do with the change in the overall vibe. Due to our added breathing room and considerable stress being lifted from our shoulders, mommy and daddy were feeling more relaxed, and so was Noe.

I think Noe could also sense that we were heading to the beach earlier than expected, which might just be his favorite thing to do in the whole world. No idea where he gets it from…

Speaking of beaches…

Our additional day meant that we had some time to check out one of the beaches around KK—Tanjung Aru. While it’s not within walking distance of downtown KK (it’s 7km and a thirty minute drive from the center of town), it’s apparently the best beach around (without heading to the nearby islands). We grabbed a Grab (like an Uber, I guess?) and headed to the beach to catch the sunset.

After walking the length of the beach (which by all accounts is very nice—and pretty darn clean—for a municipal beach), we were hungry. Lucy’s Kitchen was the only option around, which ended up being a very good thing—it was the perfect cap to the day, and offered one of the best sunset views we’ve had from our dinner table.



…not to mention the food was delicious—nasi lemak (coconut milk rice served with spicy anchovy sauce and an egg) with an amazing beef rendang:

And Noe’s new Malaysian favorite, KL Hokkien Mee…

Shrimp and egg noodles in a dark, fragrant (and very messy!) sauce.

Tomorrow, it’s north to the Tip of Borneo and the beach!

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4 thoughts on “Kota Kinabalu: Arrival in Borneo

  1. It looks like you were able to adapt travel plans to make it a relaxing vacation for all! Good for you!

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