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This is our gay travel guide to Kota Kinabalu, a beautiful city in Malaysia's Sabah state on the island of Borneo.
Kool-krazy-kat-Kota-Kinabalu, the capital and gateway of Malaysia's Sabah region on Borneo island. This is the city where treks up to Borneo's highest mountain (Mount Kinabalu) begin, the tropical waters of the Gaya islands are right on your doorstep, lots of different magnificent experiences can be found, and, the coolest nickname ever for a city: KK!
Whilst most travellers will skip out KK, using it just as a transport hub to enter/leave Sabah, we think you should spend a few nights here. We visited KK during our trip around Malaysia and loved it. It's a relaxed, modern place that offers so much. It also has a large LGBTQ community and sometimes even a gay bar – ie it closes/reopens a lot (more on this below)!
We've put together all our findings from our trip in and around Kota Kinabalu in this article. We've included important practical safety tips for LGBTQ travellers, gay friendly hotels we tried/loved, queer friendly hangouts and some of our favourite things to do which we hope inspires you.
Malaysia blocks some LGBTQ websites and apps…
In Malaysia, the government heavily monitors the internet, so take care with what you post on your social media before and during your trip! Websites/apps with “sensitive content” are blocked by the Malaysian government and the list of blocked websites/apps grows bigger each year. At the moment, Grindr is not blocked but we think it's only a matter of time before it is. In the meantime, and for your own safety, we strongly advise using a reliable VPN in Malaysia. A VPN will block your location, thereby making it harder to track your online activity, allowing you to browse safely and anonymously.
Is Kota Kinabalu safe for gay travellers?
On the whole, yes, but as long as you're careful to avoid PDAs. Malaysia is not on par with some of the places in the Middle East, but it's obviously no Bangkok here!
In relation to progressive LGBTQ rights in Malaysia, there are none at all. There is even a horrible archaic anti-gay law which carries with it a 20-year imprisonment as well as caning, fines and/or deportation! The reality is that the anti-gay law of Malaysia is rarely ever enforced, particularly against foreigners. However, this gives you an idea of how society regards homosexuality and therefore why it's best to avoid PDAs.
That being said, Borneo is more relaxed than mainland Malaysia. KK is a cosmopolitan city with a large queer community living/working here and even a few gay friendly hangouts (see below). At one hawker stall we went to we met a group of transsexual ladies having their dinner who were very open about their lifestyle. But as we said, it's better to err on the side of caution and reserve all PDA for queer friendly spaces.
On that point, whilst many gay travellers argue that countries with anti-gay laws should be boycotted, we strongly believe that going there, interacting with LGBTQ locals and supporting gay friendly businesses is far more productive than an outright boycott, as long as you're careful and respectful of local culture. For more, please read our article about what it's like for gay couples travelling in Asia.
Snorkel in the crystal clear waters of Borneo
KK is a fantastic base to arrange a snorkelling trip. We booked a trip to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, which is located right in the Coral Triangle, an area thriving with underwater life and one of the most colourful coral gardens we've ever seen. The highlight was spotting a family of turtles who just swam on by completely oblivious to the curious snorkellers nears them going crazy with their Go Pros!
Gay friendly hotels in Kota Kinabalu
As a rule of thumb, the large international chain hotels are gay friendly. They will have the same expectations amongst staff towards equality and anti-discrimination whether the hotel is in Barcelona, Fort Lauderdale or in KK. We've set out the main gay friendly hotels in KK below, which we can personally attest to being gay friendly.
Note that if you are looking to book a family-run guesthouse, either be prepared to book a room with two singles and stay in the closet, or contact them beforehand to check if they're ok hosting LGBTQ travellers.
Gayana Marine Resort
Why we love it
- Lavish gay friendly hotel on Gaya island surrounded by tropical jungle
- Stay in an upscale water villa with spacious decks
- Has its own PADI-certified dive center
- Marine Ecology Research Center works to restore damaged coral reefs
Luxury with a purpose… sign us right up!
Imagine those stunning water villas you associate with the Maldives? Balance that with a strong focus on protecting the environment, and that nicely sums up the Gayana Marine Resort.
We stayed in one of 45 overwater bungalows. Each one is connected by long wooden pathways built on stilts and lined with tropical flowers. Our bungalow had its own spacious deck area, plunge pool and panoramic sea views. On a clear day we could even see Mount Kinabalu out in the distance.
The great thing about it all? They knew we were a gay couple staying here and simply welcomed us. They even put flower petals on our bed with a romantic swan flower arrangement and a sweet welcome card to Mr Arestis and Mr Chaneac!
The architecture for each villa gave us total Julia Roberts “Eat Pray Love” feels, done up in traditional Borneo style with wooden walls, large windows and pitched straw roofs. The Gayana Marine Resort takes its marine preservation very seriously. It has its own Marine Ecology Research Centre which aims to propagate Giant Clams and protect/restore damaged coral reefs. As divers, we really appreciated this effort, which made us feel so proud to be a part of this initiative.
The Gayana Marine Resort has its own dive centre with friendly and patient (very important with nervous divers like my Seby!) PADI certified divemasters. The water around was calm and clear, which was perfect for diving. They also offer snorkelling equipment, paddle-boards and sea kayaks free of charge for guests to use. In terms of location, we love the fact that the Gayana is based right on Gaya Island (roughly a 30-minute boat ride from KK), which is itself a highlight “thing-to-do” attraction of KK. Note: the hotel offers a free boat transfer twice a day to KK, which is super handy.
Shangri-La Tanjung Aru
Why we love it
- The most romantic gay friendly hotel in Kota Kinabalu in our humble opinion
- STUNNING sunsets every evening!
- Enormous pool that snakes around the resort including an adults-only section
- Stay in an ocean facing room with large private balcony
The ultimate luxury experience in Kota Kinabalu with the best sunsets ever!
KK's Shangri-La has its own location on a little west-facing peninsula on the South China Sea. Right here is the open-air “Sunset Bar” which is THE hottest hangout in the city. Every evening at around 6pm, couples head here to watch the spectacular sunset. We even spotted a few gay couples here.
The Shangri-La is the sort of place you just don't want to leave, particularly after trying the massive signature seafood platter at Coco Joe's!
Firstly, the location is terrific. Whilst it's conveniently located just a 10-minute drive to both the centre of KK and the airport, it feels like you're in a secluded beach paradise. Secondly, the pool! It's massive – enormous, going right around the resort with a section for children and another for just adults. Thirdly, the hotel has so many complimentary activities for guests like sunrise yoga, kayaking lessons, coconut bowling. There is also a tennis court, petanque pitch and a ping pong table.
For massages, the Shangri-La has its own spa called “CHI, The Spa”, which sits on its own tiny island connected to the resort by a walkway. The CHI has many different treatments inspired by Malaysian natural remedies. In terms of restaurants, the Shangri-La has four restaurants: Shang Palace (Chinese) and Peppino’s (Italian) for fine dining, the less formal Café TATU cooking station, and our favourite – Coco Joe’s. Our best meal in KK was at Coco Joe's where we tried their signature ginormous seafood platter and their tiramisu which is served in an edible teacup made from chocolate!
STAY WITH A GAY LOCAL
Misterb&b is the Airbnb equivalent for the LGBTQ community. Unlike on Airbnb, you know your host is gay, voiding any nasty surprises when you check-in. It is also a great way to meet gay locals and discover the underground gay scene. Click below to get 10 € (or $10) off our first booking.
The Hyatt Regency Kinabalu
Why we love it
- Our favourite gay friendly mid-range hotel in Kota Kinabalu
- Located in downtown KK right on the waterfront
- One of our favourite hotel breakfast buffets
- Nagisa: the best Japanese restaurant in KK
The Hyatt is a super gay friendly hotel brand and we love them! Every single one we stayed at anywhere in the world we were always made to feel welcome as a gay couple, least of all right here at The Hyatt Regency Kinabalu.
From the moment we checked in, we were met with sweet, smiley and super obliging staff. They were willing to please, made us feel so welcome and didn't care two hoots that we are a gay couple. It's what we've come to expect from the Hyatt brand and these guys certainly didn't disappoint!
We recommend splashing out on The Regency Suite. It's simply celestial –89 square meters (958 sq ft) with a spacious living room with sectional sofa, loads of storage space, gorgeous bathtub fit for two queens(!) and even rainfall shower-head (my personal favourite)! It also has a panoramic ocean view stretching out to Gaya Island.
The Hyatt has a large, modern gym to work out at as well as a sauna and whirlpool. The outdoor pool was Seby's favourite hangout whenever he wanted his “me” time alone with his Kindle. In terms of dining options, the breakfast was our favourite from all the hotels we stayed at in KK. It was massive, offering a mix of high-quality Asian dishes, particularly Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western egg/bacon-type favourites. Also, be sure to check out their Japanese inhouse restaurant called Nagisa. It's well known for being one of KK's top restaurants and as far as we're concerned, it was one of the best sushi meals we had throughout our travels in Malaysia.
SKYPOD Boutique Hostel
Why we love it
- Our favourite gay friendly budget hotel in KK
- Award winning boutique hostel with iconic bed pods
- Located in downtown KK close to the waterfront and Imago Shopping Mall
- Very sociable hostel, perfect for meeting other backpackers
SKYPOD is a gay friendly hostel in KK, perfect for solo LGBTQ travellers and backpackers on a budget. It's more of an upmarket boutique hostel experience, with pretty swanky pods to sleep in.
Even though it's dorm-like, the mattresses are very comfortable and have orthopaedic pillows. They also allow you to have more privacy and personal space compared to most other hostel dorms we've tried out.
SKYPOD is conveniently located within walking distance to the Waterfront, Imago Shopping Mall, the KK Sentral Bus Terminal and the Sembulan River Walk.
The SKYPOD hostel pods are so popular that they won awards for their comfort in local hotel competition. We also loved that there was an air purifier installed on every floor to ensure fresher air and an odour-free environment – a must for those male-dominated dorm rooms! Another useful quirk unique to SKYPOD is that they provide guests with very handy wristband keys.
We loved the large communal area at SKYPOD. As well as being a cool space to hangout in (with fresh coffee available throughout the day), we always met fellow like-minded travellers here from all over the world.
Ultimately, this is not in any way luxury, nor does it purport to be. Instead it's a cheap and cheerful, super clean and super sociable gay friendly base in downtown KK.
Gay bars in Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu used to have a gay bar called Q Bar, which has closed and reopened on several occasions (usually at 15 Gaya Street). At the moment it's shut, but watch this space…it may reopen again one day and you can be sure we'll update this guide to include it!
Meanwhile, there are a few gay friendly speakeasy bars to check out in KK, along with the excellent and super romantic Sunset Bar of the Shangri-La:
We were proud of this little find. Our local gay friend took us here. You have to enter a “secret” door that no tourist or guidebook would know about, which made us feel quite special. As such, you know it's going to be quite a safe space for local gays to hang out. Once inside it was super pretty. Their best nights are on weekends when they have live music bands performing. TIP: this is a “cashless” bar, card payments only!
D'Atas is located on the 1st Floor of Tong Hing Supermarket, 55, Jalan Gaya, Pusat Bandar and is open daily until around midnight.
Tapai Speakeasy is frequently rated as one of the best bars in KK as well as a popular hangout for local gay guys. It's quite upmarket, trendy and hip. The mixologists are extremely talented, serving up some of the best cocktails in all of KK. We can definitely attest to that and would recommend a visit just to try them…the Gin-ger Martini one of our personal favourites! Tip: look out for the pretty generous Monday-Friday Happy Hour offers before 8pm.
Tapai is located at 117, Jalan Gaya, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu. It is open Monday to Saturday from 4pm until 2am.
The Sunset Bar is one of the most romantic places in KK. It's part of the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru hotel who have their own private spot on a peninsular just outside the city. It's a west-facing open-air bar geared towards maximising your sunset viewing experience! They also serve the most extraordinary drinks such as their “Beergarita” – a colossal Margarita served/flavoured with two beer bottles inside it, which is announced with a loud dramatic gong by the bar staff!
The Sunset Bar is located at the end of Shangri-La's Sunset Beach (address is: No. 20 Jalan Aru Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Kota Kinabalu 88100). It is open daily from 4-9pm.
Where to eat in Kota Kinabalu?
When it comes to food, Malaysians are a very passionate bunch and we absolutely love this about them! There is such a variety of things to try on this side of Malaysian Borneo that foodies will be spoilt in KK. Sabah is particularly famous for having the best seafood in the whole country…obviously our local friends from Sabah told us this! These are are some of our favourite restaurants that we think every gay traveller should try in Kota Kinabalu:
If you like seafood, this is one of the best places to come for it in KK. It's also very local, which we loved – we were one of the few foreigners here when our local friend Ken brought us here. In terms of food, you select the seafood you want from the water tank as you enter, then they cook it for you. It's that fresh! I had the steamed grouper fish which was my standout memory. For Seby it was the Kam Hiong Clams and the Wet Butter Tiger Prawns, both of which are the most popular signature dishes at Welcome Seafood. FYI Kam Hiong is a type of sauce which you can buy to take away with you to use back at home.
The Winner Hotel Cantonese restaurant
This unassuming hotel is popular with locals for its excellent Cantonese food. It's located on the 2nd floor of the Winner Hotel (at 9 & 10 Jalan Pasar Bary, Kg Air) and it gets so popular that unless you call and reserve a table beforehand, you'll wait a long time! Our favourite dish was the ‘drunken chicken' – ie cooked with lots of rice wine, and the signature dish – Steamed Pork with Salted Fish. The chefs are mainly ex-pats from Hong Kong who are trained to make authentic “Hakka” dishes. HIGHLY recommended by us for the best and most authentic Chinese Malay dining experience!
Nagisa is the Hyatt's in-house gem of a restaurant and it's bloody good! If you're craving tasty sashimi or sushi, then make sure you come here! It's not only a thing amongst locals, but it was also voted twice by the Malaysian Tatler as one of the best Japanese restaurants in the whole country. The food is fresh and so well cooked. Just order a platter of sushi and dive right in is our advice! FYI – their signature dish is the Nagisa Maki, but to be honest, everything we tried left us feeling satisfied, particularly sushi/sashimi, the mixed tempura and the green tea ice cream for dessert.
Top things to do in Kota Kinabalu
There are many different things to do in KK to easily justify spending a few days here, if not more. Some come to trek up Mount Kinabalu (the highest peak on Borneo), others for the diving or to venture deeper into the Borneo jungle to spot orang-utans. We've put together some of our favourite highlights of things to do in and around KK based on our trip:
Island hopping and snorkelling
There are several islands near Kota Kinabalu, particularly: Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug. You can easily visit them as a day trip and arrange tickets yourself from the main port in the town centre.
Sapi island is the most popular with an area for snorkelling and a fun zip line ride linking it to nearby Gaya island. Sapi island also has an excellent secluded beach to get away from the crowds. One of the best ways we recommend to experience the tropical waters of KK is on a snorkelling adventure tour around the islands.
Trekking to Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is one of the main draws of the Sabah region of Malaysia. It is a World Heritage-listed site and at 4,095m (13,435 ft) high, the highest mountain in the country. Note that you cannot do this independently and must book a Mount Kinabalu tour, which is usually a 3-day adventure. Tours will usually include all meals, guide, climbing permit, 2 overnight stays, one at a local guesthouse like the Laban Rata Resthouse, the second at the Poring Hot Springs. The key to it is ensuring you acclimatise to the altitude safely – remember Kota Kinabalu starts at sea level! The big highlight is watching the sunrise over Mount Kinabalu. This happens on Day 2, which is when you summit the mountain.
Dive in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park
Divers will love KK! The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park (locally called the TAR Park) is right on your doorstep. It's a marine paradise here, part of the Coral Triangle with almost 50 dive sites to check out. The sites mainly comprise sloping coral reef and sand from 2m (6.5ft) to 30m (98ft) depth. It's the perfect place for beginnings starting out to try a few fun dives or even get their PADI Open Water. Experienced divers will also enjoy it. As well as lots of tropical fish, you can also expect to spot barracudas, snappers, turtles, rays and even a few blacktip reef sharks. There are many different packages for scuba diving, really depending on how much time you have. The best value is to do a 3-dive scuba diving tour with a reputable diving company like Borneo Dream.
The Mari Mari cultural village
The Mari-Mari Cultural Village is located around 30 minutes outside of Kota Kinabalu. It is an excellent way to learn about the culture and lifestyle of the indigenous ethnic communities of Borneo. We did a half-day tour of the Mari Mari Cultural Village and learnt how they used to live at a time when electricity had not yet been invented. For example, they showed us how their ancestors used blowpipes to hunt or how they produced fire to cook.
We also got to try bamboo cooking, rice-wine making (and drinking!), tattooing and much more. It was a rewarding and extremely insightful insight into Borneo's cultural heritage, which we recommend you try out.
See orangutans in the wild
The orangutans are native to Borneo and a must-see highlight for any visitor here. It was one of the first things we wanted to see. You can, of course, see them up close in a rehabilitation centre like the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Better yet is to spot them in the wild.
We spent a few days at the gay owned Last Frontier Resort along the Kinabatangan River (the second longest river in Malaysia) where many orangutans live in the wild. Every morning we'd see them climbing above us during our jungle trails – absolutely incredible! Read more about it in our detailed review of the Last Frontier Resort.
Plan your trip to Kota Kinabalu
We've put together some handy hints and tips to help you plan your own trip to Kota Kinabalu. Read on to find out everything the gay traveller should know before they go.
Travel insurance: We never travel without having adequate travel insurance and strongly recommend all travellers do the same. You never know when a flight may be cancelled, your bags could get stolen or you may incur medical expenses. Travel insurance gives you the comfort of knowing you'll be able to claim most of this back. We've used Heymondo Travel Insurance for years and can't recommend them highly enough. Their cover is comprehensive, affordable and extremely user friendly.
How to get there: The main way to reach KK is by flying to Kota Kinabalu airport from within Malaysia. Domestic Air Asia flights are pretty cheap, especially if you book early. The airport is only around 5km (around 3 miles) to the city centre, which is a 10-minute taxi ride. To minimise stress, we recommend pre-arranging your private transfer from the airport to ensure an English-speaking driver will be ready to meet you at the Arrivals Halls once you land.
Visa requirements: Many nationalities are able to visit Malaysia visa-free for up to 90 days, so long as you have at least six month's validity remaining on your passport. Make sure you check your personal visa requirements before making any travel plans for Kota Kinabalu.
Power Plugs: Malaysia uses the same plugs as the UK, so travellers from other countries will need to bring a travel adaptor with them.
Vaccinations: All travellers to Malaysia should be up to date with routine vaccinations like measles, mumps and chickenpox. Most travellers should also be vaccinated for hepatitis A and typhoid. Some travellers may also need vaccinations for hepatitis B, cholera, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, yellow fever and rabies, depending on what you'll be doing. Check the CDC website for the most up to date info for Malaysia and also consult your doctor or travel nurse before flying out.
Currency: The currency used in Malaysia is called the Malaysian ringgit. The official currency code is MYR and it's usually written as RM. $1 converts to around MR 4.33, €1 is worth about MR 4.70 and £1 makes around MR 5.31.
Tipping culture: Kota Kinabalu, and Malaysia in general, doesn't have a strong tipping culture, so you will never be expected to tip. A service charge is often included on restaurant bills and locals will sometimes round up the bill to the nearest ringgit. You can tip if you want – it certainly won't be refused!
Online privacy: The Malaysian government monitors internet usage and is increasingly blocking more and more LGBTQ websites and apps. We recommend that all gay travellers to Malaysia get a VPN before visiting. This will not only allow you to access all blocked apps/websites but it will also allow you to browse the internet safely and anonymously as the VPN hides your location.
Accommodation: For more accommodation options in Kota Kinabalu we recommend Booking.com. They have a large selection of different listings and most offer free cancellation as well, which is important if you want a degree of flexibility in your travel planning.
Sightseeing and adventure: When we're looking for inspiration of things to do in a new place, we love checking out what GetYourGuide recommends. They offer a comprehensive list of ideas and tours, which are affordable and super easy to book.
When to visit: You can visit Kota Kinabalu all year-round. The temperature stays hot (around 30°C/86°F). It's tropical here, so rain can happen at any time, but it will come in intense blasts and quickly disappear! The driest months are January to April, which is also the best time to climb Mount Kinabalu.
Gay map of Kota Kinabalu
Here's a map of Kota Kinabalu showing you where to find all the places we've mentioned in this guide. We hope it helps you plan your own fabulous trip to Kota Kinabalu!
Check our our Video about our travels through Malaysia:
For more inspiration:
- Read these interesting facts about Malaysia you might not have known
- Find out what it's like to grow up gay in Malaysia in our interview with local boy Ronnie
- Check out our gay friendly guide to Sandakan
- As well as our beginner's guide to the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak
- After Malaysia, make sure you check out the gay friendly country of the Philippines
- And here's all of the most gay friendly countries in Asia to visit
- Have a read of our gay country guide to Thailand – the land of smiles!
- Don't miss our gay city guide to fabulous Bangkok