What to do if you’re not climbing Mount Kinabalu

Hello friends, welcome to my biggest travel regret to date. Not climbing Mount Kinabalu. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time; in fact, I loved it. I just need an excuse to get back!

Mt Kinabalu Sunrise
Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia

We really played it day by day, in Borneo. We travelled to the island because we wanted to see wildlife, so the Lower Kinabatangan in Eastern Sabah was our main destination. Climbing Mount Kinabalu also appealed to us, but the €150 or thereabouts required per person were too steep for our very tight budget. It was either wildlife, or the mountain. With tears in our eyes, we chose wildlife.

Kinabalu Stream in the Woods
A stream in the Kinabalu forest

The imposing massif of Mount Kinabalu followed us everywhere we went, during the few days we spent in Kota Kinabalu. Not only the mountain itself, visible across the water; its silhouette was on flags and coat of arms, in souvenir shops and on government buildings. I felt as if it was mocking us, tormenting us for having decided not to climb. So, we decided to pay the mountain a visit. We decided to stay somewhere outside the national park boundaries to save on steep accommodation fees and just hike around the base.

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Kinabalu Leaf Underside
The underside of a leaf

When we arrived and I saw how majestic Mount Kinabalu was, I really, really regretted our decision. I would have done anything to climb. Even from its base, Mount Kinabalu is impressive. It rises more than double in height than its neighbours in the Crocker Range, such a sight that it can be spotted from a plane (so we were told).

It was easy to see how this mountain was considered sacred by the local Dusun people, who named it ‘Akinabalu’ (the place of the dead), as they believed it to be the place where the souls of the departed gathered.

Mount Kinabalu Sunrise Fog
The sun rising through the fog

Hiking around the base was easy, the temperature was around 25 degrees and the humidity rather low. In two days we walked all the trails. We stayed in Travellers Adventure Lodge Kinabalu (TALK), in a cute A-frame bungalow with a great view on the mountain. Seeing the sun rise and set behind it was a spellbinding sight. I could just imagine how it would be from up the top.

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Kinabalu Pointy Leaf
A leaf up close

There are nine trails around the park headquarters, many of which can be combined to create day-long walks. The trails offer good chance to see birds and other small wildlife, compared to the busy summit trails. We often found ourselves walking alone, and spotted only a handful of hikers throughout the day. Even though the level of difficulty varies from one to another, generally speaking all trails are easy and well-marked enough to be walked without a guide.

Kinabalu Pink Flower
Leaves, or a pink flower?

Here’s a brief overview of the trails around the base of Mount Kinabalu:

Bundu Tuhan View Trail; (465 metres, 30 minutes) this is one of the more accessible trails. It is a good opportunity for visitors with little time to experience the tropical rainforest. On a clear day, it offers a view of a nearby Kadazan Dusun village, Bundu Tuhan. Hikers have option of joining this trail with the Ligawu Trail.

Kiau View Trail. (2344 metres, 60-80 minutes) this trail is fairly long, but mostly flat, save for a couple of uphill climbs right at the stars. There are several viewpoints along the trail, with views of the Crocker Range and the Kadazan Dusun village of Kiau, from where the original trail to the summit begins.

Kinabalu Brown Leaf
The colours of the forest

Pandanus Trail; (598 metres, 45 minutes) this trail is short but steep, it can be easily combined with the Kiau View Trail. The forest stretch it crosses is famous for its giant lianas.

Bukit Ular Trail; (997 metres, 60 minutes) rarely used, this trail is often considered unsafe as it is not very well marked in parts. We thought it was fine. The walk can be extended joining the Mempening Trail that leads you back to park headquarters. As it is rarely walked, there are higher chances of seeing birds and wildlife on this trail.

Kinabalu Bird Shadow
A Bird Shadow on the Bukit Ular Trail

Bukit Tupai and Bukit Burung Trails; (1425 metres, 90 minutes combined) fairly short trails that can be easily combined. Be prepared for lots of ups and downs though, as ‘bukit’ means ‘hill’ in Malay. This trail can be combined with the Mempening Trail or Silau Silau trail.

Mempening Trail; (3396 metres, 120 minutes) This is a very easy trail with little climbing, if it’s not combined with the two Bukit trails. Mempening means ‘oak’ in Malay, and sure enough there’s plenty of oaks around. Hikers can join the Liwagu Trail or Bundu Tuhan View Trail to extend their walk.

Liwagu Trail (5620 meters; 120-150 minutes) this is the longest trail. Liwagu is the Dusun name of the river that this trail follows. Hikers are sometimes at the same level as the river, sometimes on a narrow ridge overlooking it from above; meaning there’s a fair amount of ups and downs.

Kinabalu Small Stream
A small stream on the Liwagu Trail

Silau Silau Trail (3057 metres, 60-80 minutes) One of the easiest trails, with several options to extend or shorten the walk. The vegetation is especially interesting; with lots of mosses, ferns and orchids.

Mountain View Trail; (150 metres, 15 minutes) I’m not even sure this qualifies as a trail. It’s a short path to a shelter with a view on Mount Kinabalu. Yes. I definitely need to climb, next time.

Kinabalu Butterfly on the Ground
A butterfly on the ground

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50 thoughts on “What to do if you’re not climbing Mount Kinabalu”

    • Thanks for stopping by Manouk! We loved trekking around the mountain, the nature was incredible!

    • It was such a beautiful sunrise. I loved it, and next time I HAVE to see it from the top!

  1. The trails sounds awesome, and I love the photos. It’s certianly not the end of the world not climbing the mountain if you got to hike around the base! πŸ™‚

  2. Even though you didn’t climb the mountain, the story you brought back was something to cherish. It will always be there waiting for your next visit. BTW, beautiful photos, too!

    • Thanks Lisa! It was wonderful to hike around the base, lots to see and do even if you don’t climb!

      • Hi

        I am going to the park next week for three days and two nights to explore the trails only

        where is the best place to view the sunrise? a place where you can see the forest and the mist and the beautiful sun rising above the forest? πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ also can you or did you do any night walks? hope the park doesnt close?

        do email me if you can! really appreciate it

        • Hi Shavez! If you’re not climbing the mountain, the best view of the mountain itself at sunrise (kind of like the one I’ve got in this post :)) is from near the Kinabalu Pine Resort. We stayed in a small A-frame hut nearby and the view was from our door. I’m not sure about night walks – it’s best if you ask locally, we didn’t do any and I don’t recall seeing any advertised, but I was there in 2010 so maybe things have changed since.

          Hope you have a good time!

  3. This is great information, we are heading to Borneo in about 3 weeks but certainly can’t afford to climb Mt Kinabalu. The hikes sound perfect for experiencing the area. Thank you!

    • Hey Rachel, you’ll have a blast in Borneo. We spent 2 weeks in Sabah but if you get a chance visit Sarawak as well, supposed to be amazing! have a look at our Borneo posts, and if you have any questions just drop us a line!

  4. Don’t regret your decision. The mountain will always be there, the animals may not. I would have chosen the animals over the mountain as well. Your photos are very clear and beautifully composed. Sun rising through the fog and the green/brown leaf photos are my favourites. πŸ™‚

    • Thanks! Glad you liked the pics. The more I think about it, the more I believe that it’s true, I decided well. As it is, I’ll go back to climb the mountain; had I climbed, I may not have returned for the animals and nature.

  5. Very informative post with lots of great photos to tempt me. Frankly, I thought climbing Mt. Kinabalu was the only thing to do in the park, so I never bothered going as it’s a little more physical exertion than what I can handle. If I’d known there were all these other trails, I may have considered paying Sabah a visit.

    • Hey Michele! There are definitely trails for everyone in the park, we saw families with very young kids and some elderly people too. The forest was beautiful, you should go if you can!

  6. Yikes, I didn’t know it was quite that expensive to climb. This one’s on our list for when the kids are a bit older. Looks like there are some great trails lower down if we do decide to go earlier, though.

    Love your pictures.

    • Some of the trails would be greater for your kids. They join together so you can have short or long hikes, depending on what you fancy! It’s a great place to visit!

  7. Margherita, you shouldn’t really regret your decision and it seems you found a lot of interesting wildlife and other things to do anyway. For over 150 euros I would have made the exact same decision and your nature photos turned out nothing but beautiful… πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Dennis, glad you liked the pics. I have regretted that decision so much, now in hindsight I am thinking I had a great time!

    • Thanks jessica. We did have an amazing time at the end, and regrets will just help me to make sure I go back to climb the mountain!

  8. As Jan said “the mountain will always be there”. You made the same decision I would have. Your photos are very cool and I like especially the Colors of the Forest. Much appreciated.

    • Thank you so much Tim. Glad you loved the post, and you’re right, the mountain will be there waiting for me to return.

  9. I absolutely love your photos especially the sun rising through the fog and that gorgeous river. No regrets – it’s always great to have excuses to return!

  10. I guess you will just have to go back then! πŸ˜‰ I’ve never climbed a mountain but I always make the effort to go to each place’s high point…I missed Gellert Hill in Budapest last month (left it til the last day and got bad weather) and am kicking my butt for it so I kinda know how you feel!

    • So true… it’s terrible when you can’t do all you would like to do, but it’s good to have excuses to go back.

  11. Wow I didn’t realize it was so expensive to climb Mt. Kinabalu. That is really quite expensive. I’m glad you found some incredible things to do though and your photographs are beautiful as well.

    • Thank you! Glad you liked the pictures. It was a great experience, really felt I was close to the nature hiking around the base.

  12. Great pics! I think walking the trails along the mountain gave you great opportunities that you wouldn’t have gotten actually going to the top. We love wildlife and nature.

    • You’re so right Lisa! It was an amazing experience at the end, I will just have to go back!

  13. That’s interesting to know how much it costs to climb Mount. KK. I’ll be saving up to go next year. Love your sunrise photo!

    • hey Ming! If you do climb, I really would love to hear about your adventure. Thanks for the comment!

  14. It’s ok. You chose wisely! Borneo is known for its biodiversity! You can always go back and climb the mountain- you’re right about that! Nice nature shots too!

    • Glad you liked the pics, thanks! Do pay a visit if you can. It’s a beautiful place!

  15. You know, not walking around the trails at the base of Kinabalu is actually something I regret! Don’t get me wrong, the climb was incredible and 100% worth it, but it would have been nice to wander some of the less frequented trails to see some wildlife and more unusual plants. I did see pitcher pants part way up though, that was excellent. What do you think was the most interesting of the lower trails?
    Staying outside the park is totally the way to go. I think most people don’t realise how easy the other options are. I stayed at a really cute place called Kinabalu Mountain Lodge. The people there were really sweet and the home cooked food was a big plus. And it was so close and easy to reach the mountain too.

  16. Hi Margherita,

    I also visited Borneo this year and didn’t climb Kinabalu, we too decided on a more wildlife based trip and did a river cruise along the Kinabatangan for a few days and went in search of Orangutans.

    We ran out of time by the end, but there is a cheaper option for climbing Kinabalu. You can do the one day hike. You must go with a guide so the fees are just entry into the national park and the guide fees.
    There are some places you can stay in the National Park that offer free guides with your stay also.
    So if you end up in Borneo again on a tight budget maybe you can opt for the day trip?
    Of course it means you miss the sunrise, but you still save over a hundred dollars!

    • Thnaks Gemma, that’s a lovely tip! At the end, we also went to the Kinabatangan, and loved it, so we don’t regret not climbing. But I really want to go there and do it next time… I’ll probably do the two days, but it’s good to know of this possibility if I end up being short of cash!

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