Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Borneo, standing at 4,095 meters. It is located in the Malaysian state of Sabah and is part of the Kinabalu National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mount Kinabalu is a granite massif formed about 10 million years ago. Over time, the mountain has been uplifted, and its distinctive jagged peaks have been sculpted by erosion and glaciation. The mountain is renowned for its rich biodiversity, with distinct vegetation zones ranging from lowland rainforests to alpine meadows. It is home to over 5,000 plant species, including the famous Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, and numerous endemic orchid species. Kinabalu National Park was established in 1964 and became Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site in 2000.

Mount Kinabalu holds significant cultural and spiritual importance to the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun people, who believe that the mountain is the resting place of their ancestors’ spirits.

The first formal ascent of Mount Kinabalu was recorded in 1851 by Sir Hugh Low, the British colonial secretary on Labuan Island.

On June 5, 2015, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 occurred in Ranau and lasted for 30 seconds. Since the Sabah earthquake in 1976, this was the strongest earthquake to strike Malaysia. There were eighteen confirmed deaths on Mount Kinabalu, comprising six Malaysians, two Chinese, and ten Singaporeans. After becoming stranded on the mountain, about 137 climbers were eventually rescued.

How do you get to Kundasang?

Kundasang is about a 2-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. You can rent a car at Hikmah Rental & Tours. Excellent contact on WhatsApp and unproblematic rental experience at a good price. The drive offers scenic views of the mountains and countryside.

Shared taxis depart from Merdeka Square in Kota Kinabalu when full. You will pay about 40 RM for a seat and the driver can drop you off at the entrance to Kinabalu National Park.

If you decide to do the hike with a travel agency, transportation by minivan will be included.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Mount Kinabalu

When to go?

The best time to climb Mount Kinabalu is generally during the dry season, which runs from March to September. There is less chance of rain, which makes the trails safer and the views clearer. The summit can be very cold at any time of the year, especially during the early morning hours when climbers aim to reach the peak for sunrise.

Bookings, permits and guides

Let me start by saying that climbing Mount Kinabalu isn’t cheap.

Several operators organize tours to the islands, but the most popular seems to be Borneo Calling. The price of a 2D1N budget hike is 1750 RM for international tourists and 1350 RM for Malaysians. They will organize everything for you: accommodation (Panalaban Hostel or Lemaing Hut), permits and guides.

If you decide to organize your hike independently, you will pay about 1600 RM for accommodation at Laban Rata. On top of that, there is an entrance ticket to Kinabalu National Park (50 RM), a hiking permit (400 RM) and a mountain guide (350 RM). If you arrive at the registration office early enough, you may be lucky to find other people to share the cost of the mountain guide with (max. 5 hikers per 1 guide).

Accommodation at Laban Rata can be booked at the website of Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.

Regardless of the option that you choose, remember that the number of permits is limited and despite the costs, it is a highly popular hike. Therefore, you must book your tour or secure a bed in a hostel a few weeks, or even months in advance.

How long is the hike?

The round trip to the summit of Mount Kinabalu is approximately 17.4 kilometres, typically takes two days and involves two main stages:

Day 1: Trailhead to Laban Rata

Approximately 6 kilometres, 4 to 6 hours with an elevation gain of about 1.400 meters. Hikers usually take a minibus to the Timpohon Gate and start hiking from there, following a well-marked trail through diverse vegetation zones, ranging from tropical rainforest to alpine meadows. The trail is steep and involves many steps. Hikers stay overnight at Laban Rata or one of the other Sutera Lodges Accommodation sites.

Day 2: Laban Rata to summit and back to the trailhead

Approximately 2.7 kilometres to the summit, plus 8.7 kilometres return to the trailhead. It takes between 2 to 4 hours to reach the summit and 4 to 6 hours for the descent. Elevation gain is about 822 meters from Laban Rata to the summit. Hikers usually begin the final ascent around 2 AM to reach the summit for sunrise. The last part of the climb involves steep granite slabs and ropes to assist in the ascent. After reaching the summit, hikers descend back to Laban Rata for breakfast before continuing the descent to the Timpohon Gate.

There is an option to spend an extra night in Laban Rata after the descent from the summit, but it will significantly increase the already high costs of the hike.

There are rest shelters with basic toilets at regular intervals.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Clouds usually roll in after 10 AM

What to pack?

Pack appropriate clothing and gear, including warm layers, waterproof clothing, and sturdy hiking boots. Overall, while the dry season offers the best conditions for climbing, careful planning and preparation can make your climb enjoyable and successful at any time of the year. Here is the list of some essentials:

  • Fleece or insulated jackets
  • Waterproof and windproof jacket and pants.
  • Comfortable and quick-drying pants.
  • T-shirts
  • Warm hat and gloves
  • Socks
  • Hiking Boots
  • Backpack (30-40 litres) with a rain cover.
  • Headlamp
  • Trekking Poles
  • Water Bottle or Hydration Bladder
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunhat and sunscreen
  • Camera or smartphone
  • Climbing permit and ID
  • Cash
  • First aid kit
  • Snacks
  • Insect repellent
  • Towel
  • Optional: power bank (there is an option to charge the devices in Laban Rata)

If you feel that you took too much and there are things you don’t need, leave them in the room at Laban Rata and pick them up on the way back. You don’t want to wear a heavy backpack on the summit push in the night!

Where to stay?

If you go on a hike with a travel agent, they will pick you up in the morning from the hotel in Kota Kinabalu. I based myself there for a few days and can recommend three places: ATAP Hotel, Hotel Tourist by HotSpot Essential and Akinabalu Youth Hostel. All of them were affordable and offered a nice and clean private room.

If you travel to Kundasang independently, I would suggest arriving one day before the hike, to avoid unnecessary rush and morning stress that you won’t make it before 10:30 AM which is the cut-off time to start the hike at Timpohon Gate. I spent the night at Happy Garden, which is a no-frills hostel with a restaurant on-site. It’s within walking distance to the entrance of Kinabalu National Park so you won’t need any further transport in the morning.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Wildlife on the trail 馃檪

2D 1N itinerary

Day 1: Timpohon Gate – Laban Rata

I woke up at about 7 AM and had a quick breakfast in the nearby restaurant. Spending the night at Happy Garden meant that I was only 20 20-minute walk away from Kinabalu Park Headquarters.

After arriving at the registration center I quickly succeeded in finding a group of 3 other hikers to share the costs of the guide with. Then, we got our permits, picked up a packed lunch and got ready for departure. The guide was an older man but he spoke quite good English.

To get to the beginning of the trail at Timpohon Gate, we took a minibus. Then, we had a safety briefing and our guide told us that we were a group but if someone wanted to go faster, there was no need to wait for others. Well, fair enough, although in such a case I have no idea why the guide is mandatory at all.

It was exactly as my guide said. Our group soon split and I reached Laban Rata by myself, while the guide simply followed the slower person.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Beginning of the trail
Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
On the trail

Shortly after the beginning of the trail I passed Carson’s Falls and made my way uphill through the beautiful forest. More or less at the halfway to Laban Rata, I made a break for a packed lunch. In the box, there was some fried chicken with veggies. Not particularly delicious but fine enough. The weather was getting worse with more and more fog rolling over the slopes and for a short moment, it was even drizzling. The trail was still forested but soon it changed into a subalpine meadow.

Upon arrival at Laban Rata Resthouse, I got a key to the 4-person dormitory and quickly changed my clothes to the dry set. I didn’t take a shower as the water was freezing cold. Keep that in mind 馃檪 After spending some time in the common room, the rest of my group was still not there so I simply took a nap. I felt cold, even though I was wearing my warm puffer jacket from Nepal. Quite strange. Also, even though I felt very tired, I couldn’t fall asleep. It made me a bit worried.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
The higher you get, the foggier it becomes
Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Laban Rata Resthouse

Was it because of the altitude? Laban Rata is located at 3,272 metres above sea level, so some people may experience some discomfort. When the rest of my group finally arrived at the dormitory, it was time to get dinner. The problem was that I had zero appetite and only had some sweet jelly for dessert and drank two cups of tea.

After dinner, I preventively took some pills just to make sure that I would be in good shape in the morning. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t sleep at night.

The meal schedule in Laban Rata is as follows:

Dinner: 4:30 PM until 7 PM

Supper: 2 AM until 3:30 AM

Breakfast: 7:30 AM until 10:30 AM

All the meals are served in the form of a buffet.

Electricity is on from 4 PM to 10 OM and from 1 AM to 3:30 AM.

Day 2: Laban Rata – Summit – Timpohon Gate

The second day started with waking up at 2 AM and having a quick breakfast. I wasn’t too hungry but I had to force myself to eat as I felt I needed some calories. We departed at 2:30 AM. Most of the people left at the same time so there was quite a traffic jam at the stairs. The two women from my group stayed behind already at the very beginning and we waited for a while but there was no sign of them. Later we found out that they had turned back. Did they also experience the same health discomfort as me?

I was going up mostly following the stairs. Then the section with steep granite slabs and the line started. There was no vegetation around. The line was just for assecuration, rather than pulling myself up. I was getting weaker and slower as my body didn’t want to continue that adventure. I was struggling both mentally and physically. I made frequent breaks to catch my breath or even sit down for a while. I think it was a nasty combination of altitude impact as well as stomach issues.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
The section with the rope
Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
The section with the rope

I was fighting my way up while the sunrise was getting closer and closer. I could already see the summit but still, it looked quite far away. The last section was really steep and involved some easy scrambling on the rocks.

Finally, I reached the top! The other guy from my group arrived shortly after me. Then, even our guide showed up! We took some pictures with the board showing the name of the mountain and started the descent. It was the last time when I saw the two guys from my group. The way down was certainly much easier and I started taking off layers of my clothes as the sun was quickly warming me up. While looking back, I was impressed that I climbed up all that way in the darkness.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Sunrise at Mount Kinabalu

After reaching Laban Rata, I had a small breakfast with French toast and some fried potatoes. I also met the two women from my group and they confirmed that they turned back as one of them didn’t feel good. I think they expected a way easier adventure climb, the same as me. But Mount Kinabalu isn’t that easy after all!

The remaining distance down to Timpohon Gate was a real pain in the *ss. My knees were done as the total elevation drop was over 2.000 meters! Adding to that, the path was steep and full of rocks and stones. With two breaks en route, I finally made it to the Timpohon Gate and I bought a coke and mineral water there. A minibus was waiting to take hikers back to the Kinabalu Park Headquarters but the driver said we needed to wait for more people to join. We had been waiting for about half an hour and the group of 4 hikers arrived. Once we were on the way to the parking, heavy rain started. What a timing!

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Descending from Mount Kinabalu

At the Kinabalu Park Headquarters, I asked about transport options back to KK but they could only offer a private shuttle for 250 RM. It was way too much! I waited a bit for the rain to stop and then walked towards the roadside to try to flag down some minibus. I had been waiting for about 15 minutes when I noticed the first minibus heading in my direction. It was full but shortly after another stopped and then I jumped on board.

Alternative descent: Via Ferrata

Once booked a tour, you can also opt for the itinerary including via ferrata on the descent. Situated on the Panalaban rock face of Mount Kinabalu, Mountain Torq is the highest via ferrata in the world and the first via ferrata in Asia.

Walk the Torq and Low’s Peak Circuit are the two Via Ferrata itineraries that are offered. Climbers with no prior professional mountaineering experience can enjoy the activity on both routes.

Was it worth it?

All in all, it is a great, scenic and challenging hike. But is it worth the price? In my opinion, it isn’t. Before arriving in Borneo, I spent one month in Nepal. The amount of money that I paid for the 2D1N hike to the Kinabalu summit would probably keep me going for over a week or even more in the Himalayas, with definitely much more spectacular views. There are no alternatives to Sutera Sanctuary Lodges which use their monopoly to charge excessively for literally everything, but the quality is just average.

What else to do around Kundasang?

Kinabalu National Park

There are several shorter trails in the park that you can combine into one loop and hike without a guide. From the main entrance, join the Liwagu Trail and then turn left onto Mempening Trail. Follow it until you reach an asphalt road. Then, to come back to the main entrance, join Kiau View Trail or Silau Silau Trail. Kiau Gap View Point is an excellent place in clear weather, so arrive here very early in the morning.

As of May 2024, Liwagu Trail was closed after the crossroad with Mempening Trail.

There is also the mountain garden which is open from 9 AM to 4 PM every day. Visitors can visit the garden and roam by themself at any time during the opening hours, however, guided tours with Sabah Park’s interpretation guide are scheduled at 9 AM, 12 PM and 3 PM.

Aki Aki Trail

The 3.3 km trail with proper facilities such as staircases and platforms with a view of the majestic Mount Kinabalu. However, it goes through private property and you need to hire a guide. I have seen some reports from people saying that they were quoted over 200 RM, which is totally ridiculous and sounds like a scam.

Kundasang War Memorial

It honours the British and Australian detainees who lost their lives during the infamous Sandakan Death Marches and at the Sandakan and Ranau POW camps as well as Borneo natives who lost their lives helping them.

Quite a pity that even in a place like this, there is a double pricing for Malaysians and foreigners.

Maragang Hill

The Maragang Hill, which is 2,232 metres above sea level, was opened to the public in 2017. Hikers can choose from different packages, such as sunrise hikes (3 AM) and regular hikes (6 AM) on the conventional or loop trail. The regular trail takes roughly 3-4 hours to finish on average. I opted for a regular 6 AM version and arrived on time at the meeting point. The guide was late for about 20 minutes and I was slowly getting annoyed because I was aware that shortly after sunrise, Mount Kinabalu could be covered in clouds. Finally, when the guide arrived, we jumped inside a pick-up truck and were taken higher up the road to the trailhead. Having a guide on this trail was ridiculous as it was very easy to follow and the guy was simply walking behind me smoking cigarettes all the way.

After about an hour or so we arrived at the top and the views were great. Mount Kinabalu from that perspective looked simply breathtaking. I flew a drone around and took some nice aerial pictures before we started our descent. I was pretty much overtaking all locals on the trail as they were walking so damn slowly.

The guide can be booked via WhatsApp. Phone numbers are available on the website HERE. As of May 2024, the price is 155 RM if you are going solo.

Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo
Maragang Hill
Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo
The view from Maragang Hill

Sosodikon Hill

Good and both cheaper and easier alternative to Maragang Hill. The entrance ticket costs 10 RM per person for foreigners. It is a very short 1 km return trail with spectacular views of Mount Kinabalu on a clear day. Come early in the morning!

Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo
Aerial view os Sosodikon Hill

Last POW Camp Memorial

The Japanese occupiers of Sabah in 1945 forced 641 British and 1793 Australian prisoners of war to march from Sandakan to Ranau. Only six people made it out alive by hiding and getting looked after by locals. The rest died as a result of disease, arduous labour, unfavourable living conditions, or were slain by their captors. The 183 men who perished at this final camp, which was located next to a bend in the Kagibangan River that can be seen below, are listed on the memorial stone. The place is located 6 km away from Ranau.

Poring Hot Spring

The site is made up of about a dozen little pools that are heated by sulfurous water that emerges from an underground spring. The best thing that adventurous people can do here is the hike to Langanan Waterfall, which takes about 2 hours one way. Make sure that you start the hike before noon, as later the entry isn’t allowed.

Another nice activity is climbing up to the canopy walkway, suspended from trees and reaching up to 40 meters above the jungle floor, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding forest.

There is also a butterfly and orchid garden. The problem is that the ticket price to the park is quite steep: 50 RM for foreigners and then you need to pay extra for each activity inside, such as hot springs or canopy walkway (10 RM). The business model of a tourist trap!

Mahua Waterfall

The waterfall is located about 500 meters from the entrance. The water is cold and clear. The entry costs 20 RM for adult foreigners and RM12 for children. There is a BBQ area, tables and chairs. It’s about 1-hour drive following route 500 from Ranau.

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