If Malaysia isn’t on your family holiday to-do list, there are many reasons why it should be. My daughter and I recently visited Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah on the western side of Borneo. It’s a popular destination for those who would like to take a break from city life to enjoy a tropical vacation in an incredible biodiverse part of the world.

We had a brilliant time experiencing the area’s extraordinary wildlife, attractions and luxury hotels. It may surprise you to know that there are many things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids, some of which are mentioned below.

1. Go Snorkeling

Tropical fish along coral reefs of Mamutik Island, Borneo

The snorkeling off the coast of Kota Kinabalu in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is amazing.

A particularly excellent option is Mamutik Island which we had direct access to it via Shangri-la’s Tangjung Aru Resort and Spa’s STAR Marina private boats. But the park has five islands in total: Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan, Sapi and Sulug. Snorkeling and diving can be done around most of them.

You’ll see a variety of tropical fish, eels, rays, black-nosed sharks, jellyfish (the harmless kind), stunning coral and so much more in often clear waters. A number of tours run from Kota Kinabalu and it only takes a few minutes to reach the islands by boat.

2. Visit an Orangutan Sanctuary

Learn more about the orangutan sanctuary at Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu

A family vacation to Kota Kinabalu with kids (or without) is not complete without a visit to an orang utan sanctuary. We were short on time so could not visit the famous Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary, which may require a flight or a long (over 5 hours) bus ride. I have heard that if you can swing it, a visit here is well worth it. It is larger than others, with 40-60 orang utans there at any given time, and by far the most famous for viewing these amazing rescued animals in their natural habitat.

Instead of Sepilok, we attended a morning orang utan viewing at Shangri-la’s Rasa Ria Resort and Spa Nature Reserve where some orang utans are rehabilitated before being transferred to Sepilok to relearn life skills prior to release. After learning about orang utans and Borneo wildlife in general, we walked to a viewing platform where we enjoyed a close-up look at the two orang utans in residence (my daughter also participated in Ranger for a Day where she cut up the fruit and veg they ate).

3. Watch a Sunset

The sunsets in Kota Kinabalu are nothing short of amazing. The sun appears larger closer to the equator, the air quality is good and the tropical clouds create an incredibly dramatic effect. Witness the magic of a Borneo sunset at Tanjung Aru Beach, the Sunset Bar at Shangri-la’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa or Sutera Harbour.

4. Zip Line Between Islands

Also located in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, the Coral Flyer Zipline allows guests to fly over the ocean between Gaya Island and Sapi Island. It’s not often that you get to experience an island-to-island zipline, which happens to be the largest in all of Borneo. It’s even a double zipline so guests can see a stunning view of marine life from above, side-by-side, over the 250m journey.

5. Eat Malaysian Food

Satay and dips at Shangri-la's Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa's exclusive Sunset Bar

Malaysian food can be tasty to even picky eaters. Kid-friendly rice and fruit are staples but so are Malaysian satays of chicken or beef. Try kaya toast, a delightful sweet combo of white bread and coconut jam. My daughter noshed on nasi lemak for breakfast, curries and more during our trip, too. I highly recommend letting the kids sample all of the above.

6. Water Sports

Tour operators also offer a variety of water sports including parasailing, banana boat rides, wakeboarding, waterskiing and SUP which is another way to experience the beauty of the South China Sea.

7. Kinabalu National Park

You can see the giant rafflesia flower at Kinabalu National Park. It's the largest in the world!

Take a day trip out to Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. While you won’t climb Mount Kinabalu with kids in tow (note that if you do intend to climb it, reservations should be made months in advance) unless they are older and very fit, there are plenty of other things for them to do there including exploring the botanical gardens, insect museum and nature walks.

The park is a major area of biodiversity sporting over 1000 species of orchids, 850 butterfly species, 62 frog and toad species, the world’s biggest flower (the rafflesia) and much more.

8. White Water Rafting

Go white water rafting on the kiulu river when visiting Kota Kinabalu with kids.

If you have kids who are old enough to enjoy it, head to the scenic Kiulu River for white water rafting. Class 1 and 2 rapids are suitable for families and a typical experience lasts about 90 minutes on the river followed by lunch. Transportation to and from your Kota Kinabalu hotel can also be arranged via a variety of tour companies.

9. Lok Kawi Wildlife Park

Here is where you see most of Borneo’s animals in one place including Sumatran rhinoceros, Borneo Pygmy elephants, Proboscis monkeys, orang utans, Malaysian tigers and more. You can also jungle trek through the botanical side of the park. It’s about 20 km from Kota Kinabalu city center. Note that it isn’t quite up to par with many western zoos, but many families enjoy it.

10. Stay in a Luxury Hotel

Kids love the water play area at Shangri-la's Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu is a leisure vacation destination so it’s no surprise that luxury hotels cater to all ages and types of travelers. We had the privilege of laying our heads at Shangri-la’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa but spent a full day a sister property Shangri-la’s Rasia Ria Resort and Spa. Both offer swimming pools and beaches all ages will love as well as local recreation easily accessible via the resorts.

In fact, both properties are so lovely that you may find it hard to leave… but you should because you’re in Borneo!

What are your favorite things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids?

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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