Travel // Things to do in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo {2018}

Just before Christmas last year we were sat booking our Christmas lunch (very lately I might add)  it was our first Christmas in Singapore and we couldn’t face cooking a turkey in this heat. We had no family to celebrate with, so we decided to cycle to lunch and have one of these famous Singapore ‘brunches’. But while we had the laptop out and as hubby had to work boxing day, as is usual in Singapore, we thought we deserved a little trip away.


This was to be our first trip away from Singapore since we’d settled here a few months before, so we wanted it to be one to remember and to set the bar for trips to come. After speaking to lots of our new neighbours and new friends we decided upon Borneo. The youngest was obsessed with Orang-utans, there was a beach and it was only a two-hour flight from Changi Airport.

We didn’t research too heavily on resorts and opted with the Shangri-la Rasa Ria as it was recommended by so many. It was supposedly next to an Orang-utan sanctuary (which I did check on google maps) they also had a great family deal on with breakfast and dinner included. So in true Thompson style we’d booked a last minute trip for 10 days time to Borneo, my cousins despair at how late we book trips but we love the spontaneity and adventure.


We flew from Singapore to Borneo Kota Kinabalu which is in the Malaysian part (Sabah) of Borneo with Silk Air. Before this trip I had no idea that Borneo was made up of three different countries (Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei). We’d arranged transfers with The Shangri-La and their driver met us at the airport, we hopped into his mini-bus and enjoyed the scenic route to the hotel.


The hotel was big but it was split into two parts so it didn’t feel too overwhelming. They played gongs to welcome us, it was so cute. One of the main parts of our trip which sticks with us is how friendly and welcoming all the local staff are. Simon came to the pool one day and said “you’ll never guess what, the porter just stopped me in the hallway and asked how our trip was going and to thank me for visiting his country”.

The room was sufficient size for our stay, to be fair we weren’t in there much, just a couple hours in the afternoon to chill our before dinner and to sleep. The beds very insanely comfy and the shower was powerful and hot. But we did have this guy visit our balcony every evening, he was rescued by the rangers and when they set him free he decided to hang around. As you can see the kids loved lining some snacks up for him.


Food, I did struggle a little with the food, but then being a gluten-free vegetarian isn’t that easy to cater for, and the fried chicken feet weren’t quite calling to me. Meal times were a buffet affair, not normally my favourite. But there was a lot of selection, they even had rambutan.

We did eat in their Italian restaurant one evening and chef Luca from Italy came out before every course and asked us what we wanted to eat, no menu’s, we just thought of our favourite Italian dishes and he’d appear with them a short while later. The hubby was in heaven with his risotto.

One of the best parts of the trip was the jungle walk through the old Orang-utan reserve which was adjoined to the hotel and arranged at the activities desk. Yup we got there to find out the reserve shut down the year before and if we had wanted to see these beautiful animals we’d now have to take a plane to the other side of the island. Something we opted out of this trip.

If you’re planning a trip to Borneo, make sure you take flights to the east side of the island to see the orang-utans first then fly to Kota Kinabalu for a relaxed beach stay. Our guide Won was brilliant with the kids, he showed them where all the creepy crawly animals lived and took us to see the best view on the island.

We spent a lot of time at the beach, they have 3km of beach here just for the hotel guests. We didn’t swim in the sea though lots of guests did. It is the South China Sea, so unfortunately they have to have a team of five who are constantly cleaning the rubbish from the beach. We also went out daily and did #twominutebeachclean ‘s. It’s one of my favourite things to do with my little man.

Through the hotel we arrange to do a river cruise to go and see a Sea Gypsy village. Along the way the kids were taught how to fish for crabs and we spotted a few crocodiles. Which incidentally aren’t native to borneo but a few have escaped from a local crocodile farm and are now thriving in the river, arghhh.

We stopped at one of the local village huts on stilts which is used for ceremonies and weddings. A lovely older lady showed us how to play their gongs, we ate some local biscuits and drank fresh coconuts. It was sad to see so much river rubbish though… mainly all plastic too. And I should add that the crabs got away that day too!


There was only one day where we didn’t feel completely safe. The hotel took us to the local market, now I was imagining something akin to a french market and wafting around in my floaty dress, a big straw hat and sampling all the cheese. But it was a local produce market think chickens in crates ready to be eaten, local vegetables displayed on the floor and very very busy. We noticed as we were walking around, keeping the kids very close, that two men were obviously following us around. So we went to see a local temple instead, but only after buying some straw baskets, plates and some threads for my weaving.

We loved Borneo, we went for five days and could’ve easily filled a few more days. It was slightly less humid that Singapore, so less frizzy hair. The country was beautiful and very untouched, the locals are some of the nicest people we’ve come across. We’d like to go back and see the Orang-utans and try to find the mini elephants along the river.

I’ve also heard that there is some of the best diving to be had over on the East Coast too with a turtle cave where turtles go to die. The world’s largest flower the Rafflesia arnoldii also grows here on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, it only flowers once a year, so if it’s in bloom during your trip you should certainly try and see it. I’d love to hear what you thought about Borneo if you’ve been and some of the things you saw.


Things to note – the bugs are very friendly in Borneo, especially the mosquitos, they like to stick around. So we wore long loose layers where possible and used all the bug spray. We didn’t take malaria tablets, but we are all up-to-date with our jabs for living in Asia. We also opted to avoid all food which wasn’t cooked, so no salad in the hotel or fruit which would’ve been washed. And glad we did as a few people got food poisoning whilst we were there. We also washed our teeth with bottled water.

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