Climbing Mount Kinabalu: A Two-Day Hike to Malaysia’s Peak

João Monteiro

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Climbing Mount Kinabalu: A Two-Day Hike to Malaysia’s Peak

Hey everyone,

João and Constança here writing from our 3-month honeymoon. This time we want to tell you about our incredible hike in Borneo’s National Park, up Mount Kinabalu. The experience was exhausting, and waking up at dawn to watch the sunrise was painful, but the view was absolutely worth it. 

Kota Kinabalu (referred to as KK) is a coastal city and the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, in Borneo. As it’s set further East, there is a stronger Filipino influence that can be found in local markets and shops. Indeed, upon arrival, we visited the Filipino market — a true feast for the eyes. In a section of the market, you can choose your preferred daily catch, and method of cooking, and enjoy the freshness of the seafood in courts of plastic tables and chairs amongst local families.

Hiking up Mount Kinabalu

Geared up to climb Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia


João and his wife Constança purposely chose locations that were off the beaten path for their honeymoon. They wanted to explore things that they hadn’t seen anywhere else before and have experiences that were outside of usual travel itineraries, especially when it came to honeymoon destinations.

Kota Kinabalu acts as an anchor for other quests, ours being climbing Mount Kinabalu, South Asia’s highest mountain, at 4,095 meters. On our second morning here, we left our hotel at 6 am to start our journey to the summit. The 90 km that separate KK from the base camp where the hike begins was made in two hours of driving through winding roads. The climb starts at around 1,890 m above sea level, so you start with an advantage—but if you thought this would make the hike an easy one, you’re sorely mistaken. The climb to the summit is done over two days: around 1,700m on day one and overnight stay, and then around 500m the following morning to see the sunrise at the summit. These distances are in altitude—not walking distance—meaning it takes 9km of hiking to get to an altitude of 4,095m.

Arriving at the base, we proceeded with the usual formalities (checking in, signing forms, etc.) before officially starting the climb. We were assigned our local guide, Joe, someone we would later end up calling our friend.

The hike shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s a constant climb with little to no flat periods, and through different types of vegetation and forest (you see this change as you go up). It was a hot day, meaning the first section of the hike — up to 3,600m — was sweaty and requires a few stops for water and, admittedly, a breather. However, we still made it within the planned time and with few altitude-sickness symptoms; it’s harder to breathe as you venture further, and one of us got a mild headache (all of which are normal). Luckily, it was gone the following day—if it doesn’t, continuing your way up to the summit the following morning is highly discouraged.

Reaching the finishing line of Mount Kinabalu Climb

Reaching the finish line of Mount Kinabalu climb

Unsurprisingly, we got to 3,600m altitude pretty knackered. It’s a long, arduous climb, but oh-so-worth it. At this altitude, the company that runs the Kinabalu National Park has a few spots where you sleep overnight. There’s even a restaurant where you can have supper before lights are out at 8 pm. I remember the initial feeling of being high above the clouds and watching the sunset beyond them from this height — showered, fed, and exhausted — not only is it rewarding to finish the climb, but it’s completely unforgettable to be more a part of the sky than the ground, so high above the clouds.

The light was beaming and bright like it could swallow everything in front of me in mere seconds. Truly, there are no words for the view. And the sense of achievement is purely overwhelming.

The wake-up call the following morning was at 2 am. After a light breakfast, the hike resumes at 2:30 am. It’s a shorter altitude and walking distance, but this by no means makes it easier; it’s steeper here than the previous day’s climb. The torches and flashlights only suffice to see where you’re placing your feet and, at this time in the morning, it’s cold — 0 degrees.

Sunset in Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia

The goal is to reach the summit just before sunrise, so you can watch it from there. You just keep going, aided by ropes and rocks as steps, until about three hours later, you finally get there: the summit. Shortly after we reached the peak, the sun began to rise in one of the most spectacular dawns we’ve ever experienced on this earth. The light was beaming and bright, like it could swallow everything in front of me in mere seconds. Truly, there are no words for the view. And the sense of achievement is purely overwhelming.

We hope this story inspires you to go on a crazy intense hike to catch the sunrise, or maybe it’ll just push you to set the alarm a bit earlier than usual. For more travel inspiration keep following our journey. Next stop is Singapore for some urban adventures. 

João Monteiro
Writer, Photographer & Videographer
London, United Kingdom
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