Photo: Mantanani light.


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Kota Belud, known locally as KB, is barely a city as the name suggests—Kota means city in Malay—but rather a busy small town, which most of the week is off the radar for the majority tourists.

All the same, it makes a handy stop between Kota Kinabalu and Kudat, and is the jumping-off point to visit Mantanani Islands. Kota Belud really comes to life on Sundays when the weekly market, or Tamu, gets into full swing, a social occasion for the local Bajau, Rungus, Dusun and Iranun folk as much as a chance to buy the groceries.

Meet Kota Belud. Photo taken in or around Kota Belud, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Meet Kota Belud. Photo: Sally Arnold

Once a year in October the town bursts at the seams when the crowds converge on the famous Tamu Besar (big market), one of Sabah’s largest and most colourful cultural events. Highlights of the two-day festival include a parade of Bajau horsemen and their charges adorned in a kaleidoscope of bejewelled and patchwork garb; lively buffalo races and the crowning of the Ratu (beauty queen).

At other times, when Kota Belud is more sedate, you can enjoy views of Mount Kinabalu looming over the town or simply soak up the bucolic scenes as livestock wander the dusty streets. Kota Belud is the heartland of the Bajau people, who were originally seafaring but have now settled as farmers in the area. The populace also includes a large percentage of Dusun and a substantial Chinese minority. The town’s multicultural presence can be seen with the golden-topped mosque on a hill to the east of the town centre and a Chinese temple to the south.

No photoshop required. Photo taken in or around Kota Belud, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

No photoshop required. Photo: Sally Arnold

Kota Belud town centre is seven kilometres from the coast and sandwiched between, a network of rivers and wetlands is home to a myriad of wildlife. For nature lovers, Kota Belud offers river cruises where among the mangroves you’re likely to encounter the big-nosed proboscis monkeys and a delightful display of fireflies. A one-hour boat ride out to sea, the tiny archipelago of the Mantanani Islands offers a tropical escape and excellent diving and snorkelling. If you have more time to explore, there are nearby beaches and waterfalls too.

Hotels in Kota Belud see more businesspeople than tourists but you’ll need to book ahead around the Tamu Besar in October. Hotels on Mantanani Island are almost exclusively sold as a package deal including transport and meals.

The sunsets are ok... Photo taken in or around Kota Belud, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

The sunsets are ok... Photo: Sally Arnold

Local coffee shops and small restaurants abound in the town centre and you’ll always find one open. In the evening, head to the night market, which sets up in the street behind the big G-Mart supermarket, not far from Tang Dynasty Lodge. Fresh barbecue fish and barbecue chicken wings as well as a selection of prepared food and drinks are on sale. Unfortunately there’s nowhere to sit, but good for a tasty takeaway.

For restaurant-stye eating, friendly Times Kitchen, below Times Traveller Lodge, serves an extensive menu from local to Western dishes and a large selection of milkshakes and juices. No pork, but they do serve beer. They’re open daily 08:30-22:00, closed every second Sunday. The only restaurant on Mantanani Island is at Mari Mari Backpackers Lodge. Food is edible, but not great and service is bad-tempered.

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Orientation The landmarks of Kota Belud town centre are the Petron petrol station and KFC. The bus terminal is right nearby as are a handful of ATMs. Be aware that many ATMs only operate 06:00-00:00. The share taxi stand, with taxis to Marudu (for change to Kudat), and Kota Kinabalu, is east of KFC. A self-service laundrette is opposite Tang Dynasty Lodge and operates 24 hours. The weekly Tamu (06:00-14:00) takes place south of the town centre along Jalan Tamu — just follow the crowds.

Kota Belud post office is on the major road that heads south out of the town centre. Kota Belud Hospital (Peti Surat 159, Kota Belud; T: (0889) 76 333) is two kilometres south of the centre. The police station is on the western side of town. There’s also a police station on Mantanani Island, at the western point.


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Kota Belud.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Kota Belud.
 Read up on how to get to Kota Belud.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
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