Mount Kinabalu sunrise

Hiking up Mount Kinabalu

Hiking Mount Kinabalu had been on my radar for a while – it’s Malaysia’s highest mountain, on the island of Borneo (to the east of mainland Peninsular Malaysia) and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the 20th most prominent mountain in the world. The hike is a guided two day, one night trip to reach the summit at 4095m. You hike to the summit in the dark so you can see sunrise from the top. The number of permits given out each day is limited, so it’s usually fully-booked, up to six months in advance. This also makes it very expensive – I paid about 1700RM (which is over £300) to do it.

The travel company I used, Downbelow Adventures, had just had a cancellation, to start the hike in two days. I left the shop thinking about it, mainly due to the cost. I messaged a couple of friends, got replies basically saying “DO IT”, and, well, that was that decided. 

I’d just started travelling on my own again and was feeling slightly daunted, so what better way to get over that, than by throwing myself in at the deep end, with a physical, mental — and knowing me, emotional — challenge. I’ve also recently slipped a disk, and it was only 6 weeks ago that I could barely move. So, this was gonna be a big task ahead….

Day 1 – Timpohen Gate to Pana Laban 

At 7.30am I got picked up from my hotel by the friendly driver. We picked up a few others on the way and drove for about 1.5 hours up to Kinabalu National Park. The driver sorted out our permits for the hike and then we met our guide, Doin (no idea how to spell it!), who was great.

In my group there were four Brits – Jess and Tom, a couple, who met in Edinburgh and Niamh, a student from Liverpool.

Our walk starting point was Timpohen gate at 1800m, where we left at 9.45am. Almost straight away it was steps up and up. At every kilometre there was a checkpoint, and rest stop if you wanted. Each kilometre that passed felt further than the last, as it got steeper. I got chatting to Jess and Tom some more, and realised that Tom, who’s an officer in the Army, knew a friend from uni, Sophie (who I’ve written about in my British Gurkhas Army Base Camp blog here) – small world!

Mt. Kinabalu from the bottom
Mt. Kinabalu

At the 4km point, we stopped for lunch around 1pm. The packed lunch deserves a mention here… During the past year, I’ve done a few of these organised hikes, and this lunch was the best by far! A chicken leg, a boiled egg, three sandwiches (one with Dairylea, not so much…), an apple and some oat biscuits. Little did I know, this was just a taste of what was to come – the piece de resistance was the buffet for dinner, but more on that later…

Steps through the forest
Steps through the forest

Signs on the way up


After many, many more steps but at a steady pace, at about 3.15pm we reached the 6km point, at 3272m at Pana Laban. This was where we were staying for the night at Laban Rata Resthouse. I had presumed we would be roughing it in a wooden hut, but oh no – this was a proper hostel with about 20 dorm rooms, and it even had showers and flushing toilets.


Pana Laban

The walls were full of motivational signs and posters – I’ve never seen so many in one place! I just felt sorry for the poor bugger who had to carry them all the way up the mountain. On that note, we saw a guy carrying a huge wardrobe up on his back, with a strap over his head. He was a machine to do that up all those steps! And he wasn’t that far behind us!

Motivational signs
A selection of motivational signs on the walls
Motivational poster
I like this one!











The buffet dinner (did I tell you how much I LOVE a buffet?!) was amazing – mashed potato (I’d not eaten this for months!), rice, lamb, chicken, soup, fruits, fried bananas and more. The 2am breakfast before our final ascent, and the 7.30am breakfast, to replenish our energy stores, were both excellent too. When you hike for 5 hours in the middle of the night, you definitely need two breakfasts! Trust me.

View from Pana Laban
The view from the resthouse

The views from the balcony were pretty breathtaking, especially being up above the clouds. The sun set was particularly impressive. 

sunset over Laban Rata
Sunset over Laban Rata

After a half hearted game of scrabble, and chatting to some other hikers, we got an early night ready for our early start.

Day 2 – Hiking to the summit in the middle of the night

Our alarms went off at 2am and I hadn’t got much sleep as it sounded like everyone was moving around outside our room all night. We were also opposite the gents bathrooms, and as there were lots of Chinese tourists doing the hike, I awoke to the soothing sounds of them hacking up phlegm from their throats… deeelightful!

Ready to go at 2am
2am breakfast

I walked down the stairs for breakfast and Jess commented “Everyone looks like they’re ready to climb Everest,” and it was a funny sight. But actually, they were pretty well prepared for what was to come…

After breakfast no. 1, we got wrapped up, put on our head torches and headed out at 2.45am for the summit of Mt. Kinabalu.

My legs were cold and there was no time to warm my muscles before we headed straight up flight after flight of stairs. After about an hour, I had to sit down as I was feeling dizzy from the altitude. I gave myself a little pep talk “there’s only 2km to go, you can do this” type thing. I then realised why there were so many motivational messages on the walls of the hostel, and set off again, feeling more inspired.

Warmer by now, I managed to keep going, one foot in front of the other at a steady pace. As we got nearer the top, steps turned into fairly steep rock faces, most of which had a rope attached, so that you could pull yourself up if needed. I was struggling at this point. Tom gave me a country riddle/puzzle to figure out by the time I got to the top, and this was an excellent way to distract my mind from my burning calves!

After two hours and forty five minutes of walking in the dark, I was elated to reach the summit at 4095m! We queued up (yep) for a mandatory photo by the sign.

The sky was quite cloudy so we didn’t see the sun come up over the horizon itself, but the colours across the sky were still mesmerising and it felt like we were on top of the world above the clouds.


Mount Kinabalu sunrise

Day 2 – The descent

I was freezing once we got to the summit. My $2 hat, $1 bandana and $1 gloves, that I’d rushed to buy the day before, were all very worthwhile investments!

After about an hour at the top, we decided to set off back down. It started raining as we set off, so those rocks I mentioned before, got verryyy slippy. I had a couple of hairy moments, particularly because I was so tired at this point, so my balance was all over the place. 

The descent
Descending in the rain

We arrived back at the guesthouse pretty soggy at 7.30am, just as the breakfast buffet opened (yass!) so we had our fill. I was exhausted, and so were the others. We decided to go for a nap before checking out.

After an hours sleep, the weather had cleared up, so we set off again. Down, down, down. Easier than up, but this soon started to impact my knees and back with every step. We started playing a “who am I” game to take our minds off it. This lasted a couple of rounds and then came to a prompt end, when Jess suggested we play guess the vegetable…. Like I said, it was desperate times.

Back past the kilometre check points we’d had on the way up. We were getting close. We started taking bets on the time we would arrive back, and how far the others in our group would be behind us. 

The final straight and my legs felt like jelly. We finally reached the end at about 1pm, all relieved that we had done it. The last push had been a slog. 

We then had another buffet lunch (these guys keep you well fed, that’s for sure), before hopping back onto the minibus back to KK. I promptly fell asleep in the minivan so the journey passed quickly.


Final thoughts…

It was such an awesome hike, it was tough but so worth it and definitely worth the cost if you can afford it. Amazing views, good variety of terrain, and great company too. I was very pleased to have been able to do it! And I’m so glad of my friends giving me that nudge to go for it… Hands, Andy – thanks!

BTW – Downbelow Adventures were amazing, Joanna especially was super helpful making sure I was prepared. Then at the start of the hike we all had a phone call from Anna in the office to wish us luck, which was very thoughtful. Definitely book trips with them if you’re ever in Borneo! (No, this isn’t a sponsored post.)

Where’s the best hike you’ve done? Please leave a comment below!

Thanks for reading and please follow me on Instagram to catch every step of FootLuce Adventures