What others are saying about climbing Mt. Kinabalu
Since 2013, the cost of climbing Mt Kinabalu has skyrocketed, and if you’re lucky, you may get a confirmed booking . . . five months down the line. What’s the deal with Malaysia’s iconic mountain?
Here’s the irony – climbing Sabah‘s Mt Kinabalu, whose majestic peak tops out at 4,085m, is relatively easy; trying to wrangle a spot to climb, however, requires a fair bit of doggedness, an open schedule and, yes, money.
In the past year, regular climbers and tourists, both foreign and local, have been flooding the blogosphere, travel forums and media with complaints. Their main gripes are that the climbing cost is astronomical, the waiting list long and the service and infrastructure, substandard.
Even the first edition of Lonely Planet Borneo published last year devoted almost one page to the issues, raising the question: is it worth the hassle?
Estimated cost of climbing Mt. Kinabalu
1. Park Entry Fees
Adult/ Person below 18: RM3/ RM1 (Malaysian), RM15, RM10 (Non-Malaysian)
2. Climbing Permits for Mount Kinabalu
Adult/ Person below 18: RM30/ RM12 (Malaysian), RM100, RM40 (Non-Malaysian)
3. Climbing Insurance
All visitors intending to attempt the summit need to purchase climbing insurance at RM7 from the park.
Engaging a guide is compulsory for those intending to make the summit climb. The cost ranges from RM128 to RM150 depending on the size of the group. Note that there is restriction on group size.
5. Transport to (and later, from)
Via Timpohon Gate:RM16.50/way(1-4 persons) RM4/person (5 persons and above)
Via Mesilau Trail:RM85.00/way(1-6 persons) RM15/person (7 persons and above)
6. Optional fees
- Souvenir certificate: RM10
- Left-luggage: RM10
- Portable Oxygen Bar: RM35
- Wooden Walking stick: RM5(No longer available for sale due to environmental conservation reasons by authorities, These are merely carved tree branches, sold (not rented) to you by the Park HQ. Choose a long, sturdy one; most they offer are quite flimsy and short.
- Metal Hiking Pole for rent : RM15 (No matter what, a walking stick or hiking pole of some kind is highly recommended, particularly to protect your knees and ankles.)
- Hire porters: Porters are for hire to carry your stuff to Laban Rata and back. The rate is RM8 for each kg of luggage.
To minimize costs, you can take the following measures:
- Join up with others to share a guide.
- Don’t get the souvenir certificate. The choice of certificate appears to be opt-out: on the way down from the peak you should explicitly tell the staff at the Sayat-Sayat huts (at km 7.0) that you don’t want the certificate, or else they may give it to you automatically.
- Hike up to the Timpohon Gate yourself. Note that this will add an additional hour or more to your hike, and to most people this is certainly not worth it.
- Bring your own hiking pole(s).
What to expect when climbing Mt. Kinabalu
To climb Kinabalu, the average person takes about four to six hours to reach about three-quarters of the way to Panar Laban (3,270m), stays overnight at Laban Rata, and then completes the summit push before dawn the next day.
Unless you’re super-fit and can dart up the peak like the local porters, you’ll need to book a dormitory bed or a room at the Laban Rata guesthouse, since camping isn’t allowed.
All the lodges on the mountain – the Laban Rata Resthouse, Gunting Lagadan and Sayat-Sayat huts – are owned by the Sabah government under Sabah Parks.
In 1998, Sabah privatised the management of the properties, and in 2002, private company Sutera Harbour Resort was appointed to co-manage under the name Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (SSL), with Sabah Parks handling the park administration and collection of fees for conservation, guide, porter and climbing.
To prevent the mountain from being overrun, Sabah Parks limits the number of climbers to 192 people a day. Plus, park rangers enforce the rules on the mountain.
You can see a list of the fees offered by Sutera Harbour Resort:
Basically, they offer a two day one night climbing package at the following rates:
RM753 for one person
RM1,345 for two people (672.50 per person)
RM1,938 for three people (646 per person)
RM2,552 for four people (638 per person)
Please see the breakdown of the charges in this page here, Climbing Mt Kinabalu Fees.
The price covers everything you need to complete the climb including the park entrance fee, climbing permit and insurance, mountain guide, return shuttle between Park HQ and Timpohon Gate (the start and finishing point of the climb), dormitory bunk bed accommodation at Laban Rata (the overnight resthouse at the 6.0km mark) and meals (packed lunch for the first day, dinner, early morning supper, breakfast and finally lunch or afternoon tea at Park HQ upon completion).
The package doesn’t include transportation from Kota Kinabalu or the certificate of completion of the climb that some of the more expensive packages often include. However, getting a bus from KK to the mountain is easy and inexpensive. We caught a mini-bus headed for Ranau from Padang Merdeka bus station for RM25.
If you decide you’d like a certificate to prove your feat, you can get one for RM10, making this option still much cheaper than getting the all inclusive packages of some other providers.
Source: Climbing Mt Kinabalu
Drastic cost increase every year
The problem is the cost of climbing has now increased dramatically. In 2008, a dorm bed in Laban Rata cost only RM30, but in January 2013, the cost with meals included (a packed box, buffet lunch, dinner and breakfast) jumped to RM188, an increase of some 500%.
“Most return climbers to Kinabalu don’t think the price increase is justifiable,” says Ruhaizad Daud of Johor, an avid climber.
“Prior to this, we had the option of booking only the beds without meals. Also, the packed lunch using polystyrene boxes and plastic bags are producing more rubbish on the mountain.”
Apparently, the price increase hasn’t translated into better maintenance, either.
“Interrupted hot water, electricity and plumbing leaks are common. Leaks from the bathrooms trickle down to the restaurant below the sleeping quarters,” adds Ruhaizad, 32, a Kota Kinabalu-based doctor.
This year, the cost of the package (dorm and meals) has escalated to RM330 per person.
David Tan of Puchong, Selangor, used to pay about RM250 for a three-day/two-night trip to Kinabalu, covering return air ticket, transportation to Kinabalu Park, climbing fees, guide, certificate and insurance.
“AirAsia has made it so affordable for us to fly to KK. But now the cost of climbing the mountain has risen so much that it makes better sense to travel to other countries for a holiday,” writes Tan, who has climbed Kinabalu four times.
Budget climbers like Rajes Kumar Shamji of Negri Sembilan found he had to book his climb at least six months in advance.
Mt Kinabalu Climb – advice for doing it cheaply
Climbing Mt Kinabalu was certainly one of the high points of our recent trip to Borneo.
A couple of things that we discovered that would be helpful to know:
1. It IS possible to do a one night only package. For sure. And it’s much cheaper that way. We booked at Sutera Harbour Resort in KK who own the Laban Rata rest house where you need to stay. That was the cheapest we found. This dramatically reduces the cost. You arrange your own transport, but that was cheap and easy and useful as we were able to travel on to Sandakan after the climb.
2. They weren’t suprised when we turned up wanting to climb in the next couple of days – we had some flexibility but we hadn’t booked months in advance as we had been told we had to – so I guess if you want to be sure book in advance, but if you have some flexibility you should be okay to just turn up.
3. Contrary to what we were told by the normally trustworthy LP the accomodation in the park was very expensive. Even the dorm rooms. Very expensive. We were quoted 80RM per person. Outside the park it was much cheaper, there were dorms available for 20RM per person, or we got a double with private shower for 60RM.
Good luck to all climbers.
Limited number of seats for climbers
“Even then, bookings are snapped up quickly as only a few seats are allocated for non-hotel climbers. Preference is given to guests who can afford the pricey packages, which include an additional one-night stay at the foot of the mountain in Kinabalu Park or Mesilau Resort (Mesilau has an alternative route to the peak),” writes Shamji.
“If Sabah Parks is aiming for conservation by limiting the number of people, then they should do it, but not by allowing a monopoly to increase the lodging rates in the name of conservation. Kinabalu is for all, not just the paying few,” adds Shamji.
“I have travelled widely and seen many well-managed sites, yet Mt Kinabalu is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” says Shamji.
Y. Chung of Kuala Lumpur says he used to admire Sabah Parks for managing and maintaining the mountain well and for making it affordable to climb but “I wonder if the local guides and porters are benefiting from the current high prices. At these prices, Mt Kinabalu will be out of reach for many Malaysians.”
Some bloggers have set up a Facebook petition called “Mt Kinabalu – Belongs to No-one Else” to boycott SSL accommodation. So far 1,223 people have signed the petition.
On the first week of January, I called SSL to reserve a spot on the mountain for a group of two climbers. After throwing out a few optional dates, the earliest booking I could get was for May 14. The total cost for this two-day climb and an AirAsia promotional return flight ticket for KL-KK is about RM800 per person. Trouble is, not everybody has a flexible schedule and it’s not every day you get to buy cheap AirAsia flights with the dates of your choice.
And for the average Sabahan, paying RM500 (dorm, meals, climbing fee, guide and porter) to climb a mountain in their own backyard seems quite exorbitant.
What the operators say
The Kinabalu issues are also drawing a lot of flak from Sabahan and foreign tour operators.
TYK Adventures, one of the pioneer adventure tour operators in Sabah, recently lost about 300 Singapore student clients due to the cost. The group headed to a neighbouring country instead.
“The increase is unbelievable, and surely locals will think it’s cheaper to climb Fansifan in Vietnam,” says Tham Yau Kong, the director of TYK Adventures.
Tham himself has climbed Kinabalu about 500 times since the 80s.
“Privatization is OK if it provides better service but the increase is too much in light of this recession worldwide.”
Some high-end guests don’t mind the price hike if the standard of service and infrastructure has improved, Borneo Eco Tours’ (BET) assistant general manager Susan Soong adds. BET caters to mostly high-end clients from Europe.
“But this year, with the financial downturn, the demand from international tourists are starting to drop. And if domestic tourists can’t afford to climb, it’s just unfortunate,” says Soong.
Foreign operators like UK-based Robert Jones, who specializes in selling Borneo holiday packages, agrees that the Kinabalu pricing is getting out of control.
“We have clients from Europe and the US who want to climb the mountain as a highlight to their trip to Sabah but are put off by the cost and are travelling to Java and Vietnam instead,” says Jones whose company, The Travel Trading Company, has been around for 20 years.
The current reservation system for booking a climb on the mountain also irks some foreign operators.
“On a few occasions, we were told that the mountain and accommodation have been fully booked, only to find out later that it was, in fact, not fully booked at all, and that there was plenty of space for more clients,” adds Will Bolsover, managing director of UK-based World Primate Safaris, who caters mostly for mid- to high-end clients in the 30-70 age group.
What it means for tourists
“In order to book Mt Kinabalu for set group departures, they require us to pay the full amount six months in advance!”
However, some operators agree that since the privatization of the lodgings on the mountain, the service and standard of food and lodging have improved tremendously.
“Also, in the past, travel agents were able to block out the rooms with a small fee and deprive other climbers of a space even when their clients don’t show up. Now there’s a new ruling whereby you have to pay in full one week after reservation, and there’s no refund for cancellation,” says David De La Harpe, the Sabah chapter chairman for Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta).
“Maybe Mt Kinabalu has been oversold and the carrying capacity is limited, hence the long waiting list. Maybe there’s a need to look at other attractions,” De La Harpe sums up.
However, the Sabahan agrees that it has become expensive to climb the mountain.
Kinabalu is a Unesco World Heritage site and a one of a kind attraction, so every Malaysian should be able, if they so choose, to climb the mountain at least once in their lifetime.
Though the climbing cost may be pittance for some and abominable for others, the key issue here is perhaps that we need to hear the rationale for what’s happening from Sabah Parks and the private company in question.
Recommended Hotels in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Other Attractions Around Mt. Kinabalu
- Banggi Island – Banggi island is one of Sabah famous islands for tourism. Its lush greenery, crystal clear water, white sandy beaches, and diversified wildlife are some of the attractions. Find out tips on how to get there, location and what to expect. High res pictures are available.
- Sipadan Island – Sabah has a number of excellent dive spots, with the jewel being the world-famous Sipadan. Its location at the heart of the Indo Pacific Basin makes it one of the richest marine habitats in the world. Here, fascinating sights of turtles, reef sharks and a thrilling 600m drop-off await experience divers. The island was made famous by renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau in his documentary, ‘Ghosts of the Sea Turtle’.
- Sunday Gaya Street Market – This open-air market is the place to get handicraft, local delicacies and fresh jungle produce. The Tamu Kota Belud is another popular Sunday market for all traditional things. Watch the vibrantly dressed Bajau horsemen riding gaily decorated ponies during ceremonial occasions. They are known as ‘Cowboys of the East’ for their horsemanship.
- Kudat Long House – Make a visit to the traditional long house of the Rungus tribe. Their traditional attire and intriguing culture will make your trip unforgettable. Homestay are a fascinating way to observe their lifestyle.
- The Tip of Borneo – Experience the thrill of standing at land’s end! Simpang Mengayau Bay is the northwestern tip of Borneo. It offers glorious views of the sea and surrounding islands.