#CrossingBorders: Brunei to Kota Kinabalu by ferry

When my friends and I went to Brunei last April, we took a side trip to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. The capital of Sabah state, KK is a backpacker haven. It’s famous for its beautiful islands, extensive natural reserves, and of course, Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in the Malay archipelago.

I’ll discuss our activities in KK in my next article. For now, I’ll talk about how we got from Brunei to KK and back since I had a difficult time researching about this part of our trip. Even my Bruneian friends are not familiar with the ferry route given that most of them take their cars when going to KK – not surprising because of the very cheap fuel costs in both countries. (READ: Brunei: A sultanate of ironies)

We had the option to take a bus from Brunei but this would have taken 8 hours of land travel – a journey my friends aren’t willing to take. Going to KK by land would also mean getting your passport stamped 8 times in one way since you’ll have to pass by the Malaysian state of Sarawak and Brunei’s exclave Temburong.

I’ve crossed many borders both via land and ferry. I can say that this route is one of the smoothest I’ve taken, immigration process and transportation wise.

Going to Labuan

In order to reach KK from Brunei by sea, you would have to take 2 ferries – from Brunei to Labuan, then Labuan to Kota Kinabalu.

To take the first ferry, you would have to go to the Serasa Ferry Terminal, which is quite far from Bandar Seri Begawan. Luckily for us, one of our friends fetched us from the hotel and brought us to the terminal. Those without this option can:

  • take a bus from the city center to the terminal,
  • take a cab from your hotel (this is also the most expensive option), or
  • pay for a service from your hotel.
The ticketing counter at the Serasa Ferry Terminal.
The ticketing counter at the Serasa Ferry Terminal.

Upon arriving at the terminal, you can buy your tickets from any of the 4 counters. The first trip to Labuan leaves at 8:30am so you should be early, especially on weekends, so as not to be delayed.

The "first class" sarea of our ferry from Brunei to Labuan. Totally not worth it.
The “first class” sarea of our ferry from Brunei to Labuan. Totally not worth it.

The ticket to Labuan costs BND 15 (11 USD) for economy class tickets. There’s very little difference between an economy and a first class seat (BND 20 or USD 15) so I suggest you take the former. Also, you can’t buy tickets for the second leg of your trip here.

Thirty minutes before departure, you’ll be asked to go through immigration. The whole process only takes around 15 minutes and you’ll be boarding the ship in no time.

The travel time from Brunei to Labuan depends on the weather. On the way to KK, the first leg of our trip took us 3 hours because it was raining. Going back from Labuan to Brunei, however, only took 2 hours.

Labuan: Duty free island

I’ve said in my earlier blogs about Brunei that there’s really nothing to shop or buy in the small Islamic sultanate. So where do Bruneians shop? In the bordering towns and islands of Malaysia! (READ: West Malaysia: 10 places to see in Kuala Lumpur)

Upon arriving at Labuan Ferry terminal, we proceeded to the immigration to get our passports stamped. Outside the terminal, we were welcomed by duty free shops with marked down prices for almost everything. It was a Sunday so there were many transit passengers outside who were busy shopping.

A street of duty free shops near the Labuan Ferry Terminal.
A street of duty free shops near the Labuan Ferry Terminal.

We arrived in Labuan at 11am and got our tickets for the 1:30pm ferry to Kota Kinabalu. It’s important to arrive before 12 nn in Labuan since the last trip to KK is at 1:30pm – understandable since this trip takes relatively longer and ships aren’t allowed to sail beyond 5pm.

Finally in Kota Kinabalu!
Finally in Kota Kinabalu!

Our economy tickets cost MYR 35 (USD 10) each. Since we had time to spare, we ate out in a restaurant near the terminal.

Across the street from the terminal are more duty free shops selling mostly liquor, cigarettes, chocolates, and perfumes for cheap prices. You can guess where non-Muslim Bruneians get their booze supply.

Though there were many passengers, the boarding process was relatively faster from Labuan to KK since we didn’t have to go through immigration. The blogs I read said the trip took 4 hours but ours only took 3.

After an entire day of travelling, we were finally in Kota Kinabalu’s Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal. We took a cab to get to our hotel before exploring KK’s nightlife.

The trip back

Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal is where you’d get your ticket going back to Brunei. This is also where you’ll book your island hopping tour. This is a story for another article but make sure you buy your tickets inside the ticketing center and not from the barkers selling them outside.

For the trip back to Brunei, you can get your ticket a day before you leave and pay for the 2 trips. This will cost around MYR 70 (USD 19.50) and you’ll need to show your passport when purchasing your ticket.

The first trip leaves at 8:30am and you’ll have to be in the terminal by 7:30am. Don’t worry about breakfast, there are many food shops in Jesselton Point.

Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal is also where small boats used for island hopping are docked.
Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal is also where small boats used for island hopping are docked.

Getting 2 tickets is more convenient since you’ll have more time in your transit in Labuan. Just remember that you will have to pay a terminal fee of MYR 15 (USD 4) before being allowed to board the second ferry.

Totally worth it!
Totally worth it!

Immigration in Labuan is very smooth. They won’t even ask you questions. The officers we encountered while re-entering Brunei was different though. We had to explain that we were just transiting and our flight was in the evening. I think they know that there aren’t that many activities to be done in their country.

We took a real risk by travelling to KK via ferry. We weren’t sure about the process and we had a very strict schedule on the way back (we arrived at Serasa at 4pm and our flight was at 7:30pm).

But that’s what brings the thrill in travelling. You are forced to try new things without any assurances of a favorable outcome. Thankfully, nothing unexpected happened in this border crossing.

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5 thoughts on “#CrossingBorders: Brunei to Kota Kinabalu by ferry

  1. Thanks for writing all of this out, it helped me plan my own trip and make decisions about flights. The detail was welcome! Happy future travels.

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