Sabah Malaysia – In the Northern-most tip of the Borneo Island of Malaysia lies Sabah, a pint-sized region encompassing a chunk of the mainland and sprinkles of smaller islands surrounding it. Whilst neither its name nor reputation precedes it, Sabah is a diamond in the rough, with colourful coral reefs brimming with a massive aquamarine ecosystem, villagers co-existing in luscious jungles (which make up around 55% of Sabah, by the way) alongside wild animals like leopards and pythons, and, of course, the icing on the cake – the famous Mount Kinabalu, with its peak sitting at 4095m in the clouds, it’s a hiker’s ultimate destination.
The state is occupied by inhabitants diverse in ethnicity, culture, and language, however, English is spoken regularly throughout (with Malay being the official language), making it surprisingly easy for foreigners to traverse. Some of the best hidden gems are located in Sabah, with experiences like pearl hunting and watching baby orang-utans learning how to climb setting it far apart from any other country. If you’re looking for the next best place to explore in South East Asia that’s both unique and adventurous, Sabah just might be the destination you didn’t know you needed.
How to get there
Sabah is remarkably easy to get to, both domestically and internationally. The main gateway to the state is via Kota Kinabalu International Airport, which is located roughly 20 minutes from the main city. Direct flights can be taken from countries such as China, Hong Kong, Taipei, Japan, Thailand, Phillipines, Singapore, and South Korea. Most other countries will need to fly indirect, however, it is a quick and easy flight from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (from 185 MYR ($45USD), 65-minute flight), and there are many flights that operate daily. If you’re planning a trip to Sabah, click here to check for flight details and availability.
From the airport, you will be able to catch a shuttle bus that operates daily from the airport to the city centre. Just head outside of the airport and look for the big ‘Airport Bus’ kiosk. The price for the bus tickets is 5 MYR ($1.50USD) for 1 Adult, and 3 MYR ($0.90USD) for 1 Child. The shuttle bus operates from 7:30AM to 8:30PM, and leaves the airport every 45 minutes.
Where to Stay
Guesthouse – Hin Loi Guesthouse
A simple and adorable accommodation located just 2km away from the airport, Hin Loi Guesthouse is the property of choice for guests after value for money. Free Wi-Fi is offered throughout the property, complimentary breakfast is served daily at the ground floor café, and it is an 18-minute walk from the beach. All individual rooms have air-conditioning, a wardrobe, and towels. There are shared bathroom facilities throughout.
Why Guests Love It: “Great host, big rooms”, “Loved the privacy, cleanliness, the location, and the service”, “There are many kinds of comforts near the guesthouse, such as post office, market, food courts, Chinese restaurant, KFC, gas station, it’s very convenient”, “Alex is a wonderful host, and breakfast is delicious with abundant choices of pastries and local food”.
Price: from 77 MYR ($19USD) for 2 people/night
Book It Here: Hin Loi Guesthouse
Hotel – Dreamtel Kota Kinabalu
Dreamtel is situated in the middle of the city centre, offering convenience that is a cut above the rest. Modern guestrooms feature air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV, and an en-suite bathroom. Daily breakfast is served at the restaurant, however, guests also have the option of walking 350m down the road to get food at the eateries in the city. Nearby attractions include Atkinson Clock Tower (240m), Gaya Street Market (400m), and Jesselton Point (1.4km).
Why Guests Love It: “Nice breakfast, great staff, clean room, good location”, “The staff are excellent. I ended up booking an early flight the next day, and they organised a wake-up call, packed a take-away breakfast for me, and ordered a taxi”, “The location is central, a short walk to the night market, the Signal Tower, and the shopping malls/tour operators/the jetty”.
Price: from 191 MYR ($48USD) for 2 people/night
Book It Here: Dreamtel Kota Kinabalu
Place to Visit in Sabah Malaysia #1 – Climb Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is easily one of the most impressive mountains to climb in the world. It is considered by many to be the symbol of Sabah, so much so that it is even featured on Sabah’s state flag. For anyone considering a trip to Sabah, climbing Mount Kinabalu should be as easy a decision as eating ramen when visiting Japan. It’s simply a must do.
Hiker’s will need to organise to join a tour, and whilst Sabah doesn’t get as many visitors as Kuala Lumpur or Georgetown in Penang, there are limited spots available for the tour which usually sell out months in advance (the maximum number of climbers per day is 135), so make sure you organise this with plenty of time to spare! The hike will usually go over two-days, with you having to wake up super early on the second day (think in the early AMs), to reach the peak before the sun rises. The view once you reach the top is almost indescribable, with fluffy white clouds being at eye level and the sheer size of the mountain bearing down its weight on you as you realise what a feat you’ve completed.
Recommended months: Between March – August
Note: Try to book this at least 6-months in advance.
Place to Visit in Sabah Malaysia #2 – Sipadan Island
To all the scuba diving enthusiasts around the world: you haven’t truly experienced a life-changing dive until you’ve dived at Sipadan National Park on Sipadan Island. Described by some as an “absolute underwater paradise”, it is quite possibly the best diving spot in all of Malaysia, and with it being so far out in the ocean away from the masses, it’ll feel like you have the entire sea to yourself.
Whilst it is a protected area, and thus only a certain number of divers are permitted to dive in daily, it is worth the extra effort to organise whilst you’re in Sabah because the experience is like no other – you get to dive straight in crystal clear festival with the sharks, the turtles, basically all marine life you can imagine. Imagine being right there amongst schools of bumped head parrot fish, or hundreds of barracudas, or even white and black tip reef sharks. Visitors have been known to go scuba diving around here for more than one day, as it doesn’t seem justified to only spend one day in this paradise, however, there are plenty of other things to pass time on the island, such as snorkelling, bird-sighting, and sunbaking.
Access: To get to the island, visitors will need to fly to Tawau airport, and then head to the port of Semporna. From there, you will need to take a boat out to Sipadan Island, which will take approximately 60 minutes. Whilst there are no accommodation properties on Sipadan itself, you can stay on the nearby islands of Mabul, Kapalai, and Mataking. A boat ride to Mabul, the most popular of the three, will take roughly 45-minutes from Sipadan.
Recommended resorts nearby: Mabul Water Bungalows
Spot #3 – Gomantong Caves
People who are afraid of critters, beware – this cave not only houses millions of bats, but also a terrifyingly large number of cockroaches and parasites (amongst other creatures). You may be wondering why anyone would want to visit a cave like this, but to each their own, right? And this cave definitely has its charms.
The Gomantong Caves are one of the biggest cave systems in all of Sabah. One of the biggest attractions to it would be to see firsthand the millions of bats hanging across the top during the day, and then witnessing them all fly out in the evening whilst swiftlets (birds who are part of the same family as the swallows) make their way into the caves to nest for the night. You can imagine that with both animals setting up home in the cave, there would be a fair amount of their faeces dripping on the floors, and yes, yes there is, hence why the cockroaches and other creatures also thrive in these caves. Whilst not as common a sight as cockroaches, there are also snakes that feed themselves with the cockroaches along the cave floors. There are wooden boardwalks built for visitors to walk on, but many have claimed to have had to throw away their shoes after visiting these caves…
Outside the caves, keep an eye out for serpent eagles, bat hawks, and kingfishers. Sometimes you might be lucky enough to spot an orang-utan!
Access: To get to the caves, you will need to take a 90-minute bus ride from Sandakan to Sukau (17 MYR ($4.20USD). You will not get dropped off at the entrance of the caves, and therefore have to walk bit. You will need to pay an admission fee to access the caves.
Hours: 8:00am – 6:00pm
Cost: Adults – 30 MYR ($7.50USD), Child – 15 MYR ($3.75USD)
Book a tour: Full Day Gomantong Cave & Kinabatangan River Cruise
Place to Visit in Sabah Malaysia #4 – Poring Hot Springs
Hidden away deep in the jungles and Kinabalu Park is the Poring Hot Springs, a collection of built attractions whose purpose was to bring focus to some of the region’s most fascinating wild features (note: not all attractions that are a part of this series are in the same area).
One of the star attractions is the tiled pools and public baths that were created by the Japanese during their occupation in World War 1. Built so that naturally hot (as in, really hot) sulphurous water pumped to the surface, the baths are a popular resting area for those tired trekkers coming own from Mount Kinabalu as well as residents around the area, especially on the weekends. Head there with a towel and your swimmers and bunker down for a few hours to let your muscles slowly turn into liquid. For those who just want to enjoy a cool swim in the pool, there is also the Rock Pool nearby where you can splash around to your heart’s content.
Other notable attractions would be the canopy walk, which provides a bird’s eye view from 30 – 40m above the forest floor, Kipungit waterfall and Langganan Waterfal, and the Butterfly Farm, which are all within walking distance, although some may take over 60-minutes.
Access: Poring is a small town east of Ranau, 39km from Mount Kinabalu. To get to the town, take a taxi from Ranau for about 30 MYR. There are also some public buses however they are quite infrequent. Alternatively, you can hire a car and access the Hot Springs via Ranau, as there is lots of free parking inside the main entrance.
Cost: Hot Spring – 15 MYR ($4.50USD)
Book a tour: Poring Hot Springs
Place to Visit in Sabah Malaysia #5 – Danum Valley
Visiting the rainforests in Sabah would be a massive tick off the bucket list. With rainforests accounting for almost 55% of all of Sabah, you can imagine the sheer number of flora and wildlife who co-exist in this habitat that has been around for millions of years. Danum Valley is located on the eastern side of Sabah, and provides the opportunity of a lifetime to experience trekking through the rainforest. It’s home to more than 500 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Visitors who want to do the trek will need to book a tour which will take them through the rainforest with expert guides leading the way. Another option is to go for the night safaris and canopy walks. If you’re staying overnight, there are bungalows, hostel beds and camping facilities when you reach the end that are quite comfortable and affordable. Look out for wild orang-utans and pygmy elephants on this trek.
Access: There are many tour groups operating two to three night tours in Danum Valley. It is advised that you book a tour, as independent traveling is possible but highly discouraged (it is a logistical nightmare).
Suggested tour: Danum Valley Bike Tour
Spot #6 – Visit Langkayan Island
Lankayan is a small tropical island about 90 minutes away by boat from the port of Sandakan. It is a large marine protected area, unpopulated, and hosts some of the most perfect sand bays you’ll ever encounter. Due to it’s proximity to the mainland and no residential inhabitancy, Lankayan Island is the perfect destination for honeymooners and couples seeking some privacy in a romantic tropical setting. There is only one resort on the island, The Lanyakan Island Dive Resort, which also plays a big role in supporting the Sugud Islands Marine Conversation Area (SIMCA), an area that is protected through patrolling of wardens, monitoring long-term environmental changes on coral and aquamarine life, and other conservation efforts. As an act on your behalf, a percentage of what you pay to stay in the resort goes to the SIMCA funding.
The resort itself consists of 23 wooden chalets that open up directly onto the beach. They all boast private balconies, and fresh meals and snacks are available throughout the day, with a large portion of the meals being locally caught seafood. Activities on the island include scuba diving into the coral reefs where more than 300 specifies of corals exist, snorkelling with the schools of up to 500 species of marine fish, kayaking across the crystal clear waters, or visiting the turtle hatchery.
Book here: The Lanyakan Island Dive Resort
Place to Visit in Sabah Malaysia #7 – Kinabatangan River
One of the best places to encounter wildlife species is along the Kinabatangan River. You can hop on a high-speed jet boat and ride there for a few hours from Sandakan, Sabah’s second city. Whilst on this ride, keep you eyes peeled and your camera ready, because you’ll never know what kind of wildlife you will encounter. Sadly, there has been a steady increase of influx of animals driven to the forest alongside it due to deforestation in surrounding areas.
Some of the cutest animals you might encounter are the wild Proboscis monkeys on the river. They are a threatened species with unique pot-belly and long red nose features that set them far apart from their usual primate characteristics. They’re quite small, with long limbs that look a bit awkward and a lot adorable, and are a treat to photograph. They can only be found in the Borneo forests.
Access: You will need to book a tour with one of the many tourist centres offering half day and full day tours.
Book a tour: Kinabatangan River Cruise
Place to Visit in Sabah Malaysia #8 – Manukan Island
Likened to being the Asian version of the Maldives, Manukan Island is surrounded by soft, pure white sand, crystal clear turquoise blue waters, colourful coral reefs, stunning blue skies with fluffy white clouds and palm trees littering the beach, not enough to interrupt your views but just enough to remind you that you’re literally living the dream in a tropical paradise with your biggest worry being whether you’ve applied enough sunscreen. The waters are almost always calm and safe, making snorkelling and swimming the most popular activities by visitors. There are some maintained walking trails that lead inland for people who want to explore the island’s natural environment.
Heading to Manukan Island is just a short boat-ride away from Kota Kinabalu, making it easy for locals and international visitors to head there for a day trip, or better yet, an overnight trip at one of the villas situated right on the beaches.
Access: Depending on whether you want to do a day-trip or stay on the island, there are a few ways to get to the island:
- Day Trip to Manukan Island: Hotel pickup, explore the islands beaches and go snorkelling, play some volleyball, dig into a buffet-style BBQ lunch on the beach, hotel drop off.
Cost: from 432 MYR ($107USD)
- If you’ve booked your own accommodation on Manukan Island, you will need to organise transport yourself. Grab a taxi and head to either Jesselton Point Jetty or Sutera Marina Jetty. You will see booths that sell tickets for boat transfers to Manukan Island, and you will be able to purchase a round-trip ticket for approximately 45 MYR ($11USD).
Sabah, just an hour away from metropolitan Kuala Lumpur but worlds away in terms of natural environment, breathtaking landscapes, and out of this world experiences. Rather than the usual glitzy shopping destinations, extraordinarily high-rise towers, and observation decks that stretch views over an expansive city, swap them out for two-day mountain trekking for stunning above-the-clouds views of the world, snorkelling in crystal clear water amongst hundreds of fish, and hiking through jungles full of wildlife that you thought you’d only ever see on screen.
PS: If you are looking for more information about Malaysia, check out these articles: Malaysia Travel Guide.