The best things to do in spectacular Sabah, Malaysia

As Malaysia opens it borders, our Sabah expert explores some of the top things to do in this wildlife-filled state, located in the northern corner of Borneo…

Joanne Swann
05 April 2022

As the co-founder of Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures, a specialist tour operator in Borneo, Joanne Swann knows a thing or two about Sabah. Here, she shares her top ten places with us…

Kota Kinabalu at Sunset (Sabah Tourism Board)

1. Kota Kinabalu

A Food stall in Kota Kinabalu city food market (Shutterstock)

Located on the west coast, this small ocean-fronted sunshine city is steeped in local culture and is a foodie’s dream location. Everything from local hawker stalls and independent cafes to fine dining restaurants can be found here. Food quality and diversity is excellent and very affordable. Night and day markets of fresh produce and artisan products are plentiful.

Kota Kinabalu also offers some pretty spectacular views over the South China Sea and the tropical rainforest islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park with the Crocker Range of hills and mountains as a backdrop.

Sapi Island at Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (Sabah Tourism Board)

2. Tunku Abdul Rahman Park

Proboscis Monkey (Sabah Tourism Board)

If you’re staying in the capital city of Kota Kinabalu, a day trip to ‘the islands’ just offshore is a must. Named after Malaysia’s first prime minister and covering an area of 50 sq km, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park’s abundant fauna, flora and marine eco-systems are government protected.

Spend your time snorkelling or diving among the colourful coral reefs. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, it’s worth booking a guide. Downbelow has two PADI 5 Star IDC centres that will take you to sites only accessible by boats and they know where to find the most interesting marine life, such as colourful clownfish and turtles. Once back on dry land, hike the rainforest trail on Gaya Island to spy monkeys, an abundance of birds, wild boars and even pangolins.

A homestay in Tambunan (Sabah Tourism Board)

3. A Homestay Experience

Mount Kinabalu (Sabah Tourism Board)

Leaving Kota Kinabalu and travelling east towards Mount Kinabalu, you’ll find rolling hills, paddy fields, pineapple plantations and hiking trails with rivers, waterfalls and suspension bridges. Spending a couple of nights at a homestay to experience the lifestyle of people that live in this region is an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.

There are a number of places to choose from. Personally, I always make sure the homestay I choose has been approved by the ministry of tourism and has good trails so it’s easy to explore the region’s incredible landscape.

Not only will you have an authentic experience by staying in a homestay, you will also be making a real difference to the communities you visit by boosting the local economy.

Mount Kinabalu at sunrise (Shutterstock)

4. Mount Kinabalu & Kinabalu National Park

Pygmy elephants (Sabah Tourism Board)

Fresh air, steaming hot springs, over 5,000 plant species and 90 mammals: Kinabalu National Park is popular for a reason. The area is diverse not just in fauna and flora, but in the numerous ways to explore it. Embark on an hour long walk or spend three days trekking. Relax at one of the local market towns or take on Malaysia’s tallest peak, Mount Kinabalu (4,093m).

To climb Kinabalu, book with one of the registered local travel operators. They will take care of the logistics, obtain your permits and advise you on how to prepare for the climb. Taking two days and one night to complete, it’s certainly a challenge. But the jungle views from the sky-high accommodation and from the summit will make it all worth it, as will the starry night sky.

Aerial view of the forest (Shutterstock)

5. Deramakot Forest Reserve

An orangutan (Sabah Tourism Board)

Deramakot Forest Reserve is one of the richest wildlife sites in Borneo and should be on every wildlife enthusiasts list. It’s one of the few locations where all five of the Bornean cat species can be found and is the best place in Borneo to see clouded leopards and marbled cats due to the varied habitats, abundant prey and lack of poaching.

Wild gibbons, pygmy elephants, orangutans, leopard cats, civet cats, and a variety of other mammals are commonly seen here. It’s also a birdwatcher’s paradise with more than 250 species living in the dense lowland forest. For your best chances of spotting wildlife, either book a 4WD trip or a trek with a guide either in the day or the night.

A Borneo sun bear (Sabah Tourism Board)

6. Sepilok Orangutan & the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre

Lankayan Island (Shutterstock)

A trip to Sabah is not complete without a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan and the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre on the east coast. Travellers can visit both centres in one day as they are located next to each other within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve.

The centres carry out great work for the conservation and preservation of the orangutan & sun bear population in Malaysian Borneo and they provide vital education for both local people and foreign visitors.

A hawksbill turtle in Lankayan Island (Shutterstock)

7. Lankayan Island

Kinabatangan River (Sabah Tourism Board)

Lankayan Island takes eco-tourism to another level. Located in the Sulu Sea about 80km off the north-east coast of Sabah Borneo, the tiny island is surrounded in bright white beaches and pristine waters.

The island boasts 23 luxury beach chalets with balconies overlooking the ocean, a dive station and a turtle hatchery and conservation centre.

Lankayan is one of three islands that form the Sugud Island Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA). Billean and Tagaipil are also within this protected region making it an incredible destination for scuba diving and snorkelling enthusiasts.

A cruise along the Kinabatangan River (Sabah Tourism Board)

8. Kinabatangan River

Treetop Canopy Walkway in Danum Valley (Sabah Tourism Board)

The Kinabatangan River is home to some of the most varied and easily accessible wildlife in all of South East Asia. Kinabatangan River is Sabah’s longest river and the second longest in the whole of Malaysia.

Look out for Borneo’s Big Five along the riverbanks including pygmy elephants, proboscis monkey, crocodiles, rhinoceros, hornbills and orangutan.

There are a number of river lodges to suit a variety of budgets. Wildlife spotting is from small river boats provided as part of the tour package. Some lodges have access to short hiking trails where it’s also possible to experience night jungle walks to see nocturnal flora and fauna.

The treetops in the Danum Valley (Shutterstock)

9. Danum Valley

Bohey Dulang Island, near Sipadan (Sabah Tourism Board)

At 130 million years old, the forest in Danum Valley is one of the few places in the world where visitors can experience the magnificent splendour of nature in its original, unspoiled state. Spanning 438 sq km and home to the tallest trees in the tropics (some are over 90m high), the primary lowland dipterocarp forest in the Danum Valley supports several globally threatened species including the pygmy elephant, orangutan, clouded leopard, flying squirrel, Malay civet, Bornean gibbon, slow loris and many more. Look out for them on a guided jungle trek or for an extra thrilling option, embark on a night walk. 

There are three lodges in the region available to visitors. Borneo Rainforest Lodge offers five-star luxury whereas Danum Valley Field Centre & Infrapro offer basic twin, dormitory or camping options.

Snorkelling in the waters surrounding Sipadan (Sabah Tourism Board)

10. Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort

Once a vegetated Island, Kapalai is now a sandbank on Litigan Reefs and home to the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort.

Reminiscent of the Maldives, the accommodation huts are built over the water with shutter doors opening to reveal breathtaking ocean views. The soothing sound of the water laps beneath you and water reflections dance across the high ceilings.

The resort is perfectly located for scuba divers and snorkellers. World class macro sites are just a giant stride from the dive station. Sipadan Island is a 25 minute speedboat ride away and Mabul Island about ten minutes. With such variety of dive sites within easy reach, it’s possible to complete four or five dives a day if you wish (bottom time permitting).

Non-divers are also fully catered for with options for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking.

Wherever you decide to spend your time in Borneo, you’re in for a wild adventure.

About the author

Joanne has worked in the travel & corporate world since 1992. A passionate conservation minded marine & wildlife enthusiast who has been crafting specialists trips to Sabah Borneo for 15 years. Together with her husband Richard Swann they founded Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures based upon their own travel & dive experiences.

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