Sabah is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. The area is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, is rich in biodiversity of endemic plant species, and has some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world. If wildlife, nature, and the outdoors is your thing, then this is the perfect place for you. With so much to explore we came up with a detailed itinerary to ensure that you get the most from your time in Sabah.
Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah and is home to the largest international airport in the region. Bear in mind that the natural beauty of Sabah lies outside the cities, so you do not need to spend more than two days here. However, it still contains some hidden treasures that are worth exploring, such as The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque.
The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park consists of five coral islands off the coast of the city. The largely unspoiled islands are easily accessible via a short boat trip from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal. There are plenty of tour companies at the terminal and you can choose to visit just one island or spend a day island hopping to two or more of the islands. The prices are generally fixed and far cheaper than the companies operating away from the terminal. The most developed and popular islands are the Manukan and Sapi islands offering beautiful sandy white beaches and rich marine life, perfect for snorkeling. However, if you want to avoid large crowds then the Mamutik or Sulug islands may be better options for you. The fifth island Gaya is not open to the public unless you stay on or have booked an activity at a resort on the island.
The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is the largest in the city and considered to be the most beautiful in Malaysia. Seen from a distance the mosque seems to float on top of water and was hence given the name “The Floating Mosque”. Up close, it is clear that, the illusion is created by a man-made lagoon cushioned around the building. The mosques reflection in the cool water gives it an air of mystery and beauty that can be captured at sunrise or sunset.
There is also a Night Food Market, a Craft Market and a Sunday Market where you can shop for souvenirs and sample some of the delicious local food.
From Kota Kinabalu take a 2 hour bus ride to Mount Kinabalu National Park just 80 kilometers away. The park is Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site and its abundance of plant diversity, including the Rafflesia which produces the world’s largest flower, makes it a paradise for nature lovers. The park is also popular with climbers attempting to summit the tallest mountain in South-East Asia.
Although Mount Kinabalu is one of the easiest peaks in the world to summit, you do need to have the appropriate clothing (which we didn’t) and set aside a portion of your budget (mountain climbing isn’t exactly cheap). Climbing to the top of the mountain requires a booking through Sutera Santuary Lodge which organizes the permits, guides and accommodation on the mountain. Although most companies will advise you to book 6 months in advance, it is possible to book when you arrive. This may be a cheaper option, but you are not guaranteed to get a booking (although we did meet people who took this option).
If you are on a strict budget the hiking trails around the base of the summit will definitely allow you to enjoy the forests rich biodiversity, with a great deal less pain (to your body and your bank account). There are numerous scenic trails to explore in the park and they range in difficulty allowing everyone to relish in its beauty.
After a day of hiking or climbing head to the Poring Hot Springs, where you can soak away your aches and pains in its healing waters. For an extra fee you can also check out the butterfly farm, orchid garden and forest canopy walk.
When your muscles have recovered from the trekking or climb, flag down a bus outside the park gates bound for the seaside town of Sandakan about 4 hours away.
While the small town of Sandakan has very little to offer, it does serve as a great base to explore the areas around it.
A 30-minute bus ride from Sandakan brings you to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The centre rescues orangutans orphaned or injured through the mass deforestation from the palm oil industry, illegal logging, and the black market pet trade. The centre teaches the orangutans the necessary skills to survive in the wild with the aim of releasing them back into their natural habitat. Although it is a rehabilitation centre, the Orangutans are encouraged to venture into the surrounding forests and gain confidence for life in the wild. However, there are still a few young Orangutans (and some older ones) who are fed twice a day and can be viewed by visitors on the viewing platforms during the feeding times (10am and 3pm). The viewing platforms are at the end of a short boardwalk through the forest and can get a bit crowded during the morning feeding so it might be a good idea to try the afternoon feeding time.
Across from the Orangutans is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre where you can see the world’s smallest bears playing, eating and interacting together.
For a different wildlife experience, visit The Turtle Island Park just 40km off the coast of Sandakan. The park provides you with the rare opportunity to watch turtle landings.
The parks headquarters are found on Selingan, the largest of the islands, where you can spend the night as turtle landings usually occur after dusk. Watch the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs and observe the collection of eggs, tagging of mother turtles and releasing of baby turtles into the sea.
While in Sandakan you can plan and book the next part of your adventure- jungle safaris on the Kinabatangan River.
If wildlife is what you are after, then the Kinabatangan River Safari will be the highlight of your trip and we highly recommend it. The Kinabatangan River is the second largest river in Malaysia and the jungle occupying its banks are home to some of Borneo’s most legendary creatures, such as the proboscis monkey.
Day trips as well as multi-day trips, including accommodation, are available. We suggest at least a two-day one-night trip to maximize your chances of sighting the rarely seen Orangutan and Pygmy Elephant. We treated ourselves and booked a three-day two-night package with Borneo Nature Lodge which included a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Gomantong Caves. Our stay was amazing and a real treat but there are definitely much cheaper options that can be booked, pretty last minute, in Sandakan through most hostels or hotels.
Each of our boat cruises were completely unique and offered their own variety of wildlife such as the wild orangutan, the long-tailed macaques, the famous proboscis monkey, and the endearing pygmy elephants.
Our tour package included a visit to the famous Gomantong Caves, featured on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, Caves episode. The caves are renowned for their valuable edible swiftlet nests, harvested for the highly nutritious and pricey bird’s nest soup. If you aren’t doing a tour you can catch a bus from Sandakan to the Sukau junction and then walk the remaining 5km to the park office.
The caves have their own unique ecosystem and the large amount of crawling creatures make it unlike any cave we have ever visited. A great time to visit would be between February and August as the birds’ nests are typically harvested during this time.
Once you have exhausted all the jungle has to offer, tell your tour operator that you are heading to Semporna and they will drop you off at a location where you can flag down a bus. This avoids any time wasted backtracking to Sandakan.
There is not much to the small town of Semporna and it should probably only be used as a stopover on the way to the off shore islands or the Tawau airport. The bus ride from Sandakan takes about 5 hours, so you would probably only have the afternoon and night in Semporna. This is plenty of time to explore, recharge after your jungle experience and confirm or book your trip to the surrounding islands.
Mabul and Sipidan Islands
If you are an ocean lover and avid snorkeler or scuba diver, then this is the place to be. Sipidan Island hosts one of the top five dive sites in the world and is known for its huge schools of barracuda. Mabul and Kapalai islands are also well known for their diving and the large numbers of turtles and smaller sea creatures like nudibranchs will not leave you disappointed.
Accomodation on Mabul is mainly centered on divers and rates usually include three meals with two to three dives a day. Be aware that there are restrictions on the number of divers that can visit Sipidan each day and only some dive companies are granted permits. So, be sure to book your trip with a dive centre, offering Sipidan permits, well in advance to secure a permit. We booked our four-night five-day trip to Mabul Island with Scuba Junkie, an extremely professional company focused on providing guests with the best experiences, while preserving the environment. The diving was downright magical, the highlight being a full days diving on Sipidan Island, with four of the most incredible dives we have ever experienced.
Although the diving is internationally famous, the beaches on Mabul Island are definitely nothing to rave about. So, if you aren’t planning on diving or snorkeling then you may want to skip Semporna and the surrounding islands.
When it’s time to head back to reality, get a bus to the nearby airport of Tawau which offers frequent flights to Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur.
Our final thoughts
Although this itinerary worked well for us it is only a rough guide and can easily be adapted to suit your specific needs. You might want to fly straight to Tawau from Kota Kinabalu and begin your trip there. Or, if you aren’t a particularly keen diver, spend less time on Mabul Island and concentrate your time in Sandakan and its surrounds. Whatever way you choose to spend your time in Sabah, it will be a trip to remember.