We love it when a plan comes together.
Especially when that plan involves finding a destination that ticks off all your trip goals in one wildly exotic and compact place.
You asked for beaches, trekking, wildlife and fascinating culture? We give you, Sabah! Plus, we’ll also raise you the world’s most-impressive hipster beard. It belongs to this master tree-hugger.
But first… where is Sabah?
Southeast Asia’s largest island (and the world’s third-largest), Borneo is divided between the three countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, with the northeastern state of Sabah making up part of the Malaysian side of the island.
A largely mountainous island covered in thick rainforest (some of the oldest in the world, at an age of 130 million!), Borneo sits astride the Equator giving it a hot, humid and tropical climate. Although there is a wet monsoon season and hot dry season, it is a year-round destination, which makes it an easy trip to plan for. The weather can be unpredictable (and you should expect rain at any time), but May to September is generally considered the best time to visit before the wet season kicks in. Depending on where you are flying from, it’s around a 15-hour flight from the UK, with a transit in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, and a little less from Australia.
Sabah is the holy grail for travellers who want to do a bit of everything on their trip. From hiking to the summit of Kota Kinabalu, to diving with sea turtles in Sipadan or caring for orphaned orang-utans in the rainforests of Sepilok, pint-sized Sabah nails the classic ‘I want to do everything/tick three countries off in one go, but only have two weeks!’ dilemma.
Go for: The wildlife
Okay okay, enough with the geography lesson, tell us about the furries!
Sabah’s lush and tropical rainforests hum with life, and are home to clouded leopards, pythons, sun bears, gibbons, googly-eyed tarsiers and proboscis monkeys. Pot-bellied and loooong-nosed, these native swingers have been known locally as Dutch Monkeys since colonial times, so named after the pot-bellied, big-nosed Dutch sailors and plantation owners. Sorry, Swedes.
But the stars of the show and our closest relatives, sharing over 95% of our DNA, are orangutans. These ginger primates can only be found in Indonesia, in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Sadly, Borneo faces the threats of unplanned land clearing and forest fires but fortunately, the region of Sabah has laws in place that protects and keeps at least 40% of its forest cover intact. However, these lovable and intelligent redheads remain endangered and threatened by extinction.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is one of the best places to see orangutans in the world. 40 sq km of Sepilok is dedicated to providing a vital sanctuary for injured and orphaned orangutans. Sepilok is also home to great walking trails and other wildlife, including the world’s smallest bear, the sun bear, so it’s definitely worth sticking around after the crowds leave to explore. Plus, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is only a short drive away.
Go for: The beaches, diving and being an all-round Sea Gypsy
Another major highlight of the Sabah region is the beautiful Semporna archipelago. These islands are home to one of the world’s best diving spots, Pulau Sipadan. Described by Jacques Cousteau (a super-famous French sea dude) as an “untouched piece of art”, Sipadan is a submerged world of plunging walls, drop-offs, sharks, turtles, barracuda and occasionally, whale sharks. The islands also offer non-divers an array of snorkel spots and white sandy beaches to lounge on. Nearby Palau Mabul and Pulau Kapalai are also prime diving spots full of marine life and snorkelling opportunities.
A must is to hike to the peak of Bohey Dulang for incredible views of Tun Sakaran Marine Park. This park is the best place to learn about the marginalised and fascinating sea nomads, the Bajau Laut, an ethnic group of Malay origin who have lived their lives entirely at sea on wooden sailboats, known as lepa, living from the ocean. Most can hold their breath for minutes on end, and suffer from land sickness when they leave the sea behind.
Short on time? You also don’t have to venture far from the mosques and bustling night markets of the capital, Kota Kinabalu, to score some serious beach time. A few miles off the coast is Tunku Rahman Marine Park. Made up of five pristine and palm-fringed islands, it’s a great day trip to island hop, snorkel or dive.
Go for: The trekking
Soaring 4,095 metres above the forests, rivers and beaches, on a clear day, the awesome presence of Mount Kinabalu’s granite peaks can be seen across the east coast of Sabah. It is an accessible hike, but it definitely pays to be fit and prepared to climb Southeast Asia’s highest peak. There are two trails to choose from and the climb takes two days and one night, reaching the summit on the second day for a truly epic view from above the clouds. Only 135 permits are released a day, so book a tour in advance.
An important biosphere and sacred religious place, the mountain is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, so please remember to treat it with care and respect.
Go for: Getting off the beaten track
For many travellers, one of the most alluring things about Borneo is that it is still something of an undiscovered gem. If you want to get off the tourist trail, head for the barely explored Maliau Basin Conservation Area, who’s visitors are mostly scientists and researchers. The rainforest was unbeknown to the world until a pilot almost crashed into its outskirts in 1947. Inside Maliau you’ll find lush rainforests home to rare species of birds and a range of large mammals like the Borneo pygmy elephant, the Malayan sun bear and the clouded leopard.
Another unexplored gem is Deramakot Forest Reserve, located in the heart of Sabah. Under the Sabah Forestry, Deramakot is reachable via a flight to Sandakan and another two hours by road. It’s been documented that about 75% of mammals in Sabah can be found within this forest reserve – say hellooo to orangutans, pygmy elephants, tembadaus (banteng), proboscis monkies and the clouded leopard. Only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles, the forest reserve has basic lodging and engaging with a tour company is recommended before visiting this place.
Kawag Danum is another fairly new nature-based attraction that deserves attention. It is located at the fringes of the Danum Valley Conservation Area and within the Segama Malua Forest Reserve. Its close proximity to the heartland of Sabah’s wildlife is the reason why it is suitable for off the beaten track tours. Orang-utan, pygmy elephants, wild cattle, deer, monkeys and over 100 species of birds are among the wildlife that can be found here. To visit this protected area, you must be on a tour, and there are various options available from nature to birdwatching tours.
Desperate to swing by Sabah to pay our ginger cousins, and all their friends a visit? Head to our Borneo travel guide to kick-start your adventure.