Sabah: mountain high to ocean deep in Malaysian Borneo

by Jon Bigg

Lying on the edge of civilisation, with wild orang-utans, desolate mountain peaks, coral reefs and jungle trails on offer, Sabah has something for everyone. Here's a selection of the best on offer.

Shrouded beneath the lush tangle of one of the world’s largest rainforests, much of Sabah’s rugged landscape remains inaccessible.

But scattered across this forbidding expanse are a dozen beacons of excitement, shimmering like glow-worms on a dark night to entice intrepid travellers. Here’s a selection of Sabah’s brightest attractions:

KOTA KINABALU – gateway to Sabah

Razed early in World War II and rebuilt with wide, grid-pattern avenues, KK is modern and easy to find your way around. Its past is marked by pirate raids, colonial rule and WWII strategic deployments, providing ample diversions for travelling history buffs. But the real adventure starts beyond the city limits.

It’s worth spending a day or two in KK though. Apart from anything else, it is the best place in Sabah for souvenirs; barter for a blowpipe, bracelet or boxwood carving from hundreds on offer at the lively handicraft market, then visit the nearby night food stalls to savour authentic local sights, sounds, tastes and smells at rock-bottom prices. There are also restaurants catering for most tastes in a charmingly revamped pedestrian area between Jalan Pantai and Jalan Gaya in the centre of town.


Island idyll

A short boat ride away are the five small islands of KK's closest National Park, each boasting dazzling, white sandy beaches with crystal clear, coral-filled waters teaming with marine life. Day trips can be arranged on the spot – just rock up at the jetty and haggle a fare; don’t forget to agree a pickup time too!

For luxury island holidays, the best place to head for is Gayana Eco Resort. If you desire nothing more than plush, idle days by the pool, this is as far as you need to go - read my other guide Borneo goes boutique: a five-star island retreat in Sabah to find out all you need to know.

For those looking for adventure and excitement, there are several must-visit sites around Sabah; read on...

Beyond the clouds

Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak on Borneo, is Sabah’s icon. The mountain and its surroundings rank among the most important biological sites in the world. It’s a challenging two day trek to the summit although a seven year old child and a pensioner of seventy rank among its elated conquerors! As you climb, the landscape transforms dramatically from dense jungle to forest then bushland, moorland and eventually bare granite outcrops close to the summit.

The pièce de résistance is the stunning, sunrise view: far-off on a clear day, the islands of the Philippines are visible. On your descent, take a short detour to look down into the formidable depths of Low’s Gulley, where, in 1994, a British Army expedition nearly ended in tragedy: nine men on the point of starvation were rescued by the Malaysian authorities after a three-week search!

Even the more sedentary traveller should go as far as the Kinabalu park headquarters, where it is pleasantly cool compared to coastal areas.  There are great views, informative guided walks and good restaurants but be sure to book accommodation in advance at Kinabalu Gold Resorts in town. The park is two hours from KK; take an express bus or one of the yellow-topped, long distance taxis.

Into thin air

If you have a strong head for heights, try the world’s highest Via Ferrata on the rock faces below the summit ( Nepalese bridges and rungs attached to sheer rock lead you to dizzying bird’s eye views of the Kinabalu forest, providing the perfect adrenaline-rich appetiser before a summit trek.


Diver's paradise

The other side of the peninsula in the Celebes Sea lies Sipadan Island, one of the world’s best dive sites. The tiny, oceanic island is formed from living corals growing on the underwater summit of an extinct volcano. It is rarely visited by non-divers and remains charmingly undeveloped.

Just metres offshore, the wall plunges 600m to the ocean floor. Such deep water so close to the rich coral habitat means that diving experiences which are rare elsewhere are common place here: green and hawksbill turtles nesting and mating; schools of barracuda in tornado-like formations; and deep-sea species, including rays and sharks. Every dive is a feast for the eyes, the striking sights set stunningly against the rich, indigo-blue of the ocean depths so close at hand.

A more ghoulish but equally compelling attraction is the turtle tomb, an underwater cave system beneath the island. Turtles enter the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers, become disorientated and drown; their skeletons are an eerie reminder of the perils of cave diving!

Life in the jungle

Back on the mainland, a river safari on the Kinabatangan is a must for wildlife lovers. Hemmed in by oil-palm plantations and the sea, the animals never stray too far from the river, making them that much easier to see. Dawn outings, gliding quietly along the many waterways, watching and listening to the jungle wake up, are a magical experience. The area is a haven for gibbons, proboscis monkeys, orang-utans and hornbills. There are elephants too and on night safaris we spotted baby crocodiles.

Day trips are possible but a couple of nights at one of the river lodges will give the best experience. Kinabatangan Jungle Camp, in a level clearing right beside the river, offers basic en-suite rooms with a subtle jungle fragrance. Its simplicity is either adorable or tolerable, depending on your expectations, but hey, you’re in the middle of Borneo’s jungle! The wooden framed restaurant has no piped music; instead you’ll be captivated by a cacophony of jungle sounds drifting through the open sides.

Bird's nest soup

On your way to Batang Kinabatangan, be sure to stop off at Gomontong caves. These enormous limestone caverns are where countless swiftlets nest. Rickety rattan ladders soar hundreds of feet to the cave’s roof, presenting a terrifying image of the risks the harvesters take to collect the edible and highly-prized swiftlet nests.

In the early evening, as the swiftlets return to roost, over two million bats leave the caves. They swarm out in huge clouds, spiralling into the twilit sky, before breaking apart to feed in the surrounding jungle. This spectacular sight, straight from the reels of a vampire movie, is also watched opportunistically by bat hawks lingering nearby.

My magical moment

And finally, one last, unforgettable stop: Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre is a sanctuary caring primarily for orphaned primates from logging sites and plantations. The orang-utans are semi-wild; there are no fences and they drift away when they’re ready to live independently. The more dependant ones return twice daily, enticed by the bananas brought to the feeding platform. When the food arrives, they leave their treetop hideouts and swing majestically towards the platform.

They climb with a brute strength that could tear a man limb from limb and yet their deep eyes convey a profound gentleness. After the crowds had dispersed, I encountered a young female sitting beside the walkway. After approaching slowly, we regarded each other with mutual respect for some minutes and when I extended my hand, she held it with remarkable gentleness, although her fingers were no doubt strong enough to break mine.

Five minutes walk away Sepilok Jungle Resort offers a range of accommodation options from back-packer dormitories to deluxe en-suite rooms with stunning jungle views. A tamed-jungle environment has been created with walkways over the lake and a delightful nature trail. The food is good and they can arrange tours to any of the other east coast attractions.

Sabah, the land below the wind, is an adventure-filled destination, ideal for the intrepid traveller; would any of your friends not be intrigued and impressed if you announced that you were off to Borneo for your holidays? And yet its treasures are remarkably accessible; if you have not yet been, you really should go.

Organising your trip

For five star luxury in KK, stay at the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu; its central location is ideal, the breakfast buffet is superb and the views across the South China Sea are fantastic but avoid atrium view rooms at the weekend, unless you plan on staying up late or are able to sleep through the live music in the foyer!

To dive off Sipadan, stay on nearby Mabul Island, which is also a delightful place (the Government closed the Sipadan resorts in 2004). Borneo Divers arrange my dive trips; they will organise just about anything else you wish to do in Sabah too.

You’ll almost certainly pass through Semporna on your way to Sipadan and will need somewhere to stay. There’s not much choice but I have always found the Dragon Inn Hotel adequate for overnight stops, although it’s not to everyone’s taste.

As well as being a great place to stay, Sepilok Jungle Resort can organise river safaris, cave trips and island excursions through their sister company ( They are reliable and friendly and have been operating for many years.

All the east coast attractions can be reached by bus from KK; the road climbs through Kinabalu national park and past Poring hot springs but the journey will eat up most of a day. Alternatively, budget carrier AirAsia ( will fly you there in next to no time. Fly to Sandakan (for Sepilok, Gomontong and Kinabatangan) or Tawau (for Mabul, Sipadan and Turtle islands).

Getting there

KK is served by well over a dozen airlines (including AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines, SilkAir, Dragonair and Tiger Airways), providing frequent connections to the regional hubs of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

Alternatively, you can also travel to Sabah overland from Kuching in Sarawak. This is a popular backpackers’ route with a combination of buses and ferries to take you through Miri, Brunei, Temborong and Labuan.