Dreaming of a Borneo adventure? Then fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu (KK) in Sabah, the heart of Malaysian Borneo. Having visited one of its two states (Sabah and Sarawak) recently, here are my top places to visit in Sabah if you love nature and history.
Sabah has plenty of attractions for nature lovers and there’s a good choice of nature-based places to visit in Sabah when compared to the vibrant city things to do in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. Sabah is also home to one of the most famous landmarks in Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu.
- 15 Incredible Places To Visit In Sabah
- 1- Kota Kinabalu
- 2- Mari Mari Sepangar Island
- 3- Mari Mari Village
- 4- Mt Kinabalu
- 5- World Heritage Site Kinabalu Park
- 6- Sandakan Memorial Park
- 7- Ranau
- 8- Sabah Tea Gardens
- 9- Kamping Luanti
- 10- Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
- 11- Gomantong Caves
- 12- Borneo Jungle
- 13- Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkeys
- Cultural Places in Sabah
- 15 Incredible Places To Visit In Sabah
15 Incredible Places To Visit In Sabah
1- Kota Kinabalu
Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, is a city with a number of fascinating attractions including markets, beaches and the stunning Kota Kinabalu City Mosque.
The giant ‘lipstick’ Sabah Foundation Building is another famous Kota Kinabalu sightseeing spot.
Take a river cruise along the wetlands, visit the Green Connection Aquarium, go on a whitewater rafting adventure or prepare to climb Mount Kinabalu as KK is the gateway to Kinabalu National Park.
2- Mari Mari Sepangar Island
Chill out on Mari Mari Sepangar Island, which is one of the best places to visit in in Sabah to enjoy a few hours downtime or to stay for a few days if time permits.
There are a few tropical islands just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
Mari Mari Seppangar Island is one of the quieter tourist islands in the South China Sea.
Only a 10-minute local ferry ride from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, its small sandy tropical Sabah beach is surrounded by a turquoise sea.
Enjoy fun water sports such as kayaking and paragliding or snorkel in search of ‘Nemo’ on the small natural and artificial shore-based coral reef.
Jellyfish season is from December to March. Outside of this time, however, you are more likely to get hit by floating plastic than jellies (sad, but true).
Forgotten your towel? Don’t worry. Cool shaded tables and chairs with deck chairs are available.
Try your hand on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) or dive the deeper ocean with the island’s experienced divemasters.
If scuba diving is not your thing, try ‘Sea Walkers’. This is diving but you are still attached to a hookah airline. No diving experience needed – cool!.
Tasty local food and drink, including a stunning smorgasbord lunch, are yours to enjoy after a stressful morning sun baking.
3- Mari Mari Village
Enjoy the authentic culture of Mari Mari Village, which is a Borneo nature tour with a difference.
Set in the Borneo tropical rainforest, 20 minutes on the outskirts of KK is the Mari Mari Cultural Village.
Visiting the five different ethnic tribal houses in the museum is one of the best places to visit in Sabah to gain insights to a time gone by.
From fire starting to rice-wine making, there’s plenty to see and do.
Crack a coconut, taste local foods and drink sweet pandan juice.
Round off your Borneo adventure with a vibrant, colourful performance of traditional dance. Try your hand (or feet) at the breathtakingly pulsating ancient ‘Magunatip’ bamboo dance.
Do take water, insect repellent and a packet of wet wipes as the temperature and humidity persist well into the night.
4- Mt Kinabalu
At 4095m, climbing Mt. Kinabalu or ‘Low’s Peak’ is to summit the highest mountain in Borneo.
Towering above the clouds it has a reputation, not unlike Mt. Fuji, one minute it’s there, the next minute it’s gone. So if you see it, take a photo quickly!
The best time to climb Mt. Kinabalu is May and June, the start of the dry season, however, the 8.5km International Summit & Climbathon race to the top is actually in October.
Only 135 climbs per day are permitted and both summit trails – Ranau and Kota Belud Trail – both achievable in a two-day one-night climb.
Aim for an early start so you can summit with the rising sun to enjoy this breathtaking Sabah tourist attraction!
5- World Heritage Site Kinabalu Park
At the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu, at 1850m high is the World Heritage site Kinabalu Park, including the Mt. Kinabalu Botanic Garden.
The site has vast botanical and biological species diversity, one of the ecologically richest in the world.
There are many Borneo tropical rainforest walks such as the Bukit Tupai or Silau Silau Trails.
The Balsam Buffet Restaurant at the base of the Park is the only local place to top up your energy stores.
With mountain views, the continental and local food smorgasbord menu have an excellent reputation.
For more things to do in Malaysia read:
- 20 Famous Landmarks in Malaysia
- 30 Things To Do In Kuala Lumpur
- 35 Things To Do In Penang
- Living in Penang As An Expat
- 20 Things To Do In Melaka
- 15 Things To Do In Sabah
- 15 Things To Do In Cameron Highlands
- Malaysia Airlines Business Class Review
- 21 Beaches In Malaysia
6- Sandakan Memorial Park
Honour fallen comrades who lost their lives during the Sandakan to Ranau death marches.
The infamous Japanese “Death Marches” between 1942-45 led to the deaths of 2345 allied British and Australian POW’s.
Imprisoned at the Sandakan Borneo POW camp as part of the Pacific campaign of WWII, only six Australians survived.
Horrific tales and memories commemorating these tragic times are at both the Sandakan Memorial Park and the Kundasang War Memorial in Ranau.
This is a must-see for history enthusiasts and two of the top historically interesting places in Sabah Borneo.
Sandakan Memorial Park is one of the most interesting places in Sabah.
It’s actually built on the grounds of the original POW camp. Its peaceful Borneo tropical rainforest setting belies the horrors of war perpetrated there.
The Commemorative Pavilion is a wonderful memorial for fallen comrades as well as local Malays killed for aiding POW’s.
Quotes by dying POW’s and photographs cover the walls. Partially lit by a striking blue leadlight window casts a tranquil hue on those painful memories.
Kundasang War Memorial commemorates the endpoint of the horrific 279km Death Marches at Ranau.
A local Thai-born Malay Seeve Charuruks, along with a team of locals recently cleaned up the vandalized memorial.
Although tired and in need of more refurbishment funds, its four gardens, including the Contemplation Garden, stand as a testament to those terrible war crimes.
Watch the documentary by Australian television journalist Jana Wendt of the horrors of the Death Marches in the Memorial Hall.
Unaware of the story, this video had me sobbing in tears. ‘Lest We Forget’…
8- Sabah Tea Gardens
On a completely different and more ‘refreshing’ note, Sabah tea is the best organic tea from the Borneo Rainforest.
Visit the Sabah Tea Gardens and take a tour around the mountain-based plantation.
This ‘vintage’ factory has old stained louvres for ventilation and rattly conveyor belts.
The tour is complete with handwritten instructional signs and an authentic Malay English speaking tour guide.
Our guide was very ‘accented’, so much so that he lost me at ‘hello’ but his effusive passion for Sabah tea encouraged us all to buy many of the home-grown tea products.
Note photographs in the factory are not allowed and don’t lean on any bright green machinery. As we discovered it had been freshly painted but with no warning signs!
Tea bushes cover the rolling hillside and all the tea is picked by hand.
The picturesque scenery at the mouth of Mt. Kinabalu is indeed a photographer’s delight and reminded me of my trip to the Madura Tea Plantation in Australia’s Tweed region.
Take lunch or dinner in the Sabah Tea Plantation Restaurant.
Or even stay overnight in the nearby quaint, white-picket-fenced Sabah Tea Resort cottages.
9- Kamping Luanti
Try a fish foot massage and spa at Kampung Luanti, which is just a 2km drive from Sabah Tea Plantation.
A small quirky tourist delight, it is just off the road along the local river and is where nine kinds of fish are cultivated.
Harvested only twice a year, the locals boost their economy with this unusual tourism venture.
It brings in more than 15,000 tourists a year.
For only a few RM you too can lose the hairs of your shins and keratin off your callouses as you walk barefoot along the river’s edge.
Thousands of fish surround you appearing out of nowhere, and begin nibbling your feet and shins.
Shrieks cry out, some from horror, others from fear and occasionally pain.
Apparently, it can even cure psoriasis…
But not for me, I thought.
I’ll stick to photography, thank you very much.
Stay in Sepilok and go wild with the wildlife.
There are quite a few Borneo rainforest lodges to stay in Sepilok.
A few are right next to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
Sepilok Jungle Resort and Sepilok Forest Resort both border the protected hectares of Borneo tropical rainforest forming the conjoined grounds of the Conservation Centres.
There are tour guided and self-guided tours, with regular feeding times for both orangutans and sun bears.
Take your camera with a good zoom for this one of a lifetime opportunity to see these rare and endangered animals up close.
A highlight is the orangutan nursery where there is both an air-conditioned or non-airconditioned room.
Watch the antics of the young rescued orphan ‘babies’ on their outdoor playground equipment.
Don’t discount seeing an orangutan on the boardwalk to the feeding decks or the nursery either.
Sometimes even with a smartphone, you can be too close!
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centres are a MUST visit.
11- Gomantong Caves
Go batty in the Gomantong Birds Nest Caves, which is set in the Bornean rainforest along a short boardwalk.
We were lucky enough to see a wild orangutan and its baby along the boardwalk.
The previous tour group even saw both at the cave’s entrance, adorning the deck of one of the workers’ house.
This cave is stunning, one of the best I have ever seen not only for its geological attributes but for the sheer millions of wildlife inhabiting it.
From the infamous swiftlets (anyone for birds nest soup?) to many species of bats, rats, and beetles.
Even Sir David Attenborough has visited these cases more than 40 years ago.
His more recent 2014 trip was to film part of his “Conquest of the Skies” series.
Harvesting the swiftlets’ nests is done two to three times a year and performed by locals who use long precarious bamboo ladders and rope systems.
In between harvests, some become onsite security, to protect their rather unusual but valuable income source.
Be warned to wear suitable foot and clothing. I did this exploration in thongs, shorts and a sleeveless vest.
Realisation soon hit that the deeper into the cave I ventured, the more cockroaches and other ‘crawlies’ covered not only the boardwalk but the handrail too.
And bird and batshit droppings were everywhere – aaargh!
Photography ‘on the run’ is difficult in the extremely low light and high contrast at both the entrance and exit. But a smartphone camera will often do the best job.
And don’t forget the smell (strong ammonia).
If your olfactory system is over-sensitive, then this venture may not be for you.
12- Borneo Jungle
Take a river cruise or night walk in the Borneo jungle.
Lying back in a traditional longboat during a Kinabatangan River cruise at dawn or dusk is simply gold and a must-do.
See crocodiles, wild boar, long and short-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys or even a wild Borneo orangutan or pygmy elephant.
Don’t pass up on an opportunity to stay in a riverine Borneo tropical rainforest.
Yet to do a Borneo jungle trek at night is even more thrilling.
Not only for the challenge of avoiding being ‘leeched’!
Most of the year-round, the Borneo jungle is hot and humid.
Rainfall varies with two distinct seasons per year, wet and dry, and the conditions don’t change much at night.
Leeches are always out to get you but you can minimise your risk by wearing gumboots and thigh-high waders usually offered by accommodation hosts.
A night Borneo jungle trek is stunning.
Our jungle guides located all sorts of creatures from spiders, beetles, scorpions to abundant birdlife.
Most of all, the mammals are my fave, with Malay civets, palm civets, and mouse deer to name a few.
Visit the proboscis monkeys at Labuk Bay. Endemic to the Borneo tropical rainforests, they are the world’s largest nosed monkeys.
Their webbed feet also make them prolific swimmers. Curious indeed.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary makes for a great Borneo wildlife tour.
Regular daytime feeds entice wild troops of these rather strange nosed animals to descend from their mangrove treetops.
The viewing boardwalk and feeding decks offer easy access but be warned, there is little shade except under the main deck.
A few refreshments are on offer but take an umbrella, hat, sunglasses, and water. And your camera of course!
With 1000 left in the world, to see these proboscis monkeys roaming free in these protected forests is priceless.
As a result, do it now not later, as deforestation and ever-expanding oil palm plantations is a killer.
Cultural Places in Sabah
14- Monsopiad Cultural Village
Monsopiad Cultural Village in Penampang is a great place to discover the traditions of the Kadazan – Dusun tribe.
Tour tribal huts, play traditional games and learn how to use traditional harvest implements.
The displays about the life of Monsopiad, a legendary headhunting warrior are an eye-opener.
Monsopiad’s war trophies are a reminder of Sabah’s headhunting past.
Monsopiad Cultural Village is in Penampang, Sabah.
15- Mengkabong Water Village
The largest remaining Bajau village in Kota Kinabalu, Mengkabong Water Village is the home of Sabah’s sea gypsies, the Bajau people.
With a backdrop of Mt Kinabalu, visiting this village will give you a look into the traditions and customs of these seafaring folk.
The Bajau roamed the seas gathering produce and trading with the sultans for the right to moor, trade, draw freshwater and bury their dead.
While their origins are a mystery, what is known is that they lived on their houseboats, or lepas and were a people that were born, lived and died at the sea.
I visited Sabah with TripADeal, which is an online company that loves filling my inbox with amazing deals!