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.
Amazing Places to visit in Sabah – 10 Things To Do For Nature And Culture Lovers
1- Mari Mari Island
Chill out on Mari Mari Island
Mari Mari Island 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.
Watersports for the family
Enjoy fun water sports such as kayaking and paragliding. Or snorkel for ‘Nemo’ on the small natural and artificial shore-based coral reef.
Note: jellyfish season is from December-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 dive masters. If scuba 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.
Nearby Attractions to Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal
On your return, make sure to visit one of the top Kota Kinabalu attractions. The stunning iconic white City or Floating Mosque is a must. Or the giant ‘lipstick’ Sabah Foundation Building, is another famous Kota Kinabalu sightseeing spot.
2- Mari Mari Village
Enjoy the authentic culture of Mari Mari Village
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, colorful 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.
3- 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 quick!
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. The two summit trails – Ranau and Kota Belud Trail, are both achievable in a 2-day 1-night climb.
Aim for an early start so you can summit with the rising sun. A breathtaking Sabah tourist attraction!
World Heritage Site Kinabalu Park Beckons
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 has an excellent reputation.
4- Sandakan to Ranau
Honour fallen comrades – 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 6 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
The 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 perpetuated 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.
End Of The Line – Ranau
Kundasang War Memorial commemorates the end point 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’…
5- Sabah tea gardens
Taste tea at the Sabah tea plantation
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 louvers 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 about 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!
Anyone For Tea?
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.
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.
6- Kamping Luanti
Try a fish foot massage and spa
Kampung Luanti is just a 2km drive from Sabah Tea Plantation. A small quirky tourist delight, it is just off the road along the local river.
Nine kinds of fish are cultivated in the river. 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 or Sepilok Forest Resort are to name but two.
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.
8- Gomantong Caves
Go batty in the Gomantong Birds Nest Caves
Set in the Bornean rainforest along a short boardwalk is the entrance to the Gomangtong Caves, limestone at its finest.
We were lucky enough to see a wild orangutan and its baby along the boardwalk. The previous tour group even witnessed 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.
Feel like David Attenborough
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 2-3 times a year. Performed by locals who still using 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…
9- 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 minimize 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 bird life. Most of all, the mammals are my fave, with Malay civets, palm civets, and mouse deer to name a few.
10- Labuk Bay
Visit the proboscis monkeys at Labuk Bay
Finally, last but not least, proboscis monkeys. 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. Also, 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 approx. 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.
More Wildlife Adventures?
And if wildlife or nature is your interest, then why not think about volunteering at an orangutan rehabilitation centre. Or try a jungle river cruise or rainforest trek in Borneo – Indonesia (Kalimantan).
Finally, Borneo makes for some awesome travel adventures and memories. So what are YOU waiting for?
Photos by Irene Isaacson