10 Amazing Places to visit In Sabah

10 Amazing Places to visit In Sabah

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Orangutan in Sandakan Borneo
Contemplating the future..Photos: Irene Isaacson

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.

10 Places to visit in Sabah 

1- Mari Mari Island

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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.

Mari Mari Island and the Floating Mosque - places to visit in Sabah
Sabah points of interest: Top left to right: 1-2. Mari Mari Island beach and ocean views, 3. Kota Kinabalu City or Floating Mosque, 4. Giant clam in the shore -based artifical reef, 5. Meet and greet ‘Nemo’ – a nearby territorial clown fish in its anemone

Try your hand on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) or dive the deeper ocean with the island’s experienced dive masters.

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.

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.

Mari Mari Cultural Village a Sabah Attraction
Places to visit in Sabah for culture: Top left to right:1. Mari Mari Cultural Village entrance map, 2. One of the authentic longhouses, 3.Rainforest in the Kinabalu Park, 4. Mt Kinabalu Climbathon memorial board of winners, 5. Firestarter and rice winemaker, Mari Mari Cultural Village

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 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 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.

Interesting places in Sabah Sandakan War Memorial and Kundasang War Memorial
Sabah places to visit for history: Top left to right: 1. Original trenching excavator at the Sandakan Memorial Park, sabotaged by an Australian POW, 2. Commemorative Pavilion, 3. Sandakan Memorial tranquil rainforest gardens, 4-5. War Memorial Museum artifacts and garden plaque at Ranau

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.

Sabah tourist attraction Sabah Tea Plantation
Beautiful places to visit in Sabah: From top left to right: 1. Expansive views of the tea plantation, 2. Great souvenir T-shirts!, 3. Having ‘fun’ at the Kampung Luanti fish spa, 4. “Who’s for the first ‘dip’?” at the fish spa, 5. Sabah Tea

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.

7- Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

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.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre - Sandakan Borneo
Places to visit to visit in Sabah for wildlife: Baby orangutans and orphan sun bears at the sanctuaries at Sepilok Borneo.

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.

Gomantong Caves - best place in Sabah
Top left to right: 1.Boardwalk entrance to the caves, 2. Helping a weak swiftlet found near the entrance, 3-5. Various
chambers of the caves

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’!

Labuk Bay proboscis monkeys interesting places in Sabah
More places to visit in Sabah for wildlife: From Top left to right: 1. Kinabatangan River cruise at sunrise, 2. Labuk Bay proboscis monkeys, 3. A hunting Malay civet in the jungle at night, 4. Proboscis monkey ‘mum’ with her young offspring

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 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 Proboscis Monkeys

Visit the proboscis monkeys at Labuk Bay.

Large male proboscis monkey - Sandakan Borneo
Large male proboscis monkey at Labuk Bay monkey sanctuary, Sandakan Borneo. It’s the best place to visit in Sabah to see your long-tailed cousins!

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?

Sunset on the Kinabatangan River - Sabah Borneo
Sunset on a Kinabatangan River cruise – Sandakan Borneo – Is this the most tranquil place to visit in Sabah?

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?

I visited Sabah with TripADeal, which is an online company that loves filling my inbox with amazing deals!

Photos by Irene Isaacson

Discover Sabah

10 Amazing Places to visit In Sabah

10 Amazing Places to visit In Sabah

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