What to Experience

 

Beaches

Sabah has many beautiful beaches and islands off its coastline. Sabah is popular among divers as the waters are clear with many coral reefs and a rich marine life. The islands make a fantastic gateway for those who are looking for a tranquil holiday, snorkeling, diving, or honeymoon on the beach.

 

Diving

Borneo has one of the world’s best diving sites located at Sipadan Island. This island is famous among divers because of the biodiversity in the underwater ecosystem. At Sipadan you can experience sharks, turtles, barracudas, lionfish and 3000 other species.

To visit Sipadan you need a permit, which is given by Sabah Parks, a Sabah Government agency. In order to maintain the great biodiversity and to take stress of the reefs there are only 140 permits available each day.

 

Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan is known for its remarkable wildlife and fascinating habitats such as limestone caves at Gomantong hill, dry land dipterocarp forests, riverine forest, freshwater swamp forest, oxbow lake and salty mangrove swamps near the Sandakan coast. It is the second longest river in Malaysia, with a length of 560 kilometers from its headwaters in the mountains of southwest Sabah, to its outlet at the Sulu Sea.

The lower basin of the river is the largest flood plain area in Malaysia that has the largest concentration of wildlife in the South East Asia region. The Kinabatangan is also one of the only two known place in the world where 10 species of primates are found. Some of these include orangutan, proboscis monkey, macaques, maroon langur and Bornean gibbon, most of which are endemic to Borneo. All the eight species of Hornbills are found in Borneo are seen found flying regularly in this area. There are 250 bird species have been recorded so far, eight of these are on listed as being endangered.

 

Markets in Sabah

Normally referred to as the ‘tamu’. There are weekly markets in each town that consists of day markets and evening markets. Most famous markets are the Sunday market in Gaya Street, Kota Kinabalu and Kota Belud market. The day markets open as early as 6am and normally finish at 2pm while the evening markets start at 5pm until 11pm.

 

Mount Kinabalu

At 4095 meter above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is one of the tallest mountains in South East Asia. This iconic mountain is located in Kinabalu National Park in Sabah. The mountain is composed of igneous rock, a granodiorite that was intruded into surrounding sedimentary rocks. It was pushed up from the earth’s crust as molten rock millions of years ago.

In geological terms, it is a very young mountain as the granodiorite cooled and hardened only about 10 million years ago. Today, Mount Kinabalu is still growing at a rate of 5 millimeters a year. It is one of the youngest non-volcanic mountains in the world and it is known to have temperatures falling below 10°C. Mount Kinabalu and its surroundings are among the most important biological sites in the world. Kinabalu National Park has over 5,000 different species of plants and animals, including 326 bird species and over 100 mammal species.

Many of the plants found on Mount Kinabalu are endemic to the region. Over 800 species of orchids, over 600 fern species including 50 endemic species, and 13 species of carnivorous pitcher plants including five endemic species have been recorded so far. In year 2000, Mount Kinabalu was included as a UNESCO’s World Heritage site. It has also been designated as Plant Diversity Centre for Southeast Asia.

 

Orangutan

The Orangutans, or affectionately known as the ‘Wild Man of Borneo’, are arguably the most famous inhabitants of Borneo–being the icon that attracts travelers from all over the world. Translated from the Malay language, ‘orang utan’ means ‘Jungle Man’. With some luck Orangutans can be seen in the wild, with the best possibilities around the Kinabatangan River. The best place to get up close and personal with these quirky primates is at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where they roam safely in their natural habitat.

 

Tempurung Seaside Lodge - Sweeping Beaches of Borneo

(Beach at Tempurung Seaside Lodge)

Green, leafy trees on the banks of the Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo

(Kinabatangan River, Sukau)

A colourful night market scene

(Night Market in Kota Kinabalu)

Summit view from Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo

(View from summit of Mount Kinabalu)

 

Contemplative orangutan at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Borneo

(Orang Utan at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre)

People & Culture

 

Food

If there’s any reason to visit Sabah, it would be the food! A thriving melting pot of people, cultures and traditions, Sabah is a renowned food haven. Being a coastal stat surrounded by the ocean, Sabah is particularly famous for its seafood, which are fresh and reasonably cheap! You can also find a wide selection of cuisines ranging from Chinese, Malay, Indian, Western and local indigenous food. If you’re a fan of street hawker food, the night markets are the places to visit. You can find great hawker delicacies from grilled seafood to local cakes at the Kota Kinabalu night market and the Lido night market. The night markets start as early as 6pm and stretches all the way till past midnight.

In Sabah, food are eaten with fork and spoon, and sometimes with chopsticks (at Chinese restaurants and coffee shops). Nonetheless, you can also opt to eat with your hands when you eat at Malay or Indian restaurants. When it comes to finding good food in Sabah, it’s best to go where the crowd go. When in doubt, as the locals what’s good to eat and they’ll be more than happy to tell you!

 

History

Earliest human settlement into the North Bornean region is believed to have dated back about 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. These early humans are believed to be Australoid or Negrito people. The next wave of human migration, believed to be Austronesian Mongoloids, occurred around 3000 BC.

North Borneo, as Sabah, was united with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore, to form the independent Federation of Malaysia on September 16th, 1963. In 2000, the state capital Kota Kinabalu was granted city status, making it the 6th city in Malaysia and the first city in the state.

 

Language

The official language in Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia (Malay), a mother tongue that is similar to Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). However, English is widely spoken and understood by most people in Sabah and Malaysia as a whole. Other languages, such as Mandarin, certain Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese) and local dialects (Kadazan, Dusun, Bajau and Murut) are also spoken in Sabah.

 

Manners

Handshakes are generally acceptable for both men and women. However, for some Muslim ladies and gentlemen, they may avoid physical contacts with people who are non-muhrims (non-relatives) and would only nod and smile as a way to acknowledge introductions.

Shoes must always be removed when entering a Malaysian home as well as when entering places of worship such as mosques, churches and temples. Some mosques provide robes and scarves for female visitors. Taking photographs at places of worship is usually permitted but always ask permission beforehand.

Public showing of affection in larger cities is tolerated but might invite unnecessary attention from the public. In more rural areas, it is frowned upon and is to be avoided. Same-sex relationships are also a taboo subject in Malaysia. Gay and lesbian travelers should avoid any overt signs of affection, including holding hands in public. With exception on island and beach trips, tourists are required to put their shirt on at all times.

Sabahans

The people of Sabah are known as Sabahans. There are currently 32 officially-recognized ethnic groups in Sabah, with the Kadazan-Dusun tribe being the largest indigenous ethnic group, followed by the Bajau and the Murut. The Chinese makes the largest non-indigenous ethic group in Sabah, followed by non-indigenous Malays, Indians and smaller groups of foreign expatriates.

Typical Seafood as found in Sabah, Borneo
(Typical seafood found in Sabah)

Sabah Tea Plantation in Kundasang
(Sabah Tea Plantantion)

A young girl at one of the markets in Sabah, Borneo
(Day market)

Bajau on a Horse - Known as Cowboys of the East
(Native of Borneo wearing traditional clothes)

Demography & Geography

 

Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. The island of Borneo is divided between three countries: Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Approximately 74% of the island is Indonesian territory, while the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in the north comprises about 25% of the island. The Kingdom of Brunei Darussalam, located on the north-east coast, occupies 1% of Borneo’s remaining area.

Borneo is mostly renowned for its ancient rainforest. At 130 million years old, it is one of the oldest rainforests in the world. The Bornean rainforest is home to more than 15,000 known plant species and over 220 mammals. It is also home to the world’s biggest flower, the Rafflesia flower; as well as the largest orchid, the largest carnivorous plant and the largest moth in the world.

 

Brunei

The Kingdom of Brunei Darussalam is located at the north coast of the island of Borneo and is completely surrounded by the state of Sarawak. With Sabah and Sarawak forming parts of Malaysia and Kalimantan belonging to Indonesia, Brunei is the only sovereign state on the island. Brunei has a constitutional sultanate that practices English common law and Islamic Sharia law as its legal system. Even though Brunei is small in size, it is still a charming little corner of Borneo with enough attractions to make it an interesting stop between Sabah and Sarawak.

The capital of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan has a soaring golden mosque that stands at 50 meters high and can be observed from virtually all parts of the city. Then, there are the picturesque water villages and one of the best-preserved rainforests on Borneo at the Ulu Temburung National Park.

Kalimantan

Kalimantan is a region within Indonesia also known as Indonesian Borneo. A less-visited province in Indonesia, Kalimantan covers a total area of 544,150 square kilometers (210,097 sq mi). The region is well known for its raw and unexplored tropical forests, rich natural resources, as well as exotic flora and fauna. Mountains, forests and mighty rivers stretch across the interior, influencing the culture, history and livelihoods of villages surrounding it.

The Kalimantan province was originally inhabited by the Dayak people but it is now home to over 10 million inhabitants with a variety of cultural backgrounds. There are a number of nature reserves in Kalimantan that are gazetted to preserve its unique flora and fauna from extinction. With little effort, you can come face to face with orangutans, macaques, proboscis monkeys, various bird life and maybe even the rare sun bear!

Malaysia

Malaysia is a developing country with a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. With a population of 28 million, Malaysia consists of 13 states. 11 states in the Peninsula Malaysia (West Malaysia) and the two states Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia). The city capital of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur.

Sabah

Sabah, the Land Below the Wind, is the most northern state of Borneo in East Malaysia. Sabah is blessed with ancient steamy rainforests, high concentration of wildlife, exceptional flora and fauna and some of the best diving spots in world. For those who are looking for wildlife, nature, diving, adventure and trekking holidays, Sabah is a holiday wonderland.

Over 75% of the population of Sabah inhabit the coastal plains. In the recent years, major towns and urban centres have risen along the coasts of Sabah. The interior region remains sparsely populated with only villages and occasionally, small towns or townships.

Sabah used to be known as North Borneo — it used to be a British colony during the late 19th century till the early 20th century. Sabah gained its independence on September 16, 1963, where it became a part of Malaysia.

Sarawak

Known as Bumi Kenyalang (Land of the Hornbills), Sarawak is situated on the northwest of the island, bordering the Malaysian state of Sabah to the northeast, Indonesia to the south, and surrounding Brunei. Sarawak is also the largest state in Malaysia.
In the past, Sarawak used to be under the reign of the Brooke family — the White Rajahs — for a hundred years. Sarawak is internationally well-known for its extraordinary natural wonders of its national parks. Among the famous national parks in Sarawak are the Mulu Caves, the Niah Caves and Bako National Park. As a multiracial state of 24 ethnic groups, Sarawak is a fascinating cultural treasure trove. The beauty of Sarawak can be seen in its blend of modern and traditional tribal cultures.

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Flag of Sarawak, Malaysia
(Flag of Brunei)

Flag of Indonesia
(Flag of Indonesia)

Flag of Malaysia
(Flag of Malaysia)

Flag of Sabah, Malaysia
(Flag of Sabah)

Flag of Brunei Darussalam
(Flag of Sarawak)

Transportation

Flying to and from North Borneo

Kota Kinabalu is the main gateway for international flights to North Borneo. From Kota Kinabalu, there are frequent daily flights to Sandakan, Tawau, Miri, Labuan, Kuching and other domestic cities in the area. Sandakan, Miri, Tawau and Kuching can also be reached directly from Kuala Lumpur.

Public Transportation

From Kota Kinabalu, buses are available to reach most destinations in Sabah. Within Kota Kinabalu city itself, bus services are also  aplenty. For those with time constraints, taking a taxi is highly recommended, as the bus will normally depart only when it is full. To go to the East Coast of Sabah (Sandakan, Tawau, Lahad Datu & Semporna) from Kota Kinabalu, you can take the bus (coach) at the Inanam Bus Terminal, which is located approximately 20 minutes’ drive away from the city centre. It is advisable to book your ticket one day ahead of your travel date.

Taxi

All taxis, except from airports and some hotels, are supposed to go by meter. However, this does not work in reality and it can be impossible to find a taxi driver who is using the meter. As a matter of precaution, always ask for the price before the taxi starts driving. Ask the place where you stay of the general fares to avoid being overcharged.

Towering Trees in the Borneo Rainforest Discovery Centre
(Sukau, Sandakan)

Wild Orangutan on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo
(Orang Utan at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre)

Practical Information

 

Climate

Sabah has a tropical climate, which is hot and humid all year round. The average temperature in Sabah is around 28 to 32 degrees Celsius in the lowlands, near the coast, while in the inland areas around Mount Kinabalu and the Crocker Range, the temperature will drop to below 20 degrees Celsius.

If you are climbing Mount Kinabalu, you can even experience temperatures below freezing point at above 3,500 meters above sea level (asl). During the wet monsoon season, it will rain on most days, but only for a couple of hours in the late afternoon. Therefore, you can still travel to Borneo during the wet season, enjoy the beach and go on a diving holiday! Wet season normally occurs from mid-October until the end of February.

Credit cards

ATMs are available in all the bigger cities and towns. In Kota Kinabalu, you can pay with credit cards in most restaurants and shops. However, it is still advisable to bring along some cash when you are traveling.

Currency

On the Malaysian part of Borneo, the Malaysian currency, Ringgit (MYR) is used. 100 USD equals to approximately MYR 405 (May 2016). Money changers are available at the airport as well as in major shopping centres.

Mosquitoes and Insects

It is recommended to always bring insect repellent with you, especially when your trip involves jungle activities and spending time in remote and areas.

Visa

Visitors to Malaysia must be in possession of a valid passport with a minimum validity of six months beyond the period of stay. Most nationalities will have a 60 to 90 days tourist visa issued on arrival.  Please check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia for the current visa requirements in Malaysia.

What to Wear

Light summer clothes are best worn to suit the warm, humid climate. Sandals or walking shoes are necessary for rainforest trails. When visiting mosques and other places of worship, it is compulsory to cover your shoulders, knees and hair for women.

Borneo Jungle Canopy
(Surroundings of the Kinabatangan River)

Traditional Dress of one of Sabah's peoples
(Native wearing traditional dress)

Traditional dress and house of the Lundayeh Tribe, Sabah, Malaysia
(Native Sabahan)