The adventurous travellers’ ultimate guide to Borneo’s sun-kissed Sabah

Ian Neubauer
The Nightly
4 Min Read
For travellers with limited amounts of holiday time Sabah offers a compact option packed with natural treasures and attractions. 
For travellers with limited amounts of holiday time Sabah offers a compact option packed with natural treasures and attractions.  Credit: Ian Neubauer/The West Australian

As the third-largest island in the world after Australia and New Guinea, one could spend a lifetime exploring Borneo.

But for travellers with limited amounts of holiday time, the Malaysian State of Sabah in the northwest corner of the island offers a compact option packed with natural treasures and attractions.

From floating villages and sun-kissed islands to Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s second-highest peak, to jungles writhing with rhinoceroses, pygmy elephants and orangutans, Sabah is an adventure-travel destination writ large.

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Here’s our guide to a 10-day holiday there.

THE TIP OF BORNEO — THREE DAYS

Start your adventure with a three-day motorbike ride from Sabah’s steamy seaside capital Kota Kinabalu to the northern tip of Borneo.

Your guide, Bryan Wade of Borneo Biking Adventures Borneo Biking Adventures, will pick you up from the airport in the afternoon when most international flights land and take you to Kota Kinabalu’s lively waterfront district for a satay dinner washed down with ice-cold beer while you watch the blood-red sun set over the South China Sea.

Spend the night at Bryan’s house and wake up early the next morning for a thrilling 200km ride along sweeping highways and curving back roads to Kudat.

After lunch at a Chinese restaurant, take a tour of Kudat’s bustling port where fishers sell still-squirming fish directly to the public.

Start your adventure with a three-day motorbike ride.
Start your adventure with a three-day motorbike ride. Credit: Ian Neubauer/The West Australian

Spend the night at a jungle longhouse at Tampat Do Aman, an NGO that also runs a six-acre wildlife reserve, Indigenous museum, children’s shelter and a beachfront restaurant called Tip Top.

The following morning, ride back to Kota Kinabalu along the inland route and Crocker Range while taking in glimpses of majestic Mount Kinabalu. Spend your last night with Bryan at his home.

MOUNT KINABALU — TWO DAYS

From Kota Kinabalu, it’s a two-hour drive to UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mount Kinabalu National Park.

Departing from Amazing Borneo Tours office in KK, the journey is broken with a pitstop at the Nabalu produce and handicraft market.

After checking in to Kinabalu Park Hostel, grab lunch at a roadside diner and catch a taxi 8km south to the Kundasang War Memorial, a series of garden terraces honouring the 2500 Australian and British soldiers who perished during a Japanese death march across Sabah in the closing moments of World War II.

The following day, begin your high-altitude mini-marathon with a guided six-hour slog through the lower mountain rainforest, where, among other natural wonders, you’ll see the Nepenthes villosa, a giant carnivorous pitcher plant.

Climbing the mountain.
Climbing the mountain. Credit: Ian Neubauer/The West Australian

Spend the night in a chilly dormitory sans hot water at Laban Rata base camp (elevation 3200m) before waking at 2am for the final three-hour slog along mountain staircases and railed rock walls to reach the summit Low’s Peak (elevation 4095m) by sunrise.

The downhill trek back to the park headquarters is murder on the knees; hiking poles are highly recommended. A much-needed hot shower awaits you that evening back at Kinabalu Park Hostel.

KOTA KINABALU AND SURROUNDS — THREE DAYS

The following morning, catch a taxi to the Shangri-La 30km north of Kota Kinabalu, home of the Rasa Ria Reserve, a 64-acre wildlife sanctuary on the resort’s grounds that protects and provides veterinary care for orphaned orangutans found by wildlife officials alone in the wild.

Twice daily, rangers lead guided tours into the centre to see loveable baby orangutans feed, swing on ropes and leap between trees. Afterwards, buy a ticket on the Shangri-La shuttle bus to a nearby shopping centre in KK.

From there, catch a taxi to Borneo Backpackers in Australia Place, where Diggers set up camp at the end of World War II.

Help with carrying.
Help with carrying. Credit: Ian Neubauer/The West Australian

Spend the afternoon exploring the CBD while taking in sights like the Sabah State Mosque with its gold inlaid onion dome, the Sabah Museum and the Filipino handicraft market.

Come nightfall, splurge without breaking the bank with a seafood feast at the evening food stalls near the Dolphin Statue on the waterfront. If you’re in town on a Sunday, don’t miss the Chinatown market on Gaya Street.

On your last full day in Borneo, walk to Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal and buy a four-island hop ticket to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park Marine Park, a cluster of tropical islands only a 20-minute speedboat ride from the city.

On the trail.
On the trail. Credit: Ian Neubauer/The West Australian

Spend the day island hopping, beachcombing, snorkelling over coral reefs or knocking back brewskis and grilled prawns at a barbecue stall.

Diving can also be arranged in advance with companies like Scuba Junkie, Borneo Dream. And a word to the wise: avoid the marine park on public holidays and weekends.

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