It’s almost 12 years since I visited Sabah, Borneo (Malaysia). This was the first time I ventured anywhere outside of Europe and New York, and the first time I went on a true adventure holiday.
It’s also one of my favourite ever trips, with great food, a massive mountain to climb, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, watching fireflies at night from a boat, a pristine island with silver beaches where monitor lizards bathe sleepily in the sun.
Sabah will always have a place in my heart and a place I hope one day to return to. Here’s five of the best.
Despite what the tourist boards say, Mount Kinabalu isn’t the highest mountain in South East Asia. But it’s certainly one of the most beautiful, with some of the most diverse fauna in the world and a peak that towers above the cloud line.
The climb to the top isn’t easy, but you can hike it without the need for extra gear (although I recommend hiking poles). Most stay overnight at one of the lodges in bunk beds and then get up well before the sun rises.
After that follows a sense of comradeship that I’ve never experienced on any other mountain. Strangers hike up together in the dark with head torches to try and reach the summit before dawn. Personally, I had to beg a stranger for water and he gladly obliged.
Then, the view from the top is awe-striking. I can’t think of any better word.
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
Borneo is the only natural habitat of the orangutan. Sadly, due to deforestation, this species is now endangered and so the Malaysians built the Sepilok Animal Sanctuary to help restore them to the wild.
For keen photographers, Sepilok will present you an opportunity to shoot pictures as they perform acrobatic stunts across their Ewok-style abodes. They love bananas, and they also like to eat them in all kinds of comical ways. A troop of macaques also inhabits the sanctuary so you’re likely to see many of those as well.
Alas, for fans of Terry Pratchett, there isn’t a bookshelf in sight.
Kinbatangan Wildlife Sanctuary
As mentioned above, much of the rainforest in Borneo has been destroyed and replaced by row-upon-row of palm-oil trees that stretch out for miles.
This is one of the most disturbing sites you’ll see as you travel Borneo, but there are still places where you can experience the original rainforest.
Sukau Rainforest Lodge is on the Kinbatangan River which every bit feels like a traditional Asian village. Houses jut up from the river bank on stilts and local children wade through the water (despite their being crocodiles) to wave at the few travellers who come to explore here by boat.
You can take a day-hike into the rainforest (insider tip: deet keeps the leeches away) or watch proboscis monkeys play in the trees from the safety of your boat.
There are also night safaris by torchlight where your guide takes you out in the boat in search of kingfishers, owls and baby crocodiles. Then, there’s nothing quite so serene than when the guide turns off the torch and you watch out at the fireflies floating over the still water.
Pulau Tiga really should have more fame, given that it was the filming site of the first US and UK Survivor TV series. But this sleepy, paradise island remains relatively unknown to tourists.
Here, you can bathe in the shallow waters, go out on a boat to snorkel or scuba dive around the coral reefs or simply bathe on the silver sands in the sun.
On a hike around the island, you’re likely to see massive monitor lizards—as big as cats and completely harmless. The island also has mud ponds that many come to bathe in, have the mud harden in the sun, and then enter the water and let the mud wash away into the warm South China Sea.
When I was there, Pulau Tiga only had around 30 lodges and, from what I’ve read, it hasn’t changed much. This guarantees that you can find a secluded spot on the island that you can have all to yourself.
Most trips in Sabah will begin in Kota Kinabalu, since this is the site of the local airport. Boats leave here to the local islands (including Pulau Tiga) and the city has hotels aplenty for those who wish to relax before attempting Mount Kinabalu.
It’s a great place for getting fresh coconuts from the local markets. Nearby the square by the seaside, I also had the best fish buffet I’d ever tasted.
Kota Kinabalu is also famous for its water-facing mosque. I didn’t have a chance to visit it when I was over there, but when I return I almost certainly will.
Thanks for reading this article about Sabah, Borneo at Being a Nomad. Have you been to Sabah yet? If so, what did you think?
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