From the depths of the ocean to the heights of great mountains, from pristine virgin rainforests to thriving capitals, Sabah, Borneo is filled with the promise of romance and adventure.
Borneo. It’s a place I never thought I’d ever get to explore. To me it’s always sounded so remote, so wild and exotic, and so mysterious. I felt sure it would remain in the ‘to visit’ column of my travel list forever.
But the deep jungles and towering peaks of the Malaysian state of Sabah at the northern end of Borneo are within surprisingly easy reach – especially travelling from Australia or Southeast Asia.
And once here, there’s so much to do you’ll be thinking of when you can come back again before you’ve even left. For starters, here’s our crash course in Sabah, Borneo.
Sabah, Borneo – what to do, where to go and how to see it all
Kota Kinabalu – or KK as the locals call it – is a busy little city, but that ‘island time’ influence, its waterfront location and the city’s (much) smaller population make KK a fun intro to Sabah’s lifestyle.
Where to stay
Le Meridien KK’s newly refurbed look makes this perfectly located international hotel a great spot to stay in the state’s capital. Facing west over the sea, sunsets from your room – or even better – the rooftop pool bar are amazing.
Service is impeccable and the rooms are spacious and comfortable. And the buffet breakfast is extensive and delicious.
Where to eat
About as local as it comes, this place is perfect for getting a sense of the real KK. Order tom yum, dumplings and a plate of tuaran mee – a very moreish local dish of roast pork, noodles and egg you won’t find anywhere else.
A trans-generational eating institution, this place has been around forever. Order Hainanese chicken rice (like everyone else in there!) and enjoy the novelty pyramid shape of the rice.
Even if you’re not staying here, the food is worth coming to Le Meridien KK. Latest Recipe’s Taste of Discovery menu changes all the time, but features some intriguing dishes – some amazing (the mackerel dishes here are awesome) and some strange; ambuyat – you gloopy weirdness, I’m looking at you!
For a special meal, Favola Italian restaurant will leave you feeling very well looked after. Eating Italian food in Malaysia might seem weird, but ever since our amazing Spanish meal in Bangkok, we’ve opened our minds to extraneous meals!
Right opposite the Le Meridien Hotel is a network of food and grocery markets selling the freshest fish, fruit and vegetables that the kitchens of food stalls further down cook up.
Follow your nose for the food roasting on coals and flaming grills for a true taste of Sabah’s hawker food.
The Waterfront bars and restaurants
Quite touristy but lots of fun and great views out over the sea, grab a table at one of the bars at the Waterfront (we stopped at the Cock & Bull), order your drinks and enjoy the view.
For food either order from the bar or – as we did – go to one of the local satay vendors nearby and buy some delicious food on a stick! Our top tip: get in early before the karaoke gets going… unless you love karaoke of course!
What to do
The biggest of 5 islands off the coast of KK, Gaya has nature trails into the rainforest, beautiful beaches and a couple of luxurious resorts to enjoy too. See below for more details on Gaya.
At first, this place seems horribly touristy, but it’s actually really well done. The cultural village is a ‘living display’ of 5 of the most prominent tribes of Sabah.
The village is a collection of huts each built in the fashion of each tribe and locals act out scenarios and behaviours in keeping with each tribe. Many of them are from the tribe they represent.
You’re shown many of the different cultural nuances and traditions of each tribe and their houses, you try food and drink made by original methods, and you see things like the jumping challenge, a marriage ceremony and the headhunter tribes. You also get to shoot a blowpipe, and see traditional dances and tattoos.
It’s entirely staffed by young people who are from Sabah and have direct lineage to the tribes they represent. Our guide really approved, which made us realise how important this kind of thing is to educate about indigenous cultures around the world. It’s something we wish many other countries would do – Australia included.
Sabah Foundation – batik, beading and handicraft centre
Just on the other side of the bay from KK town centre looms the Tun Mustapha Tower – or the Battery as locals call it. Here, the Sabah Foundation has a programme working with local youths from tribes in Sabah.
They are creating all kinds of art that you can buy in the shop above the studio. Once the students have completed their initial 6-month intensive training and an ‘incubation’ period to continue their mastery. They’re then given business training for accounting and marketing so they can set up their own small businesses.
One of the most interesting crafts taught is batik painting. This traditional Sabah art form uses hot wax, ink and water to create incredible patterns on fabric. You can visit the studio and meet the students, and even try your hand at batik painting.
Be warned though, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Once the ailing KK Bird Sanctuary, the government has turned this area over to the Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society. They have made this mangrove right in the middle of Kota Kinabalu city into a preservation area for research and conservation.
For about AU$5 (or AU$1.50 if you’re Malaysian), you can explore the 1.5km of boardwalks and paths over these important swamplands. There’s also a bird hide overlooking a lake, which is known to be a prime spot for birders.
The little western archipelago of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is 10 minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. At the head of these 5 islands is Pulau Gaya – literally meaning ‘Big Island’ in Malay.
Where to stay
There are a few little resorts to choose from here, but the beautiful Gaya Island Resort, with its 120-odd villas, beautiful pool and grounds, has the most to offer.
What to do and where to eat
Gaya Island Resort has a private beach with its own bar and loungers round the point. You can either get the tender to take you round or you can hike through the jungle to the beach. We took the boat!
The resort offers a lunch picnic service too, which you can have in a number of different places – this beach is one of them and is a beautiful spot for a romantic afternoon.
This beach houses its own marine centre. This centre, run by marine biologist Scott Mayback, is focused on rescuing and rehabilitating injured and sick turtles.
The resort also has a beautiful spa complex tucked away in the trees. The massage we were treated to here was transcendental! At one point I couldn’t work out if I was listening to the background music or the jungle birds overhead. Then I realised I didn’t actually care because this massage was so good!
But most impressively, Gaya Island Resort also has its own resident naturalist and conservationist, Justin Juhun.
Justin has worked here for over 10 years, and has built and developed hiking trails up into the chunk of rainforest covering most of the island. The conservation centre he has built here is fascinating too explaining many of the plant and animal species that live here. We were also lucky enough to meet the rescued collared scops owl Justin was rehabilitating.
The guided hikes through the rainforest showcase Justin’s hard work creating the tracks and also the abundance of life here. He is a huge asset to the resort and the island’s ecosystem.
Diving and snorkelling are good all year round but at their best in May and June, though there is significant damage to the reefs from local fishermen using dynamite.
For food, there are a few different restaurants here that are part of the resort. However, it’s important to remember that this is a small island and everything you eat needs to be brought in from Borneo or further.
Gaya Island Resort is perfect if you are short of time and want to explore all elements of Borneo; it has rainforest, low-level mountains, glorious beaches and some very inquisitive locals like the long-tailed macaques and the resident bearded pig Bacchus.
Lahad Datu – Danum Valley
If there’s one place you have to go to while you’re in Borneo, it’s Danum Valley. Even locals we spoke to were wowed and envious of us going here. Danum Valley in Sabah’s northeast is a small area of the 1 million hectares of virgin rainforest that the government has protected against deforestation.
It’s also the only part of this huge area of jungle that visitors are allowed in. And why come here? This is one of the last truly wild habitats of the incredible orang-utan – Asia’s largest primate.
How to get here
The only way to Danum Valley – unless you’re a jungle research biologist or an orang-utan – is with Borneo Nature Tours and Borneo Rainforest Lodge. If you fly into Lahad Datu – the nearest airport – your guide from Borneo Nature Tours will meet you and take you on to the office for registration.
Then it’s a 2-hour drive on unsealed roads through secondary jungle before you get to the true primary forest of the valley. Then it’s another 30 minutes or more of fording rivers and crossing log-and-dirt bridges before you come to the lodge.
Where to stay
The only accommodation for 150km in any direction, Borneo Rainforest Lodge is the easiest decision you’ll have to make. Luckily these guys haven’t rested on their laurels or taken advantage of their unique location: this is a really lovely place to stay.
The main building where you meet for treks, eat, debrief and relax is a huge lofted ceiling of a structure. Its wooden floors and pillared walls and balconies blend beautifully with the surrounding jungle. From the verandas on the first floor, you can see all round from the Danum River that loops round the complex to the deep greens of the jungle right up to the escarpment high above you.
From the main building there are lofted walkways leading to all the rooms to minimise impact on the forest floor. It’s not uncommon to see deer, boar, civets and even the endemic pigmy elephants wandering around beneath the walkways.
And the trees even close to the lodge hold the promise of over 300 species of birds, several types of monkey and of course the much sought-after orang-utans.
The rooms here come in 3 types; standard, deluxe and the villas. We stayed in a standard room, which is as the name suggests, though with plenty of space. There are no bells or whistles in these rooms.
However, we were also upgraded to one of the brand new villas, which are beautifully designed. Our room boasted a huge split-level bedroom and lounge area, a spacious bathroom with a large bath and separate outdoor shower.
But on the balcony, which had the most comfortable loungers on it, there is also your own private plunge pool! We couldn’t resist a dip while we looked out over the river and into the dark green recesses of the mysterious jungle beyond. If you’re coming all this way, the extra cost of these villas is absolutely worth it.
Where to eat
Again, the Borneo Rainforest Lodge hasn’t taken advantage of its position and provides surprisingly excellent food in buffet style for all three meals. There is also a made-to-order station you’ll find delicacies like wood-fired roast chicken and slow-roast pork, satay and carvery style beef and fish.
We also had an amazing lunch on the river one afternoon, with our own chef and waiter. It’s at extra cost, but for a special occasion, this is the most beautiful thing to do and incredibly memorable.
What to do
Jungle hikes are the order of the day and depending on your fitness level, length of stay and personal interests, your guide will show you as much of this virgin rainforest as possible.
The treetop walk, which goes up as high as 30 metres above the ground gives you a unique perspective from the canopy while a gentle afternoon of tubing – floating down the Danum River in a tire – lets you see the forest at a very different level.
Visit a traditional tribal burial site of a tribe that used to live in the area and explore the forest at night, which is the best time to see wildlife at its most active.
Semporna and the eastern islands
The busy port town of Semporna is the gateway to Sabah’s tropical island resorts and top diving spots, recognised as some of the world’s best.
There are over 2 dozen islands around Semporna each with its own attributes. We visited 2 of them – Mataking and Mabul.
Mataking is the smaller of the two and has 1 self-named resort on it. Most of the resort is more geared towards families, groups of friends and people only interested in the diving scene, but the new villas on the other side of the island are more luxurious, private and romantic.
The waters around this island are spectacularly clear and warm, and the snorkelling is superb. We saw turtles and hoards of fish, including the local barracuda Charlie, who lives under one of the piers.
The food here isn’t great though and the service will leave you wondering if you’ve said or done something wrong, but if this isn’t important to you, and you love karaoke, you’ll enjoy everything about Mataking.
Mabul Island is further south of Semporna than Mataking and is the closest island to the world-renowned diving spot and islet called Sipadan. There are a few resorts here, including a backpackers and a local tribal village. Most of the people working at the resorts are from this village.
We stayed at the Sipadan-Mabul Resort, which has two sides to it, the inland resort and the water resort. If you’re just here for the diving and you don’t care about the accommodation, the inland resort is fine. However, if you want the romance of the overwater bungalow villas you’re shown when you arrive, I’d urge you to pay more for the water resort.
The food and activities here on Mabul are pretty good, but the experience of sleeping above the water, and having your own balcony overlooking the sea is quite something. Watching lionfish, turtles, stingray and large needlefish swimming around our villa was certainly a highlight.
The snorkelling here is ok but the water wasn’t as clear around Mabul as it was at Mataking and the currents were quite strong. However, if we’d been here longer, we’d have tried the diving, especially as your room rates – apart from including transfers and food – also give you a multitude of incredible diving opportunities.
Have you ever been to the jungle? Do you have a favourite snorkelling or diving memory? Where have you been that you never thought you’d get to visit? Tell us in the comments!