We loved Borneo. It’s our favourite place in Asia so far, without contest. We visited both Malaysian states in Borneo; Sarawak and Sabah, and we loved them equally. That being said, we ended up spending more time, and kept ourselves more busy when we were in Sabah. We spent about a week and a half in Sabah, and have broken down our experiences into itineraries of 48 hours, 4 days, 1 week and 2 weeks.
48 hours in Sabah
If you only have 48 hours to visit Sabah then I wouldn’t recommend trying to do too much. It is likely that you will be arriving into the capitol of Kota Kinabalu. The capitol isn’t known as being one of the highlights of Sabah, but it can certainly keep you very busy for a day or two. If you want to get your bearing of the city, see some of it’s highlights and go to the highly recommended Sabah Museum, then we recommend either taking a day tour of the city or hiring a driver. A lot of the main attractions are fairly spaced out and are not easy to get to if you are walking.
One your second day in the city, escape the traffic and crowds of the city and head out to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. The marine park is located just off shore from the city and is home to some great macro scuba diving as well as five pretty little islands. If you are a scuba diver, or want to go snorkelling or have a “try dive” experience then look no further than the waters just off shore from the capitol. For those not wanting to go diving or go on an all day snorkelling experience, then why not relax on one of the islands of the marine park instead. Jacob and I did this while Dan went scuba diving. Just a ten minute boat ride from the harbour and you will feel like you are in a whole different world. Clear, warm blue water, colourful fish and soft sand will welcome you.
4 days in Sabah
If you have a few more days to spend in Sabah, then spend at least 2 of those days in Kota Kinabalu doing some of the activities suggested in our 48 hour itinerary. Then hop a cheap flight to Sandakan (Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines operate several flights daily). Most of the attractions that you will want to see are in nearby Sepilok. The attractions of Sepilok are all located very close by to each other, and most the accommodation options are also walking distance.
Over two days in Sepilok you can visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, the Rainforest Canopy Walk and the Sun Bear Conservation centre. If you also have time before your flight back to Kota Kinabalu, we also highly recommend the half day tour of Sandakan. We didn’t know much about this little town before we took part on the tour, and didn’t expect to learn so much about Australian prisoners of war, famous American authors and the regions colonial past as we did.
1 week in Sabah
If you have at least a week to spend in Sabah, then explore Kota Kinabalu for a day or two before heading down to Sepilok for another day or two to explore and support the conversation efforts happening there. See our 48 hour guide and 4 day guide above for some more details and ideas.
After seeing the main centres in Sepilok and Sandakan, head inland to the famous Kinabatangan river. In the region of the river near the village of Bilit, various guesthouses and resorts line the edge of the river. Here, the local people have learned that eco tourism is a more lucrative industry than palm oil, and the native forest is left to nature. This is one of the best places in Borneo to spot all sorts of incredible wildlife. If you want to have a Bornean jungle experience, then this is one place you absolutely can not miss. (especially if you are a photographer or bird watcher)
2 weeks in Sabah
For those with more than a week to spend in Sabah, well you are in for a treat. Follow our above guides, which will keep you very busy for your first week. Once you are finished exploring the jungle of Bilit, hop on a bus or a flight bound for Tawua (if flying) or Semporna (if by bus). Just off the shores of Semporna, you will find some of the world’s BEST scuba diving. This is where the island of Sipadan is located, which is known as being one of the world’s best dive sights.
Dives here are limited, so if you want to get a Sipadan permit, you will need to book at least 3 – 4 days of diving. If you are not a scuba diver, and you would like to learn, then why not learn in one of the best dive spots in the world? There are tons of dive operators and schools in the area, to fit most itineraries and budgets.
You can’t fly for at least 24 hours after diving, so why not take the bus from Semporna back north towards the capitol. Instead of going all the way to Kota Kinabalu, stop instead near Borneo’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu. If you are feeling fit you can try to tackle the summit. It takes two days to scale the summit, and needs to be booked well in advance as spots in the huts are limited. If you dont want to climb the mountain, you can always take a tour of the Mount Kinabalu region. There are tons of short walks, war history and hot springs to easily keep you busy for a day.