Sabah is one of the most diverse places we have ever visited. It is located in Malaysia, on the northern half of the island of Borneo. We were enticed to go to Sabah to see orangutans and proboscis monkeys in their natural habitat. There are very few places in the world to see these creatures in the wild. Due to palm plantation deforestation, they are losing their homes at alarming rates. Orangutans are on the critically endangered list and can only be seen in the wild in Sumatra and Borneo. Reminding me of the creepy dude at the bar, proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo. These unique monkeys are so amazing to see in real life.
But not only that, Sabah has so much more to offer. It is teeming with exotic wildlife, beautiful beaches, an epic mountain hike, and world-class scuba diving. Sabah is perfect as part of a bigger Malaysia trip or for a Borneo wildlife holiday! Whether you plan to come for a family vacation or a backpacking trip, Sabah is a wonderful destination nestled in Southeast Asia. This guide will cover all the best places to visit in Sabah, Borneo.
Best Time to Visit Sabah, Borneo
The best time to visit Sabah is not as cut and dry as most places. There are different rainy seasons for the east and west of Sabah. When one has more rain, the other is drier. Overall though, March through October is the driest part of the year. Most of Sabah is rainforest, so it is possible for rain at any time of the year.
Currency in Sabah, Borneo
The Malaysian Ringgit (RM) is the national currency in Malaysia and Sabah. As of writing in December 2018, the Ringgit is worth:
$1 USD = 4.16 RM
€1 = 4.74 RM
Religion and Language in Sabah, Borneo
Sabah is not as conservative as West Malaysia (i.e. Kuala Lumpur area). The majority of people are Muslim, but there are also small pockets of practicing Christians. Malay is the official language of Malaysia. However, English is widely spoken in Kota Kinabalu and the majority of tourism and hospitality businesses around the island. As always, a few phrases in the native language is good to learn. We found that just by saying thank you in Malay brings a very friendly response.
Hello – Helo
Good morning – Selamat pagi
Good evening – Selamat petang
How are you? – Apa khabar
Thank you – Terima kasih
I am – Saya
Your welcome – Sama-sama
Food in Sabah, Borneo
There are typically three types of food you can find in Sabah; traditional Malay, Indian/Bangladeshi, and Chinese. Many of the dishes in Sabah are heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine. Most of the population and places to visit are on the coast, so seafood is widely available. Malay food is not the best for vegetarians. However, roti canai, similar to a flaky naan beard, was our lifesaver and so delicious. We ate it every day, typically for breakfast and snacking. Also make sure to try teh tarik, a frothy delicious tea.
Some common dishes in Malaysia with typical prices:
Roti canai – traditional bread with dipping sauces 4 RM – 6 RM
Telur mata – sunny side eggs 4 RM – 6 RM
Telur dadar – omelette 8 RM – 10 RM
Thosai – similar to Indian dosa 12 RM
Mee goreng – fried noodles 12 RM – 20 RM
Nasi goreng – fried rice 12 RM – 20 RM
Teh Tarik – Black tea with condensed milk (frothy) – 4 RM – 6 RM
Teh “O” – tea with sugar – 4 RM – 6 RM
Kopi – coffee 4 RM – 6 RM
A few useful words on food/drinks in Malay
Panas / Sejuk – Hot/Cold for drinks
Sayur – vegetables
Tidak ayam – no chicken
Accommodation in Sabah, Borneo
The accommodation is expensive relative to the rest of Southeast Asia. Budget hostels and dorms start from 20 RM to 36 RM ($5 – $8 USD) depending on the area. Basic private double rooms start from 70 RM ($16 USD) per night. A budget room in Sabah also typically means really poor standards. Not all hotels charge it, but legally, hotels and guesthouses are required to charge a tourist tax of 10 RM per night. One thing we noticed was that prices were ALWAYS higher as a walk-in. We would book ahead, or walk-in to check out the room, and if we decided to stay, book the room online. The best prices typically were on Agoda, and occasionally some places we only found on Booking.com.
Transportation in Sabah, Borneo
Getting to Sabah is best with AirAsia, a budget airline based in Kuala Lumpur. They have cheap flights to Sabah from different airports in Asia. A flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sabah is 120 RM ($30 USD) when booking 4+ weeks in advance.
Bus Transport in Sabah is available between all major cities. Bus departures typically leave from Kota Kinabalu each hour to destinations such as Sandakan, Semporna, and Tawau. There are several bus companies with similar fares.
Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu 25 RM
Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan 45 RM
Sandakan to Semporna 45 RM
Semporna to Tawau 20 RM
Motorbikes are available for rent in Kota Kinabalu for 45 RM/day
Car hire companies are located near the airport in Kota Kinabalu. The price for a small car, such as a Viva, is around 100 RM/day or a larger Toyota SUV for 200 RM/day.
Grab Car is excellent and available in all cities in Sabah. When traveling with multiple people, it is often the same price or cheaper than the bus. For example, a Grab Car from Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu for 80 RM, or from Semporna to Tawau for 65 RM.
Top Places to Visit in Sabah, Borneo
1. What to do in Kota Kinabalu
The main city in Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, is filled with hotels, restaurants, and lively night markets. The Filipino market and night market, both centrally located by the waterfront, has local produce, meat, fish, as well as freshly prepared dinners. There are local BBQ restaurants that cook fresh seafood. Make sure to negotiate. Gaya street has many bars, Chinese, and Malay restaurants. Definitely stop by Yee Fung Laksa on Gaya Street for the best Laksa in all of Malaysia. For 19RM you get a steaming hot bowl of the good stuff. Trust us on this one! It is worth a stop outside of town to the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. The reflection of the mosque on the moat is a really awesome photo opportunity.
Budget Stay: Bed & Breakfast @21 dorms cost 30 RM ($7) or a private room costs 90 RM ($21)
Mid-Range Stay: Diamond Inn is centrally located with very nice private rooms for 180 RM ($43)
High-End Stay: Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort is located near the city and with a private beach. Rooms start at 800 RM ($190)
2. The Best Beaches in Sabah at the Tip of Borneo
The Tip of Borneo is a picturesque spot on the northernmost point of Borneo. The rocky shoreline is a perfect backdrop for sunset. Some of the best beaches on mainland Borneo are located just south of the tip. The large Kalampunian Beach has several beach cottages and a few restaurants, although a bit rundown. We preferred a smaller more private beach and tent camping at the Secret Place.
Budget Stay: Secret Place Campsite has tents for 50 RM ($12) per tent, or with your own tent is 20 RM ($5) per person
Mid-Range Stay: Kotak Kotak has rooms beachside starting from 200 RM ($48)
High-End Stay: Kudat Riviera Beach Villas is located at private beaches with three stunning villas to choose from starting at 1380 RM ($330)
3. Hiking Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Malaysia and one of the highest in Southeast Asia. The hike is expensive at $350 – $400 per person and with limited permits. However, the views from the summit are some of the best of any mountain in SE Asia. Mount Kinabalu is a strenuous hike ascending over 2,200 meters (7,300 feet) and was one of our highlights in Sabah.
Check out our full post on hiking Mount Kinabalu for more information.
Budget Stay: Jungle Jacks has dorm rooms with all meals included for 50 RM per person ($12 USD)
Mid-Range Stay: Ayana Resort has private double rooms for 80 RM ($20 USD)
High-End Stay: Sutera Sanctuary Lodges Kinabalu Park is located in the national park with rooms starting at 200 RM ($50 USD)
4. Borneo Wildlife in Sepilok & Sandakan
Sandakan is the gateway to visit several attractions in the area. We found the waterfront to be quite dirty and pretty smelly. Sepilok is popular for animal sanctuaries to visit. The well-known Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center should not be missed. The orangutan nursery is just too cute and the twice-daily feeding is a great way to get up and close to adult orangutans. The feedings are at 10 AM and 3 PM, the latter of which is less crowded. Located next door is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Sun Bears are the smallest bears in the world and are threatened by deforestation and illegal hunting. This center is home to 42 sun bears and is open between 10 AM and 3 PM. There is a proboscis monkey sanctuary in Labuk Bay. However, we do not recommend visiting this attraction. The owner of this “sanctuary” owns the palm plantation surrounding the park, which displaced the monkeys in the first place. Proboscis monkeys can easily be seen in the wild elsewhere in Sabah (see Kinabatangan River). From Sandakan, it is possible to visit Turtle Island to see nesting turtles in June.
Entrance Costs: The entry to the Orangutan and Sun Bear conservation are both 30 RM
Budget Stay: Sandakan Backpackers Hostel has dorm beds for 35 RM or private rooms for 70 RM ($8/$16 USD)
Mid-Range Stay: Sabah Hotel in Sandakan has private rooms starting from 150 RM or Nature Lodge Sepilok close to the sanctuaries has private rooms for 180 RM ($35 – 45 USD)
High-End Stay: Sepilok Forest Edge Resort is located next to the sanctuaries and has chalets starting from 290 RM ($70 USD)
5. Borneo Rainforest Tours at the Kinabatangan River
Borneo is known for its superb wildlife. The Kinabatangan River is one of the best places in Borneo to see wildlife due to its easy accessibility. Here you can easily see proboscis monkeys, orangutans, pygmy elephants, crocodiles, snakes, exotic birds, and many more in just a couple of days. Most homestays and resorts are located near Sukau, a village upriver next to palm plantations. There are a few resorts located downriver that are more remote. While staying on the Kinabatangan, resorts usually have an all-inclusive package rate that includes meals, river cruises, and jungle walks. There are a few budget backpackers and homestays on the Kinabatangan, and there are several high-end resorts, leaving little options in between. Check out our full post on the Kinabatangan River for more information.
Budget Stay: Sukau Backpackers B&B has private rooms for 75 RM ($18 USD)
Mid-Range Stay: Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort has all-inclusive packages for two people at one of their cottages for 1,060 RM ($250 USD/room)
Luxury Stay: Kinabatangan Wetlands Resort includes all meals and four river cruises for a 2 nights/3 day package for 2,075 RM per person ($500 USD/person)
6. Stunning Beaches and Views at Bohey Dulang
An amazing day trip to the beautiful Bohey Dulang island is definitely worth it. The views are incredible and the beaches are some of the best in Sabah. You can arrange a trip from the port town of Semporna, which is the gateway to Bohey Dulang and Sipadan. However, if it weren’t for these two things, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to ever visit Semporna. It is a filthy city with no redeeming qualities. Streets are littered with trash and an absurd amount of pollution/plastics in the water. I would avoid the cheapest backpackers here, they are truly horrible. Semporna is the necessary evil to get to some amazing places, so get in and out as fast as possible!
Budget Stay: Pogo Backpackers has dorms for 40 RM or private rooms for 90 RM ($10/$21 USD)
Mid-Range Stay: The Village is a new and modern hotel with private rooms for 180 RM ($40 USD)
7. Scuba Diving at Sipadan
Sipadan is one of the best dive sites in the world. Doesn’t it seem like you hear that in so many countries? With over 150 combined dives in some incredible places, we can attest to it being one of our favorites! With stringent laws of protection of the marine environment, there are now only 120 daily permits for diving at Sipadan. Sipadan is known for incredible marine diversity. The island is an inactive volcano, with a sloping wall that has a drop-off of 600 meters (2,000 feet) to the seabed. The island is home to green and hawksbill turtles, massive schools of barracuda and big-eye trevally, manta rays, reef sharks (white tip/black tip/grey), as well as an occasional spotting of whale sharks and hammerhead sharks. Several websites state it is cheaper to stay in Semporna, and maybe it is, but we recommend staying on Mabul Island. Mabul Island has diving as well, which is subpar relative to Sipadan, but it’s inexpensive and has tons of massive turtles.
Budget Stay: Mabul Backpackers has dorms for 70 RM per bed, private double rooms for 90 RM, and deluxe double rooms for 150 RM per room. They have dive packages through SipadanBorneo.com ($16/$19/$35 USD)
Mid-Range Stay: Billabong Scuba has overwater chalets for 150 RM per person including all meals (price for divers) ($35 USD)
One-Week Itinerary for Sabah, Borneo
Day 1 – Arrive in Kota Kinabalu and check out the Filipino night market and nearby KK night market.
Day 2 – Take a bus to Mount Kinabalu, enjoy views of the park and pick one of the nine shorter hikes near the base of Mount Kinabalu
Day 3 – Transport to Sandakan/Sepilok, and check out the sun bear conservation and afternoon orangutan sanctuary feeding
Day 4 – Transport to Semporna
Day 5 – Bohey Dulang day tour
Day 6 – Scuba diving at the world-famous Sipadan (permits required)
Day 7 – Return to Semporna and take a flight from Tawau to Kota Kinabalu to finish your one-week trip!
Two-Week Itinerary for Sabah, Borneo
Day 1 – Arrive in Kota Kinabalu and check out the Filipino night market and nearby KK night market.
Day 2 – Stop at the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque on the way to Kudat. Spend the afternoon at the beach, and watch the sunset at the tip of Borneo.
Day 3 – Beach day
Day 4 – Travel to Mount Kinabalu
Day 5 – Hiking day one up to Labuan Rata Guesthouse (permits required)
Day 6 – Summit Mount Kinabalu and descend the mountain, staying the night in Ranau
Day 7 – Travel day from Ranau to Sandakan. Go to the sun bear conservation and the 3:30 pm feeding at the Orangutan Sanctuary.
Day 8 – Travel day from Sandakan to Semporna
Day 9 – Boat to Mabul Island, scuba diving at Mabul Island
Day 10 – Scuba diving at Mabul Island
Day 11 – Scuba diving at the world-famous Sipadan (permits required)
Day 12 – Return to Semporna
Day 13 – Day trip to Bohey Dulang, afternoon transport to Tawau, flight to Kota Kinabalu
Day 14 – End your two-week holiday in Sabah!
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