When I was young, the word Borneo conjured in me vague ideas of exotic wildlife and remote, unexplored India Jones-worthy jungle. I’m not sure where I got those ideas from, but when I finally did visit Borneo they turned out to be pretty accurate.
Borneo isn’t a country. It’s an island divided among three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The northern province of Sabah, Malaysia, is really where the good stuff is. That’s the part this blog post is about.
I got to do some pretty amazing things during my trip, which I’ll mention below. The even cooler thing is that most of the stuff I didn’t do there (yet) are the things the province is most famous for.
So, this blog post is divided into three parts: 1) the stuff I did in Sabah, 2) the other stuff Sabah is famous for (that I didn’t do), and 3) the most amazing thing in Sabah that barely anybody has heard about (and which I really, really want to go back for).
Here’s why everybody needs to visit Sabah at least once.
Epic Jungles And Wildlife
Sabah is a jungle-laden province of extreme biological diversity. It’s home to some of the richest ecosystems — both on land and undersea — in the world. (I’ll talk a bit more about the undersea part later.)
Because of this, Sabah has a well-developed ecotourism trail including birding tours, animal sanctuaries, canopy walks, ziplines, river-boat excursions, and other low-impact high-enjoyment ways to explore the exotic natural surroundings.
One thing that I remember very specifically as a young man is reading in National Geographic about men who climbed narrow bamboo poles hundreds of feet up cave walls to harvest the nests of swiftlets, which are used to make the coveted Chinese delicacy, birds nest soup.
For some reason, of all the colorful cultural practices described in the magazine, this one struck me as particularly intriguing and I never forgot it. I hadn’t thought about it for years when I discovered that one of the most famous places for the harvest of these nests is Gaomantong Cave in eastern Sabah.
It’s the biggest and most majestic caves I’ve ever entered. Outside are the quarters where the bird’s nest gatherers live.
Borneo as a travel destination is known pretty much exclusively for it’s natural features. Kota Kinabalu — although not the most happening city in Asia — is a pretty nice spot to hang out. One of my favorite features are the markets, where you can buy a fresh, cheap meal, pick up groceries for your travels, or just kill an afternoon walking around. The seafood is highly recommended.
Malaysians practice many faiths, primarily Isalm, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. The most popular is Islam, a very moderate type of which is practiced by just under 20% of the population. Sabah one of the few parts of Asia where you can admire the beautiful architecture that is unique to mosques. The most famous in Sabah is the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, or ‘Floating Mosque’ pictured below.
Sabah Tourism: Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
Orangutans are notoriously difficult to find. They are solitary creatures that wander large territories, usually alone. Aside from a lucky sighting in the wild, the only places a person is likely to see a live Orangutan is in captivity (which, for many reasons I won’t go into here, is far from ideal) or in a special environment, such as the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, which cares for animals displaced by farming and other human activities.
From what I could tell, this facility was run in accordance with the highest of ethical standards, which is very important to me. Visitors are restricted to a few walkways and are allowed to watch feeding, which is what attracts the orangutans to the viewing area. Interaction with the animals is forbidden, though curious young orangutans have been known to venture into the viewing area (check out the photos below).
Sabah Tourism: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
Bitten By The Travel Bug: A Day with Orang Utans and Sunbears in Malaysian Borneo
Perhaps the most interestig of all primates, the proboscis monkeys in Sabah are not to be missed. These mischevious big-nosed hooligans are definitely entertaining if nothing else.
These fellas can be spotted all around the province, but the best place to get up close to them is in the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, which is actually just down the road from the orangutan sanctuary.
The monkey sanctuary is quite different from the orangutan sanctuary. The monkey sanctuary is privately-owned and engages in practices that are much more questionable. Tourists are allowed to hand-feed the monkeys and to interact with them basically any way they want to. These types of practices pretty much guarantee that the monkeys would not be able to survive in the wild.
On the other hand, it’s not a zoo. They monkeys can roam in the jungle as they like and seem to have a very good quality of life. So, while I would not give this attraction the stamp of ‘ethical tourism’, I would not necessarily avoid it because the monkeys are treated either. I think this is a case where tourists have to decide for themselves what they feel is acceptable.
It’s also worth noting that these aren’t the only animal sanctuaries in town. There’s also a sun bear sanctuary.
I have to be perfectly honest; you’re probably not going to see any wild pygmy elephants when you visit Sabah. These guys are even harder to track down than wild orangutans.
I was extremely lucky during my trip to Sabah that the tourism board needed photos and were willing to roll the dice and provide me with a private specialist guide to go on a wild elephant hunt in hopes that we’d be able to find some.
Some local folks had spotted a herd of elephants near a village recently and I had a specialist guide. However, pygmy elephants walk dozens of miles each day and don’t stay in one place for long. So, even with those advantages, my guide still only gave us about a 50% chance of finding them during our 3 days together.
One really cool thing I found out later was that pygmy elephants were thought to be extinct until a study in 2003 examined the heritage of the Borneo Elephants.
Below are the photos I got.
The only encounter that I had with Mount Kinabalu was riding a motorcycle up it at night…with no lights. That was, uh, interesting.
I’m really disappointed I didn’t get to explore it more. Mount Kinabalu is one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia, and is definitely among the best-known.
While climbing Mount Kinabalu is high on my to-do list, there’s something even better there I want to do: via ferrata.
There’s a company called Mountain Torq operating via ferrata tours on Mount Kinabalu that look absolutely amazing. I want so badly to go back and climb Kinabalu with them.
Photo: Lincoln SL Photography
Photo: BluËSky BlÜe
The Insane Scuba Diving At Sipian and Mabul
Tell a diver you’ve been to Sabah, and there’s no doubt they’ll be jealous. Some of the world’s best scuba diving and snorkeling spots can be found off the coast of Sabah, including world-famous Mabul, Sipadan, and Layang-Layang. Just a short distance from the shore, divers can find everything from whale sharks, sea turtles and hammerheads to a rainbow of coral reef colors.
Travelers staying in Kota Kinabalu will enjoy the 20-minute boat to the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. This is an ideal place to start your diving or snorkeling excursion. The five islands are surrounded by shallow coral reefs that appear as though they were designed for novice underwater enthusiasts. However, even the most advanced divers won’t be disappointed when spotting the rare harlequin ghost pipefish, hawksbill turtles and whale sharks
Known as one of the world’s best places to dive, the underwater ecosystem off the coast of Sipadan Island offers more than 3,000 species of coral and fish to more advanced divers. Even more exciting to avid divers is the unique underwater “turtle tomb,” a cave system that’s full of sea turtle skeletons.
Just a short distance from Sipadan is the world-renowned muck diving destination of Mabul Island. While dive permits are required in Sipadan, they are not required here. Divers travel from around the world to snap photos of the reef inhabitants, including octopi, squids and an abundance of macro life. See what waits beneath the water’s surface in the photos below.
Sipidan Island: The Turtle Tomb Diving Paradise
The Exotic Islands
Some of of the coolest parts of visiting Sabah are the numerous opportunities to get on the water and explore nearby islands. Mari Mari Sepanggar Island takes just 15 minutes to reach by boat, and only a few dozen people are allowed to visit each day. There’s nothing quite like being transported to an island paradise and only having to share with it a handful of people at a time. Similarly, Mantanani Island is just 45 minutes from Kota Kinabalu by boat, yet it offers ideal opportunities to snorkel and explore. Several of the islands near Kota Kinabalu also offer hotels, making it possible to turn a quick day trip into a mini vacation.
Sabah, Borneo’s northeastern coastline is home to the city of Sandakan. Just 40 kilometers off the coast, in the Sulu Sea, is the world-famous Turtle Island Park. This safe haven for hawksbill and green turtles offers adventurous travelers the ability to watch as turtles come to shore to lay their eggs and witness baby turtles being released into the sea. The boat ride from the Sabah Park Jetty in Sandakan to the the largest Turtle Island Park island of Sandakan takes just 1 hour. Check out the pictures below.
Photo: Eddie Yip
The Best Kept Secret In Borneo: The ‘Lost World’ – Maliau Basin
The title “Lost World” is enough to draw any avid adventurer to Sabah’s Maliau Basin. It’s discovery is something out of an Indiana Jones movie. In 1947 a British pilot was flying through thick fog. He emerged from it to find a solid wall of rock directly in front of him. He veered hard and narrowly avoided the wall, which rose 915m above the jungle floor. This was the first modern human contact with what is now called the Maliau Basin, or Lost World of Borneo. Thanks to natural barriers it’s more-or-less evolutionarily distinct from the surrounding areas and it’s never been inhabited by humans.
Home to 12 forest types, many of which are rare, and the famed seven-tiered Maliau Falls, the Lost World is every nature lover’s’ dream come true. This remote and isolated area spanning 58,840 hectares is most ideal for jungle trekking, bird watching, waterfall swimming and snapping photos of rare wildlife. See the beauty of this basin, the places that have been discovered at least (many have yet to be explored), in the photos below.
This place truly mystifies me. Next time I return to Sabah, it will be to visit the Maliau Basin.
Photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
Photo: Lee Teck Seng
Have you ever been to Borneo? Would you like to visit? What would you like to see there most?
What would you like to see there most? Let me know in the comments!