Sabah map & highlights
Make the most of your time
Sabah's highlights are squeezed into an area a little larger than Ireland - meaning that in just a few days you can see an epic amount. Even more conveniently, its top attractions are huddled around Kota Kinabalu in the west and Sandakan in the east, both of which are easily reached by plane.
This is also a bonus for more adventurous travelers, however, as it means Sabah's wild interior is largely untouched by tourism, and those who voyage here will be rewarded with the feeling that they really have stepped into Borneo's Lost World.
Here are three of our top routes, incorporating our favourite Sabah highlights. Click on the Sabah map points below for more information about each location.
This virgin tropical forest shelters endangered orangutans, proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants - as well as newly discovered species and rare birds. There are numerous waking trails, a 300m suspended walkway and a panoramic viewpoint; night time safaris reveal the nocturnal creatures that call this forest home. Recently unearthed ancient burial sites add yet more value and intrigue to the conservation area.
Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve
At the heart of this reserve is the Rainforest Discovery Centre, which aims to raise awareness of rainforest conservation, the creatures that live here and the sustainable use of resources. One of the highlights is the 28m high walkway, weaving 147m through the forest canopy where you can look out for 250 bird species, along with the towering Mengaris tree - one of the world's tallest at over 80m.
This UNESCO Site protects half of Malaysia's bird, mammal and amphibian species in the forests beneath the mighty Mt Kinabalu. Nature trails reveal 500 orchid species and the world's largest flower – the rafflesia – plus waterfalls, a botanical garden, a canopy walk and a butterfly farm. Just outside the park, the sulphur pools at Poring Hot Springs are the perfect place to soak your legs after climbing the mountain.
Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary
These lakes, mangrove swamps and forests comprise one of the planet's richest ecosystems; explore them on foot of by boat. 10 primate species live here, plus crocodiles, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, river sharks, orangutans and pygmy elephants. Near to the sanctuary, the Gomantong Caves are home to 2 million bats and over a million swiftlets – whose nests are used in the notorious Chinese soup.
Sabah's whitewater rafting hotspot, Kiulu River's grade I-II rapids are perfect for families and first-time rafters, who can enjoy the surrounding landscape of rice fields, rubber plantations and the mighty Mt Kinabalu. Experienced guides give safety briefings before you head out for the 90 minute ride along the river - finish off with a refreshing dip and lunch on the riverbank.
Known as KK, Sabah's capital is a captivating blend of Asian and European culture, with huge mosques, Filipino markets, British colonial architecture, Chinese restaurants and indigenous culture - including the museum's collection of human skulls recalling Sabah's headhunting history. The nearby beaches are some of Sabah’s best, with powder white sand and aquamarine seas backed by wildlife-filled jungle.
This classic desert island is found in the "Sea Turtle Corridor", and hawksbill and green turtles crawl ashore here to lay their eggs from June to August. The Marine National Park surrounding the island also shelters whale sharks, sunken wrecks and yellow tail barracudas- snorkellers and divers will be treated to a submarine show. Sea kayaking and windsurfing are also popular.
Visitors to Sabah are only just starting to discover the untamed wonders of Maliau Basin, a pristine forest ecosystem bordered by a 1,600m high escarpment. Long hiking trails lead to the epic Maliau Waterfalls - a seven-tiered cascade, the longest of which falls 28m. Carnivorous pitcher plants and huge, flesh-like rafflesia flowers are found here, along with wild cats, pygmy elephants, the banteng ox, noisy gibbons, sun bears and orangutans.
South East Asia's tallest peak stands at 4,101m, dominating the landscape. No particular expertise is needed to summit the mountain, though good fitness levels are recommended. Passing through tropical, montane and cloud forest habitats, up to the sub-Alpine vegetation at the peak, hikers depart a mountain hut at 3am to complete the last 8.5km of the journey in time to watch the sun rise from the summit.
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
This 43km2 sanctuary is the largest of its kind in the world. Trafficked, orphaned and injured orangutans are taught to survive in the wild by pairing younger individuals with older ones - this may take up to seven years, just as it would in the wild. Visits generally take place during feeding sessions; other rescued species here include sun bears, gibbons and Sumatran rhinos.
Pom Pom Island
The magnificent coral reefs surrounding Pom Pom Island attract manta rays, sea turtles, cuttlefish, sea turtles and even the odd whale shark. PADI courses can be taken here, and for those who want to give something back to the ecosystem, which has suffered from fish-bombing and other damaging interventions, marine conservation projects offer volunteer placements to renovate the reefs and protect the turtle nests.
Pulau Tiga National Park
Famous for being the first of the "Survivor" islands, wild Pulau Tiga has fantastic hiking, mineral-rich mud pools to wallow in and jungles filled with macaque and proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards and flying foxes. The island is just over a century old, having been formed during a volcanic eruption. Relax on the picturesque beaches, take a sea kayak out onto the water, or a boat trip to nearby Snake Island.
Sipadan draws divers from around the world to swim with "tornadoes" of barracuda, parrotfish, white-tipped reef sharks and sea turtles. Malaysia has recognised its natural value, and it is now protected, so overnight stays are not permitted. There are only 120 permits per day, for divers with at least 20 log dives - this Sabah highlight is is an exclusive destination indeed. Alternatively, grab a snorkel and bob on the surface.
Tabin Wildlife Reserve
Filled with healing plants, mud volcanoes, bird-packed forests and wildlife-attracting mineral salt licks, Tabin is a Sabah highlight. Swim in the waterfall pools, take a dawn excursion to spot birds, and take a night hike to hear nocturnal wildlife beneath a star-spangled sky. Playful macaques are one of the most common sights, but elephants, rhinos and huge, cow-like tembadaus also live here.
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Within minutes of leaving the capital city, you can be in Sabah's first national park. Three tiny, reef-rimmed islands promise postcard-perfect beaches, exotic snorkelling encounters, mangrove swamps and traditional cultures. Villagers live in stilt houses connected by wooden walkways, while bearded pigs, monitor lizards, pangolins and macaques lurk in the islands' forests.
Turtle Islands Park protects endangered green and hawksbill turtles, who can be seen most nights laying their eggs on the island beaches. Rangers collect over half a million eggs per year and protect them from predators in a hatchery - you can see the tiny hatchlings making their way to the sea. Tourism contributes to this conservation programme. Daytrips are not available; book early to ensure finding accommodation.
Hiking & wildlife
Kota Kinabalu ► Mt Kinabalu ► Poring Hot Springs ► Tea Plantation ► Danum Valley ► Kinabatangan ► Sepilok ► Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve ► Sandakan ► Selingan ► Kota Kinabalu
Islands & diving
Kota Kinabalu ► Sandakan ► Selingan ► Sepilok ► Kinabatagan ► Lankayan ► Kota Kinabalu ► Tunku Abdul Rahman NP
Kota Kinabalu ► Maliau Basin ► Sepilok ► Kinabatangan ► Gomantong Caves ► Kota Kinabalu
The following times give you a rough idea of the driving, flight and sailing times between the main Sabah highlights.
- Sandakan - Sepilok: 40 mins drive
- Kota Kinabalu - Sandakan: 50 mins flight
- Kota Kinabalu - Kiulu River: 1 hr 30 mins drive
- Lahad Datu - Tabin Wildlife Reserve: 1 hr 30 mins drive
- Sandakan - Kinabatangu River: 2 hrs drive
- Lahad Datu - Danum Valley: 2 hrs 30 mins drive
- Kota Kinabalu - Pulau Tiga: 2 hrs drive + 30 mins boat
- Kota Kinabalu - Kinabalu National Park: 3 hrs drive
- Semporna - Tabin Wildlife Reserve: 3 hrs 30 mins drive
- Kota Kinabalu - Sandakan: 7 hrs bus
[Top box - Orangutan: Fish Ho Hong Yun
[Kinabatangan: David Kirkland / Sabah Tourism]
[Poring: Carrie Kellenberger
[Rafflesia: Melissa Ewot / Sabah Tourism]
[Tea Plantation: Paul Mannix
[Mount Kinabalu: Kevin Wasilin
[Kayaking: David Kirkland / Sabah Tourism]
[Fish market: cumi&ciki
[Pygmy elephant: Julian Lee / Sabah Tourism]
[Pulau Tiga NP: Melissa Ewot / Sabah Tourism]
[Maliau Basin: Melissa Ewot / Sabah Tourism]
[Beach: David Kirkland / Sabah Tourism]
[Bearded pig: Audley Travel]
[Barracuda: Barry Peters
[Kiulu River: Melvin Ho / Sabah Tourism]