Sabah travel guide

Tacked onto the northern tip of Borneo, Sabah lays claim to more than its fair share of the earth's riches. Altitude aficionados can get their fix on the mighty Mount Kinabal, while gentle cruises along the Kinabatangan River drift past remarkable flora and fauna, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. On a Sabah vacation, there are opportunities abound to see orangutans in the wild and in sanctuaries, where each Ringgit you spend contributes directly to their conservation, as loggers and farmers encroach on the remaining rainforests.
Shaggy, ginger orangutans are Sabah's superstar residents. But don't miss the sun bears, sea turtles, proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants – or its 32 tribes.
Sabah's accessibility and horde of attractions have seen tourist numbers rocket, so forward planning is essential to secure a spot and ensure you're traveling in the most responsible way. Done right, this is the trip of a lifetime, so it's worth spending the extra time (and money, if necessary) to make sure your Sabah vacation is the best you can make it, for you – and for Sabah.

Sabah is...

a gateway to Borneo – and a chance to see some of its remaining orangutans.

Sabah isn't...

all about lush rainforest. Palm oil plantations have made their mark.

What we rate & what we don't

Underrated

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Next door to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, this site started life as an education center for local schoolchildren and is often overlooked. Fortunately this means fewer crowds with your orangutans. Cross the 28m-high canopy walkway to see flying squirrels, and explore the botanical gardens. This is a phenomenally informative Sabah vacation excursion, for adults as well as kids.

Kota Kinabalu (KK)

You don't travel all the way to Borneo for its cities – but when you land in Kota Kinabalu, you'll be quite relieved to discover it's a pleasant place to stop for a few days while you recover from jetlag and recharge before heading into the wilderness. There's a marvellous mix of Malay, Chinese, expat and indigenous cultures, with fab food, walkable streets and lovely beaches just a short hop away.

Lankayan Island

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 – away from Selingan Island's crowds. 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.

Sun bears

Orangutans get all the attention in Sabah, but the exquisite sun bear is long overdue for credit. The gentle demeanour of the world's smallest bear may have been its downfall. Poached and trafficked, it's now classified as vulnerable. But the world's only sun bear sanctuary opened to visitors near Sepilok in 2014, educating people about these animals, and rehabilitating as many as it can for re-release.
Rated

Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan's lakes, mangrove swamps and lowland forests comprise one of the planet's richest ecosystems, and river cruises here are amongst Borneo's most tranquil wildlife experiences. It's one of only two places on earth where 10 primate species are found. Dawn and nocturnal cruises and treks to an oxbow lake reveal crocodiles, proboscis monkeys, rhinoceros hornbills, river sharks, orangutans and pygmy elephants.

Danum Valley

This virgin tropical forest shelters endangered orangutans, proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants – as well as newly discovered species and rare birds. There are numerous walking trails, a 300m suspended walkway and a panoramic viewpoint; night time safaris reveal the nocturnal creatures that call this forest home. You really will feel like you're in a forgotten world.

Diving

Regularly appearing in "Top Ten" lists, Sipadan draws divers from around the world to discover its vertical topography, tornadoes of barracuda, parrotfish, white-tipped reef sharks and sea turtles. But if you don't book in time to get a permit during your Sabah vacation, all is not lost. Whale and hammerhead sharks frequent the island of Lankayan, and closer to KK, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park offers unspoiled islands and wildlife-filled reefs.

Variety of cultures

With over 30 ethnic groups, each with their own language and customs, you can take your cultural pick during your Sabah vacation. There are traditional longhouses inhabited by the descendants of headhunting warriors, nomadic sea gypsies – also renowned for their horse riding skills, vibrant dances and the worship of rice spirits. Local guides reveal fascinating secrets, and a home stay will give you a taste of Sabahan life.
Overrated

Only seeing captive animals

The famous orangutan rehabilitation center is a must-do on just about every Sabah vacation itinerary – as it is the only place you are virtually guaranteed to see orangutans. You are also guaranteed to see hundreds of other tourists, who flock here at feeding times. Come here to support Sepilok's fantastic work, but do make time to track these creatures in the wild. It's harder, but the rewards are immense.

Cuddling orangutans

Volunteering with endangered orangutans offers of wonderfully romantic images of feeding ginger-tufted babies and cuddling lonesome orphans. This should never, ever happen: our genetic similarity means diseases are easily transmitted, and human habituation makes releasing them into the wild virtually impossible. Stick with constructing enclosures, and know that this is the best way to secure the future of these creatures.

Palm oil

Used in foods, cosmetics and so-called bio fuels, palm oil is one of the biggest threats to Borneo's orangutans – and to everything and everyone else that inhabits its forests. Tourists expect to be awestruck by the rainforests during their Sabah vacation, but most are shocked by the scale of the palm plantations, and how little jungle remains. Spend your money wisely, and demonstrate that virgin forest is worth much more than exhaustively farmed land.

Selingan

Sea turtles are beautiful and mysterious creatures, but on Borneo's beaches they are abundant, crawling ashore most nights to lay their eggs. The popular Selingan offers overnight turtle tours – yet dozens of tourists crowded around each turtle mother is not the magical experience many wish for, and is certainly less than pleasant for the turtle. Look into less visited islands for a more ethical turtle encounter during your Sabah vacation.

Our top Sabah Vacation

Borneo tour, Great Apes and Beach escapes

Borneo tour, Great Apes and Beach escapes

Explore bustling cities, lush jungles and paradise beaches.

From £1658 9 days ex flights
Tailor made:
Everything is tweak-able, giving you the freedom to build your own unique and meaningful trip. Slow down the pace with few extra nights here and there, add a few more active adventures along the way, upgrade your accommodation for that extra bit of luxury – it’s up to you!
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Sabah or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking in Sabah

Sabah's immense cultural diversity has combined to create a mind-blowingly tasty cuisine, fresh and flavoursome.

The Kadazan-Dusun dish of hinava is made of thinly sliced raw mackerel, mixed with chilli, ginger, onions, seeds and lime.

Tuhau is a foul-smelling wild ginger, pickled and spiced with chilli. It apparently tastes better than it smells...

Tuaran mee is a tasty fried egg noodle dish served with vegetables and pork. Look out for it on the streets.
The first series of the TV programme Survivor was filmed off the coast of Sabah on the tiny island of Pulau Tiga.

People & language

With 32 ethnicities speaking over 80 languages and dialects, Sabah is a quiet, cultural explosion. The rice-farming Kadazan-Dusun is the largest group, followed by the seafaring Bajau, who live on boats and stilt houses in the shallows, rarely setting foot on land. Markets, cultural visits and volunteer projects are the best way to discover local life during your Sabah vacation.

Say 'good morning' – Selamat pagi.

Catch a local "tamu" if you can. It's a weekly village market.

Gifts & shopping

KK's annual Crafts Exotica is held at various sites across the city each July, with traditional crafts demonstrations and stalls.

Take home an unusual artwork – all the paintings displayed in KK’s art gallery are for sale – and most of the artists are local.

The guides at Monsopiad Cultural Village can create beaded bracelets with your name on. Put in your request and pick them up later in the day for a personalised Sabah vacation memento.
The world's smallest elephant (the pygmy elephant), smallest primate (the tarsier) and smallest bear (the sun bear) are all native to Sabah.

How much does it cost?

Entry to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: £5.50

Meal in a restaurant in KK: £3.20

Snorkelling daytrip to Sipadan reef: £27

Bowl of noodles in the KK market: 90p

Coconut pudding – served in the shell: £1.80

A brief history of Sabah

A Malaysian state tacked onto the island of Borneo, Sabah's strategic position has seen it fought over for centuries. It was once part of the Sultanate of Brunei, used as a trading post, serially leased out as "North Borneo", occupied by the Japanese and bombed by the allies during the Second World War. This was one of Sabah's darkest periods: hundreds of British and Australian POWs were forced into the notorious Sandakan Death Marches. Just six survived.Read more
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bernard DUPONT] [Is/Isn't: Chris Charles] [Underrated: Bas Leenders] [Rated: pxhere] [Overrated: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas] [People & language: Borneo Child Aid] [How much does it cost?: Kai Hendry]
Convert currencies