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Sabah - Borneo, Malaysia


Travellers venturing from Sarawak into Sabah will discover another side of Malaysian Borneo. Sabah is something of a frontier state, and a sense of history in the towns and landscape is hard to find. Whilst Sabah may not have the colourful history of neighbouring Sarawak, there is still a great deal to entice the visitor. Known as the "Land below the Wind" because of its location on the south of the Typhoon belt, it’s the second largest Malaysian state after Sarawak, covering 72,500 sq km, making it about the size of Ireland.

Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, sits on the edge of the South China Sea overlooking a cluster of coral-fringed islands. Earlier, Kota kinabalu was known as Jesselton and it is also the largest city of East Malaysia. With the towering Crocker Range as a backdrop and the cloud-shrouded peaks of mighty Mt. Kinabalu in the far distance, the modern suburbs of "KK" as everyone calls it, sprawl aimlessly for many kilometres along the coast and island.

The Cultures of Sabah

Sabah has added some more diversity to the culture of Malaysia with the mixture of different communities an ethnic groups. Apart from the native Muslim folks, there are people from various other races and countries. Chinese, Murut, Bajau, Suluk and several other such small groups can also be found in Sabah. Filipinos and Indonesians too have made Sabah their permanent residence. Just like their cultures, difference of language can also be noticed. The infusion of the dialects has given this place a unique character. Chinese people are divided into dialectic groups like Hakka and Cantonese.

Not just the language or culture, the diverse festivals bringing all the communities together is also a thing to be enjoyed in Sabah. Whether it is the Muslim festivals or the Chinese and Christian ceremonies, the entire Sabah celebrates them with delicious food and beverages. The most popular festival in Sabah is unduk ngadau where the girls aim for the crown of the Harvest Queen and a competition takes place.

The highlights of Sabah are natural and cultural, from caves, reefs, forests and mountains to tribal peoples. The Kinabalu National Park is named after Sabah’s (and Malaysia’s) highest peak and is one of the state’s most popular destinations. Sweeping across 754 sq km, the Kinabalu National park is highlighted by the mountain. There are towns surrounding the mountain which have their own unique characteristics. The climate of this place is much cooler than the rest of the Sabah which is another plus point.

Also popular is the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary outside Sandakan. There are only four Orang-utan sanctuaries in the entire world and Sepilok is one of them. Orang-utan's that are injured or sick are taken to this rehabilitation centre and once they are fit enough to cope up with the jungle-struggle, they are freed. Several sights of these animals feeding their little babies and having fun on the tree branches might mesmerize the travel lovers.

Marine sights include the Turtle Islands National Park and Sipadan Island one of Asia’s finest dive sites (these attractions are covered under the Sandakan section). Comprising three islands in Sulu Sea, namely Selingan, Kecil and Gulisan, the Turtle Island National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sabah. Hawksbill and Green Turtles are the main attraction of this park who lay eggs at night in the sand.

While Sabah’s indigenous tribes were not cherished as they were in Sarawak by the White Rajahs; the peoples of the region can still be found in towns such as Kudat, Tenom, Keningau and Kota Belud, and their surrounding areas.

(Illustrated: final approach to KK Airport, canopy walkway at Borneo Rainforest Lodge at Lahad Datu, Turtle Hatchery at Selingaan (Turtle) Island, Crocodile lurking in the waters of the Kinabatangan River, tropical fish in the water around Sipadan Island.)


‘KK’ is most people’s introduction to Sabah for the simple reason that it is the only town with extensive air links to other parts of the country as well as a handful of regional destinations; KK’s airport is 6km from town. There are connections with other towns in East Malaysia and the Peninsula as well as with various destinations in the Asian region.

Visas and permits

Sabah is semi-autonomous, and like Sarawak it has its own immigration controls. Most visitors fly direct into KK, but it is possible to travel from Sarawak via Brunei, from Sandakan by road or air, or by boat from Kalimantan (Indonesia).

Getting Around

Sabah has a good road system and most major roads are sealed, including the highway from KK to Sandakan and Tawau. There is a limited railway service with trains to Beaufort, Tenom and Papar in addition to an extensive network of bus, minibus and taxi links to destinations in Sabah. Ferries leave throughout the day for Labuan.

Kota Kinabalu

KK is a modern state capital with little that can be dated back more than 50 years. Highlights include the State Museum and the town’s markets. The city is strung out along the coast, with jungle-clad hills as a backdrop. Two thirds of the town is built on land reclaimed from the shallow Gaya Bay, and at spring tides it is possible to walk across to Gaya Island.


Mosques, Temples and churches

The golden dome of Masjid Sabah (State Mosque) is visible from most areas, although it is actually about 3km out of town. Sabah also has a large Christian population evidenced by the number of catholic churches throughout the State. The Sabah Chinese are predominantly Buddhists and worship in the large temple overlooking KK town.

Sabah State Museum

Perched on a small hill overlooking the mosque is the relatively new purpose-built Sabah State Museum (and State Archives). The museum is divided into ethnography, natural history, ceramics, history and archaeology. Established in 1985, this museum has several parts like the education centre, art gallery, heritage village and the Museum of Islamic Civilization. One can also come across the cultural activities that are exhibited from time to time.

Atkinson Clock Tower

This relic of the colonial era has the dubious distinction of being one of the only structures to survive the Allied bombing of Jesselton in 1945. It’s a square, 15.7m high wooden clock tower that was completed in 1905 and named after the first district officer of the town, F G Atkinson, who died of malaria aged 28. The clock tower stands on a low hill near the main police station on Jl Balai Polis, close to the city centre.

Likas Bay

There is a good view of the top of the Sabah Foundation, 4km northeast of the town, overlooking Likas Bay. The Sabah Foundation was set up in 1966 to help improve Sabahans’ quality of life. This surreal glass structure also houses the Chief Minister’s office.

(Illustrated: Golden Dome Mosque, Likas Bay, Atkinson Clock Tower, KK Seafront and Town)


Gaya Street Market sells a vast range of goods from jungle produce and handicrafts to pots and pans. The market is known as the Filipino market, as most of the stalls are run by Filipino immigrants. A variety of Filipino and local handicrafts are sold in the hundreds of cramped stalls, along winding alleyways which are strung with long-slung curtains of shells, baskets and bags.

Further into town, on the waterfront, is the central market selling mainly fish, fruit and vegetables (illustrated).

Kinabalu National Park

Towering above the costal plain and what’s left of the lush tropical forests of northern Borneo, Mt Kinabalu is the biggest tourist attraction in Sabah and the centrepiece of the vast 754-sq-km Kinabalu National Park. At 4095m, it is the highest mountain between the mighty Himalayas and New Guinea. It’s 50km inland, but on a clear day you can see the Philippines from the summit.

Mt Kinabalu is one of the easiest mountains in the world to climb, and thousands of people every make their way to the summit, but you need stamina, determination and weatherproof clothing as it can get very cold and wet at the summit.

Kinabalu Park Headquarters is 88km from KK and set in gardens with a magnificent view of the mountain, and at 1588m the climate is agreeably cool. Mt Kinabalu is a botanical paradise, with over half the species growing above 900m unique to the area. There are several walking trails around the park to enable visitors to enjoy the lush dipterocarp rainforest with its spectacular flowers including orchids, rhododendrons, and the insectivorous Nepenthes, and Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.

Poring Hot Springs complex is actually part of the National Park. Steaming, sulphurous water is channelled into pools and tubs in which visitors can relax their tired muscles after the trek to the summit of Mt Kinabalu. The pools are in a pretty garden setting with hibiscus and other flowers attracting hordes of butterflies. Poring is also famous among bird-watchers, and a good variety of birds can be seen around the gardens and along the walking trails.

Read more about the Kinabalu area

Things to do in Sabah for the adventurous travellers:

There are various things to do in Sabah that the sports loving travellers will enjoy. Starting from mountaineering, paragliding, camping, scuba diving, white water rafting as well as snorkelling - Sabah has everything to offer to the tourists. At Kinabalu, paragliding and climbing the mountain are quite popular sports activities that one must not miss out. Jungle tour inside the tropical forest might also expose the travellers to the diverse flora and fauna of this island. White water rafting is mainly available in the Padas and Kiulu rivers.

Not just for the adventure lovers, gourmets can also find their favourite dishes prepared in the authentic Malaysian style in Sabah. From Chinese to Thai, Indian to Indonesian, a myriad choice of cuisines are available at this island that will satiate the taste buds of the food lovers. Apart from that, their ethnic dish like Ngiu Chap which made of Beef noodles and the healthy sea foods must also be tasted in Sabah.