I’ve been in Sabah for some time now, and I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of really amazing things. However, figuring out where to go and what to see these days is no easy feat – websites like TripAdvisor can be helpful. Still, they also accept the commission, so I don’t entirely trust their recommendations.
On the other hand, travel guides, such as Lonely Planet’s “Borneo”, are great guidelines and offer sound advice. However, they quickly become dated – the prices have changed, and new attractions have popped up.
The best tips and advice can usually be found in online blogs, as travellers share their recent experiences, unique discoveries and reviews of where they’ve been. Fellow bloggers have helped me no end. So, I thought I’d return the favour to all travellers out there. Having trekked, rafted, climbed, swam and driven across Malaysian Borneo, here are some of my top highlights of Sabah.
The capital of Sabah, known affectionately by locals as K.K., is the perfect base for travellers. It is a small city, yet it has a surprising amount of resources and things to see, eat and do. The city is home to some quaint buildings, a handful of colourful malls, plenty of fine eateries and unexpectedly lively nightlife.
Here are some of my favourite things to do in and around K.K.: Day Trippin’
The Filipino Market is the perfect place to browse cultural handicrafts & souvenirs. But it is the adjoining food market where things get exciting. Stroll through the wet waterfront market where chicken parts, fresh fish, prawns and crabs are sold until you reach the smoky barbecue area.
Here, you can purchase sweet, sticky chicken wings, skewered chicken “butt” (or Bishops Nose), satay, beef, and all manner of local sweets and cakes. Barbecued seafood is perhaps the highlight of the market-fresh; juicy tuna steaks and stingray with spicy sambal sauce make a mouth-watering dinner. Get yourself a whole coconut and a straw to accompany your meal, and you are in culinary heaven.
Tip: Ask the barbecue vendor to take fresh fish from his icebox for you; you don’t know how long those fish have been on fire.
This is the most exciting mall in central Kota Kinabalu, as it has a variety of shops to suit all tastes and budgets. In addition, there are plenty of DVD stores on the ground floor, offering the latest movies for RM10 or less.
There are also some jewellery and diamond shops, great snack stops, pharmacies and handbag outlets. There are various boutiques on the 2nd and 3rd floors, everything from budget to high-end, Western to Chinese and Malay style. There are also book stores, stationery shops and local handicrafts.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Not many cities can boast idyllic, tropical Islands just a 10-minute boat ride from the City Center, but Kota Kinabalu has no less than 5 – Manukan, Mamutik, Sapi, Gaya and Sulug – which make up Tunku Abdul Rahman Park or TARP for short.
Crystal clear waters surrounding the islands are perfect for snorkelling, swimming, water sports, diving and kayaking. Manukan Island has a cafe, dive centre and high-end accommodation (and by “high-end”, I mean “really pricey”). Luckily for the budget traveller, day trips are fun, convenient and easy, so there is no need to splash out on overnight trips.
Boat transfers to the islands cost between RM18-RM25 return, multiple island hopping costs RM33, RM43, RM53, for two, three or four islands, respectively. The entrance fee for non-Malaysians to TARP is RM10 per person (keep your receipt for island hopping).
Tip: haggle over the boat fee to the island – expect to pay around RM20 for a single island return fare.
Padas River Rafting
The rafting is not actually in Kota Kinabalu, but at Sungai Padas, close to Tenom and Beaufort, approximately two and a half hours drive from K.K. However, the Rafting Packages include transfers from Kota Kinabalu.
The rapids are grade 2-4 throughout the year, depending on rainfall. To reach the river, your guides will take you on the antique Tenom Train, which cuts through the jungle and is the only way to get to Sungai Padas rafting start point. The day trip is well worth it for adventure seekers, and the surrounding jungle is lush and beautiful. There are a few operators who offer rafting on the Padas River.
However, we used B.U.S.A.T. The guides were fun, professional and hilarious, the lunch was great (meat barbecue), and the safety briefing ensured we were well prepared for the rapids to come.
Tip: get a group together for rafting and bargain for a particular group discount.
Kinabalu Park is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, home to the mystical Mount Kinabalu and containing as many as 5,000 to 6,000 different floral species. Located approximately two hours from Kota Kinabalu, this stunning botanical paradise is the perfect day trip for nature enthusiasts of all ages.
One of the park’s highlights is the Canopy Walkway – a bridge suspended in the tree-tops, giving you a bird’s eye view of the rain forest below. Exploring the various marked trails throughout the park is a great way to experience the jungle’s unique bio-diversity and serene ambience. Poring Hot Springs at the Southern Boundary of the park (in front of the canopy walkway) can be relaxing, though it is crowded with kids and families on weekends and public holidays.
Tip: the park is excellent for photographers, though the camera fee applies (RM5) at the canopy walkway.
Sabah Tea & Tagal Fish Spa
Sabah Tea Garden in Ranau made my list because I am a big fan of tea and the beautiful surroundings and mountain views from the excellent open-air restaurant. The sprawling tea plantation is stunning, and the tranquil ambience of the area is out of this world.
Here, you have the chance to take a Tea Factory tour, go biking around the site and visit Quaileys Hill. It is worth spending two days here, sleeping overnight in the traditional longhouse. Nearby is the Tagal Fish spa, offering the weird and surreal experience of a “fish massage”- river fish nibble on your legs and any other body part you submerge in the water with their toothless gums. It is a strange, unique and therapeutic experience. Inclusive overnight packages begin at RM350.
Kinabatangan Jungle Camp
The Kinabatangan River is the perfect place to see the wildlife of Borneo. Cruising through the river, you will have the chance to see snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, exotic birds and even pygmy elephants. Spending three days here increases your chances of spotting elusive animals. Kinabatangan is an excellent alternative to Danum Valley for those who are on a tighter budget. Inclusive packages start at RM750 per person.
A trip to Sipadan is a must for dive enthusiasts, with its brilliant underwater diversity and stunning corals. As a newly qualified diver, Sipadan was one of my absolute highlights of Sabah – reef sharks, green turtles, lionfish, clownfish, bump head fish, barracuda, and so many more – can be seen weaving through the clear blue waters. In addition, the resort itself is a stunning Island getaway, with fantastic food, comfortable accommodation and incredible views across the ocean.