Actually this article was written more than a year ago but I still keep it for a reason. The scenario portrayed in the article is fairly much closer to my heart and more or less still look as what it was years ago.
Having mentioned that, I would like to share how David Hogan the writer felt about Sabah symbolize as a Malaysian Borneo or the country known as ‘The land below the wind’.
I have been traveling all over the world for the last 24 years and now I make precious time to explore around my own backyard in Malaysia.
Having been to all the states around Malaysia frequently, I have that special spot for Sabah which is only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur and with the many choices of airlines to fly with.
As an overall traveler, my trips are usually related to work and sometimes leisure therefore when I have the chance for a little rest and relax, Sabah is always on top of my list.
You may be wondering why Sabah, even with the much negative media and confusion out there? Well, let me share my personal first hand experiences with you here.
Is Sabah Safe?
When the Lahad Datu issues first came about, I personally made a working trip to Semporna a couple of weeks after the situation just to catch the Regetta Lepa, a unique traditional Bajau boat parade on sea which is not your ordinary regatta. Surprisingly, everything was actually normal when I got to Semporna.
That being said, my story here is about my journeys to the many interesting places around Sabah. One of my favourite places in Sabah is actually Kota Kinabalu or KK as many call it, simply because it is an advancing city with amazing people, infrastructure and natural attractions.
However, the pure beauty about KK is the fact that the city is located by the sea giving everyone an opportunity to relax and unwind by popular seaside restaurants, cafes, hawker centers, malls and a very lively waterfront with amazing sunsets. Really, KK is the only place in Malaysia where the sunsets never cease to amaze me.
For first timers to KK, you will be pleased to know that there are countless attractions in and around KK city. Each of them catered to suite all types of travellers and visitors which range from shopping, food, adventure, culture, sports and island escapes – all surrounding the capital here which has earned Sabah the unofficial title of “The Second Bali”.
One of the main plus points of KK is that the KK International Airport or KKIA is only 10 minutes from the city making travel very easy for anyone visiting here.
Hotels? Yes, you have world-class hotels and resorts in the city or at the islands nearby while there are historical hotels like the classic Jesselton Hotel at Gaya Street while for those on a budget, there are many modern boutique hotels scattered all over town which is all within walking distances.
One of the most popular and easy to get to attractions is visiting some of the beautiful islands with white sand beaches and crystal clear waters just outside of KK city known as the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
Popular names like Manukan and Sapi Islands are always busy with day trippers who head here for the sun, sea and sand. You can just walk to any tour counter or company in the city and book a day trip there for a minimal fee too.
A new activity to try is the world’s longest Zip Line which takes you from Gaya Island over the sea to Sapi Island.
Around Kota Kinabalu Town
For those who love exploring on foot, KK city offers many unique streets filled with local food, cafes, modern shopping malls and also heritage experiences. The best place to do this would be around the Gaya Street part of town where you have the opportunity to savoir local Sabahan food and also traditional coffee shops here.
This is also one of the oldest parts of Kota Kinabalu which is still very much alive, especially during the weekends for the Sunday Gaya Market which starts as early as 6am, a highly recommended place to visit if you love all things markets.
The KK Waterfront is a beautiful place to have your dinner while watching the stunning Sabah sunset. This place is recommended for those seeking out nightlife entertainment in Kota Kinabalu. Other places for entertainment are at the KK Times Square where one needs to take a very short taxi ride there.
Outside Kota Kinabalu
One of the interesting things about staying in KK is that you have the opportunity to make day trips out of KK and visit some of the amazing culture, nature and adventure attractions where you will be back in the city for dinner.
As the attraction list is too long, I will just narrow down the main attractions that most visitors would like here.
For nature and outdoor lovers, you can take a half day trip to the foot of the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, the Kinabalu Park. From here, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery of the majestic Mount Kinabalu and also enjoy the fresh highland air.
A visit here will not be complete without visiting the Poring Hot Springs which is on-route back to KK. Here, if one is lucky, you may be able to chance upon on the largest flower in the world – the Rafflesia Flower. Otherwise, the place is popular for the rainforest canopy walk and hot spring experience.
For a quick and real wildlife experience, there are day trips that take you to the Klias Wetlands which is about two and a half hours’ drive from KK where you can spot the only unique monkey in the world with stunningly huge noses – the Proboscis monkey, which is only native to Borneo.
These primates congregate along the mangrove rivers where guests are taken in boat rides to spot them among other wildlife such as monitor lizards and a variety of birds.
River tours here end with a spectacular viewing of fireflies along the mangrove that light up trees as if it was Christmas. Alternatively, the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is about 30 minutes drive from the city.
Adventure seekers have the option of doing some serious white water rafting in Borneo’s most exciting rapids at the Padas River which are class 3-4 rapids. As this is also a day trip, the journey here is one of the most interesting ones I have taken in my life.
A van transfer to a small town called Beaufort where you board an old diesel train among the locals and head to your rafting destination. Scenery is breathtaking as you pass local villages through the rainforest of Borneo.
These are challenging rapids so it is recommended for outdoor fanatics or those who seek extreme challenges. For me, I would do this over and over as it’s totally exhilarating!
For those with families and kids, fear not as there is an easier class of rapids to experience at the Kiulu River where children as young as five are accepted and even senior citizens can go for the white water rafting.
Class 1-2 rapids in beautiful white water take you pass picturesque villages of Sabah. This is also a day trip from KK where for both trips, you will be back in town for your seafood dinner.
The Mari Mari Cultural Village located 30 minutes from KK offers visitors a chance to learn, understand and get to know the five main ethnic tribes of Sabah Borneo.
A real living museum with actual traditional bamboo and wooden homes set in the middle of a rain-forest, you will encounter actual tribe people in ethnic costumes showcasing each of their local food, drink, dances and cultural beliefs.
This experience enhances your knowledge of the Northern Borneo people and is highly recommended for just about anyone.
As for me, I have personally been here four times in the last 3 years and every time I come here, I will learn something new about each ethnic tribe.
The Sabah Museum located in the city of KK is also a great place to visit if you are a museum buff or simply wanting to know the history about North Borneo. You can either take a 15 minute walk from the city center or take a taxi here.
Apart from the museum, there is also an art gallery and a heritage village here with lots of things to see and learn about Sabah.
Beyond Kota Kinabalu
I’d suggest that Sandakan or Tawau are purely for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city lifestyle where their surroundings boast of quality nature tourism products.
I would also love to list the many other places in Sabah but if I go on, I should be writing a book instead of this article, therefore I am narrowing this down to some of my general recommended places.
Sandakan comes in tops for wildlife and nature with world class attractions like the Sepilok Orangutan Conservation Centre, a very popular place where you can see rescued Orangutans in their natural habitat while just next to here is the Borneon Sunbear Sanctuary which recently opened, both dedicated to the conservation of these highly protected animals.
Just nearby is also the Rainforest Discovery Centre or RDC where the country’s only massive steel canopy walkway is found and visitors can experience spotting the many birds and wildlife from 28 meters above the ground.
A few hours from Sandakan takes you to the Kinabatangan district where one spends a day or two at the many isolated river lodges observing wildlife in its purest form. River cruises in the mornings, afternoons and evenings showcase different types of wildlife experiences here.
In most cases, you can spot Orangutans, Gibbons, Proboscis Monkeys throughout the day while for bird watchers, a whole new world awaits you as you try to spot the various hornbills and kingfishers that thrive along the mighty Kinabatangan River.
If you are really lucky, you will spot a herd of Borneon Pygmy Elephants which is a sight to behold. My luck has not shined yet as in my four visits here, I had always just missed them.
For the conservation lover, check out Turtle Island or Selingan Island which is an hour plus boat ride from Sandakan. Here, visitors participate in a Turtle Conservation Program where you spend a night on the island observing turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs which are then re-buried in a hatchery.
Over in Tawau, seafood is number one on the list and the best place to get this is at the Open Air Seafood Stalls or Sabindo Seafood Stalls along Jalan Bunga (Flower Road) in town.
Tawau is also well known for their Cocoa products where the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum is one of the places to visit to learn about this natural product which is one of the top cocoa producers in Malaysia and possibly the world.
Around Tawau are some other pretty amazing natural attractions like the Tawau Hills Park where you can find the tallest tropical tree in the world standing at 88.3 meters high and a wonderland for nature lovers.
Nearby is also the Bukit Gemuk Park (Fat Hill Park) where one has the chance to spot hornbills and other smaller rainforest animals.
Another popular place is the Tabin Wildlife Reserve where you can spot the unique Pygmy Elephants easily. This place is suited well for nature lovers and bird watchers too.
A common mistake many travelers make is when they try to rush everything in one trip, they end up losing that natural tourism experience and as mentioned earlier in this article, I personally make it a point to keep revisiting Sabah to explore new places, which I find that I tend to learn and understand more about the place, product and also people. – August 11, 2014.
* Article written by David Hogan Jr Editor of Malaysia Asia and Malaysia Travel News.