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When it comes to exploring a new country, we always prefer the local way vs. the touristy way. There is something to be said about getting to know a destination with the help of a local. We’ve found that whenever we do, our travel experiences are always much deeper, much more impactful, and much more enjoyable.

We were incredibly lucky with our visit to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. With the help of the Sabah Tourism Board we were able to go well past the major sights and tourist attractions and explore the region in a more local way.

Here are a just a few ways we were able to experience Sabah beyond the major sights and attractions for anyone looking to follow our footsteps.

Understand the Locals

A short visit to Sabah will never be enough to really understand the culture and traditions of this region. In reality, it would probably take decades of full immersion into the Malaysian culture to even begin to understand this country’s long history and traditions. But that doesn’t mean that as a visitor, you shouldn’t try.

I found my visit to the Mari Mari Cultural Village just outside of Kota Kinabalu to be a great start.

Mari Mari Cultural Village. Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

Mari Mari Cultural Village

I expected nothing more than a boring museum (museums are really not my thing), but instead was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a village built to preserve Borneo ethnic culture, and share the insights of the 5 different ethnic tribes that used to inhabit Borneo back in the day.

Rungus tribe hut at the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Sabah. Malaysia

Rungus tribe hut at the Mari Mari Cultural Village

Trying traditional food at Mari Mari Cultural Village

Trying traditional food at Mari Mari Cultural Village

The tour of the village helped me learn a little bit about the customs and traditions of each one of the ethnic tribes and drew me just that little bit closer to the local people that we met throughout our time in Sabah.

Traditional wedding set up inside one of the huts at the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Sabah. Malaysia

Traditional wedding set up inside one of the huts at the Mari Mari Cultural Village

Stay With Locals

Trade that sterile hotel room for a night (or 3) and spend some time staying with Locals through Sabah’s extensive Homestay program. With over 20 homestays available across the region, you are bound to find one no matter what area you are looking to explore.

My room at the Taun Gusi Village Homestay. Sabah. Malaysia

My room at the Taun Gusi Village Homestay

I spent a few days in Kota Belud, at a homestay of Mr. Ismail Muile and really enjoyed my experience. The best part about a homestay in Sabah, is that you are guaranteed to get more than just a bed to crash on, because, here, homestays come with activities!

During the day, Ismail took me around to a local market, introducing me to a few local dishes and drinks, and accompanied me on a visit to a parang artisan, a local farm, a few of the local hang out spots. And at night, I got a chance to enjoy an evening with Ismail and his lovely wife, hear stories about their life in Sabah, their kids, and their experience with other travelers, gaining insight into their day to day life.

Ismail showing me around the Kota Belud Sunday Market. Sabah. Malaysia

Ismail showing me around the Kota Belud Sunday Market

Parang making demonstration. Homestay, Kota Belud. Sabah. Malaysia

Parang making demonstration in Kota Belud

Drinking tea with Ismail in his living room. Homestay. Sabah. Malaysia

Drinking tea with Ismail after dinner

Eat With Locals

Kota Kinabalu is filled with great restaurants that cater to all kinds of tourists visiting the city. But in our opinion, nothing beats an authentic local hang out like the Lido Square. With over 40 food stalls to sample from, this big and wildly popular hawker food centre in KK will not disappoint.

Food stalls in Lido Square. Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

Food stalls in Lido Square. It’s a true locals hang out!

Delicious meal at Lido Square. Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

Delicious meal at Lido Square

We were introduced to Lido by our friends from the Sabah Tourism Board and with their guidance, got a chance to sample some of Sabah’s most loved local dishes, like the popia, char kuey tiaw, BBQ chicken wings, satay, and dumplings. To say it was a delicious meal is a huge understatement…it was easily THE BEST meal we had in Sabah. It’s no wonder the locals love this spot!

Shop With Locals

With over 20 different shopping malls scattered around town, Kota Kinabalu is an incredible destination for shopping. But you won’t find too many locals roaming the chilly air conditioned malls.

If you want to shop with locals, we suggest visiting KK’s markets. Our favourite was the Gaya Street Sunday Market that packs a perfect mix of great souvenir finds and authentic local shopping. Here, you’ll see everything from simple clothing, car parts, fruits and veggies, to more tourist-oriented trinkets, and local snacks and drinks. When we visited the market in early September, we shopped alongside the locals, curious about their purchases and encouraged by their nudges to try new drinks and snacks.

 

Gaya Street Sunday Market, Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

Gaya Street Sunday Market

Fruits and veggies for sale at Gaya Street Sunday Market, Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

Fruits and veggies for sale at Gaya Street Sunday Market

Pigeons for sale at the Gaya Street Sunday Market, Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

You can also shop for some pigeons there…

Souvenirs on sale at the Gaya Street Sunday Market, Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

…and some more touristy items

Gaya Street Sunday Market, Kota Kinabalu. Sabah. Malaysia

Gaya Street Sunday Market

Best way to start a Sunday!

Relax with locals (And maybe a few laid back backpackers)

You’ve heard me rave about this place before, but I can’t think of a better place to get away from the tourist crowds and unwind in Sabah – Mañana Borneo Resort is it! Owned by a local, run by locals, it’s a place loved not only by backpackers but also The locals. During my stay at Mañana, I met a number of locals from the mainland (mostly from Kuala Lumpur) who heard about Mañana from their friends and choose to make their way out here for their holiday. Their stories added a unique flavour to the chatter at nights and made us all feel a bit more connected to the local community.

Villas at Mañana Borneo Resort. Sabah. Malaysia

Villas at Mañana Borneo Resort

Common room in Mañana Borneo Resort. Sabah. Malaysia

Common room in Mañana Borneo Resort

Hammock overlooking the beach in Mañana Borneo Resort. Sabah. Malaysia

Hammock overlooking the beach …paradise!

Learn about the Local…Animals

They don’t call them the “men of the forest” for nothing. Sabah, much like the rest of Borneo used to be the biggest playground of orangutans (whose name literally translates to the man of the forest), but much has changed today.

Orang utan in Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Sabah. Malaysian Borneo

Orangutan in Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

During the last decade, the population of orangutans in the wild has decreased by over 50%, a stat caused mostly by deforestation, fires, and an unsustainable establishment of mass palm oil plantations. These days it’s tough to spot orangutans in the wild, with the Kinabatangan River being one of the few remaining spots, so a visit to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok should become an important activity during anyone’s visit to Sabah. We visited it to see these incredible animals up close, but left much more knowledgeable about the issues they face in the wild and about the part that we, as Westerners, can play in protecting their habitat.

Palm oil plantation en route to Kinabatangan. Sabah. Malaysian Borneo

Palm oil plantation en route to Kinabatangan

Since coming back from Sabah, we have been extra vigilant about buying our food and personal care items from manufacturers that pride themselves in sustainable palm oil cultivation. As consumers, even the smallest of our choices can have a big impact on the fate of wildlife like the orangutans in Sabah and across the rest of Borneo.

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When it comes to exploring a new country, we always prefer the local way vs. the touristy way.

What do you do while traveling to explore destinations in a more local way?