If you have never heard of Sabah before, you are not alone. This Malaysian state is located on the island of Borneo and welcomes just 3 million visitors per year. Sabah occupies an area of 73,631 km2 and shares Borneo with Indonesian Kalimantan, Malaysian Sarawak and the Kingdom of Brunei. Despite its small area, the state is chock-full of attractions and experiences that make it by far the most interesting part of Borneo.

Kota Kinabalu, view from Signal Hill Observatory. Sabah, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu, view from Signal Hill Observatory

In September 2015 we spent 2 weeks exploring Sabah’s main attractions and off the beaten sights. Here are just a few reasons why we think you should consider adding Sabah to your next vacation plans.

1. Feel the Pulse of Modern Malaysia

When we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, the main city of the Sabah region, it was obvious – this isn’t just another chaotic and impoverished SEA city. Kota Kinabalu’s modern hip vibe, great nightlife, luxurious hotel scene, beautiful harbour, and well developed infrastructure, make it one of the most orderly and enjoyable cities we have ever visited in SEA. Kota Kinabalu or KK, as the locals refer to it, is more like a younger cousin of Singapore than a Kuala Lumpur wanna-be.

Sutera Harbour Marina, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

Sutera Harbour Marina, Kota Kinabalu

There is enough to do in KK and its surroundings to warrant a week long trip to Sabah. You can spend your days hiking, snorkelling, or diving on the nearby islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP), or spend your evenings dining at the seafood restaurants by the waterfront. Shop till you drop at one of KK’s many shopping centres or if you are like us, you might opt for a more local shopping experience by visiting the Handicraft market, the Sunday market, or the night market.

Handicraft Market, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Malaysia

Handicraft Market, Kota Kinabalu

2. Experience World Class Diving at Sipadan

Sipadan Island almost always occupies a spot on the list of top 10 dive sites in the world, and we now understand why. Sipadan Island, located in the South east of Sabah, is teeming with marine life. 

Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia

Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia

Here schools of jack fish don’t just swim by you, they completely surround you, schools of humphead parrotfish get so close you struggle to not run into them. Barracuda, giant trevally, Napoleon Wrasse and pretty much every other kind of fish you could expect to find in the the waters in S.E.A. will likely make its appearance at Sipadan. Even though diving in Sipadan is pricey and Sipadan permits can be tough to come by, this is an absolute must for any avid diver!

School of jack fish at Barracuda Point, Sipadan Island. Sabah, Malaysia

School of jack fish at Barracuda Point, Sipadan Island

But even aside from Sipadan, the waters along Sabah’s coastline offers a number of different regions where divers can enjoy the beauty of Sabah from below.

3. Get Up Close and Personal With the Elusive Orang Utans

Due to the large scale deforestation that has taken place in borneo over the last 30-40 years, population of Orang Utans have been put at risk of extinction. Sabah remains one of the few places left in the world where you can come face to face (or back to face in Max’s case) with wild Orang Utans.

Orang Utan getting a bit too friendly with Max. Sepilok, Sabah. Malaysia

Orang Utan getting a bit too friendly with Max in Sepilok

They are incredible creatures, smart, funny, and absolutely worth learning about, and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, established in 1964, as the first official Orang Utan rehabilitation project for rescued orphaned baby orangutans, is the perfect place to admire them!

Orang Utan in Sepilok, Sabah. Malaysia

Orang Utan in Sepilok, Sabah

4. Spot Wildlife in Their Natural Habitat Near Kinabatangan River

It’s not just the Orang Utans that make Sabah a great destination for wildlife lovers. The region of the Lower Kota Kinabatangan is home to Sabah’s second most popular monkey – the Proboscis.

Proboscis monkey crossing the Kinatabangan River. Sabah. Malaysia

Proboscis monkey crossing the Kinatabangan River. Sabah. Malaysia

You can spot tons of them crossing the Kinabatangan River or munching on fruit from the trees lining the shores. Crocodiles, kingfisher birds, eagles, long and short-tailed macaques are just some of the other species frequently spotted in the area. But visiting the Kinabatangan River region is just as much about enjoying a stay in a natural environment in the heart of the rainforest as it is about animal encounters.

Misty morning on Kinabatangan River. Sabah. Malaysia

Misty morning on Kinabatangan River

Borneo Nature Lodge on Kinabatangan River. Sabah. Malaysia

Borneo Nature Lodge on Kinabatangan River

5. Relax and Disconnect on Beautiful Beaches

Sabah offers plenty of great options for a beach holiday. Those that don’t want to travel far, can enjoy the crystal clear waters of the TARP islands located just a 15 min boat ride away from KK, or spend a few days relaxing on Mantanani Island. Although based on our experience, we’d recommend venturing out just a bit further to get away from the flock of Chinese tourists that frequently take over the islands.

Sapi Island, one of the 5 islands within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park near Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Malaysia

Sapi Island, one of the 5 islands within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park near Kota Kinabalu. The crystal clear waters may look enticing, but the park is crowded with tourists that are bound to be a bit of a turn off

A true off the beaten path beach escape can be found in Mañana Borneo Resort, an off the grid simple resort with a few huts, hammocks, good food and a great place to meet like minded travelers. Here the beach is completely unspoilt and the marine life below the surface is a colourful paradise.

Manana Borneo Resort, a simple off the grid getaway away from the crowds. Sabah. Malaysia

Manana Borneo Resort, a simple off the grid getaway away from the crowds

deserted beach in Manana Resort. Sabah. Malaysia

Deserted beach in Manana Resort. Sabah. Malaysia

6. Experience Malaysian Hospitality First Hand

In our opinion, there is no better way to learn about Malaysian culture and its people than by spending a few days living with locals and experiencing their lifestyle first hand. There are close to 20 homestays scattered across the Sabah state, each one offering not just a bed to crash in at night, but a whole range of local activities, festivals, and sights and experiences one can take part in during their stay.

Sharing a cup of tea with my homestay host in Kota Belud, Sabah. Malaysia

Sharing a cup of tea with my homestay host in Kota Belud

Not to mention that the home made meals you’ll be served at your homestay will probably be some of the most authentic you’ll have in Sabah. If you are lucky, you might even be invited to share a cup of tea with the host family… And that is the experience we treasured the most!

*Huge thanks to Sabah Tourism Board for hosting us during our time in Sabah. Opinions are always our own, no matter who’s footing the bill. 

Essential Travel Info

Getting in: all visitors to Sabah will arrive in Kota Kinabalu by plane. AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and a few other small airlines connect KK to hundreds of cities in SEA, Korea, and China.

Getting around: Good infrastructure across Sabah make it possible to explore the county in a hired car, giving you the flexibility of getting around on your own schedule. Long distance busses also connect major cities of KK, Sandakan, and Tawau. Domestic flights with AirAsia are cheap and are by far the most hassle free way to hop from one end of the country to another.

Length of stay: Two weeks in Sabah will give you lots of time to explore the best the region has to offer, although it is also possible to see the main attractions in just 1 week

Where to stay: In Kota Kinabalu accommodation options vary from 5 star resorts like the Sutera Harbour Resort  or the Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa to more affordable hotels like Hotel Grandis. Hostels and cheap hotels are also abound starting at just USD $10 for a bed in a hostel and

When staying along the Kinabatangan River, your options will be limited to 5-6 nature lodges, with the alternative being a range of accommodation options in Sandakan.

There is no accommodation on Sipadan Island, so all visitors stay in Semporna (rather dirty and uninspiring port town) or in a beach resort on Mabul.

BEFORE YOU GO: Don’t forget travel insurance!

We can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance, especially in a country like Malaysia. Whether you plan to explore the cities, seeing wildlife in their natural habitats or relaxing on the beautiful beaches, being protected on your travels is an irreplaceable peace of mind. We learned about the importance of travel insurance the hard way and now we never travel without coverage.

Get a quote through our recommended insurance provider, World Nomads.

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Despite its small area, the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo is chock-full of attractions that make it by far the most interesting part of Borneo!

Have you ever visited Sabah before? Does it sound like a part of te world you’d like to visit? Let us know in the comments below!