Sabah occupies a relatively small chunk of the world’s third-largest island, Borneo, yet what a punch it packs: the treasure of turquoise-fringed desert islands with coral reefs swarming with marine biodiversity; trekkers' paradise Mt Kinabalu reaching 13435ft (4095m) into the clouds; and jungles pulsing with a menagerie of bug-eyed tarsiers, gibbons, pythons, clouded leopards and huge crocs. Around 55% of Sabah is forest, and protected areas such as the Maliau Basin and the Danum Valley Conservation Area are more accessible than ever.
Getting from one of Sabah’s highlights to the next is eminently doable. Whether it’s coffee-shop haunting in Kota Kinabalu, watching baby orangutans learning to climb at Sepilok, beach flopping on the northern Tip of Borneo, or searching for pygmy elephants near Tawau, your time here will feel like five vacations condensed into one.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Sabah.
Around 25km north of Sandakan, and covering 40 sq km of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, this inspiring, world-famous centre welcomes orphaned and injured orangutans for rehabilitation before returning them to forest life. There are around 200 living in the reserve, though only a few are regular visitors to the feeding platform. At the outdoor nursery, a short walk from the feeding platform, you can watch orphaned youngsters at play.
This small reserve has forested hills rising dramatically from the surrounding plain. If getting into the Maliau Basin or Danum Valley feels like too much of an effort, consider Tawau Hills a user-friendly alternative. The forest here is impressively thick, there are trails for hikers of all abilities and the park is excellent for bird-watching and night walks. On a clear day the Tawau Hills Park's peaks make a fine sight. Avoid day-tripper-heavy weekends.
This hill, 2km north of the Batuh Putih bridge, features three caves housing the ancestors of local Orang Sungai (People of the River). Because the Kinabatangan has a habit of frequently flooding, the final resting place of the dead has traditionally been located in cave complexes. Nine-hundred-year-old ironwood coffins are interred in the Batu Tulug caves with spears, knives, gongs, bells and Chinese curios, making the hill one of the most important archaeological sites in Sabah.
Imagine a cathedral-like inner chamber shot with splinters of sunlight and a cave floor swarming with cockroaches, and you have the Gomantong Caves. The smell has a presence of its own, thanks to the ubiquity of bird and bat guano (you'll want to wear covered shoes and a hat). The only cave open to visitors, Simud Hitam, is magnificent. The turn-off to Gomantong is well signposted en route to Sukau; most tours include a stop here.
A beautiful rainforest garden marks the site of a Japanese POW camp and the starting point for the infamous WWII 'death marches' to Ranau. Of the 1793 Australian and 641 British troops originally imprisoned here, the only survivors by July 1945 were six Australian escapees. A concrete water tank and a few rusting machines from the British agricultural station that became a prison comprise the only physical remains. A pavilion recounts the horrors and heroism and includes photographs and survivor accounts.
The islands of Manukan, Gaya, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug, and the reefs in between, make up the 49-sq-km Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Only a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu's city centre, the islands boast some pretty beaches and heavily visited coral reefs. The water in the outer areas, while not pristine, is usually clear enough to offer worthwhile day-trip swimming and snorkelling for anyone wanting to escape the city.
Also known as the Semporna Islands Marine Park, this 350-sq-km protected area, a short boat ride from Semporna, comprises eight islands and two reefs. Some of the islands are inhabited by the Bajau sea gypsies, who eke out their living from fishing. Diving operators tend to take their clients to uninhabited Mantabuan and Sibuan islands, as well as the Kapikan and Church reefs.
Borneo's loveliest beach is a long, almost-pristine stretch of white sand, lapped at by clear waters. The waves are gentle and great for swimming. You need your own wheels to get here, or else charter a taxi in Kuala Penyu.
A local palm-plantation owner has created a private proboscis monkey sanctuary, attracting the floppy-conked locals with sugar-free pancakes at 9.30am and 2.30pm feedings at Platform A, and 11.30am and 4.30pm at Platform B, 1km away. An estimated 300 wild monkeys live in the 6-sq-km reserve. The proboscis monkeys are enticed with food, which may put you off if you're looking for a more ecologically minded experience. Come here by shuttle (one way/return RM20/40) from SORC (10.30am) or Sandakan (9.30am, departing Hotel Sandakan).