The northern edge of Sabah manages to compact, into a relatively small space, much of the geographic and cultural minutiae that makes Borneo so special. The ocean? Lapping at miles of sandy beach, sky blue to stormy grey, and concealing superlative dive sites. The people? Kadazan–Dusun, Rungus, rice farmers, mountain hunters, ship builders and deep-sea fishers.
The island of the Federal Territory of Labuan lies some 115km southwest of KK and only 50km northeast of BSB (Brunei). Shopping here is duty free, alcohol is cheap and the ferry connections are convenient, making Labuan an attractive destination for local travellers. The sultan of Brunei ceded Labuan to the British in 1846 and it remained part of the empire for 115 years.
Mt Kinabalu & Kinabalu National Park
Gunung Kinabalu, as it is known in Malay, is the highest mountain on the world's third largest island. It is also the highest point between the Himalayas and the island of New Guinea. Rising almost twice as high as its Crocker Range neighbours, and culminating in a crown wild granite spires, it is a sight to behold.
This little coastal town has a fish market, dry goods market, wilting sun-scorched buildings and very little else to keep you here. Travellers wishing to visit Tabin Wildlife Park and the Danum Valley – if they haven't already booked – arrive in town, head to the respective offices and stay a night before leaving for the jungle the next morning.
A visit to the world's most famous place to see orangutans in their natural habitat is all the more compelling thanks to the outdoor nursery for orangutan youngsters in the same complex, and the nearby Sun Bear Conservation Centre and Rainforest Discovery Centre. In addition, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is only a short drive away.
Sabah's interior constitutes some of the wildest territory in the state, and the best place for accessing this largely unexplored hinterland is via the southwest part of the state. The landscape is dominated by the Crocker Range, which rises near Tenom in the south and runs north to Mt Kinabalu.
The stunning sapphire waters and emerald isles of the Semporna Archipelago, home to Bajau sea gypsies in crayola-coloured boats, are plucked from your most vivid dreams of tropical paradise. Of course few visitors come this way for the islands – rather, it is the ocean and everything beneath its glassy surface, that appeals.
With its sunburnt stilted buildings, fishing boats out in the bay and slow tropical pace, there's a dreamy, end-of-the-world feeling in Kudat that will soon grow on you. Believe it or not, sleepy Kudat used to be an important trading post and capital of Borneo back in the late 19th century.
This shield-shaped peninsula, popping out from Sabah's southwestern coast, is a marshy plain marked with curling rivers and fringed by golden dunes. Tourists with tight travel schedules should consider doing a wildlife river cruise at Klias or Garama if they don't have time to reach Sungai Kinabatangan.
Danum Valley Conservation Area
Flowing like a series of dark, mossy ripples over 440 sq km of central Sabah, the Danum Valley Conservation Area is like something out a children’s story book: the sheer spectrum of furry and scaled friends you find within its dipterocarp forest is mind-blowing: orangutan, tarsier, sambar deer, bearded pig, flying squirrel, king cobra, proboscis monkey, red-leaf monkey, gibbo.