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How to Spend One Week in Sabah

Sunset in Tanjung Aru Beach, Sabah
Sunset in Tanjung Aru Beach, Sabah | © Nokuro / Shutterstock
Sabah in Malaysian Borneo combines ecotourism with tropical beaches and spectacular islands. Here’s how to get the most out of one week in Sabah from scaling Mount Kinabalu to seeing orangutans in their natural habitats.

Before we start

Sabah offers a variety of experiences and it’s simply not possible to cover everything in a single week. Some visitors want the full rainforest adventure; others prefer to spend their time snorkelling, diving or just relaxing on the beach. Our one-week in Sabah itinerary tries to combine the best of everything in a short and manageable trip. Accommodation ranges from approximately RM60 ($15 USD) for hostel beds to RM120 ($30.20 USD) for private rooms in a mid-range hotel. Food and drink shouldn’t come to more than RM 50 to RM 100 ($12.30 to $24.70 USD) per person per day.

Day one: Arrive in Kota Kinabalu and go sightseeing

Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu is a relatively small city on the South China Sea. Regular flights pass from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu on a daily basis. Book an early flight that arrives in Sabah towards lunchtime. Kota Kinabalu’s must-visit attractions include the Floating Mosque, Likas Bay and Signal Hill Observatory Platform. Head to Tanjung Aru (beach) in the evening to witness one of the world-famous Bornean sunsets. You can find plenty of restaurants serving local and Western food along Gaya Street. Pro tip: Download the Grab Car app and use their private driver service to get around Kota Kinabalu. It’s cheaper and more convenient than cabs.

Sunset view of the city from Signal Hill © Lyciz Mill/Shutterstock

Day two: Sunbathe and snorkel at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Kota Kinabalu’s biggest highlight involves spending the day at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Five islands form the protected area near Likas Bay and Tanjung Aru. Either spend the day relaxing on one or take the opportunity to go island hopping. We recommend Manukan for the best beaches. Go to Gaya for a more active day exploring the floating village and jungle trails. Diving enthusiasts will find the best spots at both Mamutik and Sapi Islands. Pro tip: Check the ferry schedule and prices at Jesselton Point the night before.

Day three: Scale Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu holds many titles and has a dominant position in local indigenous culture. The granite giant sits approximately 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Kota Kinabalu in Ranau. At 4,095 metres (13,435 feet), it’s Malaysia’s tallest peak. The UNESCO-listed Mountain Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park are a must for all one-week in Sabah itineraries. Click here for more information on how to climb Mount Kinabalu. Or spend the day at Kinabalu Park instead. Kinabalu Park boasts thousands of species of plants, jungle trails and views of the dominating mountain. Pro tip: If you want to climb Mount Kinabalu, you’ll need to arrange the trip months in advance.

Make sure to book your trip months in advance if you plan to hike Mount Kinabalu © Yusnizam Yusof / Shutterstock

Day four: Recover at the Poring Hot Springs

The natural sulphuric pools are the perfect way to relax aching muscles. If you have the energy or didn’t get the chance to reach Kinabalu’s summit, check out the canopy walks and butterfly park at Poring Hot Springs. Enthusiastic tourists might also have the opportunity to hike and see the world’s smelliest flower: Rafflesia. Expect to spend a few hours at the hot springs. It takes approximately two to three hours to get back to Kota Kinabalu.

One of the popular destinations in Sabah is the Poring Hot Springs in Ranau © Stefan Fussan

Days five and day six: Two nights in the heart of the jungle

Travelling to Borneo without experiencing the rainforest would be like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower. The best place to enjoy the wilderness is at Danum Valley in Eastern Sabah. The sprawling lowland dipterocarp rainforest lies two hours from the nearest town Lahad Datu. With a mix of scientists and a handful of tourists around, Danum Valley offers the ultimate jungle experience. Activities range from trekking and night safaris to seeing orangutans and pygmy elephants in their natural habitat. Budget-conscious travellers can choose between hostel beds and camping facilities. Or you can splurge on two nights in a luxurious eco-lodge.

From Kota Kinabalu, fly to Lahad Datu. Buses depart from Danum Valley Field Centre office at 3:00pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, costing RM65 ($16.20 USD) per person. If you can’t make the bus, splurge on a private transfer. Book accommodation and transport either through their website or by visiting Head Office in Kota Kinabalu. A word of warning for budget travellers: Danum Valley isn’t cheap and comes with lots of ‘add-ons’. But it’s worth the time and expense to experience the jungle first-hand.

Don’t try to scrimp and save on jungle activities either. Get a guide, do the treks and make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pro tip: If you’re on a budget, bring your own food and self-cater using their kitchen rather than paying for daily meals.

Best place to experience the jungles of Borneo is to spend a few nights in Danum Valley © Jeremy Red / Shutterstock

Day seven: The final day in Sabah

On the last day of our one week in Sabah itinerary, you’ll leave Danum Valley. Either return to Lahad Datu and fly to Kota Kinabalu before making a connection to Sarawak or Kuala Lumpur. Alternatively book a late-afternoon flight from Sandakan directly to Kuala Lumpur. Buses, minibuses and private taxis make the three-hour journey between Lahad Datu and Sandakan. It might be possible to stop by at the Kinabatangan River and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan too. But you would almost certainly need an extra night to fit it all in.

An alternative one week in Sabah

Our one week in Sabah combines the best of Sabah’s islands, mountains and rainforests. But we’ve barely touched the surface. An alternative might be to start in Kota Kinabalu and travel by bus from Ranau to Sandakan before arriving in Lahad Datu. This would give you more time in the former capital and the chance to visit Sepilok. Or, skip Mount Kinabalu entirely and visit the world-class diving and snorkelling hotspot Sipadan Island in East Sabah. You could also follow the itinerary backwards by flying to Sandakan and visiting Danum Valley first before returning to Kota Kinabalu. It’s possible to take the ferry to Labuan Island and Brunei. You can then travel to Miri and visit Niah Caves in Sarawak.

Head to east coast of Sabah and visit the beautiful island of Sipadan © Chen WS/Shutterstock