Top 10 Things to See and Do in Sabah, Malaysia

Aerial view of the tip of Borneo
Aerial view of the tip of Borneo | © Sharif Putra / Shutterstock
Sabah in Malaysian Borneo attracts tourists and backpackers for its rainforests, wildlife, biodiversity and exotic cultural traditions. Here are our favourite things to do in Sabah from hiking Malaysia’s tallest mountain and seeing the world’s smelliest flower to standing on the northern point of Borneo Island.

Climb Malaysia’s Tallest Peak

Mount Kinabalu rises an impressive 4095 metres (13435 feet). Featuring on Sabah’s state flag and giving the name to the capital city, Kota Kinabalu, climbing the mountain has and always will be one of the top things to do in Sabah. Hikers need to join an organised tour and limited places for the tour usually sell out months in advance. But the two-day climb up the sacred mountain and witnessing the sunrise at the peak is an experience not to be missed.

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

Go Snorkelling at Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

The five islands near the coast of Kota Kinabalu boast an impressive variety of colourful corals and marine life. The protected islands include Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug which are all accessible by speedboat from Kota Kinabalu. Expect unpolluted beaches and crystal clear water creating ideal snorkelling conditions.

Visit the Original Survivor Island

Sabah’s Pulau Tiga hosted the first season of the famous TV series Survivor. Located a short distance from Kota Kinabalu in the South China Sea, the island epitomises the term desert island. Pulau Tiga, or ‘Three Islands’ in English, consist of a small archipelago made up of the main island along with Kalampunian Damit and Kalampunian Besar. Tourists can experience the seclusion and see a rare mud volcano on a day trip from Kota Kinabalu. Others stay overnight in a chalet at either Gaya Island Resort or Pulau Tiga Resort.

An island that was made famous by the American reality TV show, Survivor © Lukas Uher / Shutterstock

See Orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

In 1964, Sepilok became the first rehabilitation centre for young and orphaned orangutans. Deforestation and logging destroy their habitats while others are hunted for sport or to keep as a pet. Sadly, this leaves the young unable to fend for themselves in the wild. Sepilok, located 25 kilometres (15.6 miles) west of Sandakan, helps train the orangutans to survive on their own. Inside the centre, visitors can walk along a boardwalk to the viewing platform. At both 10:00am and 3:00pm, rangers give the 75 resident orangutans bananas and milk. Visit during feeding time to catch a glimpse of the rare orange primates.

Photograph Proboscis Monkeys on the Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River stretches and meanders 560 kilometres (348 miles) through Sabah. But the appeal isn’t the beauty but a chance to join a river cruise and see wild proboscis monkeys. The threatened primates with a pot-belly and long red nose are endemic to Borneo and live in large communities along certain stretches of the river. Lucky tourists might also see pygmy elephants, hornbills and crocodiles. Bungalows and chalets are available for overnight stays.

Brunei is one of the countries you can see the endangered Proboscis Monkeys © Richard Whitcombe / Shutterstock

Sleep in the Heart of the Jungle at Danum Valley

Sabah’s rainforests form habitats for thousands of plants and animals over millions of years. Danum Valley located in Eastern Sabah near Lahad Datu provides the ultimate jungle experience. One of the top things to do in Sabah for anyone who wants to experience the eco-side of Borneo is to spend a night or two at Danum Valley. Bungalows, hostel beds and camping facilities provide a comfortable and affordable place to sleep. Activities at the centre range from trekking through virgin rainforest with expert guides to night safaris and canopy walks. A trip here also gives visitors a chance to learn more about conservation from resident scientists. Wild orangutans and pygmy elephants are sometimes sighted nearby.

Danum Valley forest in Lahad Datu © Kim Briers / Shutterstock

Set Foot in the Unexplored Maliau Basin

Located in the centre of Sabah, Maliau Basin is one of very few places on Earth that remains completely free of human activity. The basin surrounds the Maliau River in an almost self-contained forest and ecosystem. Parts of the vast reserve are still unexplored and unmapped, alluring nature-loving tourists. Getting to Maliau Basin needs time and patience. But those who persevere say it was their favourite activity in Sabah. Visitors can hike to the peak of the summit at 1675 metres (5495 feet), swim in waterfalls and go wildlife spotting.

Maliau Basin jungle view in the early morning © Toto_G / Shutterstock

See Carnivorous Pitcher Plants and Stinky Rafflesia

Borneo houses two unusual and somewhat unbelievable flowers. The giant carnivorous pitcher plants release nectar to attract insects into their cavity before a fluid digests the bugs as a source of food. Rafflesia, on the other hand, has the undesirable nickname as the ‘Stinking Corpse Lily’. The flower emits an unpleasant odour resembling rotting flesh which brings insects who then spread its pollen. Having the chance to see these incredible feats of nature always rates as one of the top things to do in Sabah. Pitcher plants and Rafflesia grow in Kinabalu Park.

The unique looking carnivorous plant © chaphot / Shutterstock

Stand at the Tip of Borneo

The ‘Tip of Borneo’ forms the northernmost point of Borneo Island in a small town called Kudat where the Sulu Sea and the South China Sea converge. Visitors can snap photographs of the rocky outcrops as rough waves splash against the cliffs. A bronze globe with a map of Borneo stands inside the adjoining park. Located approximately 180 kilometres (112 miles) northeast of Kota Kinabalu, it’s possible to visit on a day trip from the capital.

The tip of Borneo in Kudat, Sabah © Sharif Putra / Shutterstock

Watch the Dancing Fireflies

River cruises in Kota Belud near Kota Kinabalu to see fireflies is among the most romantic things to do in Sabah. The small town is almost 70 kilometres (43 miles) north of Sabah’s capital and takes approximately one and a half hours to reach. Regular tours combine a proboscis monkey cruise in the evening with a chance to see the fireflies after watching the sunset on the beach.

River cruises to see the fireflies are often combined with seeing proboscis monkeys and the sunset at the beach. © anko70 / Shutterstock