Top Things to See and Do in Sabah, Malaysia

Danum Valley Conservation Area is home to some of the most endangered species in Sabah
Danum Valley Conservation Area is home to some of the most endangered species in Sabah | © Patricia Dulasi / Shutterstock
Photo of Sam Bedford
16 July 2021

Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, attracts tourists with its rainforests that are as rich in wildlife and biodiversity as almost any on the planet. Add to this a distinct cultural tradition, delicious cuisine and excellent snorkelling and it’s easy to see why Sabah draws in so many visitors. Here are our favourite things to do in Sabah, from hiking the tallest mountain in Malaysia to coming face to face with Orangutans.

Climb Malaysia’s Tallest Peak

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© Ling Tang/ Unsplash
Mount Kinabalu, rising an impressive 4,095m (13,435ft), is perhaps the definitive symbol of Sabah, even featuring on the state flag and giving thename to its capital city, Kota Kinabalu. Climbing the mountain has and always will beone of the top things to do in Sabah, though hikers will need to join an organised tour and limited places usually sell out months in advance. The two-day climb up this sacred mountainand is certainly worth it for the chance to witness the sunrisefrom the summit; an awe-inspiring experience.

Go Snorkelling at Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

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© Benjamin I Jones/ Unsplash
The five islands near the coast of Kota Kinabalu boast an impressive variety of colourful corals and marine life. On the protected islands near the coast of Kota Kinabalu, visitorscan expect unpolluted beaches and crystal clear water, making for ideal snorkelling conditions. Visit the original Survivor island, Sabah’s Pulau Tiga, which hosted the first season of the famous TV series Survivor.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.

See Orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

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In 1964, Sepilok became the first rehabilitation centre for young and orphaned orangutans. Deforestation and logging destroytheir habitats while others are hunted for sport or to keep as pets. Sadly, this leaves the young unable to fend for themselves in the wild. Sepilok, located 25km (16mi) west of Sandakan, helps train the orangutans to survive on their own. Inside the centre, visitors can head along a boardwalk to the viewing platform. At 10am and 3pm, rangers feed the 75 resident orangutans bananas and milk.Visit during this time to ensure a glimpse of these rare orange primates.

Photograph Proboscis Monkeys on the Kinabatangan River

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© Charge The Globe/ Unsplash
The Kinabatangan River stretches for 560km (348mi) through Sabah, offering thechance 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.

Sleep in the Heart of the Jungle at Danum Valley

Forest, Hiking Trail
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© Kim Briers / Shutterstock
Sabah’s rainforestshave formed habitats for thousands of species of flora and fauna over millions of years. Danum Valley, located in Eastern Sabah near LahadDatu, provides the ultimate jungle experience. Bungalows, hostel beds and camping facilities provide a comfortable and affordable place to sleep. Activities at the centre range from trekking throughvirgin rainforest with expert guides to night safaris and canopy walks. A trip here also gives visitors the chance to learn more about conservation from resident scientists. Wild orangutans and pygmy elephants are sometimes sighted nearby.

Mari Mari Cultural Village

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Two women wearing traditional costumes are sitting at a campfire at the Mari Mari Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on 27 October 2014. Photo: Sebastian Kahnert - NO WIRE SERVICE -
© dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
For a whistlestop tour of authentic Malaysia, visit the Mari Mari living village to see a range of traditional Sabahan customs and handicrafts. The community is made up of traditional Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus and Dusun homes and workshops, whilst locals will share their knowledge of the traditions for which their tribes are known. The highlights include blowpipe-making, fire-starting and the ancient art of tattooing using bamboo sticks.

Gomantong Caves

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Gomantong Caves near Sandakan in Borneo where Glossy Swiftlet nests are harvested by intrepid climbers for bird's nest soup
© Steve Taylor ARPS / Alamy Stock Photo
The arrival is stunning enough in itself, with visitors making their way across a crooked wooden boardwalk amid dense rainforest. Then you reach the cave. When evening falls, hordes of bats swarm out and to a deafening soundtrack of screeches. They deposit piles of guano, which is like catnip for cockroaches, cave crabs, giant centipedes and scorpions, so be sure to wear covered shoes (and a hat).

Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu

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Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
© Lano Lan/Shutterstock
The first mosque to be built on a manmade lake, Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu is a magical blue structure on the shores of Likas Bay. Dress appropriately and, even if you’re not Muslim, you’ll be welcome (out of prayer time). The modern architecture is captivating, offset by palm trees and a moat. Come at sunset to take pictures and enjoy a paddleboat ride so you can see the building from the water – a stunning sight.

Poring Hot Spring

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bathers enjoy the Poring Hot Springs in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
dave stamboulis / Alamy Stock Photo
The Japanese-style baths at Poring Hot Spring are sheer bliss for muscles worn out by the long climb up Mount Kinabalu. You’ll be with locals using the open-air tiled baths and private chalets, as well as the smaller water pool/slide. As is the case with most hot springs, the sulphur in the water is renowned for its medicinal properties and visitors with ailments such as arthritis and muscle cramps often report feeling a benefit. Don’t come on a Monday though, when the springs are closed.

Sara Darling contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on July 16, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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