Two weeks in Borneo (Sabah, Malaysia) - Part 1

March 11, 2015

Borneo is a large island in Southeast Asia, divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, with countless flowering plants, mammals and birds, many endemic to the area. And that's not mentioning the world-class diving and snorkelling. If you like nature, the outdoors and wildlife, it's a wonderful destination. We decided to concentrate our 2 weeks on the Sabah region, in Malaysia, the northeastern tip of the island.

Kota Kinabalu (KK)

We flew in and out of Kota Kinabalu, the largest city and capital of Sabah. The city isn't one such that you'll swoon over its beauty or architecture, but it definitely is worth a stop, if only for the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, which is comprised of 5 coral islands off the coast of KK, accessible by boat from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal. Tour companies abound there, and prices are fixed, depending on how many islands you wish to see that day. We visited Sapi and Manukan, where we swam, snorkelled and relaxed for a few hours. On Manukan, you can watch the fishes right from the jetty, the water being crystal clear. It's pretty amazing.

The city is packed with malls, ranging from eclectic Asian stores to international classics, and we appreciated cooling down with the AC mid-afternoon, especially on our first day. The city is fairly small and easy to tour by foot. The markets (Night Market, Handicraft Market, Central Market) are lined up along the water, as well as bars where you can sit down for Happy Hour and watch the sunset before heading off to dinner, perhaps in Chinatown, particularly charming at night with its red lanterns everywhere. We had planned to eat at the Filipino BBQ at least one night, but reports of red tide, fellow travellers getting very sick and questionable sanitary practices changed our minds... better safe than sorry, especially just before a 30+hr journey home! Instead we had some tasty Indian food at Sri Latha Curry House and flavourful Arabian food at Al Andalus. You also probably won't feel like finding a nearby beach when you walk along the water, as massive oil deposits and weird entrails are common sightings. But if you're familiar with Southeast Asia, you might think that this place is cleaner than many. Perspective I guess.

On our way back to KK before leaving, most of us were badly sunburned from snorkelling (which I escaped by hiding in the boat and under my rash guard), and we were looking for outdoor activities that would keep us out of the direct sun. We headed over to the tourism centre, which had been more or less useful in the past, and were lucky to find the most helpful agent, who let us in on a well-kept secret: Kiansom Falls, in Inaman, a short drive from KK. The park consists of multiple waterfalls and swimming areas, and we had the place mostly for ourselves on a Friday afternoon, later joined by local boys jumping off the rocks onto the small pools, which seemed rather dangerous. We spent a lovely afternoon, and headed back into town feeling refreshed. We stopped by the Signal Hill Observatory on the way back, which would be perfectly fine to pass on. The city doesn't really get any prettier from up high.

Sandakan and Sepilok 

From KK we left for Mount Kinabalu, which I'll share more about next week, and from there headed east to Sandakan. The city is not particularly nice, perhaps due to the fact that it was rebuilt after being completely destroyed during WWII, but we gladly used it as a gateway to Sepilok, with cheaper accommodation and more food options. Although we didn't find much to do in Sandakan, the staircase of 100 steps along the Heritage Trail will lead you up to a nice view of the town. We loved the Balin Roof Garden Bar & Bistro, where we got a glimpse of the sunset, and ate delicious fresh rotis at Habeed Curry House.

Sepilok is a 30min bus journey from Sandakan, easily accessible as a day trip. We started our day with the morning feeding at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, which rescues baby orphaned orang-utans, and trains them to survive in the wild before releasing them, when they are ready. A baby orang-utan typically spends the first 5-6 years of his life with his mother, before being independent. Tourists have the chance to observe the orang-utans during the morning and afternoon feeding times, from a platform. The morning feeding was somewhat frustrating due to the horde of loud tourists, resulting in only one orang-utan briefly appearing.

The ticket gives you all day access, so we grabbed some ice cream and headed out to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, right across the street. The centre was established as a non-profit organization for animal welfare, education, research and rehabilitation. They rescue sun bears bought as babies and kept as a caged pet, and teach them how to fend for themselves so they can live in the wild again. They are the word's smallest bears, with a surprisingly long tongue, and are way more adorable than I'd imagine. Unfortunately, they are threatened by hunting and habitat loss, like most of the wildlife in Borneo (and worldwide, I guess). They have powerful claws, ripping effortlessly through coconuts the size of their heads, and seemed quite playful. I loved watching them eat, play and interact with each other. On our way out, we stopped to look at this colourful snake on the boardwalk, until an employee shared with us that although non-poisonous, the snake was looking ready to attack, and that a bite would be quite painful. We left quickly, hoping that the family of 5 next to us would do the same.

Later we walked over to the Rainforest Discovery Centre, with many trails through the forest and 8 canopy towers, going up to about 27m above ground. The towers are connected by walkways, giving great views over the forest. Mid day there were only few birds and squirrels to be seen, but we enjoyed the visit nonetheless.

The afternoon feeding at the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre was much quieter, and we were able to observe 4 or 5 orang-utans for quite some time, which was a pretty special experience. It was a blast to see them hanging in various positions, often looking like contortionists, and always keeping at least one grip on the rope/branch. Well worth going back for. We heard that earlier during the afternoon, one of the orang-utan escaped the park and headed straight to the cafeteria, causing some commotion amongst the tourists.


The small town of Semporna feels rough and is particularly dirty. People don't seem to smile much, and the vibe just isn't nice. We were pretty much ready to leave as soon as we got there and if I'm being perfectly honest, my favourite thing there was leaving. Either to go snorkelling or simply to fly out. There seems to be a complete separation between struggling locals and diving expats, and no collaboration. We ended up spending the night and booking a trip out to go snorkelling, figuring out we might as well, since we got all the way there. If you plan ahead, you can mostly avoid the town and head straight to a beautiful resort on one of the island. Because of the limited diving/snorkelling permits issued everyday and the international recognition of the area, places tend to book up quickly, so advance planning is a good idea, although you can still enjoy some last minute amazing adventures. We stayed at the Dragon Inn floating hotel, fulfilling a life-long dream of mine of staying in a room on stilts over the water. The idea was maybe a little overrated, although I'd be willing to try again. This place was the budget end of this idea, and my dream is probably closer to the high-end, Bora Bora type experience. We found limited options for food, with some concern consuming seafood of unclear origin, and ate most of our meals at the Scuba Junkie restaurant. One unexpected gem was Summer Breeze, a new little place with ice cream and real espresso, which was pretty amazing after over a week of feeling lucky when we got instant Nescafe.

We booked a day trip out to 2 of the Tun Sakaran Marine Park islands, with Sipidan Dive Centre. The trip included snorkelling gear, cold water and a tasty buffet style lunch with lots of options. We got to decide which islands we wanted to see, and opted to start our day at Bohey Dulang, where we started by hiking up 600+m to the top of the island, for breathtaking views, before snorkelling amongst the impressive giant clams. The hike is relatively easy, well marked, with stairs on and off along the way. Our guide told us that we were unlucky since we didn't see a green viper, a rather venomous and aggressive snake, so I opted to respectfully disagree with him.

Our second stop was the paradise island of Sibuan, which is one of the most beautiful places I've seen. It's a popular spot for snorkelers and divers, with white sandy beach, calm turquoise waters. Sea gypsies live on one end of the island, and kids will bring over coconuts in exchange for money or food. The snorkelling was the best I've ever done, with amazing coral, massive schools of fishes, coming in all size, shape and colours.

Next week I'll share more about hiking in Mount Kinabalu and our stay at the Jungle Camp on the Kinabatangan River, along with some general travel information. 

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