Few places spell ‘wilderness’ as much as Borneo does. Steamy mountains covered in rainforests, exotic plants, wildlife that cannot be found anywhere else – these were the images of Borneo I had in my mind when I clicked ‘buy’ and got myself a flight to Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah.
Sabah is the ideal place for a Borneo eco adventure – it’s easy to reach from Malaysia, Singapore and pretty much anywhere else in Southeast Asia. National parks and the main natural sights are easy to access and don’t require expensive flights or lengthy 4×4 transfers. Not to mention that English is widely spoken, infrastructure is good, the local cuisine is excellent and prices are a bargain for what you get!
So, how do you plan your Borneo eco adventure in Sabah? Follow this step by step guide and get ready to have the time of your life!
When to go, what to take and how much it costs
The rainy season in Sabah is roughly between November and March, with December and January being the wettest months. If you’re planning to hike to the top of Mount Kinabalu it’s best to avoid the rainy season. Other than that, the weather is hot and humid year round, rarely dipping below 25°.
Don’t forget to bring some cold weather gear if you’re planning to hike Kinabalu – temperatures can be freezing during the early morning push to the summit. If you’re heading to the jungle, don’t forget insect repellent and long-sleeved, loose clothes to keep the mozzies away.
Sabah can be considerably more expensive than the rest of Malaysia and SE Asia, especially when multi-day tours to Kinabalu or the Kinabatangan area are taken into account. However, prices are cheaper in rainy season and you can definitely bargain down the price of tours and hotels.
Step 1: Spend some time in Kota Kinabalu
As the state capital, you’re bound to be passing through Kota Kinabalu – or KK, as locals call it. It’s a lot more relaxed compared to larger SE Asia cities like Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, making it the perfect place to enjoy beach life, wonderful seafood and meet friendly locals.
You can get the best seafood in town every night at the Filipino Market between Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens Street and Lrg. Gomantong Street – a meal for two is around $20, depending on what kind of fish or seafood you choose.
Another not-to-be missed KK experience is a day trip to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, five islands about twenty minutes by speedboat from KK’s harbour – picture palm-fringed beaches, stunning sunsets and clear water, perfect for snorkelling.
Step 2: Check out Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is one of the main natural sights in Sabah, and certainly the most iconic, proudly displayed on the state flag.
A trip to Mount Kinabalu national park is a must for all visitors, whether or not you decide to climb the mountain. A two-day hike to the summit of Mount Kinabalu is certainly an incredible experience, but it requires a budget of around $300 per person, warm clothes and a good fitness level, as the peak of the mountain is 4095 meters above sea level.
If you decided not to climb, visiting the park is still a great experience. There are several well-marked trails to choose from – the Bukit Ular trail was our favourite.
Step 3: Move onto Sandakan & Sepilok
From Mount Kinabalu, you can easily hop on a bus and in about for hours you’ll find yourself in Sandakan, Sabah’s second city and the base to visit wonderful Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The city itself has a great seafood market and some great historical sights, like the Sandakan Memorial Park.
Sepilok is a few kilometers out of the city, and it’s your best bet if you want to see an orangutan up close.
Orangutans are fed twice a day, at 10 am and 3 pm. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see one if you visit at mealtimes, and trust me, it’s an experience you will remember for the rest of your lives.
Step 4: Move onto the Kinabatangan River for wildlife viewing
The once-impenetrable Bornean rainforest is now reduced to a few patches of jungle in between palm oil plantations, reason why visiting whatever is left of it is especially important – to show locals that ecotourism can be a driving force to conserve the environment and create jobs.
Wildlife viewing is great along the Kinabatangan river, where you’ll find jungle lodges for all budgets. Packages usually last 3 day/2 nights and include sunrise and sunset river cruises, guided jungle walks and night hikes. Species often seen include orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, monitor lizards and gibbons.
Check out Eco Companion’s tour of Sabah Borneo Safari, Volunteer & Trek including most of what we mentioned above, including climbing Mount Kinabalu and wildlife watching on the Kinabatangan river!
Step 5: What else can I do?
There’s plenty more to see and do in Sabah! Other highlights include diving Sipadan, believed to be one of the world’s best diving locations, visit the organic tea plantation of Sabah Tea Garden or take a night river cruise on the Klias river near KK to see fireflies.
Did this article give you the taste for Borneo? Then find your next escape
Did you enjoy this article? Get sent new journal entries we post by joining our community of eco traveller’s here