I woke up on the top bunk in my hostel room to the sounds of heavy rain hitting the metal roof. One eye struggled to stay open while the other scanned the darkness for movement, for light, for any indication of time. A muddled ray was peering through the cracks leading to the roofline, it was mid-morning, time to roll over and assess the situation at hand.
Fully awake, I sat up on my bed with my back against the wall, looking dead ahead to the window overlooking the street. Day four of straight heavy rains on Penang Island. It was the most rain I have seen my entire trip and that was saying something. Getting caught in the rain isn’t all that song is cracked up to be, not tropical rain at least.
I was getting restless while waiting for breaks in the weather to explore, extremely restless. So I did what any sensible person in my predicament would do: I flew to Borneo! In all honesty, it was to escape the rain as my next plan was to head to Langkawi, but weather there didn’t look promising. I made a quick call to my buddy Ash, who I met while diving in Thailand and happens to be a Bornean native, to see if he was available to show me around and of course he was. Checked for flights with AirAsia, oh so why so cheap? Boom, just like that my itinerary to fly out for Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo the next day was all set before lunchtime.
There were twelve days to kill, laksa to eat, orangutans to see, and diving to be done!
SABAH – CRASH COURSE
The Malaysian state lies on the northern side of the island of Borneo, the third-largest in the world, with borders of Indonesia to the SE and Sarawak to the SW, its sister state. Even though it is part of the Malay government you can expect a passport stamp in your book as it’s often contested to be of its own separate entity. The sprawling state, with the natiuonal language of Malay, covers an area of 28,429 mi², a population of 3.50+ million people.
Sabah is often super overlooked as a travel destination even for the seasoned backpacker to the beach vagabond. How overlooked? 80% of the people I’ve mentioned the island to had the look of total dumbfoundedness, not knowing where on the map they could even locate it. It sounded like the perfect place for me!
Home to Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak on the island at 4,095m tall, impeccable diving sites on Sipidan and Mabul, immense cultural foods, all the intense flavors. Not to mention lush tropical rainforest home to wild elephants, orangutans, crocodiles, birds of paradise, and proboscis monkeys. Natural sites, delectable foods, animals in their natural environment and new land to conquer, I was more than ready to take on this new challenge.
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“We will be landing in Kota Kinabalu International Airport in about five minutes ladies and gentlemen,” said the captain as I peered outside the window to nothing but blue skies. Couldn’t help but feel heading to Sabah was the right decision after all, on a whim no less! Once through customs, a new stamp in tow, I grabbed a Grab and headed off to my hostel to unload my gear and promptly had Ash scoop me up for an introduction to his home.
Where to Stay in KK
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During my visit, I shacked myself at Cozy Hostel Kota Kinabalu. It was located in a pretty prime spot not too far from the airport (about RM $14 ride) on one side and close enough to downtown/Chinatown area with the good eats. The accommodations were extremely tidy, AC was ice cold, privacy curtains, breakfast included, fast WiFi, cheap nightly rates, and the reception was insanely helpful. Below the hostel were a few restaurants and a 7/11 for last-minute items (not the same kind as in Thailand though.)
I actually recommended this place to a friend who I met during my travel to Indonesia and she loved it!
book your stay with hostelworld.com
How to Get Around
Kota Kinabalu center is rather straight forward and easy to get around, arranging for your own transportation unnecessary. There is plenty of Grab in the area at pretty good prices to justify what I had just mentioned. If you want to get outside of the city for more of a local vibe then I would suggest renting a scooter and grabbing a helmet. Public transit in my experience there wasn’t the best so most of the time I opted to just walk around and get in the sights and sounds.
What to Do in KK
Hike Mount Kinabalu
Due to time constraints and having no prior planning I couldn’t do this, but something you SHOULD do in KK is hike Mount Kinabalu! Standing at over 4,000m this isn’t a small feat, one that needs proper planning and adequate gear. From photos and videos it seems to be worth every single step. Famed by its giant granite spires peering into the blue sky backdrop it’s one of the highest scaleable peaks in the world.
With a guide and equipment, you’re looking at RM $300. The well-trodden path lays way to an approachable trek, but you should allow two to three days to fully acclimate to the change in altitude. Plan early since only about 135 daily climbers are allowed for the ascent.
Mount Kinabalu Botanical Garden
Since you’re already up that way you might as well swing by the botanical gardens at Mount Kinabalu. The garden sports over 5,000 different species of flora and 90 species of lowland mammals can be covered in about an hour’s time. Many of the plants can be found all over Sabah, but having them in one location to be viewed, especially before or after the trek, can be a nice treat. The fee to enter the botanical garden is RM $5.
Guided tours are available (9am, 12pm, and 3pm daily) if you don’t want to miss anything in the garden.
Visit the City Mosque
Being an enthusiast is amazing architecture swinging by the City Mosque was a great experience while I was in KK. Free to visit and enter on every day except Friday this seemingly floating mosque was just otherworldly. With a prayer hall housing three madrasahs and accommodates up to 12,000 people, its inside is as beautiful as the outside. Come around sunset to feel like you’re transported to the ME.
Mari Mari Cultural Village
Looking to escape the city and experience for yourself the real Sabah? A visit to the Mari Mari Cultural Village should do just the trick. The grounds now serve as a museum, inviting guests from all over a first-hand look at how Sabahan tribes live their lives. The village itself is about 30 minutes outside of the city and the tours are around three hours long, making this a half-day trip ideal.
Plenty of tours are available from around RM $100 which includes a meal. But if you’re adventurous like me you will just scoot there and explore. With five tribes on hand, there is much one can learn about the ways of the Sabahan people. The money spent will continue to upkeep the grounds and traditions alive for others to enjoy. Stick around for the interactive performance put on by the villagers!
Klias River Cruise
This day trip 112km outside of Kota Kinabalu is perfect for anyone looking to float down a river in search of wildlife. This cruise allows you the best chance to find wildlife in the form of monkeys, birds of paradise, and if late enough even fireflies will light your way. There are tours for this which you should book early for around RM $190 which includes dinner and a pickup (extra fee.)
NOTE: Hold off on the river tours for now because I will take you to a place that will give you an experience you soon won’t forget. Trust me, have I steered you wrong?
Catch Unbelievable Sunsets
Speaking of sunsets KK has been one of the best places to catch these that I have seen in some time. There are MANY vantage points you can watch from in the city, from the beaches to high-rises, but when I was able to view it from two amazing points:
Signal Hill Observatory Tower is one of the more popular destinations. Parking is nil on a really windy and tight road so take a Grab there or a scoot. A cafe is perched at the lookout for any beverage needs so grab something refreshing and watch the show unfold.
Of course, the second place I found myself for an amazing sunset was around Tuaran, Sabah, Malaysia. How I got here is the stuff of legends, but long story short I ended up at one of Ash’s friend’s home, a mansion, with his own private beachfront. I won’t go into details other than the hospitality was that of five-star hotels and the views simply got you drunk off of nature.
Stuff Yourself to the Gills
Some of the best laksa in the entirety of Malaysia can be found in Borneo and Ash knew the exact place to get some of these amazing bowls. I was in heaven, to say the least with every bowl we had. Oh did I mention KK is right on the water so you can expect to find insanely fresh, satiating seafood anywhere in the city. Straight from the boats to the ice trays ready for your picking and how you want it to be cooked. Personally I can take it steamed, fried or sauteed! Talk about ocean to table service!
The open-air night market in KK was a bustling center of food hustlers and empty patron stomachs. I was so happy Ash was with me to navigate all of the vendors who were chasing people down to pick their stall as the inevitable winner. Once the lucky stall was picked you then chose all the still kicking seafood you can eat, let them cook it to how you want it, and get cozy with your drink. The wait was worth every morsel.
when he says this is the best local noodles that no tourist knows about, you trust his words.
Note to Ash: Thank you man from the bottom of my heart for showing me around your city! From meeting you in Thailand to eating a durian ice cream in your kitchen it was a treat. The laksa amazing, sunsets spectacular, bombing in your rig exhilarating, but our conversations throughout and thereafter are something I will always hold in my soul. I only wish to return such hospitality when you come to visit. Until our next adventure terima kasih!
What lay ahead after Kota Kinabalu is a quick few days spent in the jungle to hang out at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. But Sepilok is not a one-trick pony because you also have the Bornean Sun Bear Conversation Center, Rainforest Discovery Center, and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. Pick one, two, or all of it and you’ll be glad you spent the time there.
How to Get There
After bidding farewell to Ash and Kota Kinabalu I boarded my bus from City Bus Terminal and headed towards Sepilok. The cost was around $5 and the ride was comfortable with a more modern bus. You get some spectacular views through the mountains that are much more epic when you realize where you actually are, the locals on the ride were super chill and laid back. Four hours later my coach bus dropped me off at the top of Jalan Sepilok where I made my walk towards Nature Lodge Sepilok.
Where to Stay
To make it easy on you I would suggest Nature Lodge Sepilok and call it a day! They’re an eco-lodge, which has become a very important part of my travels, with single male/female eight-bed dorms for around $10/night with breakfast included. One downside is WiFi isn’t available throughout the grounds, only in the main lobby, so hustle over there if you need to check emails.
Food err in Sepilok?
I will go out on a whim here and say there is not much on offer when it comes to food here. The lodge does provide a very good breakfast on the house, but outside of that, well good luck! There were Mama Wati’s, White House Bistro, Banana Cafe, Lake Bistro among the varied stores to grab chips and drinks. I was only here for two full days that I just saved my appetite for the next stop!
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
A big reason why I wanted to visit Borneo was a chance to see orangutans. Of course, in the wild would have been preferred, but here was good enough. The center is both a place of learning and, you guessed it, rehabbing these beautiful creatures. Orangutans from all over the island who have been displaced by the ever-growing presence of man and capitalism and brought here and be given a second chance.
I am a firm believer in putting your hard-earned money towards something that can potentially make a difference, and this center is one of those. After walking through the doors you find yourself lost among immense vegetation, thick trees reaching HIGH into the sky, canopies sprawling for every last bit of sunlight. There are long bridge walkways that lead to you in a zig-zag path towards the main house on the grounds. Don’t dilly dally or else you’ll miss the feeding time. And that is why you came here!
Enter the AC area, one of two, find a seat, and watch the caretakers in action. There are platforms with towers and ropes leading in various directions towards the jungle. A plethora of food, mainly fruits, is placed on said platforms and within minutes you can see the ropes jostle with movement. They’re coming.
Make as much noise and movements as you want because it won’t spook the gentle giants. You are in fact behind a one-way mirror, in those plush chairs looking out at the family of apes before you. I got to see one with her baby dangling from her arms, picking at apples, oranges, and even some lettuce. Spend time learning about each one if you can, but more importantly learn about conserving these beasts, our ancestors, as they do not deserve the treatment we humans have inflicted upon their habitats.
Bornean Sunbear Conservation Center
Conveniently located right across the street from the orangutan sanctuary is the Bornean Sunbear Conservation Center, what luck! The sunbear conservation prides itself on five main key points: animal welfare, rehabilitation, research, education, and ecotourism. Much like their neighboring conservation center they take in sunbears (43) and rehab them with the eventual hopes of releasing them back into the wild (7).
Submerse in a tropical backdrop it would be a travesty if you do not at least spend a few hours at this conservation. There’s no better place to educate yourself on the widespread environmental issue of deforestation on the island and animals that inhabit it then here. Everyday products we use may seem cheap and affordable to us, but to these animals, it comes at a great cost. Many of the natural habitats on the Bornean island have been literally turned into palm tree plantations. It’s quite heartbreaking to drive through the rolling hills and see nothing but stumps of palms trees where lush jungle vegetation once stood.
Rainforest Discovery Center
On my way back from the conservation centers I made a pit stop at the Rainforest Discovery Center for a chance to be high above the treetops. What started out to be a place of education for students and teachers has now evolved into a destination of tourism for both locals and internationals alike. From guided walks to roaming about on your own this is the place to learn about the jungle ecosystem.
The canopy walk presented views that were too good to pass up so make sure you go to every tower. For the bird lovers out there, this is a chance to see some birds of paradise. On the ground, their botanical garden boasted some of the wildest plants I have ever seen. If you’re into hiking they do have a much longer ground trail (7-10km) that traversed through the grounds, but if you asked me the Bornean heat is FAR too much to trek it. A morning or evening hike would far better suit you to not sweat through all your clothes.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Located 23km from Sepilok this is a great half-day trip to learn about these wondrous monkeys with the big noses. Although the land initially was bought to become yet another, you guessed it, palm tree plantation the owner quickly changed his mind and went on to preserving the land for these creatures. Actually, some good in the world these days, refreshing!
The land offers the proboscis monkeys a place of refuge in the form of shelter, food, and water but they are free to come and go as pleased. I kind of really dig that whole idea, but this is solely because their habitat was left intact. Nowhere else in the world will you ever get a chance to be this close to them so take up the opportunity and learn a thing or two!
I highly urge you to reduce your impact on deforestation by being more aware of the products you use that contain palm oil. It’s inevitable that it is everywhere (palm oil), but by paying more attention we can at the very least limit the spread of deforestation. For more information read this article on the why’s and how’s it’s bad.
I boarded a packed shuttle after a couple of days in Sepilok heading for my next destination: Kinabatangan River. Remember earlier when I said to hold off on river cruises? This place is the reason why! The second-longest river in all of Malaysia where its headwaters come from the southwest of Sabah and empties into the Sulu Sea east of Sandakan. Stretching 560km in length, it is YOUR BEST BET to see wildlife actually IN THE WILD. A crazy concept.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of places to stay along the winding river, choices are great but I am in the business of making life easier for oneself. I talked to the desk at my last stay and just booked their partner lodge: Borneo Natural Saukau Bilit Resort. This all-inclusive deal covers your transportation to the place from Sepilok, all your meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and the cruise of your choice (I chose the 3D2N).
The digs were very rustic, making you really feel as if you’re in the jungle, well you are, but you catch my drift. Outside showers, minimalist approach, NO WiFi (yes, NO WiFi), and monkeys are also guests here. The staff was super friendly and the meals were pretty food for what they are. I highly suggest you check this place out as I didn’t have a bad stay myself.
The River Cruise
With the package as mentioned, I was there on the river for a three-day two-night tour, figuring it would be one of the few chances to encounter wildlife. The resort has a welcome meal before everyone gets settled into their lodgings and then right after that you’re out on the river searching for animals. Their schedule goes something like this:
Evening Boat Cruise
Nighttime Wildlife Walk
Morning Boat Cruise
Daytime Wildlife Walk
Late Afternoon Boat Cruise
Retire at Resort
Morning Boat Cruise
During the tour, we got to see all the wildlife one can shoot their camera at! Birds of paradise, proboscis monkeys, macaques, even crocodiles (MASSIVE in real life by the way)! Our guides were super helpful in pointing out all the animals we came across, insanely informative on answering any questions thrown their way. The weather can be tricky as departing for our second-afternoon cruise thick clouds came rolling in. Before you knew it the heaven opened up and a proper jungle downpour was upon us. It was really welcoming. I did miss the chance to see the pygmy elephants that traverse the rivers. Actually, it pained me that we missed it, but that’s the roll of the dice when you travel, nothing is guaranteed.
but that’s the roll of the dice when you travel, nothing is guaranteed.
During these few days out in the heart of the jungle with little cell service, surrounded by other guests, sweet staff and the occasional overly-friendly monkey was something I really needed. Really skip all the other river cruises you come across and make your way out here, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Not to mention that staff was insanely welcoming! Monkeys not so much.
My last stop on this impromptu trip to Borneo was the oceanside city of Semporna. Basically saved the best for last because my trip here was all about one thing: diving. Ever since getting licensed a few weeks back, I had been insanely antsy to jump into the waters, reminding me of those motorcycle days. The ocean was calling and I wanted to answer her.
How to Get There
There wasn’t a real DIRECT way to get to Semporna I am afraid. In fact, I had to talk to the front desk multiple times to make sure because no WiFi meant this traveler was shit out of luck planning his transport. I hustled onto the same shuttle, now near empty, I came to the lodge and headed out into no man’s land of transportation limbo.
The plan was to meet the driver of the bus en route to Semporna. Luck would have it we’re late and my shuttle driver was constantly getting berated with calls asking where we were and how much longer. After about what seemed like an eternity we arrived in a very short and angry Bornean bus driver.
The drivers exchanged words and I found myself sitting on the aisle next to the bathroom for four hours. Somehow this wasn’t that bad. Just kidding, it was horrible. My luck I get the bus that had everyone packed in like sardines. This made for a great experience I wish not to repeat soon.
Where to Stay
I stayed in a relatively modest hostel dormitory near the center of town: Semporna Sea Sports & Tours. It wasn’t terrible, and although there were better accommodations nearby, the price won me over. The digs were capsule-like sleepers with a small desk, light, and power outlets so one can’t really complain. If you’re on a budget and want to spend all your cash diving then hit up this spot, or check our Luna Capsule nearby. Same same.
Food in Semporna
Again with this, I kept it really basic to the food joints around the place I was staying. Semporna is renowned for its seafood, like RENOWNED, but I kept it light and safe because of all the diving I will do. Trust me on the fact that boat bathrooms are not grand in any sense of the word. A few notable mentions are:
Restoran Nasi Kandar Ck Maju (near the dormitory)
- Summer Breeze Cafe
- Restoran Yum Yum
- Street food at the corner of Pekan Semporna
- Fat Mom’s Restaurant
- Then Wang Restoran
OK, maybe I have jumped the gun on the whole ‘the food didn’t do it for me here.’ I mean this was true until I met a couple of people during my last dives and ventured out to Then Wang Restoran with them. This place was legit, too legit. Seaside, seafood, new friends, a few drinks, and amazing conversations. Really one of the best meals I have had during my trip.
NOTE: Get the urchin, trust me, and just DO IT! Oh, sirap bandung, cincau susu, teh c special are freaking insane to quench your thirst in the hot weather!
I called around to a few dive shops in the harbor to see what the going rates were and dive sites will be for the days I was there. After basically hell freezing over I landed with Scubaholics. This was mainly because Jack, the owner, returned my messages quickly and was so informative it was a no-brainer to go with them. Plus they had nine-tank dives with lunch, beverages (water, tea, and coffee), and jetty fees for $240!
You can barely get a two-tank dive in the states for any less!
If you didn’t plan a last-minute detour to Sabah like me then I want to interest you in booking early for the Sipidan dive site. It is rated as one of the best dive sites in the world for the unreal underwater world and for the abundance of sea creatures it boasts. But there is a catch! The government only allows so many permits for diver/instructors PER DAY (176 in fact) to limit the impact on the reefs and ecosystem. SMART move in my book. Book knowing it won’t be cheap! You can find more info here.
The Scubaholics crew had already lined up my three-day dive site to the following:
- Mataking Island
- Coral reefs
- Mabul Island
- Man-made coral reefs
- Oil rig
- Pulau Sibuan
- Reef dive
- Shore dive
The waters at the dive sites were the bluer than those you see in the Sandals Resort infomercials during late-night TV. My jaw dropped when I peered my head over the side of the boat and could see straight down to the floor, while little schools of fish swam past. Tiny little islands in the middle nowhere two hours away from any bustling city circle, the way I liked it. Hang up the dive suit because out here the water is near perfect! Just don’t go past 25 meters or you’ll get cold real fast, trust me I learned the hard way.
Coming from Koh Tao and having only four dives under my belt, the experience with these guys cemented my comfort levels underwater. I practice more basics while enjoying the shipwrecks we encountered on Mataking Island and the oil rigger by Mabul. I got more and more comfortable down there making that freakout back in Koh Tao a thing of the past. Plus watching a sea turtle half the size of a dinner table swim by nonchalantly was pretty amazing.
I can’t say much more about the crew than the fact that they were freaking awesome to dive with. Richard, my divemaster, was super informative about the sites we were heading to, the ecosystems beneath the boat, and all the creatures that swam past us. I am talking about sharks, rays, tropical fishes, and all the sea turtles your heart can love. Jack recanted anecdotes about the time he was kidnapped by pirates and lived to tell the tale. Yes, BY PIRATES! And yes, they do exist in this part of the world. The whole lot of them were more than attentive to everyone on board and made my diving experience that much more fun.
Going on these dives were as much fun as they were educational. The guys showed me the impact that human waste (garbage and plastic dumping) has caused in the surrounding environment. I can’t begin to tell you about how much trash flowed on top of the ocean as if it were its own river system. Plastic bags, water bottles, scraps of clothing, hell I even saw a tire or two. That’s not to mention the trash floating around at depths or those we found on the ocean floor. Heartbreaking was one way to put it.
Experiencing this first made me really consider my own carbon footprint. Happy to say after this trip I came home with a new appreciation for our Earth and have made personal changes to ensure my footprint is reduced! If you feel the same then I urge you to look into what you can do to help save what we have!
During my flight back to mainland Malaysia I couldn’t help but reflect on the last twelve days spent in Borneo and how amazing it was. The freedom of going wherever I wanted no matter how last-minute without having to console with anyone was liberating. Even if it were to escape a bit of rain. Every now and again it becomes a good reminder of why I travel solo and I have become all the better for it.
Borneo is a true diamond in the rough among many overly polished zirconias. The landscape transplants you to an entirely different world, of lush jungles that bloom with life. There’s a saying that everything comes alive at night and on this island, you can feel it here. Darkness overrules this place with only the brightness of the stars lighting it up the black sky. For every pair of eyes looking into the jungle, a hundred more are looking back. It’s both haunting and beautiful at the same time.
Its people, warm-hearted, with kind souls, and welcoming eyes whose genuineness is a breath of fresh air. Be open when you come here in both heart and mind. For missing out on any conversations with the locals is a travesty you wish not to repeat. Their generosity is only outmatched by their smiles. Borneo has won me over and I think I will be back sooner rather than later.