During a backpacking trip in the Philippines a few years ago I couldn’t resist quickly hopping over to Pulau Tiga, the small island off the coast of Borneo where they filmed season one of “Survivor.” When I left “Survivor Island” I wished I had more time to actually explore Sabah Malaysia beyond my quick detour. Thanks to Singapore Airlines and Tourism Malaysia I got my wish!
Along with three incredible travel journalists, Rachel Rudwall, Meghan Young and Kristen Kellogg. I spent a week traveling to and exploring Sabah Malaysia. Located in the northern part of Borneo, Sabah is one of the 13 states of Malaysia. With tropical rainforests, rolling mountains and turquoise waters this remote country is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. Here are 10 Ways to Discover Sabah Malaysia:
WHAT TO DO
1. BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTRE
Have you ever heard of a sun bear?! Before traveling to Sabah Malaysia I never knew these cuties existed! They’re the world’s smallest bear and can only be found in Southeast Asia. The best spot to meet and learn all about them is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sepilok.
The centre was founded by Dr. Wong Siew Te in 2008. During his studies as a wildlife biologist, Dr. Wong researched captive sun bears and found them living in terrible conditions without proper care. This sparked his mission to create a rescue and rehabilitation centre, which today is is home to 42 bears living in a large natural environment and being given proper care so they can eventually be returned to the wild. Spending time observing sun bears is a treat! Watching them climb trees, find napping spots on branches high above the ground and meander around the forest is a special experience that can only be done in Sabah Malaysia. Some fun facts I enjoyed learning include:
- Sun bears get their name from the patches on their chest that resemble a rising or setting sun. No patches are the same.
- They have extremely long tongues (20 – 25cm) that are good for extracting honey from beehives and for this are nicknamed “honey bears.”
- They typically are 120 – 150cm in length and weigh 20 – 70kg.
- The three biggest threats to their population are habitat loss, commercial hunting and pet trade.
2. SEPILOK ORANGUTAN REHABILITATION CENTRE
Founded in 1964, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre sits on 43 square kilometers of protected land with the mission of returning orphaned, injured and displaced orangutans back into the wild. It’s actually located next to the BSBCC so you can conveniently see orangutans and sun bears in the same visit! The centre is home to nearly 80 orangutans where it provides medical care and wildlife skills training.
When baby orangutans are admitted to the centre they are given a full health exam and quarantined until they are deemed suitable for entry into the “nursery.” Here they learn essential jungle skills such as climbing, finding food and nest building. In the wild, orangutans would typically learn these skills from their mothers for up to six years. The centre pairs up younger orangutans with older ones as a mother substitute to help them develop the skills. As the orangutans gain necessary skills they then move to the “outdoor nursery” where they are less dependent on support. The last stage is total independence which leads to integration back into the wild population.
3. BORNEO ECO TOURS WILDLIFE RIVER CRUISES
Hands down my favorite way to discover Sabah Malaysia is through wildlife eco tours on the Kinabatangan River. During our two night stay in the jungle, we embarked on four river cruises, including one at night! Each cruise lasts for roughly three hours where an experienced guide navigates a small boat through the jungle with one goal – observing wildlife in its natural habitat. All I can say: mission accomplished!
We saw TONS of animals including proboscis monkeys, orangutans, crocodiles, and rhinoceros hornbills which are 4 of the “Borneo Big 5.” We we unfortunately didn’t see was the pygmy elephant, but we tried our best! We also managed to see macaques, snakes, snake birds, civets and “flying squirrel” bats. Boating along the river is incredible peaceful while you let the guides use their impressive skills to spot animals for you to simply watch in the wild.
4. SIMUD HITAM GOMANTONG CAVE
The Simud Hitam Gomantong Cave was originally not on our itinerary for touring Sabah Malaysia, but once we heard about it we quickly updated our plans to make the pit stop. Located a little over 100km from Sandakan town in the Kinabatangan District, the Gomantong Cave is one of at least 19 caves in the limestone hills of the area. The caves are home to a variety of wildlife including bats, cockroaches and most importantly swiftlets birds whose nests are harvested and used for bird’s nest soup. Before this little excursion, I never knew edible bird nests was a thing, let alone a delicacy! A few tips for the entering:
- Arrive when it opens at 9am. We basically had the cave to ourselves for the first 45 minutes.
- Prepare to get your shoes dirty, it’s a cave! The pathway is covered in dirt and bird feces.
- Keep your fingers crossed for clear skies. It’s a majestic sight watching the light peek through.
5. KOTA KINABALU FILIPINO MARKET
You can’t go to Sabah Malaysia without getting lost in the local markets. The Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu will stimulate all of your senses. See smiling locals interact with each other as they trade services and pick up groceries for the day. Smell the aromas of freshly caught and cooked fish and meats. Touch and take home produce as if you were gathering it right from the source. Taste the joy of a homemade peanut pancake dessert known as apam balik. And most importantly, listen. Listen to the song that is the merchants calling prices, the waves crashing, knives chopping, grills sizzling and voices humming. If you want to eat like a local, you can’t get more local than this!
6. ISLAND HOPPING
Located off the coast of Sabah is a collection of small islands that give visitors the opportunity to clock in some beach time. We spent an afternoon island hopping and most of our day at Pulau Manukan. The islands are a very popular attraction for tourists so be prepared to share the sand with other travelers. After jungle and city life, the islands can give you the chance to channel your inner scales…
HOW TO GET THERE
7. SINGAPORE AIRLINES
This was my first time flying Singapore Airlines business class… let’s just say I don’t know how I’m going to fly economy again! Everything you hear about Singapore Airlines’ superior international flight experience is absolutely true! From the moment I stepped foot on every flight, I was impressed.
For starters, the flight attendants knew my name and approached me by name whenever we interacted. I was shocked! Was there a name card on my seat, nope! I asked how they all knew our names and they told me they have a guest list, memorize names and then match them to faces for the flights. That small personal touch alone made me feel a strong connection to the staff.
Now let’s talk about the seats… leg room for days! I’ve never sat on a plane where I basically felt like I was sitting at home. My reclining chair, that turned into a full on bed, provided the most physically comfortable flight experience of my life and I’ve been on hundreds of flights on a lot of airlines.
What made the flight even more enjoyable was the wide selection of entertainment options. On the many flights we had from LAX to South Korea to Singapore to Kota Kinabalu and back, I managed to watch the entire season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” three recent movies and listen to music.
Last but not least, Singapore Airline offers fine dining. I indulged in champagne from the moment I sat down and enjoyed every meal. Without hesitation, SIA lives up to it’s slogan as “A Great Way to Fly!”
8. STICKY RICE TRAVEL
If you’re looking for a tour company to host your visit to Sabah Malaysia or help with adventures, I highly recommend Sticky Rice Travel. This company handled most our trip logistics and had the best guides! Every employee treated us with respect and was incredibly welcoming. They took a vested interested in making sure we were always cared for and taken care of. Ask for Dean in Kota Kinabalu and for Jeffrey in Sandakan. You’ll leave Sabah with shared memories, laughs and friendships with them.
WHERE TO STAY
9. SUKAU RAINFOREST LODGE
Named as one of National Geographic “Unique Lodges of the World,” Sukau Rainforest Lodge offers remote refinement. Located on the Kinabatangan River in the middle of the rainforest, the resort is built on stilts using local hardwood. The entire property is connected by a system of wooden walkways with green and eco friendly construction designs. Staying here offers a homey yet luxurious base for wildlife river cruises. Walking to my room for the first time I was actually greeted by an orangutan chilling high above the trees. Entering my actual room itself felt like opening the door to the the fantasy suite on the “The Bachelor.” I felt spoiled. Falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle was music to my ears.
10. HILTON KOTA KINABALU
For our time in Kota Kinabalu we enjoyed staying at the new Hilton. A few highlights include its proximity to the airport and city centre, the high caliber of service from the extremely friendly staff, the elegant decor and vibes of the common areas and rooms, the modern amenities and technology in the rooms and of course, my favorite, the rooftop swimming pool.
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