Sabah

Overview

Introduction

Malaysia's second-largest state, Sabah is located 975 mi/1,570 km east of Kuala Lumpur.on the northeastern tip of the island of Borneo. The Malaysian tourism board calls it "the land of eco-treasures"—and that's not just hype. Opportunities to get close to nature range from trekking up the tallest peak in Southeast Asia to diving into crystal clear waters brimming with exotic fish. Much of Sabah has been spared the ravages of modern development, and the diverse indigenous tribal peoples that remain are spread throughout the island. Try to arrange to see the villages of the Muruts (former headhunters who hunt with blowpipes) and the Bajau (horse riders originally from the Philippines).

We suggest spending two nights in nearby Kota Kinabalu, which is often referred to as KK. Its pace is slow, the restaurants excellent, the markets colorful and the setting clean and beautiful. Much of KK had to be rebuilt after it was bombed during World War II, so the town itself has few historical buildings. It does, however, have some fascinating attractions nearby. These include pristine beaches (populated by gorgeous luxury resorts), the water village Kampung Ayer and its houses built on stilts, the state mosque, Signal Hill and the excellent Sabah Museum (tribal artifacts, flora and fauna). It's also fun just to walk around the town. If possible, ride the 95-mi-/155-km-long narrow-gauge railroad (boarded at Tanjong Aru or Beaufort—a town 56 mi/90 km south of KK) to Tenom, past the beautiful rain forest and several small towns (it's a long day trip).

Many visitors head to Kinabalu National Park to climb Southeast Asia's highest mountain, 13,500-ft/4,100-m Mount Kinabalu. Travelers considering this trek should be in good physical condition, and a special permit must be obtained in advance from the National Parks Board or at park headquarters the day prior to your hike. Allow three days for the ascent and descent. Only one (very cold) night is actually spent near the summit, but the view and experience are worth it.

There are a number of nature walks through the rain forest near park headquarters, but be forewarned that leeches are common in the damp, low-lying areas. The park is really a botanist's dream: There are still many unnamed species in the region, and among the classified plants are the rafflesia (the world's largest flower) and the nepenthes (an insect-devouring pitcher plant).

After trekking around the park, rest your aching muscles in the sulfur baths of the Poring Hot Springs, located 25 mi/45 km from park headquarters. Right next to the springs is the Jungle Canopy Walkway, a suspended walkway (at times as high as 100 ft/30 m) that allows you to stroll along the treetops and gives you a unique view of the jungle. Be sure to take along insect repellent.


Sabah's other popular tourist city is Sandakan, which lies on the eastern coast of the state. As with KK, it's not the city itself that draws people, but its proximity to key attractions in the region. Within a 25 mi/40 km radius you'll find Turtle Islands National Park, where you can observe turtles laying eggs on the beach; the Gomantong Caves, limestone formations famed for the edible birds' nests harvested there; and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, the world's largest orangutan sanctuary. A cruise down the Sungai Kinabatangan, the longest river in Sabah, reveals an amazing variety of wildlife.

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