I recently returned from 10 action-packed days in Malaysian Borneo – also known as Sabah. For those unfamiliar with the island (the largest in Asia, as a matter of fact), it’s a mecca for nature-lovers and adventure-seekers alike.
From 30m below sea level to 4,095m above, Borneo ticked all the boxes. In case it happens to be on your travel hit list (if it’s not, it should be), here are some tips for making the most of this Malaysian gem…
One of Borneo’s biggest draw cards is its dive spots – the most famous being the oceanic island of Sipadan. Words can’t really explain how magical the diving is here. From countless turtles and reef sharks, to brilliantly coloured coral and huuuge schools of barracuda and jackfish (seriously, they were like big fish tornadoes), it was hard to take it all in as there was just so much going on and countless things to see.
A limited number of permits for Sipadan are issued daily which means booking in advance is essential. We booked our dives through Sipadan Scuba. They were great: friendly, knowledgeable and had good gear.
Besides Sipadan, there are plenty of other places to dive and snorkel around the Semporna Islands. We spent a day at Mantabuan and, while it wasn’t as full on in terms of marine life as Sipadan, the abundance of coral and tropical fish made it an amazing place to explore.
BGBC tip: invest in a GoPro or good quality underwater camera before you go (especially if you’re planning to dive Sipadan). The visibility is just too good not to capture all the amazing things you’ll see!
Getting to Semporna: After flying to Kota Kinabalu, we caught an internal flight to Tawau (approx. 50 minutes). From Tawau airport, we caught a taxi to Semporna for RM80 – the drive took just under an hour with no traffic.
In terms of safety (Semporna has been in the media recently due to pirate activity in the area), we felt very safe during our few days there. Security has been heightened on many of the islands (expect to see armed guards patrolling the beaches) and dive boats are clearing the water before dusk. Although we opted to stay on the mainland in Semporna, we had friends who stayed on Mabul Island – they also said they felt secure throughout their stay.
Orangutans and proboscis monkeys
I could rave about Borneo’s primate population for days but I won’t – I’ll let the pics do the talking. The orangutans are an absolute must-see. If you have time, the proboscis monkeys are pretty entertaining.
We hit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in time for the afternoon viewing session; there are two feedings per day, one in the morning at 10am and the other at 3pm. While food is set out for the orangutans, there is no guarantee they will show up to eat it (they’re not captive). We were lucky to see at least eight roll in to chow down. A couple of them came in really close – it was amazing.
Further down the road, you’ll find the proboscis monkey sanctuary at Labuk Bay. We didn’t know too much about these guys before we saw them other than the fact they have crazy-shaped noses (that’s the G-rated way of putting it). Completely unique to Borneo, these monkeys are weird, wonderful and well-worth the bus ride (which conveniently departs from the orangutan rehab centre car park) to see.
There are lots of accommodation options in Sepilok – some better than others. We stayed at the Sepilok Jungle Resort and loved it. Along with being comfortable, clean and kitted out with a nice pool, the resort has a great open-air restaurant and is less than five minutes’ walk to the orangutan rehab centre.
Getting to Sepilok: While there are regular buses, we decided to catch an internal flight to Sandakan (approx. 30 minutes). From Sandakan airport, we got a taxi to Sepilok for RM130 – the drive took about half an hour.
If physical challenges are your thing, then climbing Mt Kinabalu will be right up your alley. With Low’s Peak summit sitting pretty at 4,095m above sea level, the views from the top are spectacular and totally worth working up a sweat to experience.
Based on friends’ recommendations, we opted for the two days/ one night package (booked through Amazing Borneo, which I highly recommend). Strictly speaking, this option sees you depart early in the morning to climb to the Laban Rata hut situated at 3,272m on day one. You then eat dinner and rest at the hut before departing around 3am the next day to reach the summit in time for sunrise. Afterwards, you descend back to Laban Rata for breakfast before making your way down the rest of the mountain. After chatting to our guide (who said seeing a sunrise was unlikely based on weather conditions), we ended up doing things slightly differently by reaching the summit in one day. Although it was hard on the legs, I was pleased we made the call to power up the mountain because (once the cloud cleared) completely and utterly breathtaking. We woke at our leisure then next morning and reached the bottom before midday.
If you’re considering doing the climb, here are a few things to take note of:
- Make sure you’re reasonably fit; walk/hike regularly before setting out to do Mt Kinabalu to ensure you don’t get injured and can actually enjoy yourself. There are hardly any flat bits to recover on – it’s literally straight up and straight down. Prep those pins!
- Take warm clothes; Low’s Peak summit is FREEZING and exposed to wind from all directions! Invest in good thermals and a decent windbreaker. Gloves and a hat are essential too.
- Consider trekking poles; we didn’t use these but if you have dodgy knees then I’d strongly recommend using these (especially for the descent)
As Borneo’s capital city, chances are you’ll fly in and out of Kota Kinabalu. To be completely honest, the place didn’t wow me. Given we were mainly keen to just chill by the pool following our Mt Kinabalu jaunt, the Hyatt Regency was a great place to stay. The waterfront night market (which fires up late afternoon) is definitely worth a wander. We (surprisingly) stumbled across an amazing little Italian restaurant further along the board walk: Gusto Food & Wine. Located right on the water’s edge, this joint is definitely worth checking out if you find yourself craving a calzone instead of mi goreng!
Borneo is a place that truly wowed me. It’s definitely worth venturing to if you ever have the chance.