Travel Guide Asia Malaysia Malaysian Borneo Sabah

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Introduction

The floating mosque at sunset

The floating mosque at sunset

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Sabah is one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo (Sarawak being the other state). This territory has a certain level of autonomy in administration, immigration, and judiciary which differentiates it from the Malaysian Peninsula states. Sabah is situated in northern Borneo, bordering the state of Sarawak to the southwest, Kalimantan to the south, while separated by sea from the Federal Territory of Labuan in the west and the Philippines to the north and east. Kota Kinabalu is the capital city as well the economic centre for the state and the seat for the Sabah state government. Other major towns in Sabah include Sandakan and Tawau. As of the 2015 census in Malaysia, the state's population is 3,543,500. Sabah has an equatorial climate with tropical rainforests and abundant animal and plant species. The state has a long mountain ranges in the west side which formed as part of the Crocker Range National Park. Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia while Mount Kinabalu is the highest point of Sabah as well for Malaysia.

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Geography

The total land area of Sabah is nearly 72,500 square kilometres surrounded by the South China Sea in the west, Sulu Sea in the northeast and Celebes Sea in the southeast. Because of Sabah's coastline facing three seas, the state receive an extensive marine resources. The state coastline is covered with mangrove and nipah forests. The mangroves cover about 331,325 hectares of the state land and constitute 57% of the total mangroves in the country. Both coastal areas in the west coast and east coast are entirely dominating by sand beaches, while in sheltered areas the sand was mixed with mud. The northern area of Tanjung Simpang Mengayau has a type of pocket beach. The areas in the west coast has a large freshwater wetlands, with the Klias Peninsula hosts a large area of tidal wetlands. The western part of Sabah is generally mountainous, containing three highest peak. The main mountain ranges is the Crocker Range with several mountains varying height from about 1,000 metres to 4,000 metres. Adjacent to the Crocker Range is the Trus Madi Range with Mount Trus Madi, with a height of 2,642 metres. The highest peak is the Mount Kinabalu, with a height around 4,095 metres. It is one of the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. While located not far from Mount Kinabalu is Mount Tambuyukon, with a height of 2,579 metres.

These mountains and hills are traversed by an extensive network of river valleys and are in most cases covered with dense rainforest. There are lower ranges of hills extending towards the western coasts, southern plains, and the interior or central part of Sabah. The central and eastern portion of Sabah are generally lower mountain ranges and plains with occasional hills. In the east coast located the Kinabatangan River, which is the second longest river in Malaysia after Rajang River in Sarawak with a length of 560 kilometres. The river begins from the western ranges and snakes its way through the central region towards the east coast out into the Sulu Sea. Other major rivers including the Kalabakan River, Kolopis River, Liwagu River, Padas River, Paitan River, Segama River and Sugut River. In addition to Babagon River, Bengkoka River, Kadamaian River, Kalumpang River, Kiulu River, Mawao River, Membakut River, Mesapol River, Nabawan River, Papar River, Pensiangan River, Tamparuli River and Wario River.

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Cities

  • Kota Kinabalu - the largest city in Malaysian Borneo, and the state capital of Sabah; main entry point into Sabah for international visitors
  • Sandakan - former capital of Sabah; famous for seafood, the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and as a jumping-off point for the Turtle Islands Park
  • Tawau - largest town in the southeast; main entry point into Sabah from Indonesia
  • Lahad Datu - staging point for travellers headed for the forests of Danum Valley
  • Keningau
  • Semporna - jumping-off point for dive sites and resort islands in southeastern Sabah
  • Kudat - laid-back homeland of the Rungus people and the first part of Sabah to be settled by Chinese migrants
  • Tenom - largest town in the heartland of the indigenous Murut people; home to the Sabah Agricultural Park
  • Kundasang - small town featuring the War Memorial and also popular for its fresh vegetables, plantations and farms suitable for temperate climate.
  • Ranau - largest town in the vicinity of Mount Kinabalu.

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Sights and Activities

  • Mount Kinabalu - Climb this 4,095-metre tall mountain, the tallest in Malaysia, for some stunning views.
  • Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre - This centre rehabilitates orangutans that have been orphaned or kept as pets in the hope of reintroducing them to the wild.
  • Turtle Islands National Park - A conservation park for endangered sea turtles and a chance to see green turtles or hawksbills lay their eggs.
  • Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park - Five islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu make up this National Park.
  • Pulau Tiga National Park
  • Crocker Range National Park
  • Tawau Hills Park
  • Poring Hot Springs
  • Pulau Sipadan - One of the top scuba diving spots in the world.
  • Danum Valley Conservation Area - A large section of virgin rainforest in the middle of Sabah about 3 hours from Lahad Datu.
  • Tabin Wildlife Reserve - A 120,500 hectare nature reserve on the east coast of Sabah near Lahad Datu.
  • Gomantong Caves - millions of swifts and bats call these caves home.
  • Tanjung Simpang Mengayau - The tip of Borneo.
  • North Borneo Railway
  • Maliau Basin Conservation Area - "Sabah's Lost World", reputedly one of the oldest rainforest jungles in the world.
  • Jungle Camps Kinabatangan River
  • Tun Sakaran Marine Park - home to some of the world's most biodiverse reefs, and some great diving.

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Events and Festivals

  • Thaipusam - This annual Hindu festival commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan. Over a million devotees and visitors throng Batu Caves on this eventful celebration, every year.
  • Chinese New Year - Chinese make up about a quarter of the total population and in honour of the Chinese New Year, Malaysia has declared the first two days as public holidays. In the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, a date between 21 January and 20 February.
  • Hari Raya Aidil Fitri (Eid ul-Fitr) - This Muslim festival marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and is celebrated by 60% of the population. The first two days are public holidays, and most people take extra days off to spend time with family and visit relatives and friends.
  • Mid-Autumn Festival - Alternatively known as the Lantern Festival or Mooncake Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the full moon day (15th day) of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar – usually in September.
  • Deepavali (or Diwali) - A significant Hindu festival also known as the Festival of Lights, celebrating the victory of good over evil. Based on the Hindu luni-solar calendar, Deepavali typically falls between mid-October and mid-November.
  • Christmas - This joyous day is declared a public holiday in Malaysia. Year 2000 census indicates that almost a tenth of the population are Christians.

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Weather

Sabah, like much of Malaysia, has a tropical climate with hot and humid conditions year round. Temperatures usually are around 32 °C during the day and around 24 °C at night. Higher areas, and especially up Mount Kinabalu, temperatures are lower and on the top temperatures can drop to below 0 °C at night!

Although there is no distinctive dry season, the months of June to December in general are wetter than January to April, well, at least along the northwest coast. Along the eastcoast, the months of November to January stand out in having more rain and the drier months are March and April. In general though, rain is possible anytime and sometimes up to 500 mm of rain a month is not unheard of.

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Getting There

Like neighbouring Sarawak, Sabah maintains autonomy on immigration rules, mostly so that non-Sabahans cannot freely immigrate and swamp the state. Malaysians from Peninsular Malaysia and neighbouring Sarawak are subjected to some level of immigration control, such as showing their identity cards, and are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time. Foreigners need to fill out a second immigration form. Nevertheless, for most travellers this is just a formality and an interesting extra stamp on their passport. There is an exception, if you arrive in Sarawak then enter Labuan and on into Sabah there is no need to go through immigration. This can cause problems/delays when exiting Sabah as you have not entered via immigration. To avoid any problems if arriving via Labuan it would be best to voluntarily go via the immigration and have your passport stamped on entering.

By Plane

Kota Kinabalu International Airport (IATA: BKI) is Sabah's international gateway and is located 8 kilometres from the city of Kota Kinabalu. It is the second busiest airport in Malaysia. Airlines with flights servicing Kota Kinabalu include Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia, Dragonair, Korean Air and Silk Air.

There are many daily flights to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru in the peninsula; Kuching and Miri in Sarawak; Sandakan and Tawau in Sabah. The flight duration is approximately 2.5 hours from the peninsula. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia service these routes but book at least a month ahead to get good rates. AirAsia and other budget airlines operate from the Terminal 2 of the airport.

Tawau Airport (TWU IATA) is the only other Sabahan airport with international flights, in this case to Tarakan in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan. These flights are operated by MASWings. Tawau is also served by interstate flights to Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur.

Sandakan Airport (SDK IATA) does not have international flights at present, but is linked to Kuala Lumpur by AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines. It was announced in 2017 that the Sandakan runway extension would be build to provide a second Sabah international airport.

The other two airports in Sabah - which are in Kudat (KUD IATA) and Lahad Datu (LDU IATA) - do not have interstate or international flights.

By Car

The only place where you can travel overland into Sabah is from Sarawak through the border crossing at Merapok near Lawas. Everyone will have to go through immigration checks here. The road between Kota Kinabalu and the border is sealed all the way and in good condition. If you are planning to do the overland trail from Sarawak to Sabah, it is possible to get from Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei - or with a bit of a stretch, from Miri - to Kota Kinabalu within a day. See Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land for details. The trip includes multiple border crossings (each with an exit and an entrance stamp as (north to south) you exit Sabah, enter Sarawak, exit Sarawak, enter Brunei, exit Brunei, enter Sarawak, exit Sarawak, and enter the main part of Brunei again before crossing back into Sarawak after Bandar Seri Begawan.

There is no official land crossing with Indonesia, although there may be some informal tracks from the interior of Sabah which locals use to get to East Kalimantan.

By Bus

There are buses once a day from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu.

By Boat

You can enter Sabah by boat from the Malaysian Federal Territory of Labuan, Zamboanga in the southern Philippines, and from Nunukan in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. However, there are no passenger boat services between Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.

  • To/from Labuan: Passenger boats depart Labuan for Kota Kinabalu and Sipitang while vehicular ferries operate between Labuan and Menumbok in the southern part of Sabah. See the individual city pages for ferry details. Labuan is where you have to change boats if you hope to travel between Brunei and Kota Kinabalu. See the Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land page tails.
  • To/from Zamboanga: Boats run between Zamboanga in Mindanao in the Philippines and Sandakan.
  • To/from Nunukan: At least one ferry daily between Nunukan in East Kalimantan and Tawau.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Kota Kinabalu International Airport has flights to all other airports in Sabah on the following airlines; Kudat: MASWings; Lahad Datu: MASWings; Sandakan: AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and MASWings; Tawau: AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and MASWings. All the flights (with the exception of Kota Kinabalu-Kudat flights) operate several times a day. Intra-Sabah flights originating at Sandakan Airport go to Kota Kinabalu, Kudat and Tawau, while Tawau Airport's intra-Sabah flights go to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. Kudat Airport has flights to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, while Lahad Datu Airport is only served by flights to Kota Kinabalu.

In addition, there are airstrips such as those in Keningau, Semporna and Tomanggong which do not have any commercial air traffic. However, if you wish to visit these places, it is worth checking before your trip to see if flights to these airports have been reinstated.

By Train

The North Borneo Railway is the only railway network on Borneo. The network is small (134 kilometres), linking Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort along the west coast, and then inland along the Padas River to Tenom, which is the more interesting and popular stretch for travellers. The new Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort service opened in February 2011. Beaufort to Tenom remains only once a day.

By Car

Sabah's road network is not as developed as that in Peninsular Malaysia and there are large areas of the interior, such as the Kinabatangan River basin, which are not connected by road. The main road most useful to travellers are those running along the West Coast from the Sabah-Sarawak border at Sindumin through Sipitang, Beaufort and Papar to Kota Kinabalu (called Route A2) and northwards from Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud and ending at Kudat near the northern tip of Sabah (Route A1). The main road into the West Coast interior runs from Kota Kinabalu to Tambunan, Keningau and Tenom.

The main road to the East Coast (Route A4) branches off Route A1 near Tuaran, about 30 kilometres north of Kota Kinabalu. It passes the foot of Mount Kinabalu and Ranau right through to Sandakan. The main road to Tawau and the southeastern parts of Sabah (Route A5) branches off from Route A4 about 55 kilometres west of Sandakan or 285 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu.

A road is being constructed from Keningau through the isolated Pensiangan and Kalabakan districts to Tawau at the southeastern corner of Sabah. Once completed, the road will enable those travelling from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau to cut travelling time and distances significantly without needing to use the KK-Sandakan road.

By Bus

Long distance express buses operate between major cities in Sabah. Most of these are air-conditioned and quite comfortable. There are also non-aircon stage buses running between towns which stop to pick-up and let down passengers along the way. They may be cheaper but take forever to get anywhere.

A lot of short-distance inter-town travel in Sabah is also done by minibuses and minivans. These are either small buses or vans which are converted to take in passeners. They charge the same fare as buses but carry fewer passengers. Most operate in the morning and will only leave when they are full. But once they get going, the journey can be quite fast. You can make long distance journeys with minibuses and minivans but you'll have to change along the way.

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Language

The most commonly spoken language in Sabah is Malay, the national language of Malaysia. Travellers intending to drive in Sabah should learn some of the words and phrases commonly encountered on the roads; similarly, travellers who need to spend time dealing with civil servants would do well to brush up on their spoken Malay, as lower-level civil servants generally speak little or no English. Some knowledge of Malay is also important when interacting with locals in smaller towns and rural areas. The dialect of Malay spoken in Sabah is somewhat different in its pronunciation and vocabulary from Malay as spoken in Peninsular Malaysia. This is because Sabahan Malay is influenced by the native languages of indigenous peoples, especially the Kadazan Dusun.

That said, English remains the lingua franca of the private sector, especially in the major towns. As such, many shop signs are written at least partially in English, and most business persons understand and speak it with varying levels of fluency. As you would expect, the majority of workers in the tourism industry also speak excellent English and increasingly more forms of mainland Chinese language. Generally, the further away you are from the major towns, the less likely it is that the locals are able to speak English, so learning, communicating in Malay becomes more important to help you get around and get meals and accommodation.

Sabah is a melting pot of indigenous cultures. Among the main indigenous local races are the Kadazan Dusuns or Kadazandusun, Rungus, Murut, Bajau. These are further divided into various subgroups native to villages/regions. As such, different indigenous languages predominate in different regions of Sabah. For example, you would expect to hear Kadazan in Penampang, Bajau in Kota Belud, Rungus in Kudat. Of course, this does not mean you would not hear other native languages spoken in those areas. The majority of indigenous Sabahans speak Malay, but you may find that those in the countryside prefer their native tongue. In the most rural areas not much else may be understood. Many indigenous Sabahans in the urban areas speak English, and some may surprise you with their command of Mandarin or other Chinese dialects (intermarriage between native Sabahans and Chinese Sabahans is extremely common).

The Chinese minority in Sabah is concentrated in the major towns (i.e. Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Tawau, Lahad Datu) and in several of the smaller towns (particularly Kudat, Beaufort, Keningau and Tenom). The majority of Chinese Sabahans speak Hakka, a southern Chinese dialect which is closely related to Cantonese. There are smaller communities that speak Cantonese, Hokkien and other Chinese dialects. This is a notable difference from other parts of Malaysia as Sabah is the only state in Malaysia (and indeed one of few places in the world) where Hakka is the majority language among the local Chinese populace. However, most Chinese Sabahans also speak Mandarin and English, especially the younger generations. In fact, some younger Chinese Sabahans have adopted Mandarin as their mother tongue at the expense of their family's native dialect. Conversely, it is not uncommon to encounter elderly Chinese, especially in the countryside, who speak only their native dialect. There are a few towns in Sabah where Hakkas do not form the majority in the local Chinese community, notably including Sandakan (mainly Cantonese) and Sipitang (mainly Hokkien).

Sabah is also home to immigrant communities from other countries. In addition to their native languages, some also understand/speak a form of Malay that is used across Indonesia, but very few speak English. They live in the Kampung Laut Air (Sea Water Village). Some of the Tagalog-speaking immigrants from the Philippines are found in the larger towns, Kinarut and Papar townships south of KK and Kota Kinabalu itself along the waterfront.

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Eat

"Kin-Zhi Mien"(Economy Mee) is liked by locals for morning breakfast, topped with Stuffed Meat To-fu, Eggplant, Fried Egg, and etc. "Sang-Nyuk Mien" (Rare Pork Meat Noodle), Laksa Mee (Spiced Curry & Coconut Noodle), Mee Soto (Beef Stew Malay Style) and more. Ngiu Chap(Beef Noodle), Fresh Seafood, Local Kadazan Cuisine.

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Drink

Lime juice, mango juice, and other fresh fruit juices. Cheap liquors are very widely available at most supermarkets and mini markets in the state. Other alcoholic drinks such as beer and whisky are also widely available.

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Accommodation in Sabah

We have a comprehensive list of accommodation in Sabah searchable right here on Travellerspoint. You can use our map to quickly compare budget, mid-range or top of the range accommodation in Sabah and areas nearby.

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This is version 38. Last edited at 15:25 on Mar 12, 19 by Utrecht. 39 articles link to this page.

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