Sabah is a place that is blessed by nature's beauty. Located on the north eastern side of Borneo, Sabah has the Celebes and Sulu seas to its east and the South China Sea to the north and west.
Borneo is the third biggest island in the world and boasts a wide variety of sights – magnificent beaches, picturesque islands, exotic rainforests and even ancient caves.
Sabah is also known as the land below the wind. Also there are never typhoons and no monsoon season in Sabah compared to the Philippines. Sabh is indeed a year round touristic destination.
Aside from the natural beauty at every turn, Sabah is a unique place that hosts more than 32 indigenous groups made up of 30 different ethnic races. For many travellers, it is Sabah's people that make this island such a special place.
Sabah boasts fertile plains, free-flowing rivers, deep jungles, coastal mangrove areas and far-stretching white sandy beaches that are perfectly postcard-worthy.
Sabah's pride and joy being Mount Kinabalu, a majestic mountain that stands at 4095 metres tall. This impressive granite massif is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO world heritage site. Located in Kinabalu Park, Mount Kinabalu is an important part of Sabah's identity and the state capital was renamed in 1964 from 'Jesselton' to 'Kota Kinabalu'.
Sabah has an incredibly diverse underwater environment too. The far-reaching coastline boasts colourful coral reefs that teem with life and the only oceanic island of Sipadan boasts such a rich marine environment that needs to be seen in order to be believed.
Quite simply, Sabah has it all: friendly locals, beautiful mountains, pristine rainforests, fauna, flora, and an underwater paradise waiting to be explored beneath its crystal clear waters.
Eco-Adventures in Sabah, Borneo
The beautiful land of Sabah is home to eco-treasures beyond your wildest imagination! Boasting some of the best scuba diving in the world, this tropical paradise has it all: from pristine sandy beaches to the highest mountain in southeast Asia, not to mention the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, which blooms in rainforests that are over a million years old.
Sabah offers fantastic opportunities for those seeking adventure including jungle trekking, caving, mountain climbing, white water rafting or scuba diving. With golf courses and private beaches to sunbathe on, there's something for everyone at this great destination.
Accommodation options range from world-famous holiday resorts to homestays where tourists stay with locals in traditional longhouses. Many visitors choose to learn more about the interesting and historic local customs of Sabah – the local people are warm, welcoming and friendly and are always happy to share a taste of the potent local rice wine known as 'hiing' or 'lihiing'. Sabah prides itself in having a rich and diverse cultural heritage and locals are only too happy to share their traditions and colourful festivals with newcomers.
What to do in Sabah
Just as diverse as it is culturally, Sabah offers a host of activities ranging from adventure options to diving to shopping and sightseeing.
Those seeking adrenaline-filled activities will not be disappointed with what's on offer in Sabah. Climbing Mount Kinabalu and boasting that you've reached the highest peak between New Guinea and the Himalayas is often at the top of adrenaline junkies' bucket lists. You can also opt to mountain bike along Danum Valley's dirt tracks or white water raft in Kiulu River (for beginners) or Padas River (more advanced).
Sabah offers world-class diving and snorkeling and is enjoyed by young and old. There are 5 islands that make up Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park which offers sensational diving options, or there is also Pulau Tiga Island, well-known for being the island where the first Survivor TV series was held. The world renowned Sipadan Island is a haven for colorful marine life such as lobsters, a wide variety of reef fish, sea turtles, barracuda and corals in every shape and size imaginable. Sabah's crystal clear waters make excellent snorkeling and scuba diving a sure-thing no matter where you choose to visit.
Sabah boasts lush jungles with plenty opportunities for spotting some unique wildlife and enjoying nature in its purest form. Some of the oldest rain forests are in the area known as Maliau Basin, while those who wish to stay close to the water can enjoy a cruise along Kinabatangan River. During your jungle visit you might be lucky enough to see elephants and native monkeys as well as mangrove swamps with their own unique wildlife offerings. Take a jungle trek to the oxbow lakes where you'll find a plethora of birds as well as the world-famous orangutan orphans which are fed and cared for in this area. Sabah is without a doubt a top choice for wildlife lovers all over the world.
Islands and Beaches
abah is a top choice for those looking to escape the daily grind and spend time relaxing on a white sandy beach with stunning views of the sea. Sabah has a number of resorts that offer their own beach spaces as well as activities such as surfing, sailing and jet skiing. For those seeking even more relaxation, many resorts will have an on-site spa that offers aromatherapy treatments or Jacuzzis for those looking to unwind with the help of bubbles and warmth.
Sabah is the true definition of the term melting pot, with 32 different ethnic groups each having their own cultural heritage, traditions and customs. Some of the larger ethnic groups are known as Kadazan or Dusun, Murut, Kadayan, Rungus and Bajau and these and the other groups speak over 80 dialects between them. Each ethnic group is proud of their traditional dances and costumes, their exotic cuisine and their crafts. To gain a solid understanding of these cultures, many visitors opt to visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village or follow a tour such as Monsopiad Headhunter's Tour where you'll see live demonstration huts specifically set up for tourists. For an authentic experience, take the opportunity to use a homestay program that will allow you to stay with a tribal family to learn about their home life, food and cultural heritage.
Sabah offers some fantastic golfing opportunities that should certainly not be missed by fans of the sport. With so much natural beauty surrounding the area, the backdrop for a golf game here is unlike any other. There are many large resorts that boast their own golf courses such as Shangri-la Rasa Ria, Nexus or Sutera Harbour where you might be playing golf surrounded by majestic seas, towering mountains and scenic valleys.
A fairly new addition to Sabah is the option for shopping in the many malls around the city of Kota Kinabalu. Here visitors and locals find international brands, restaurants and cafes and bars and pubs aplenty, especially in the city center. Great options for tourists are local handicrafts, Sabah pearls, Borneo books and Sabah seafood produce which is some of the best in the world.
Sightseeing is easily achieved in Sabah with 6 national parks, museums, war memorials, places of worship, markets (known as tamu) and cultural villages set up for just this purpose. For first-time travellers, Mount Kinabalu National Park is a must-see. Whatever your pleasure when sightseeing, Sabah is likely to offer it.
Honeymoons and Weddings
Those interested in culture will be blown away by the exotic options available for weddings and honeymoons in Sabah. Combine your traditions with those of a traditional wedding ceremony to truly make your wedding day special. For proposals, nothing says 'I love you' more than a proposal on top of Mount Kinabalu's highest peak, or from the depths of the stunning sea. For newlyweds looking for honeymoon options, Sabah is an excellent choice with many resorts offering specials and packages.
Community and Education Projects
For schools and colleges there is no better way to ensure a textbook comes alive than by the eco-learning opportunities available in Sabah.
Volunteer opportunities are available in local communities assisting some of Sabah's poorest people by helping with teaching orphaned children English, construction work or environmental projects like reforestation, beach clean ups and plantation assistance. Despite the obvious hardships that come from their remote location and minimal access to first world services, the people of Sabah's rural communities are friendly, warm and generous and for many volunteers this cultural exchange is an eye-opening and socially rewarding experience.
The word 'tamu' means the chance for locals to exchange gossip and watch what goes on at the weekly market where people of all the various cultures come to buy and sell their wares. In Sabah, local traders bring their produce and crops to sell at tamu on a weekly basis. Everything from rice wine (tapai) to leafy greens, pickled wild mango known as bambangan and local cakes are sold, not to mention handicrafts. These markets occur on weekends and visitors are sure to be enticed by the sights, sounds and smells of a local tamu with the vendors welcoming you in to sample their goods and offering bargains. Markets can open as early as 6pm and usually close by 2pm.
Sabah's climate is tropical/equatorial, meaning it is hot and sunny most of the year. To avoid heatstroke, visitors need to take precaution and dress in cool, comfortable clothing. Rains are scattered and unpredictable at any time of year so it is always advisable to bring suitable clothing and umbrellas so as not to get caught in a sudden downpour.
The average temperature in the lowlands of Sabah is 32°C. The lowland destinations include Tawai, Kudat, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu.
The average temperature in the highlands is 21°C. The highland destinations include Kundasang, Ranau and Tambunan.
It's important to remember that Mount Kinabalu has its own unique
climate. Here temperatures can easily drop to below freezing when
you are at 3500-4000 metres.
Sabah's currency is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM or MYR). Foreign currency and travelers checks can be exchanged at money changing kiosks at large shopping centres, airports and hotels, although hotels will charge a higher fee for converting currency.
Credit and debit Cards such as MasterCard, Visa, UnionPay, American Express and Diners Club are accepted at almost all supermarkets, shopping centers, restaurants, hotels, etc.
The local timezone in Sabah is Standard Malaysian Time which is GMT +8.
Mini markets, supermarkets, shopping centers and restaurants are
usually open every day from 10 am – 10 pm. When tipping, most restaurants,
clubs and cafes will include 5% service charge automatically. At
most places, tipping is not obligatory.
Electricity and Water
The electricity in Sabah is 240 V AC and on the 50-cycle system. Most areas have treated pipe water available.
A number of languages are widely spoken in Sabah, including English and Bahasa Malysia which is the national language. Chinese dialects and Mandarin is also fairly widely spoken.
Mobile phone coverage
It is possible to get cell phone coverage in most parts of Sabah with some of the remote areas being the only exception. Public telephones are no longer common in many places.
Helth and Medical
Clinics, government hospitals and dispensaries are all available in most towns. To obtain a list of private medical establishments or pharmacies, consult the local phone directory. Those with specific medical conditions are always advised to travel with a good supply of the required medication based on their condition.
People in Sabah greet each other with 'Selamat Datang' which means welcome, to which the other person responds 'Terima Kasih' which means thank you.
People in Sabah are friendly and will usually accept a handshake as a means of introduction, although some religions prefer not to have physical contact.
Legend About the Origins of Ethnic Groups in Sabah
The population of Sabah is made up of over 30 ethnic races which between them speak at least 80 local dialects. With such a culturally diverse and heterogeneous population, it's little wonder that the origins of these many different ethnic groups is explained through a folk tale originating from Sabah's oldest groups.
The legendary story speaks of the Garden of Eden of Sabah (known as Nunuk Ragang) which had a river running through it with a nunuk (banyan) tree on its bank. The story goes that the children of Sabah loved to spend time playing in the river, climbing the branches of the nunuk/banyan tree to catch the golden rays of the sun, giving the people of Sabah their beautiful golden glowing skin. The people in Nunuk Ragang were very happy and multiplied, soon creating too many people that crowded the garden. Families were forced to move away and find homes elsewhere – some became farmers that settled across the valley's plains and others became hunters in the jungles of the highlands. Other families went as far as the eastern coast of Sabah where they eventually chose to settle, and that, as the legend goes, is how the people of Sabah became so widespread and culturally diverse.
Traditionally, most of the ethnic groups of Sabah had a strong and fairly similar oral history, holding on to their unique cultural heritage and their own languages. However, the rugged terrains made communication difficult and it has now become custom for the dialects to merge into common languages. The dress styles, crafts and cultures still remain intact for the various ethnic groups as customs and traditions have long since been part of the daily life of a Sabahan. The biggest ethnic group indigenous to the region is Kadazan-Dusun. The next largest group is Bajau and then Murut.
Sabah is truly a unique eco-treasure that offers an exotic and multicultural experience unlike other places. So many different types of people live here in harmony, yet they maintain their own cultures, celebrate their own festivals and engage in their own traditions which makes Sabah a very special place indeed.
As the largest ethnic group in Sabah, many members of the Kadazandusun
tribe became rice cultivators – both wet rice and hill rice cultivation
were popular methods of cultivation. Since then there have been
many tribe members who moved to urban areas where they now serve
in the professional and civil servant industry. The people of the
Kadazandusun tribe speak a variation of the Dusunic family language
and believe that there is life in all living things. This animistic
belief system is unique to this tribe and has an impact on their
The word 'Murut' translates to 'hill people', which is where this tribe has a large presence. Inhabiting the south eastern and interior areas of Sabah in the districts known as Keningau, Tenom and Pensiangan. The Muru Tribe are also found between the Sarawak and Kalimantan border and were highly feared head-hunters at one time in history. Muruts live in traditional longhouses and hunt, fish and cultivate the land to survive. Muruts are traditional hunters that make use of a blowpipe and spear and will often gather plant paddy, resin and rattan from the surrounding jungles to use in their everday lives. People of the Murut tribe have over 15 languages and an additional 21 dialects, most of which are related to the Kadazandusun languages. The one language that is most widely spoken and understood amongst Muruts is Tanggal.
As the second largest group of indigenous people, this tribe can be found along Sabah's coastal regions: Kota Belud, Semporna and Kota Kinabalu. Originally believed to have emigrated from the Philippines, the Bajau tribe is an Islamic group who were excellent seafarers and well-known for being fierce pirates. On the west coast of Sabah, the Bajau tribe members became farmers and cattle-breeders and are now known as the 'Cowby Horsemen' of Sabah while on the east coast, the Bajaus traditionally lived right off the coast and worked as fisherman.
Hailing from the Kudat district, this tribe maintains many aspects of their ancient and historically significant traditions even to this day. The Rungus tribe is well known for beautiful beadwork and this is on display in many of the traditional dress clothes still worn by women of the tribe today. The costumes are hand made in a very traditional way with hand-grown cotton that has been hand-spun the same way this tribe has been doing for generations.
Customs in Sabah
Throughout Brunei and Malaysia, the official religion is Islam, a conservative religion when it comes to correct dress and manners. It is Islam custom to take off your shoes before entering someone's home and also when entering a mosque which is a place of worship. Additionally, women should always ensure that their arms, knees and heads are covered when entering a mosque. Women are not able to touch the Quran and should not move in front of other worshippers during prayer times.
Other customs to note include the fact that gifts, especially food items, are always passed with the right hand and not the left. Pointing an index finger at others is considered rude in Islamic culture, as is beckoning someone over using your fingers with your palm upwards. To beckon someone over politely, use your whole hand and face your palm downwards. Due to the conservative culture, nude sunbathing is forbidden and is severely frowned upon.
Although there are many different languages spoken in Sabah, English is spoken in many areas, as is the national language of Bahasa Malaysia. Chinese dialects and Mandarin are also fairly common in the area.
Getting To Sabah
Most visitors to Sabah arrive by flight to either Kota Kinabalu, Tawau or Sandakan.
Whether you're flying into Sabah from a domestic or international destination, it is a well-connected area thanks to the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) which is just a 20 drive minutes from the city. Daily direct flights from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to Sabah operate through AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and MASwings.
Sabah is well-connected internationally too, with daily flights coming in from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Brunei, South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore. The airlines that fly into Sabah include Cathay Pacific, Cebu Pacific Air, Silk Air, Royal Brunei Airlines, China Souther, Rayani Air, FireFly, Dragonair, MASwings and Malindo Air.
For direct flights to Kota Kinabalu from domestic destinations,
Malaysia Airlines operates out of Johor Bahru, Miri and Kuching
Sibu. There are also in-state services available to Sandakan and
other destinations. Direct flights to Kota Kinabalu are also possible
from Johor Bahru with AirAsia.
If you're coming to Sabah by sea from Brunei, Labuan, Indonesia or the Philippines, there are various immigration checkpoints at the ferry terminals at Tawau, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan.
For those bringing their own yachts, these can be berthed at Kota Kinabalu's Sutera Harbour Marina. All vessels will need to undergo port clearance before the crew is allowed to disembark.
Although it can be a long journey, it is possible to travel by car to Kota Kinabalu from Brunei Darussalam and Kuching via the Trans Borneo Highway.
Getting around in Sabah
In downtown spots it is easy to move around on foot between the markets, tourism offices, restaurants and tour operators. If you choose to venture beyond the city center you'll need to drive with various options presented below:
From the city center of Kota Kinabalu visitors are able to catch local taxis and buses, although most tourists will have their tour operators arrange transportation for them.
Renting a car
It is only possible to rent a car in Kota Kinabalu, but there are a wide range of car options available to you depending on your needs. Car rental companies offer basic compact options as well as off-road and 4x4 options or vans and coaches depending on your group's size. It is advisable to pre-arrange car rental needs with your tour operator before arriving.
Ferries and Boats
Located just to the north of Kota Kinabalu's downtown area, the ferry terminal known as Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal will get you to Labuan and further on to Brunei. It is also the departure point for Gayana Eco Resort and Manukan Island Resort. Ferries operate daily between 6 am to 6 pm, however the last boat leaves the terminal at 4:30 pm and the boats leave the islands at 5:00 pm.
There are also express boats available which travel between the ferry terminal and the surrounding islands within Tunk Abdul Rahman Marine Park. The names of these islands are Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik, Pulau Sulug, Pulau Gaya and Pulau Sapi.
Trains run from Tanjung Aru Railway Station in the city of Kota
Kinabalu to the areas known as Tenom and Beaufort. This is the only
railway operation in the whole of Borneo. The journey from Kota
Kinabalu to Beaufort takes a little under 2 hours, while the trip
to Tenom takes 5 hours. The train travels through the Padas River
gorge when heading towards Tenom and offers fantastic scenery along