Known for its dense rainforests, abundant wildlife, and incredible landscapes, the island of Borneo is a nature-lover’s paradise. Borneo is shared by the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, Indonesian Kalimantan, and the tiny nation of Brunei. You could easily spend several weeks, or perhaps months, discovering the island’s many natural wonders.
In this post, I’ll focus on Sabah – the Malaysian state in the northern part of Borneo. Planning for a trip can be overwhelming - especially to a place with so much to see! So to help you get started, I’m sharing our 11-day itinerary in Sabah, plus planning tips and lessons we learned along the way.
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Planning Your Trip
In Sabah, many activities require booking through a tour company (i.e. jungle excursions) or registering ahead of time to ensure you get a spot (i.e. Mt. Kinabalu summit climb). For this reason, it's best to plan your trip several months ahead of time, especially if you're going during high season.
I learned this lesson because I planned our trip to Sabah less than a month before we went. Looking (in June) for a good place to go in Southeast Asia during July, I found Sabah. In July, Sabah’s weather is sunny and drier than usual which makes it an ideal time to go. For me, this meant some hotels and tours were already full, which limited our options and made scheduling trickier. After a bit of finagling, our itinerary in Sabah fell into place and we had a great trip!
Weather Tips: Sabah’s tropical climate means it’s hot and humid all-year round so expect to sweat A LOT no matter when you go. Up in the mountains near Mount Kinabalu, the climate is significantly cooler, especially at night. I recommend bringing a jacket, especially if you plan to climb to the summit.
Need other planning ideas? Check out my 'Ultimate Guide to Preparing for International Travel'.
Getting to Sabah
We booked a short, 3-hour flight on AirAsia from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu – the capital of Sabah. The flight was smooth enough and only cost ~US$300pp round-trip booking the tickets 3 weeks out.
We arrived late in the evening (~11 pm) and had a long immigration wait (~1 hour). I'm not sure if it’s always so slow, but the lines felt like they were crawling.
That night, we booked a hotel near the airport to get a few hours of sleep before an early flight the next morning.
Day 1 - Flight to Sandakan | Sepilok
After our late night, we got an early start (8:45 am flight on AirAsia, ~US$40pp round-trip) and boarded a short 50-minute flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan, a town in eastern Sabah. From there, we took a 20-minute taxi to our hotel in Sepilok. We booked a couple nights at the Nature Lodge Sepilok which was well-situated amidst the sites we visited.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Since we arrived in the morning before the check-in time, we left our bags at the front desk and set out for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Sitting on protected land, this center serves as a place to rehabilitate and care for orphaned orangutans. Visitors can walk on boardwalks throughout the center, visit the nursery, and observe feedings twice daily (10 am & 3 pm).
We arrived around 11 am, missing the morning feeding time, but we still had a bit of time to wander through the center before lunch. As we walked, we came across two orangutans - one of them right on the boardwalk!
For lunch, I recommend the restaurant at the Sepilok Nature Resort. The food was delicious and the restaurant is next to a peaceful pond. This resort seems like it would be a nice accommodation option as well since it’s located right outside of two of the centers.
After lunch, we spent a couple more hours at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, saw the afternoon feeding, and visited the nursery.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
In the early evening, we headed to the Rainforest Discovery Centre for a night safari walk (ask your hotel to call and reserve your spot). We had ~10 people in our group, plus a couple guides to walk us around the park, look for the animals, and point them out to us.
Day 2 – Sepilok
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
After breakfast at our hotel, we started the day with the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. This center is a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation facility which people can visit to see the bears and learn about the threats they face. The center is compact so doesn’t take much time to walk through. The bears were quite active while we were there and it was fun to watch them. Rangers are standing along the boardwalk to answer questions and are happy to help you learn more about these bears and the center.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
After another delicious lunch at the Sepilok Nature Resort, we trekked back over to the Rainforest Discovery Center. There we walked the trails, hoping to spot some birds or animals. We didn’t have much luck spotting animals, but saw a lot of lizards.
Tip: Bring binoculars and a good flashlight on your trip to enhance the experience. It's difficult to see the wildlife with your naked eye and I wish we'd had binoculars when we visited.
In the early evening, we parked ourselves on a bench on the metal walkways and waited until we saw a couple flying squirrels.
Traveling to Sepilok? Check out this detailed review of our experience in my post
'Visiting Sepilok, Borneo: Orangutans, Sun Bears, and Conservation'.
Day 3 – Flight to Kota Kinabalu | Drive to Kinabalu National Park
We boarded a 10 am, 50-minute flight back to Kota Kinabalu, then rented a car at the airport. In Malaysia, they drive on the left side of the road. Even though we're American, since we live in Hong Kong, driving on the left isn't totally foreign to us. The fact that the car was automatic helped (according to Jeremy, I was in the passenger seat).
If you're able to do it, renting a car really is the best option. It allows you to set your own pace and get out to take photos!
The drive up to Kinabalu National Park was magnificent! We were so lucky with the weather that day – no clouds on top of Mt. Kinabalu!
We stayed at Mile 36 Lodge (everything is identified by mileage marker up there). We might have tried to stay inside the park if we'd planned earlier, but everything was full when I booked.
It worked out well in the end though, because our little shack of a room offered amazing views of Mt. Kinabalu!
Day 4 – Kinabalu National Park
We spent the day hiking around the trails of Kinabalu National Park. It was a rainy, cool day which was a nice break from the heat and humidity. The downside(s) of all that rain and moisture – the trails were rivers in some places and lots of leeches!
Tips for Dealing with Leeches
Day 5 – Poring Hot Springs | Drive to Kudat
Almost halfway through our trip, we said goodbye to jungles and mountains and headed for the beach. Since we had our own car, we decided to take a scenic route around the eastern side of Kinabalu National Park.
On our way, we stopped at Poring Hot Springs. Though we didn’t go in the hot springs, I enjoyed the canopy walkway while Jeremy tried to overcome his fear of heights. We also walked around the gardens and the butterfly farm.
Back on the road, we had great views of a different side of Mount Kinabalu as we drove parallel to the park.
The most startling thing about the drive though was the number of palm oil plantations. It was shocking and sad to see how much rainforest has been cleared for these plantations and know the effect this deforestation has on the wildlife in Borneo.
Days 5-8 – Kudat, North Borneo
After a ~4-hour drive, we arrived in north Borneo in the late afternoon of our fifth day. The reason we added to Kudat to our Borneo itinerary was in order to take scuba diving lessons!
North Borneo Biostation Resort
We chose to stay at the North Borneo Biostation Resort, an affordable dive resort in Kudat, north Borneo. Its wooden bungalows are simple and surrounded by lush, green palm trees which provide a quiet, natural environment in which to relax.
Don't expect luxury, but these chalets have everything you need. The front porch is a great spot to relax and sip a beer in the evening. This is another place which had an outdoor bathroom. Luckily neighbors were further away in these accommodations.
Learning to Scuba Dive
On our first evening in Kudat, we met our diving instructor, had a brief overview meeting, and selected our diving equipment. Then went to bed early so we could be ready for an early morning.
Our days at North Borneo Biostation were completely dedicated to our diving lessons. Learning how to scuba dive was probably one of the most mentally and physically challenging things I’ve done.
The reasons for this are because a) I was terrified of diving because I thought I’d do something wrong and accidentally kill myself; and b) I’m not in great shape and the equipment weighs ~50 lbs! Also, we did in 3 days what should have been done in 4 days due to our trip scheduling.
Our instructor at the diving resort - Giovanni - really knew his stuff, explained everything thoroughly and was really patient with me. I stuck it out and...
PADI Open Water Diver Certification Achieved!
After three exhausting days – I got my PADI Open Water Diver certification! I’m so glad I did it and felt hugely accomplished afterwards.
Read more about my experience Learning to Scuba Dive.
Perks of Scuba Diving
Despite the initial challenge, learning to scuba dive certainly had its perks. We saw incredibly beautiful scenery as we sailed out to our diving sites in north Borneo. The color of the water was stunning.
Each day, we'd eat lunch on a remote Borneo island and take in the spectacular views of the tropical water.
Not to mention, we saw so many colorful fish, corals, and even a few eels during our dives. After I got the hang of the diving skills (mostly), I was able to appreciate these sights a lot more.
Day 9 – Drive to Kota Kinabalu | Ferry to Gaya Island
After 3 days of diving lessons, we were back in the car heading to Kota Kinabalu. Since we were catching a ferry to Gaya Island, the rental car agency allowed us to return the car at Jesselton Point – the ferry terminal. We met the agent, he inspected the car briefly and that was it – very convenient.
At Jesselton Point, we checked in at our resort’s ferry counter and then boarded the boat for Gaya Island. Staying at the Gaya Island Resort was a splurge to end the trip. The resort has hillside villas nestled in the rainforest with views of the South China Sea.
Once we arrived and checked in, we headed straight for the beach to relax. We rented snorkel equipment from the resort and explored the coral in the swimming area. We saw a bunch of colorful fish, lots of sea urchins and even found a neon-blue, tiny stingray hiding beneath some of the coral!
Day 10 – Gaya Island Resort
Unfortunately, our full day on Gaya Island was one of the rainiest days of our trip. Since we booked directly with the hotel, we received a 50-minute couples massage included in our stay. So, we went for our massage, then drank cocktails and watched the rain.
Day 11 – Sightseeing in Kota Kinabalu
For our last full day in Sabah, we left Gaya Island and explored the town of Kota Kinabalu. We had an early flight the next morning (6:30am), so we stayed in a hotel downtown where it would be easy to arrange for a taxi.
The town center has a ton of accommodation options at a variety of price ranges.
Kota Kinabalu is a fun little town that’s easy to navigate on foot. We wandered around a market, climbed Signal Hill, saw the Atkinson Clock Tower, ate some gelato, drank some coffee, etc.
For sunset we grabbed a table along the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront, ordered some beers, and watched the colorful show in the sky.
What’s Missing from this Sabah Itinerary?
Obviously when you plan a last-minute trip during peak season like I did, you’re not going to be able to do everything. Also, 11 days seems like a lot but when you’re booking tours and transportation, the time fills up quickly. Below are a few things that I wish we’d had time for in our Sabah itinerary.
Kinabatangan River Cruise
Many Sandakan/Sepilok itineraries have a river cruise on the Kinabatangan River to see the proboscis monkeys, orangutans, pygmy elephants, and other wildlife. The Nature Lodge Sepilok offered a day tour (12pm-9pm) for ~US$60 pp. Tour companies offer longer itineraries staying at nature lodges closer to the river, but they are more expensive due to the nightly rate for the remote lodge.
Deramakot Forest Reserve
Another excellent opportunity to see wildlife in the wild, especially orangutans. We looked into spending a couple nights in the Deramakot Forest Reserve, but instead opted for diving lessons. The excursions are on the pricey side, but include meals, transportation, and accommodation. The tour company we researched was Borneo Adventure. Since we didn’t end up going on one of their tours though, I cannot offer a review.
Mount Kinabalu Summit Climb
In order to climb to the summit, you’ll need to book your climb ahead of time. There are a limited number of climbing passes per day, so it’s best to book well in advance. Most who complete the trek do the 2 day/1 night option which includes a night’s stay in a hostel on the trail.
Hopefully this itinerary gives you some ideas for what you could add to your Sabah, Borneo itinerary. If you have any questions about our trip, leave a comment below.