Things to Do in Sabah
The second-largest island in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, Manukan Island (Pulau Manukan) boasts coral reefs, crystal clear waters, white-sand beaches, and lots of lush vegetation. Head to the island to do some snorkeling and to explore on the network of walking trails.
In the heart of the mangrove forests of Semawang in Sandakan, the privately owned Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary allows travelers to observe the rare and distinctive proboscis monkeys in their natural Borneo habitat.
It's estimated that about 300 wild monkeys live within this 2.3-square-mile (6-square-km) sanctuary, which includes two observation areas for visitors. These open daily for feedings at 9:30am, 11:30am, 2:30pm, and 4:30pm. The first, a long wooden walkway and platform set over a swampy mangrove, features a feeding station where rangers leave guava and cucumber to supplement the diets of the proboscis monkeys. The second area has a tiered viewing platform where silverleaf monkeys and a pair of oriental pied hornbills sometimes show up for feedings alongside the monkeys.
Many visit the sanctuary on a day trip from Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu, although overnight stays are also possible, with night tours offering the chance to see fireflies, wild boars, flying squirrels, and crocodiles in the wild. If you book in advance, it’s possible to combine the monkeys' feeding time with other activities, such as jungle treks or even a boat trip to a nearby fishing village.
One of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia, the mighty Mt. Kinabalu (Gunung Kinabalu) attracts climbers from all over. But the 13,435-foot (4,095-meter) summit isn’t the only reason travelers visit Kinabalu National Park. With around 6,000 species of flora, the UNESCO-listed park is recognized as one of the most important biological sites in the world.
Reigned over by the mighty Mt. Kinabalu—the tallest mountain in Malaysia—Kinabalu National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its biodiversity. A paradise for nature lovers, the park is home to around 5,500 plant species (including varieties of orchids and pitcher plants), about 326 bird species, and more than 100 mammals.
A scenic option for water-sports fans and wildlife lovers who don’t have time to travel to Mabul or Sipadan, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Marine Park is just a 20-minute speedboat ride from downtown Kota Kinabalu. Comprising five small islands, the park combines white-sand beaches with coral reefs, jungle, and abundant marine life.
Few beaches offer the same picturesque white sands and crystal blue waters that travelers will find on Sapi Island (Pulau Sapi). Its coral reefs and clear waters make it ideal for snorkeling, and the surrounding epic landscapes and unmatched beauty make it one of the best spots for travelers seeking an island retreat.
Whether it’s enjoying picnic shelters and BBQ pits with family and friends or watching crab-eating monkeys gather along the shore, there’s plenty to see on a visit to Sapi Island. And travelers won’t be disappointed by the parasailing, scuba diving and underwater adventure they’ll find here, either.
Travelers in search of a true cultural exchange need look no further than Mari Mari, a cultural village situation in a remote forest on the island of Borneo. Here, visitors can learn about the indigenous Sabahan people, explore their traditional homes and witness fire-starting, blowpipe-making and tattoo-making demonstrations.
In addition to sharing their cultures and traditions, representatives from the Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus and Dusun people also cook ethnic delicacies for travelers with an adventurous palate to sample. While some visitors say the village can feel a bit too touristy, others argue it’s the perfect way to experience the vibrant cultures and traditions of Borneo in a single stop.
Tucked within the jungles of Malaysian Borneo and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kinabalu Park, Poring Hot Spring & Nature Reserve (better known as Poring Hot springs) is a collection of built attractions highlighting some of the region’s wild features. The star is a series of tiled pools and public baths built by the Japanese during their occupation in WWI. Containing naturally hot sulfurous water pumped to the surface, the baths are popular with tired Mt. Kinabalu trekkers as well as area residents, especially on weekends.
The site also includes an enclosure housing hundreds of species of butterfly—many of which are raised for research or released—an orchid conservation center boasting 1,200 species including rare endemic varieties, tropical gardens home to the tiny mousedeer and, if you’re lucky, the chance to see the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia (or corpse flower), in bloom. A rope bridge canopy walk at 135 feet off the ground, is not for those afraid of heights or the unfit—there’s a muddy uphill scramble to reach it; it is ticketed separately.
The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque (Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu) is not only the largest mosque in the city, but also the most visually striking. Surrounded by a lagoon, the building appears to float when viewed from a distance, and casts a picturesque reflection into the water below.
Built in 2000, theKota Kinabalu City Mosqueaccommodates up to 12,000 worshipers at a time, and can be entered by non-Muslims outside regular prayer times. The mosque features a classical style with four minarets and a grand blue-and-gold dome, designed to resemble the Nabawi Mosque in Medina, the final resting place of Muhammad.
A visit to the mosque is best enjoyed as part of a half-day city tour of Kota Kinabalu, where you’ll get the chance to explore other cultural landmarks, like the Wisma Tun Mustapha and the Sabah Museum, and view the city sights from Signal Hill.
Kota Belud is an unsuspecting town located in the north of Sabah, approximately 75 kilometers northeast of Kota Kinabalu. Relatively quiet throughout the week, the town comes alive each Sunday with its bustling market known as a tamu.
The market is part social occasion, partly commercial, and entirely enthralling for visitors. It's a colorful kaleidoscope of stalls selling local produce that overtakes the small town each and every week. With everything from leafy vegetables and farm produce to manufactured goods and home-baked treats, Kota Belud’s tamu is a hugely popular local event, with a smattering of tourists enticed in for good measure.
The market very much serves as a social occasion for locals, who swap stories and news as they gather for their weekly meet. Visitors to the tamu might also catch the Bajau horsemen displaying their horseriding skills, with both riders and animals decked out in spectacularly dazzling costumes.
More Things to Do in Sabah
Ride a steam train on a scenic journey on the North Borneo Railway in Malaysia. Formerly used to transport tobacco, the steam train today carries passengers along the only railway line in the state of Sabah, chugging from the coast through the lush interior of the island, between Tanjung Aru and Papar.
One of the most recognizable buildings in all of Sabah, Sabah State Mosque (Masjid Negeri Sabah) combines contemporary architecture with traditional Islamic design. A gold, honeycombed main dome is reigned over by a 215-foot (65-meter) minaret, which was inspired by those found in the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina.
Located along the banks of the Penampang River, just 16 kilometers the bustling capital of Sabah, the Monsopiad Cultural Village is a living, breathing museum that aims to give visitors an insight into the history and culture of the Kadazandusun people.
The village is named after a notorious Kadazan warrior and headhunter who lived in the area hundreds of years ago. The village as it stands today was established by the descendants of Monsopiad in 1996 to serve as a heritage center.
There are a number of historical artifacts on display, as well as demonstrations of traditional customs and trades. One of the main attractions is the somewhat grizzly House of Skulls, where Monsopiad kept the skulls of his enemies as trophies.
Located on the hills near Padang Merdeka, the Signal Hill Observatory Platform is the highest point in Kota Kinabalu, which means it’s one of the best places to go for sweeping, unobstructed views of the city and beyond.
Signal Hill is widely considered a ‘mustdo’ attraction for all visitors to Kota Kinabalu. From this decked observatory platform, you’ll not only get a panoramic, bird’s eye view of the sprawling city center, but also vistas extending to the beaches of Tanjung Aru and Likas Bay, and even to the outlying islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park.
You can visit Signal Hill as part of a halfday city tour, which also takes in other Kota Kinabalu attractions and landmarks, including Wisma Tun Mustapha (Sabah Foundation Building), the City Mosque, the University of Sabah, and the Sabah Museum.
Located within easy reach of Kota Kinabalu city center, the Sabah Museum (Sabah State Museum) is a comprehensive museum exploring the heritage, art, culture, and daily life of Sabah and its people.
The museum is made up of the main building, along with galleries exhibiting the various themes, including the Science and Education Center, the Heritage Village, the Sabah Art Gallery and the Museum of Islamic Civilization. Natural history, ceramics, ethnography and archaeology are among the many displays, along with a centerpiece whale skeleton.
The Heritage Village features traditional tribal dwellings of the different indigenous groups of Sabah set on a lake, including Kadazan bamboo houses and a Chinese farmhouse, all set on a lake. The Science and Education Center next door has an interesting exhibition on the petroleum industry, while the the Sabah Art Gallery features exhibitions by local artists.
The South China Sea and the Sulu Sea meet at the scenic Tip of Borneo (Tanjung Sipang Mengayu)—a picturesque destination that rests at the northern-most tip of the island. This remote spot offers incredible views of colorful rocks, white sandy beaches and impeccable ocean waves. And its spectacular sunsets go unrivaled on the island, making a trip along the bumpy road well worth the adventure.
Travelers looking for some local flavor can sample freshly caught seafood in the nearby town of Kudat, where seamen return from their day on the water and chef up delicious, straight-from-the-ocean meals.
The Klias Peninsula (Klias Wetlands) is known for containing lush mangrove forests full of unique wildlife. There are dozens of tropical bird species, as well as monitor lizards, Proboscis monkeys, long tail macaques and silver Languor monkeys, all endemic to Borneo. A visit to the wetlands is particularly interesting at dusk, when the tree-dwelling monkeys become active for feeding.
After sunset, it's possible to see fireflies dotting the sky with their light. Water buffalo, tree snakes, and eagles are a few of the other possible wildlife sightings, though the bizarre behavior and appearance of the proboscis monkey is what most come to see. There may also be crocodiles lurking along the river!
It’s a chance to be immersed in nature and see many of the unique species of Sabah in their natural environment. Leisurely boat cruises on the river are the best way to see the area.
Established in 1964, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre rehabilitates baby orangutans that have been orphaned as a result of illegal logging and deforestation in Malaysia. Visit the center for an opportunity to see this endangered animal in its habitat at scheduled feeding times and in the rehabilitation nursery.
From picturesque beaches to illegal settlements, Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya) is home to diverse people, landscapes and history, which make a visit to its scenic shores perfect for any traveler. The well-known Police Beach boasts one of the most pristine stretches of white sand on the island, and travelers say it’s the perfect place to escape the chaos of city life and relax on sandy shores or take a dip in crystal blue waters.
A visit to nearby Kampung Lok Urai, a Filipino colony the state government refuses to recognize, offers travelers a different look at this storied island’s darker side. Located on the eastern shore of Gaya Island, Kampung Lok Urai is filled with stilt houses and walkways made of well-weathered planks. While it’s considered a high-risk travel area by police, it’s also home to a unique way of life found only on this popular island.
Located just outside of Kota Kinabalu city center, the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre is a naturally-occurring mangrove forest that provides some of the best bird watching opportunities in urban Sabah. The wetland is fed by both salt and fresh waters, which allows more than 80 species of resident and migratory birds to coexist within its diverse boundaries.
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