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Things to Do in Sabah, Borneo: A Women's Guide

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At first sight Borneo might not be the first destination a woman traveler might choose. You might want to think again.If you love wildlife, if you want to be pampered in world-class spas, if your idea of a holiday is a tropical beach with fine white sand with swaying palm fronds, if you want to feel safe but still experience culture through local eyes, Sabah might be the place to go.PHOTO OF BEACHIt’s not near anything. The nearest Western city, Perth, Australia, is a five-hour flight away; from Europe you’ll need to get to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore first, and then board your last short hop to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu.Once here, prepare to be gently nudged out of your comfort zone some days, while smothered in comfort on others.First the do’s…– so take every opportunity to talk to local people: you’ll be fascinated by the diversity of this region – and the love most Sabahans express for their state/province
– remember you’re in an at least partly Muslim region and act and dress accordingly; that said Sabah is used to tourists and Chinese themselves, a large part of the population, dress quite skimpily
– do get out of the city and into the countryside – because that’s where it all happens, whether culture or wildlifeThen the don’ts…– don’t assume Sabah is like Western Malaysia: this state is a mixture of Chinese, Malay and indigenous tribes and boast six different religions, many of which coexist peacefully most of the time
– don’t think you’ll always eat better in Western-type eateries and hotels: be daring and try local foods; most people speak enough English to understand whether you love spicy food or hate meat or whatever
– don’t assume you’re at the end of the earth, even though it may sometimes feel like it. Sabah is dotted with airports served by the national carrier, Malaysia Airlines, as well as others. Flights are cheap, comfortable and short within the provinceAnd now the musts!I’ve made up a list of ten major attractions in Sabah that you might enjoy: I tried most of them (with the exception of diving and climbing Mt Kinabalu):
– homestay
– ecolodge on Kinabatantan
– North Borneo railway
– stay on a beach
– learn to dive
– visit a gong factory
– climb Mt Kinabalu
– Sepilok
– sun bears
– proboscis monkeys
– tip of Borneo
– watch an amazing sunset over the South China sea
– tea plantation
– have a massage
– and anything else I might remember
– try a certain type of food??Each destination is woman-friendly, and I would have no qualms visiting any of them as a woman alone or with friends.


It's hard to believe that the modern city of Sandakan as we see it today was virtually annihilated during World War II by the Japanese.


Yellowing photos that dot the walls of the various establishment show a city levelled by bombing, pert little houses ripped off their wooden foundations, rooves blown away, walls imploded.


When Agnes Keith and her forestry advisor husband moved to Sandakan in XXXX, they had no idea they'd stay xxxx years and give this land its name, "The Land Below the Wind." That comes from the title of one of Ms Keith's best selling books, an article she wrote for The Atlantic and for which she received the princely sum of xxxx, back in 19xx.

Her Sandakan was one of xxxx QUOTE FROM THE BOOK

She had no idea of what would happen...

Japanese invasion during WWII, some history of what happened

It may be history to us but to those who lived it, the invasion remains as clear as if it had just happened.




Like many Chinese, after the war he relocated to KK, the capital of Sabah, where he buried the past. In his job as a driver/instructor, he met many Japanese after the war.

OK, only disliked soldiers...

PHOTO DIM SUM - evidence of Sabah's strong Chinese heritage

Traces of WWII can be seen throughout the province.

In Sandakan, memorial. Everyone cancelled, said Johnny Lim, but locals had celebration anyway. Australian.

Sandakan was also the start of a somber chapeter of history known as the Death March. IN 194xxx lthis happened... only 9 survived, and the memorial is at tea house.


It's hard to imagine today's Sandakan or the Tea Plantation with bombs falling from the sky but no one here has forgotten. They may have forgiven - but not forgotten.

swept off my feet by sabah

or… surprised by Sabah??

I don’t know what I expected from Sabah but I certainly didn’t expect it would sweep me off my feet.

Weaned on tales of Borneo headhunters and loin-clothed natives, I temporarily forgot I was heading to one of the most modern nations in Asia, where poverty remains a reality but coexists with superlatives of wealth. It begged to be explored – so I obliged.

25 Things That Swept Me Off My Feet in Sabah

It feels tolerant. I visited during Ramadan and many shops and restaurants were open.

The is a huge Chinese population and extraordinary Chinese food. I ate some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had.

There are dogs everywhere, in the middle of the road, on the side of the road, or next to the road. They get hit by cars once in a while. Snip please!

I got up close and personal with wildlife.

People don’t live in longhouses anymore, but you can stay in one. Oh, and no one will eat you.


The coasts are riddled with world-class luxury resorts.


All that coastline means extraordinary beaches.


You can learn to dive on nearly every island. My photographer and partner, Anne Sterck.


The colors of birds were the most vivid I’ve ever seen.


Some of the wildlife wasn’t that friendly.


Sabah suffered during WWII and is a place of pilgrimage for Australians, especially the xxx in Sandakan.

The capital Kota Kinabalu isn’t very big – but it has two international airports.

Sabah has one of the world’s few remaining working steam engines.

You can see Mt Kinabalu, in Kinabalu National Park, from almost anywhere in Western Sabah. But you have to get up before 5am to catch the sunrise.


Much forest has been destroyed to make room for palm plantations. The government now protects the rest.

Speaking of protection, the Borneo sun bear will have its own sanctuary next year.

Some excellent wildlife rehabilitation centers, such as for orangutans or proboscis monkeys, make sure they are fit to return to the wild.

The Sepilok Orangutan xxx Center is the world’s first, but you won’t just see orangutans.


Speaking of proboscis monkeys, they’re from Borneo. And they seem to have permanent erections.


The Kinabatangan River region is purported to have the highest biodiversity of all of Southeast Asia. I believe it – I was bitten by many different insects.

The Borneo pygmy elephant roams the Kinabatangan. Unfortunately I didn’t see any.

Sabah makes mean tea; it used to be exported to xxx countries.


The ‘Land Belowxxx the Wind’ as it’s called comes from the diaries of Agnes xxx Keith, the wife of the forestry xxx in the 1930s. Amazing reading!

Sabah has the 2nd largest gecko in the world – the Tokay gecko. I know this for a fact. It took three men to rid my room of one over a foot long.

Sabahan sunsets belong on postcards. I didn’t believe they were real. They are.


3 sabah accommodations

Heading to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, and wondering where to stay?

I just spent nearly two weeks there and was able to experience three highly different types of accommodation - each ideal in its own way.

I started with a homestay (link to WOTR site), part of a program local?? authorities regard highly and have spent much money and effort pulling together.

Homestays in Sabah

The idea is simple: you stay with a family. This isn't a bed and breakfast by a long shot but a genuine family experience in which you share their everyday life.


The house was simple, with a bucket shower (PHOTO BUCKET SHOWER) and basic bedrooms, usually no more than five to a house (after five the government considers the home a hotel, with a range of different requirements). Each mealtime, some family members joined us to try to communicate about our various lifestyles. Mothers and grandmothers brought their looms to show us what they do with cloth...


...while children (still in school) and young people practice their craft for the benefit of tourists, all useful training for their eventual work as professional dancers.


Homestays iin Borneo are part of an association...


As part of a tour of Sabah (link to itinerary maybe?) you can't miss staying in an eco-lodge or some type of eco-accommodation. Sabah, after all, is the quintessential ecotourism destination.

Ecolodge in Sabah

Ecolodges come in all shapes and sizes. Some are aimed at the budget backpacker while others have 21-inch flatscreen televisions in the room (not my idea of communion with nature, by the way).

And communion it is, if you get away into the interior, where the wildlife lives. Sandakan is the gateway to this part of Sabah, the entrance to a world of wildlife (link) I'd mostly seen only in photographs.

But first, there are three stops yyou shouldn't miss on the way to the river, and they will probably take you a day to see so I suggest spending a night at this place.

The first is the Rainforest Discovery Center, a basic information center surrounded by a magnificent botanical garden walk. The second is the world-renowned Sepilok Orangutan Center?? (link), whose work is to xxxx. And the third is the Sun Bear xxxx, open to the public as of Jan 1 2014. This is a particularly special place as it boasts a population of the smallest bear in the world. (link)


An overnight stay would be useful in visiting these (try the xxxx lodge, owned by the same people who own the ecolodge I was headed to on the river).

A two-hour drive... Many of the ecolodges in the region, most of them about two hours' drive from the city, are located in and around Sukau. That means the area is crowded, and the more people you concentrate in an area, I'm guessing the less wildlife.

My lodge, the Bilit Adventure xxx, was a bit further, in Bilit, a relatively undeveloped corner of the Kinabatangan River, an area famous for having the greatest concentration of wildlife in Southeast Asia. There are a few lodges here, some more luxurious, some less than mine, but most of them running similar river tours, which is what this area is known for.


My particular lodge was built on environmental principles, which is one of the things I liked about it. No trees were destroyed to build it etc etc.

The rooms were simple but comfortable, with decent hot water and buffet meals. Visiting this region well requires a good two-night stay, after which history will seem like it's repeating itself.

You'll probably arrive in mid-afternoon, just in time for the 4pm boat cruise, a two-hour swish along the river where you may spot any of xxxxx. It's not about ticking species off a list, but seeing a proboscis monkey close up was, for me, a major highlight of that first boat trip.


The trip lasts about two hours, and then there's dinner. If you're up to it there's a night walk in the jungle (technical term: mangrove and riparian forest) right behind the lodge. Rent a pair of rubber boots and some leech socks (yes, sorry, you'll need them), grab your flashlight and prepare to be surprised by the variety of fauna that sleeps right behind your room.


I had hoped to see a loris or a tarsier but it wasn't to be, so someday I'll have to come back. The next morning, just in time to catch the forest waking up is a 6am cruise, a special moment, often misty, of watching the world break through the mist. Little by little the forest awakens, the sounds of birds and monkeys getting louder.


Chances are you'll see the wildlife you missed the day before, but this is what 24 hours in an ecolodge on the Kinabatangan River looks like. I couldn't help it - I had to stay an extra day and do it all over again.

After a homestay and a wildlife viewing visit, I felt like enjoying one of Sabah's other natural wonders: the beach, so I headed to Manukan Island and the resort that shares its name.

Manukan Island Resort

There are many resorts in Sabah. This one was perfect for me as I was headed back from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu. It's siter hotel in the city, the Sutera xxxx, is more cosmopolitan but perfect for the night before your flight.

But back to the beach resort. You'll find them all over Sabah because this region is one of the premier dive sites in the world. Most of the best sites are located in southeastern Sabah, where in March 2013 a few violent incidents led to a state of emergency being declared by the government. The result was a number of government warnings but in all fairness at this writing no other incidents have taken place since then. I would have gone if I'd had the time but the islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, with their fine sand and blue waters, are nothing to be sneered at.


The Manukan Island Resort (link) is a cozy group of cabins set on a  hill overlooking the South China Sea. During the day day-trippers crowd one of the beaches, but the hotel has its own beach, for guests only. You can easily laze away under the palm trees, or the pool if you prefer.


My cabin was luxurious, with all sorts of amenities I hadn't realized I'd missed when I was busy scooping out water from a barrel with a plastic cup.


In my opinion a perfect visit to Sabah would involve trying each one of these types of accommodation, and in the order I suggested, plunging first into the deep end of Sabahan culture.

sun bears

Maybe add category ecotravel...

Don't worry, I didn't either, but I do now. The sun bear is the smallest bear in the world and the subspecies found in Sabah is the smallest of them all, the size of a large dog. I was fortunate enough to glimpse them during a visit to what will soon be the xxxx sanctuary.


It's hard not to feel attracted to this little fellow, one of 28 orphans being rehabilitated at the xxxx sanctuary, opening date early 2014.

The sun bear is considered vulnerable in Sabah, threatened by the hunt for meat or bear claws, which some people believe has special properties. One look into those lovely bbrown eyes is enough to win me over and to understand I too could play a small part, by writing about them, to help conserve them.

The sanctuary is the work of a single man, Wong Siew Te, who saw them in cages and decided to help them. He has dedicated enormous time and effort to building this center, which was still closed when I visited.


until I visited what will soon become the Sun Bear sanctuary xxxx in Sabah. The sun bear is the smallest bear in the world

This will complete the quartet formed by You'd be forgiven if you'd never heard of it - I hadn't, so here's the biology lesson: the sun bear is the smallest xxxx.

It's also possibly the cutest bear you'll ever see.


The sunbear sanctuary will complete the rehabilitation and protection troika - along with the Sepilok Orangutan xxx and the Proboscis Monkey xxxx - near the city of Sandakan. After all, seeing primatees (?? mammals?) up close is one of the reasons people visit the island of Borneo.


Across the road from the Sun Bear is the oldest?? of the protection...

It's hard to imagine the feeling of seeing an orangutan swing for the first time, hanging its xxxxkg from a few fingers as though he were a feather. This isn't the ideal way to see these nearly human-faced apes but it's a good first step to understanding them.

A visit to Sepilok begins with a visit to the xxx information center, a helpful introduction to the life of orangutans xxxx Make your way to the video room (get there early to get a seat) for a half-hour documentary xxxxx learn that xxxxx.

And then it's the highlight of the show: feeding time. The morning feeding is particularly crowded as dozens of visitors jam against the wooden platform to catch a glimpse of hungry orangutans. A lone feeder walks up onto the orangutans' platform with a basket of bananas and leaves and other fruit and dumps a few on the ground, hoping to attract the elusive giants.


What gets attracted instead are macaques, small monkeys who will steal the food until an organgutan finally appears and starts slapping the smaller primates around. It's an entertaining show and any distaste of captivity can be dispelled by the knowledge that these orangutans are either being retrained to return to the jungle or have returned already and are just dropping in for a meal.

And sometimes you'll be surprised. Like this little macaque who decided to jump on the railing right next to me and after observing me with great disinterest decided to take a nap.


A visit to Sepilok will prepare you for the eventual adventure of them all: spotting an orangutan in the wild (link to Kinabatangan). And spotting is the right word, because unless you're extremely lucky, you'll see them from a distance, disguised by trees, spotted only once they've moved.

The other ape

While the orangutan is majestic and looks very human - 96.% DNA - there's another primate: the proboscis monkey. The rehab center xxxxxx

It is unmistakeable, with its reddish fur, large size, and nose that looks like a xxxxx. It was the animal I most wanted to see in the wild and I was fortunate enough to do so - but missed the proboscis center in the process.

If you don't plan on taking a boat trip along teh Kinabatangan to try to catch a glimpse of Borneo's animals in their wild habitat then this is a must stop.

The high concentration of wildlife in this area of Sabah - the highest of all SEA - means there will inevitably be animals in need of protection, whether because they're orphans or xxxxx. These centers all provide that function with dedicated staff and volunteers because in the end they all want the same thing: to return their charges to the wild when they can.


Sepilok - go to the afternoon feeding

stay at the lodge

bring hat and binoculars or telephoto

donations to sun bear

manukan resort

There comes a time in the life of every woman when it's time to take off and forget the world. Literally.

In my case that time came after a week in <strong>Sabah, Malaysian Borneo</strong>, that was so packed with excitement I needed to stop and let it all sink in.

This is where I chose to do it.


I rarely have time for farniente so when the opportunity arises, I grab it. Sounds familiar? Not enough time to relax?

The pampering started when I reached the jetty of Manukan Island, one of xxx islands that belong to xxx National/Marine Park. Because of it's location, protection is xxxxx.

Being welcomed, being handed a glass of cool lemongrass tea and a cool wet hand towel made me forget the (easy) 20-minute crossing - I get seasick and I can't swim so boats involve invoking all sorts of protection gods and tying on tightly of lifejackets.


After the requisite list of instructions - location of restaurants and pool, introduction to guests-only beach - I was escorted to my 'room'... wait - perhaps I should call it a chalet. Climbing some relatively steep steps to the entrance I took my shoes off and walked into a paradise of teak wood: floors, walls, ceilings, furniture (the fact that I love teak was helpful).

The living room (yes, separate) included two large seating areas, a fridge, a television and a low table, a great place to hang around, watch the news (since there's no Internet access this is how I kept in touch with the world) and meet up with friends.


Around the corner was the bathroom, with the lovely touches so familiar in good hotels, with that particular artistry I find in Asia and fail to replicate no matter how hard I try.


The receptionist who accompanied me winked and asked me to walk through a door into... an outdoor bathroom! Yes, a second bathroom, with a shower, a private jacuzzi and its own fountain. I'm not sure I can do it justice.


At this point I was beginning to wonder whether I'd have to open up one of the couches to sleep on (they're a bit too short for my 1.65m frame) but I spotted some stairs - yes, teak - which led me upstairs to this.



I don't do this every day (although sometimes I wish I did!) but I've fallen in love with this part of the world and spending my last Sabah days here on Manukan reminded me that sometimes, I need to disconnect, get offline, go to the beach, and watch the palm fronds sway from left to right. And left again.

things you should know

steep stairs and beach chairs T ground height

dY tripperngroups

not much to do and no wifi - but for some of us that's perfect

quiet in the evening

lunch malay food stand, authentic food at one third the price

get a hill cabin ifnyou can - beach is great at night but in daytime you're in hub of activity

staff exceedingly friendly and will try hard so don't hesitate to ask

can rent snorkel etc

sabah monkeys

Chasing the Monkeys of Sabah (see the pdf for the photos) They can be irritating, imposing, laugh-out-loud funny, dishonest – even dangerous but as our nearest relatives primates have always piqued my interest. Sabah, one of Malaysia’s two provinces on the island of Borneo, is home to nine species of primate, and many of them, even the endangered ones, are relatively easy to spot. Along the mangrove forests of the Lower Kinabatangan River, macaques are hard to avoid. They sit languorously on tree trunks, waiting patiently for tourist boats, maybe hoping for a handout, or expecting to be entertained by a dozen humans bundled in lifejackets, holding up phones or cameras and ooohing or aaahhhing almost on cue. Long-tailed macaque in the mangroves of Sabah January 10, 2030 1/4

Pig-tailed macaques in Sabah, Malaysia At times they bounce from branch to branch, preening and showing off like trained animals in a circus. They dare us to come closer, so close we scare ourselves off and retreat, having heard they can be aggressive. They don’t move, eyeing us confidently, with the perverse knowledge of who’s in charge here. Along the river, macaques are plentiful and after the first few sightings they become commonplace, almost boring, our sights on a bigger prize. Hour after hour our small motorboat roamed the river, searching for one of the larger primates, the proboscis monkey, named for its red bulbous nose, which males use to attract females. Proboscis monkeys are shy, retiring and stay well away from people but when they deign to make an appearance, they are imposing. Red-headed. Pot-bellied. Web-toed. Flatulent. And seemingly permanently erect. 2/4

The proboscis monkey – a ‘protuberant’ primate Proboscis monkeys aren’t that common. Fewer than 6000 individuals exist in Sabah, and only about 15% of those live in protected areas. The primate is so attractive in its ugliness Tourism Malaysia chose it as its mascot for Visit Malaysia 2014. That brings it some welcome attention as it is an endangered species. Its habitat along the river is fractured and it lives only in small isolated areas, constantly under threat from new plantations or housing. For long-term survival, proboscis monkeys need more space. As they slowly glide along tree branches, one by one they disappear, leaving the trees nearly naked. The Even Larger Monkeys of Sabah The proboscis was elusive, but the bigger, darker orangutan even more so. Several times I spotted a brown, furry blur in the distance, its arms swinging from one tree to the next. However hard I looked, I couldn’t make out an orangutan. In desperation I decided to go to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. At least I’d get to see them first- hand. Of course I might be the only person ever to visit Sepilok and not see an orangutan. After seeing the welcome film and waiting under the broiling sun, the feeder appeared, a man who places food on a platform for the free-roaming orangutans. He scattered the corn but no one came. 3/4

Except this little guy who jumped on the wooden viewing platform right next to me. I spent precious minutes teasing him and photographing him, marveling at my solitude on the platform. Of course I was alone – everyone else was crowded at the other end watching the orangutans feed. By the time I ran over, they had gone. Things every Woman on the Road should know Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is an hour’s drive from the city of Sandakan, the jumping off point for much of Sabah’s wildlife viewing.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, also near Sandakan, has two feedings a day. The morning one is less crowded.
In the same day take advantage of the heat of the afternoon to cool off in the Rainforest Discovery Center, a haven of tropical greenery which I found hard to leave. 4/4 

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