Things To Do In Sabah, Borneo: A Guide For The Independent Woman

Of all the things to do in Sabah, most are related in some way to nature.

In literature and history, Sabah is a land of extraordinary wildlife and torrid swamps, of indigenous tribes and sun-stirred beaches, a land etched by war and colonialism where the only seasons are hot, and hotter.

It rarely sparks thoughts of yachts moored along a marina or gourmet meals nibbled under the stars and served by liveried waiters.

Yet Sabah, once known as North Borneo, is all those things, a land of such extremes that trying to describe it is a bit like witnessing a glorious sunset (and you will) but trying to identify its exact colors.

From the moment the pilot banked over the capital, Kota Kinabalu – “Ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls” – I was sold on Sabah, a place I’d dreamed about since laughing my way through the pages of Redmond O’Hanlon’s 1983 journey, documented by Into the Heart of Borneo.

I’m not sure if I expected to hack my way through the jungle with the Malaysian equivalent of a machete or fight wildlife with my bare hands but whatever lurked in the back of my mind, it wasn’t exactly what I found.

The land below the wind

It has come to be known as the Land Below the Wind, South of the typhoon belt, an age-old name immortalized in the title of Agnes Keith’s book.

Sabah sits at the northern end of the island of Borneo, the world’s 3rd or 4th largest, depending on which account you read. Below it is its East Malaysian sister, the province of Sarawak. Two other countries share the island, Indonesia (its portion is called Kalimantan) and the tiny Sultanate of Brunei.

Today, ancient civilizations whose survival is uncertain are slowly being replaced by luxurious marinas and cinnamon-scented spas. Yet they are trying to hang on, their longhouses and dancing and bead-making jostling with their mobiles and wifi and new cars.

That discrepancy is part of the strength of Sabah, a land torn between centuries and cultures, walking a tightrope between both, trying to embrace the future without sacrificing the past.

Dancer from the Rungus tribe in Sabah, Borneo
Where cultures collide – traditional dancer with the smartphone

The melting pot that is Sabah

One of Sabah’s charms is the very impossibility of defining it. Its 42 official ethnic groups (the Chinese being the largest non-indigenous group) are all anchored in its history. But the state’s makeup is changing rapidly. In 1960, Muslims made up just over a third of the population, whereas they are more than two-thirds now, with a quarter of the population Christian. Sabah’s Islam is more of cultural than religious, with a greater-than-usual degree of tolerance.

Traditional culture is disappearing fast as young people emigrate to the cities in search of jobs. Yet this indigenous culture – the longhouses, the gongs, the wildlife – is what visitors are seeking and in a strange twist of fate, these very visitors may turn out to be Sabah’s cultural saviors.

The story of Sabah, as eclectic as the land itself, involves a procession of rulers from the Sultan of Brunei to Britain, whose protectorate North Borneo lasted until the World War II Japanese invasion, brutal and terrifying according to the elderly who still remember it.

Here (far more briefly than it deserves) is the history of Sabah. And the full-length version.

The impact of tourism

Sabah’s tourism was strong enough to survive the Covid-19 epidemic, though not without struggle and sacrifices.

Also, for a region so dependent on wildlife tourism, deforestation is alarming. Petroleum exploitation and habitat destruction to build palm oil plantations are widespread (which is, in addition to health impacts, one of the many reasons I boycott anything made with palm oil). From 2001 to 2021, Sabah lost 26% of its tree cover. Still, there are hints that deforestation rates are falling, so there may yet be hope.

Socially, Sabah faces problems of poverty and inequality, and there is a drain of young people towards the cities, which undermines rural cultures and breaks the social backbone that is family.

But tourism has breathed new life into this region’s culture. While some of the cultural shows may be a bit overdone, they have forced local people to cling to their traditions and begin passing them down the generations as they once had.

This hasn’t halted the rural exodus nor has it guaranteed traditional cultures will survive, but as long as there is tourist demand for an “authentic” Sabah, the Sabahan will continue to dig deep into their past to provide it.

Traditional nose flute player in Sabah, Malaysia
Traditional arts like playing this nose flute are being kept alive by tourism demand. This musician is teaching her grandchildren how to play it

Best things to do in Sabah, Malaysia

Because tourists want to see and experience local culture, much effort has been put into rehabilitating traditional dwellings or preserving cultural heritage so that we might be able to sample life the way it used to be before it is too far gone. 

Sabah also contains some of the greatest natural biodiversity on earth and viewing wildlife here is a bit like being in a candy shop: at times you simply don’t know where to look, and no two are the same.

It is most famous for its animal life (see below) but we shouldn’t forget its incredibly diverse plant life, from unique fruits to unusual (and very smelly) Rafflesia to the world’s most expensive orchid.

Wildlife and ecotourism in Sabah

There are many ways to see wildlife in Sabah: you can visit some of the excellent rehabilitation centers, or you can get out there where the wildlife lives and see it in its natural habitat.

But first, because they’re so ubiquitous…

The monkeys of Sabah

Sabah is home to ten 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, 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. After the first few sightings, they become commonplace, almost boring, our sights on a bigger prize. 

A more elusive primate is 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. 

While the proboscis is elusive, the bigger, darker orangutan is almost impossible to spot in the wild to the untrained eye. Several times I saw 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. I failed to see one in the wild and would have to wait to discover these great apes in captivity.

Orangutans of Sabah: a visit to Sepilok Rehabilitation Center

Much has been made about the orangutans, because of illegal trafficking or because the annual forest burnings in Sabah and nearby states have all but destroyed their habitat, often killing these gentle giants and threatening the survival of the species. They also occur only on two islands, Borneo and Sumatra.

The orangutan is the world’s largest tree animal and Sepilok is a major rehabilitation center: it rehabilitates orangutans who need a home. 

Here, some 60-80 orangutans are trained to fend for themselves so that they can eventually be released into the wild again.

Orangutan waiting for feeding at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
An orangutan at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, waiting to be fed

If you visit, you can watch them being fed twice a day. Sometimes they are fed boring or unappetizing food – the rangers hope this will encourage them to wander in search of better pickings, thus becoming more accustomed to the wilderness. So if you don’t see any, this is actually a good sign: it means they are deep in the forest, foraging.

Rehabilitating is hugely lengthy; it can take between 8-15 years for an orangutan to be rehabilitated, and an average individual will live to be 35 in the wild. The orangutan is the only Asian ape, by the way, and a male can weigh up to 100kg, with the female half that.

Much as I loved Sepilok, I would far prefer to see orangutans in the wild. If you head down to the Lower Kinabatangan River (see below), you might be lucky. But don’t bet on it.

You can find out more about Sepilok here. It’s easy to reach, about half an hour from Sandakan or the Kinabatangan River, and there are plenty of accommodations in Sandakan or in Sepilok.

The adorable sun bear, the world’s smallest

Before you leave Sepilok, go next door for a wonderful surprise.

The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (SBCC) has the unenviable task of securing a future for the world’s smallest species of bear – the Helarctos malayanus – or sun bear. The sun bear subspecies found in Sabah is the smallest of them all, the size of a large dog. 

These beautiful creatures, considered vulnerable in Sabah, historically ranged throughout Southeast Asia but have nearly disappeared from many of their former habitats: the habitat itself has been destroyed or deforested, the bears have been kidnapped as pets or have been killed for meat or bear claws, which some people believe have special properties, or they have simply come into conflict with humans, who usually win in encounters with these small-sized bears.

Regardless, the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre are doing all they can to protect and preserve these animals.

Sun bear  Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, at Sabah, Malaysia
Surely you’ve never seen a cuter bear!

One look into those lovely brown 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.

Although they had a depressingly rough start, the bears you’ll meet here are lucky: they get to live safely in 2.5 hectares of natural habitat for the rest of their lives.

Visitors can try to spot them in their forest environment while learning about this fascinating species.

There’s even a volunteer program for people who want to get more hands-on in helping the Centre.

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

Exploring the Lower Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River has always called to me, its name a foreign, distant sound that conjured up visions of muddy, crocodile-infested waters and gnarled jungles filled with hooting birds, slithering snakes, and screeching monkeys. No disappointment there.

If you’re looking for wildlife that is easily accessible, this area is hands down the best place in Sabah to visit.

My first sight of the river was rather underwhelming: a flat stretch of brown, silted liquid without a scary crocodile in sight.

It hardly seemed worth keeping our hands out of the water as instructed. (We would quickly understand the wisdom of this instruction when the logs resting along the shore began to move and show teeth.)

Vegetation along the shores of Lower Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo
The Kinabatangan River, not too impressive at first sight
The sky over the Lower Kinabatangan River, Borneo
But lift your eyes a bit, and THIS.

The river is long rather than mighty, drifting some 560km from the Crocker Range in southwestern Sabah to the Sulu Sea in the East. The segment that interests us is the popular Sukau-Bilit corridor, where most wildlife viewing and lodges are concentrated, with reason, I’d say, as I never went longer than a few minutes without spotting some kind of movement. In fact, this region has the highest biodiversity in Southeast Asia. 

First, the bad news. I didn’t see any Asian pygmy elephants. Nor did I see a rare Sumatran rhinoceros. I didn’t even really ‘see’ a wild orangutan, although everyone insisted those dark waving limbs in the distance did, in fact, belong to one. 

What I did see outweighed any possible disappointment at what I might have missed.

A rustle in the trees turned out to be a troop of macaques, or small monkeys, of which there are five species in the lower Kinabatangan. Hard to spot at first, I was soon pointing them out to newcomers. They range from playful to vicious and tend to be great actors, in love with the limelight: the more you hang around, the more they tease you with their proximity. 

Macaque sitting on a tree branch in Sabah
Macaques, oh so common but oh so cute!

Macaques are delightful to watch but what I really wanted to see was a proboscis monkey, with a nose – it’s really a schnoz – the size and shape of a shiny floppy pear. Female monkeys actually think this appendage is sexy. Many people consider it ugly but to me, this large-ish primate is utterly endearing.

It is also unfortunately endangered as a result of decades of hunting and drastic habitat destruction; its population has dropped by half in the past few decades and conservationists are working hard to protect it. The primate is so attractive in its ugliness Tourism Malaysia chose it as its mascot for Visit Malaysia in 2018. This helped focus attention on its endangered status.

By the end of Day Two, I thought any sighting of my big-nosed friend would be relegated to the wish list. But no! At last, we spotted a clump of bright red monkeys in a faraway tree. One family member sitting with its back to us – they’re a bit shy – shifted on a branch, just enough to show off its famous snout (and to confirm it was indeed a fully mature male). No cartoonist could have done a better job than nature with this gentle giant.

Proboscis monkeys sitting in a tree along the Lower Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo
Proboscis monkeys, far more elusive (and no, it was impossible to get a closer shot)

When time came to leave I wasn’t ready and could have spent days drifting in the river, hoping for another proboscis monkey or, why not, something even rarer.

Most boat rides go at dawn or dusk when the forest wakes up or goes to sleep and is most active. At that hour, a heavy mist clouds the river’s surface and slowly, erratically it begins to lift, exchanging the pre-sunrise chill for the lumbering heat of daytime. 

You can find accommodation in either Bilit or Sukau. I stayed at the Bilit Adventure Lodge and loved it. It was simple but however luxurious your jungle accommodation, you’re still in the wild – and you may be unexpectedly reminded of that fact.

I was reading on my bed one evening when a knock at the door made me look up. I noticed a lovely painting I had somehow missed, a giant gecko whose color blended into the wood walls.

Then it moved.

In a fit of panic – this was no gecko but an imposing lizard of sorts – I ran across the compound to the main building. It took the manager and two helpers to drive the feisty foot-long creature out of my room by placing a towel over it and gently carrying it outside and letting it go.

Subsequently, I found out that Sabah has the second-largest gecko in the world – the Tokay gecko, with whom I was now on a first-name basis. 

Remember: it’s a jungle out there. 

Bilit Adventure Lodge in Sabah, Borneo
The Bilit Adventure Lodge, where I stayed, wasn’t luxurious but it was lovely and the staff was super attentive

A night walk along the river

A little more daunting (ahem – leeches) is the nighttime walk, an extraordinary opportunity to see species invisible in daylight. Just grab your wellies and your leech socks and join the group, but quiet, please.

There is something almost ghostly about walking through a rainforest under the stars. 

The sounds change as the day’s animals sleep and nocturnal creatures start to stir. And there’s a bit of excitement as people ahead and behind utter muffled cries, slapping themselves all over when they spot a leech (I’ve been incredibly lucky so far).

It is hot and humid despite the late hour and wet palm fronds keep slapping my face as I stumble towards centipedes, mouse deer, miniature frogs or even a palm civet, a type of cat.

If you’re extremely fortunate you’ll spot a tarsier or a loris, but that wasn’t to be for me. 

Most of the lodges along the river offer night walks and if they don’t, find one that does. It may sound a bit icky, what with mud and sweat and critters but it is worth every last tension-filled second. A good guide will dart ahead and catch the tiniest of movements, and all you’ll have to do is open your eyes.

And yes, there are leeches, and every so often I’d hear a squeal from someone who had had a close encounter with one. I was fortunate not to, but the guide patiently explained what to do.

A colorful kingfisher in Sabah
A colorful kingfisher wakes up wondering who all these strange silent people are
Rare female giant pitta in Sabah, Borneo
To make up for not seeing elephants, I came across this extremely rare female giant pitta

Cultural tourism in Sabah

While any holiday in Sabah will revolve to a certain extent around nature, it will also mean delving into local culture at every turn. While parts of this society are modern, you will find many traditional aspects that have either survived or are being revitalized. Here are some of the many interesting places in Sabah where you’ll be able to experience Sabahan culture.

Visit a Rungus gong makers village

Kumpung Sumangkap is a quiet village near Kudat, close to the tip of Borneo. 

The entire village is dedicated to making gongs: big, fat, musical, glorious gongs. People (mostly women) from the Rungus ethnic group in Sabah work in this quiet village-turned-gong-manufacturer, making their living hammering zinc sheets into round, vibrant shapes 11 hours a day. (I wasn’t able to ascertain what the men do but I’m assuming they’re out in the fields or have regular jobs.)

The gong is the most important musical instrument in Rungus culture and is used for major events, like weddings. Each gong has a different sound, which is why measurements have to be perfect – or the sound will be off.

The region used to host a Gong Festival in October but these days, they will hold cultural performances for large groups of visitors.

Rungus gong-maker in Sabah (most gong makers are women)
Making gongs is the specialty of women among the Rungus
Finished gongs made by Rungus tribeswomen
The gongs come in various sizes and some can be huge, used for ceremonies

Not that long ago, gong-making, like many other Rungus traditions, was a dying craft. Old people couldn’t pass on their knowledge because the younger generation, were migrating with rural poverty, fled to the cities in search of jobs and money.

With the upswing of tourism in Sabah, villagers were able to supplement their income with traditional crafts, gong-making, of course, but also bead-stringing, dancing, singing, nose flute-playing, and maintaining longhouses. While young people still head for the cities, they can at least choose to stay closer to home if they wish because jobs are available.

Do come prepared to spend a bit of money locally; crafts are attractive and authentic, and you’re also helping an indigenous community survive.

Enjoy a longhouse re-enactment

A longhouse is what it says: a longhouse, a traditional dwelling for extended families in this part of the world.

Imagine a long, winding hallway lined on one side by bamboo-walled bedrooms and on the other by a platform on which people sit, sing, dance or plain hang around.

Longhouses were home to many families, sometimes as many as 100, but usually fewer.

Until a few years ago, they were being left to disintegrate but it seems they have been pulled back from the brink for a surprising reason: tourist demand. Because this is what visitors want to see, families have started rehabilitating their longhouses and sprucing them up to receive tourists.

Inside a longhouse in Borneo

Life here was never easy. A few decades ago there was no school and by the time children were 12, they would be put out to farm sweet corn.

Men and women had clearly defined roles, with the women responsible for handicrafts and cooking.

Virginity was highly prized and boys and girls were kept apart, not that difficult when you had to pass through a huge, populated common area to get from one bedroom to the next. Children slept together until 12 but were then separated, the boys sleeping on pallets on platforms outside the rooms. By 15 they were often engaged and married by 16.

That society would no longer be recognizable. Children now go to school, a kilometer away, with the high school a bit further, 3km away.

With the cultural revival brought about by tourism, more young people are choosing to stay and work but the draw of the city remains strong.

One of the best things to do in Borneo: Experience a homestay

Homestays in Sabah have a long history – apparently, they were used by the Japanese and many homestays date back to the war. Some are individual, others are community-based, which is my preference since any profits go back into the community as opposed to a corporate or government pocket.

Homestays are highly regulated and regularly inspected, but that doesn’t mean they’re fancy.

I stayed in the modest Misompuru homestay, which – typically of homestays – organized visits to indigenous craftspeople (they organized my visit to a longhouse and the gong-making village).

The house was simple, with a 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, and great fun was had trying to mutually understand one another.

Young girl speaks with grandmother in Borneo
Inter-generational ties are strong here and grandmothers pass on their knowledge to their grandaughters

“We almost lost our culture because of modernization and technology,” explained Jeffry Ayah, aka Cobra, who is president of the Sabah Homestay Association. “The homestays have helped revive our culture.” The association groups some 1000 people who are in some way involved with homestays in three districts, with 64 operators in seven villages. It is an umbrella group that manages all the activities, from agrotourism to voluntourism, and that ensures the money is reinvested within the community. (Here is their Facebook page).

Cobra says homestays are the best ways to keep young people in the villages, and has expanded his homestays to include fruit and vegetable farming.

These homestays do a lot more than provide tourist accommodation. The homestays employ workers in a variety of fields, and these workers pass on their training to others within the community. By providing jobs, they protect the Rungus from land grabs and from illegal immigration. 

A homestay is much more than a room and a few meals: it is a slice of someone else’s life, one that you will never discover if you stay in a hotel.

Perhaps what I liked most about my homestay experience was the sense of being part of the host family, if only for a few days. They started their meals with a prayer – in the Rungus language – with the openness of people who accept you no matter where you are from or what you believe. 

Inside the house, a lot centers around food, which is cooked with local products the family grows on its land: rice, plenty of green vegetables I didn’t know, fish, of course, with the sea nearby, and chicken. None of it was particularly spicy but it was delicious, and it was filling.

Full meal at a homestay organized by the Sabah Homestay Association

In the spaces allotted between meals, the extended family – they brought in cousins, brothers, sisters, grandparents – showed off some of their cultural skills. In this part of the world, dancing ranks high, with girls as young as five being trained part-time for the future. This ensures dancing traditions are not lost while providing the dancers, their families, and the community with income. 

While Sabah’s homestays are providing much-needed income to poor families, it’s not just about the money or the local jobs that are being provided. It’s also about revitalizing culture and ensuring its sustainability.

Just don’t expect luxury. 

Top attractions in Sabah, Borneo

Dive in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

This is top of my list not because I think so, but because anything I mention Sabah, I’m first asked about the wildlife and second about the diving. Sabah diving is world-class and if your dream is to explore an underwater wonderland, you may find it here.

At least that’s what everyone says because no, I didn’t dive. I don’t. In fact, I can’t swim, which probably explains it… But that didn’t stop me from admiring the beauty or listening to the tales.

The waters of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (also known as TARP) are home to five picturesque islands and offer fantastic diving and snorkeling for visitors.

Established in 1974 and covering around 50 square kilometers, you can be lazing on the beach or coming face to face with colorful fish with only a 20-minute boat ride from the capital, Kota Kinabalu.

Divers have their pick of dozens of dive sites, complete with clownfish, nudibranchs, lionfish, and pufferfish. Turtles are commonplace, and if you get really lucky, you may encounter the odd whale shark between February and April.

There are plenty of white sand beaches in Sabah and nature trails through tropical rainforest you can meander along.

The five islands – Gaya, Sapi, Mamutik, Manukan, and Sulug range in amenities.

Manukan and Sapi are the most “touristy,” but not overly so. Gaya is mid-range, and Sulug and Mamutik have limited facilities.

The pier at Manukan Island, Sabah, Borneo

If you want to spend a few days discovering TARP, you could stay at one of the exclusive resorts on Manukan or Gaya Island. For budget travelers, there are more basic options or campsites on most of the islands.

The best visibility for diving is from November through to February.

Boats and tours leave from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal in Kota Kinabalu – hop between all the islands or relax on just one or two. Be prepared to pay a modest entry fee to the National Park on top of your fare.

If you’re not PADI certified, you can still dive with this PADI discovery tour. Just go for the day and then decide whether you want to go for the full certification.

Enjoy some luxury and pampering

When asked to think of luxury resort destinations, Borneo is unlikely to pop into mind – it’s probably not even in your top ten!

But along with authentic cultural experiences, rainforest adventures, and superb diving, Sabah is also home to some impressive five-star getaways.

I took advantage of my trip to sample a few of these – the Manukan Island Resort (now called the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges) and the Jari Jari day spa (it’s actually much more than a spa) in Kota Kinabalu – and after all that fresh air, a bit of luxury is most welcome.

All this reminded me it was important sometimes to just disconnect, and if a little luxury is involved for a day or two, well. I’m not going to complain.

Various herbs and spices in preparation for a spa treatment in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
At the entrance of Jari Jari Spa, a reminder that all their products come straight from nature

No time to organize all this yourself? Here are some short tours that will take the pain out of your planning:

Relax on a tea plantation

My ignorance is to blame because before arriving, I was not aware Sabah was once a major tea producer. A visit to the Sabah Tea Garden in Ranau quickly set me right.

This is the largest commercial tea plantation in Borneo and the only organic one. You can walk around the grounds, or you can have a drink or a meal, or even stay here overnight. Make sure you take their educational tour, which will take you through the plantation and explain exactly how it’s all done, from picking through to packaging.

Tea connoisseurs tell me this tea is delicious, but there isn’t enough for export. The tea lasts two years once it’s packaged and that’s not long enough to sit on foreign shelves.

Tea plantation in Borneo
The tea plantation, as far as you can see
Tea factory in Sabah
Packing the tea – while there is shiny new machinery to help prepare the tea leaves, some things are still done by hand

Ride the North Borneo Railway

As of this writing (February 2023) the railway isn’t operating and there isn’t any news on when it might restart. I rode it a few years ago and include my experience below in the hopes it might start up again.

What with the colonial outfits and period-style train, you might well be back under British rule in Malaya (not that this was a good thing but I mention it for the atmosphere).

This is, after all, Borneo’s oldest steam engine, and if you ever wondered what it was like to be the moneyed class riding a colonial train, this will provide an answer. Massive nostalgia experience if you love old steam trains!

North Borneo Railway
The old train, refurbished…
Traditional meal aboard the North Borneo Railway
An exquisite tiffin lunch, eaten as the train chugged through the countryside

Visit historical Sandakan

Sandakan as a town has a rather typical provincial vibe but it is stunningly set by the sea, which pops up wherever you look. 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.

Throughout Sandakan, in various establishments, you’ll see yellowing photos that show a city leveled by bombing, pert little houses ripped off their wooden foundations, roofs blown away, walls imploded. The people of Sandakan may have forgiven, but they have not forgotten.

Forgive, but not forget

I had the fortune one day of meeting Chai Chee Ming, who was born in Sandakan in the 1920s, shared some of his memories, and opened a world until then unfamiliar to me.

He recalled hiding from the Japanese by digging holes and covering them with leaves, and eventually being allowed to live because the Japanese needed farmhands to produce food.

He would gather food for his family but the Japanese would confiscate it for their troops: he would hide potatoes so that when the soldiers raided, he would still have something left. He eventually moved to Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur,  where he became a taxi driver.

Did he harbor any ill will towards the Japanese?

“No, I like them now, I have Japanese friends and know them in business. It’s about the soldiers, not the Japanese. If they are normal people, great. I just don’t like soldiers.” 

North Borneo witnessed one of the war’s most savage episodes, the Sandakan death march, which we talk about below. 

After the war, the area would eventually revert to the British until Malaysian independence 20 years later.

The Death Marches

Sandakan was also the start of a sinister chapter of history known as the Death March (in fact, there were several). At different times, ailing, starving prisoners were marched 250km into the interior to a faraway Japanese camp. Along the way, most died, having faced impossible conditions, tiny rations, no medical care, and weakened beyond belief. Those who did not die were killed by their captors in horrific ways.

Of the nearly 2500 prisoners led to Ranau in the interior, six made it back home, all of them escapees.

Today, Sandakan Memorial Park provides a sober but wide-ranging account of the marches and is absolutely a must-see when you visit here, especially if you are, as I was, unaware of this somber event. This short documentary (the quality is poor but the message powerful) will tell you a bit more about the Death Marches, and you can read more here.

Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple

To counter the darkness of history, a visit to Sandakan’s largest Buddhist temple is a delight to the eye if you enjoy ornate religious statues. The entrance is graced by a sweeping alley of Buddha statues, and you’ll get a breathtaking view of the port from its many balconies.

Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple in Sandakan, Sabah

When Agnes Keith and her forestry advisor husband moved to Sandakan in 1934, they had no idea they’d be there on and off for nearly 20 years, and give this land its nickname, “The Land Below the Wind.” That comes from the title of one of Ms Keith’s best-selling books, first published in The Atlantic (and winner of their non-fiction prize). Nor did she know she’d be interned in a POW camp, released, move away and eventually return to Borneo.

While in Sandakan, I picked up a copy of Land Below the Wind and loved it (as long as you accept it was written nearly 100 years ago, when sensitivities were different). It succeeded in plunging me into what Borneo must have been like during that time, complete with colonial attitudes and details of everyday life.

Her former home has been turned into a museum well worth visiting, although the furniture are reproductions, the originals having been destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, you cannot take photos inside but you should still visit. Then top it off with a typical British meal at the adjacent English Tea House: you can order fish and chips, or a cream tea, in case you’re feeling nostalgic for British colonial days.

English Tea House in Sandakan

The Tea House is right next door to Agnes Newton Keith’s house along the Sandakan Heritage Trail

Sandakan Heritage Trail

You can follow Sandakan’s history along the white concrete tiles that trace the path, which usually have “Heritage Trail” written on them. They link the various sites of historical significance in the town, which was almost destroyed during World War II. The trail connects those historical sites that remain, including Agnes Newton Keith’s house.

Climb Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu soars to 4,095 meters and is the highest mountain in Borneo. This iconic peak, rising from Kinabalu Park, is a sacred site for local people, and a popular trekking option for the active traveler.

Now let me be clear: that is NOT me.

I did not climb Mt Kinabalu, nor would I ever be tempted to. But I include it here because before visiting Sabah, it was the one thing everyone would ask: are you climbing Mt Kinabalu?

Visitors plan a minimum of a two-day trip with one night in-between, but the recommendation is for three days and two nights, with an overnight in the highlands before the climb. Be aware that you cannot do it on your own but must go through an accredited operator. This is a good place to start.

Bear in mind that this is a very popular climb but only 163 permits are issued each day by the Sabah Parks board; plan ahead to avoid disappointment.

While you don’t need special mountain-climbing experience or gear, I understand it’s still a hard slog, so a good level of fitness is recommended to enjoy the experience!

During the 8.8km climb, you’ll pass through lowland rainforest, montane forest, cloud forest, and picturesque meadows before hitting the granite peak. There are around 6000 plant species found on Mount Kinabalu, so you’ll have plenty to look at to keep your mind off those aching legs.

You can see Mt Kinabalu, in Kinabalu National Park, from almost anywhere in Western Sabah so while I may not have climbed it, I certainly have seen it from every angle.

View of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah
From my vantage point, Mt Kinabalu does not look easy to climb!

Things every Woman on the Road should know about Sabah

At first sight, Borneo might not be the first destination a woman traveler might choose, but think again.

And please – don’t forget your travel insurance before you go! I recommend SafetyWing if you’re 69 and under. If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance that covers you at any age.

Because travel is relatively straightforward in Sabah, getting around will not be complicated, and it’ll be the travel adventure of a lifetime. Once here, prepare to be gently nudged out of your comfort zone some days, while smothered in comfort on others.

Just don’t forget to get some travel insurance! I recommend SafetyWing, which has good coverage for travel in the tropics.

Some things you should do in Sabah

  • Take every opportunity to talk to local people: you’ll be fascinated by the diversity of this region – and the love most Sabahan 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 wildlife.
  • Do beware of the multitude of dogs who believe the road is their mattress. They lie around without a care in the world and won’t think of budging even if there’s an oncoming car.
  • A question I’m often asked: Is Sabah safe? Most of the province is safe, although kidnappings have taken and still do take place along the coast of eastern Sabah, both islands and dive sites, so be aware of this. Otherwise, in the rest of Sabah, you’ll feel quite comfortable as a solo woman.

Some things you should not do in Sabah

  • Don’t assume Sabah is like Western Malaysia: this state is a mixture of Chinese, Malay and indigenous tribes and boasts 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 province.

And one last word… Sabahan sunsets belong on postcards. I couldn’t believe they were real.

Well, you be the judge.

Sunset on the South China Sea
Unretouched, unfiltered.

—All photos by Anne Sterck.

Originally published in November 2019 (?), updated in February 2023

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