The states of Sabah and Sarawak are must-visits for nature enthusiasts and adventure buffs. These East Malaysian destinations are filled with plenty of beautiful natural wonders and sites that will take your breath away and help you discover a new appreciation for Mother Nature.
Mount Kinabalu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the highest mountain peak in Southeast Asia. It’s a very popular hike as it’s easily accessible and you don’t need mountaineering skills, just a good level of fitness. Ecologically, the mountain and surrounding jungle are teeming with plant and animal life – there are between 5,000 and 6,000 plant species including three species of rafflesia, the largest flower in the world.
The route to the summit (Low’s Peak at 4,095m) starts at the Timpohon Gate and it’s an 8.8km trek through two summit trails (Ranau and Kota Belud) until the Panabalan Base Camp, where you’ll spend the night and start the ascent at 2am to reach the top for sunrise at 5.30am. For extra thrills, do the world’s highest via ferrata at the Panabalan rock face where rungs, cables and rails are all that keep you on the side of the mountain!
Kundasang is a town in the district of Ranau and accessible by road from Kota Kinabalu. The drive takes slightly over two hours and although famed for its uncanny resemblance to New Zealand, there are lots of relaxing rural activities to enjoy here especially as it’s near Kinabalu National Park. Visit the Poring Hot Springs which is an hour’s drive away, go for leisurely hikes around the town, catch a glimpse of Mount Kinabalu, and enjoy the fresh air and clear skies – perfect for stargazing.
The main reason visitors come here is to experience the green pastures and almost alpine scenery at the Desa Dairy Cattle Farm. White picket fences enclose black-and-white Highland Holstein Friesian cows, and fresh milk, yoghurt, cheese and gelato are available in the store. Children always have a good time feeding the calves and baby goats. On a clear day, the combination of greenery, cows and view of Mount Kinabalu explains why comparisons to alpine pastures are made.
The orangutan is an endearing symbol of Bornean wildlife. This great ape is sadly on the WWF’s critically endangered list due mostly to loss of habitat, poaching (illegal pet trade) and fires that decimate the jungle. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was established in 1964 to rehabilitate orphaned and injured orangutans. The facility provides medical care and food, and train the orangutans to survive in the wild in the hope that they can eventually return to their natural habitat.
Visitors pay a very reasonable entry fee and can observe the orangutans during feeding time and go for walks within the reserve. It’s important to note that visitors are strictly prohibited from touching the animals (no matter how cute that small orangutan is) as we can spread human diseases to them. While you’re here, make sure you visit the neighbouring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre that rehabilitate orphaned or ex-captive bears into the wild, and provide a safe environment for those that cannot be released.
Sipadan Island is in the Celebes Sea and is the only oceanic island in Malaysia. Known the world over for its incomparable diving and seclusion, this marine paradise is also covered by 30 acres of untouched rainforest. Divers come here for the fantastic visibility of up to 50m during the dry season, and rich underwater biodiversity with dive sites like the Coral Gardens, Lobster Lair, Mid Reef, Barracuda Point (large schools of barracuda congregate here) and South Point.
One of the most interesting (and mildly spooky) sites is the Turtle Cavern, which is an extensive cave system where the locals say turtles come to die. Be sure to go with experienced technical divers when diving here. The most famous dive is the Drop Off, one of the top beach dives in the world with a drop of 600m! There are several resorts with dive schools on the island but be sure to book in advance as only 120 diving permits are issued daily divided among the resorts.
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a state marine park and comprises the five islands of Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug. Located three kilometres from Kota Kinabalu, it was gazetted in 1974 and is named after Malaysia’s first prime minister.
Only a short boat ride away from KK, the park is a popular day trip and can get quite crowded during the weekends, so it’s best to visit on weekdays. Snorkelling, kayaking, hiking and hanging out on the beaches are the main activities, and there are a few resorts, or you can camp on the beach for a small fee. Boats depart daily every 20 minutes from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal. Avoid going between November and February as the sea can get quite rough.
Kubah National Park is easily accessible from Kuching and makes for an enjoyable day trip with its waterfalls, streams, bathing pools and jungle trails. It’s also known to have the largest selection of palms and orchids in Borneo. Bird watchers will love it here as there are extensive bird species to spot including Bornean Bristleheads, Yellow-rumped Flowerpeckers, Black Hornbills and the vibrant Blue-banded Pitta.
There are six trails varying in difficulty from an easy walk to climbing up Gunung Serapi, one of three summits of the Matang Range. This is considered a small park by Bornean standards, and you may not see as many animals as the other parks, but when you do they are mostly small species like mouse deer and different types of insects, reptiles and amphibians. There’s the option of staying overnight at the park’s headquarters in a hostel or two-bedroom bungalows – bookings can be made through the National Park Booking Office in Kuching (+608 224 8088).
The Gunung Mulu National Park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage area and has one of the most expansive cave systems in the world. These limestone caves are filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and millions(!) of bats that fly out at sunset every day looking for food.
The Sarawak Chamber measures over 154,000 square metres, is 610m long and 80m high, making it the world’s largest cave chamber by surface area. There are various incredibly interesting tours and activities available via the official park service and visitors can choose from three-hour walking tours and night walks in the surrounding jungle to overnight stays in the chamber (good level of fitness and some caving experience is essential) and the amazing Garden of Eden Valley walk. These caves are one of the great natural wonders of the world and should be on every traveller’s bucket list.
Bako National Park has 16 colour-coded jungle trails that differ in length, difficulty and scenery, and visitors can opt for a leisurely walk, full-day hike or overnight camping expeditions in the jungle. It’s located a 45-minute drive away from Kuching, then a 30-minute boat ride to the park’s headquarters.
Although Bako is a relatively small park, it’s a microcosm of every sort of environment found in Borneo, from mangroves to primary jungle and deserted coastline. Wildlife is abundant with many species of birds (owls, kingfishers, woodpeckers) competing with monitor lizards, wild boar and silver leaf monkeys for your attention. What’s very interesting here are the rare proboscis monkeys that are unique to Borneo; when exploring there’s a very good chance you’ll spot one of these strangely human simians.