This spectacular corner of Malaysia occupies the northern fringe of the island of Borneo (map) and is blessed with superb white sandy beaches and coral islands and large tracts of virgin tropical rainforests. Sabah is also the home of Mount Kinabalu, at 4,095 meters, the highest peak in Southeast Asia; orang utans; and some of the most stunning diving sites in the world. There are many things to do in Sabah, especially for travellers who enjoy nature and food!

The glorious sands of Mantanani Island, north of Kota Kinabalu.

Sabah is a paradise for nature lovers. The core of this state features a vast expanse of almost impenetrable tropical jungle that harbours an astonishingly rich variety of flora and fauna. Mighty rivers carve their way through the dense jungle while towering mountain ranges overlook the central and coastal plains. The remote reaches of this state are still unexplored and scientists are still finding new species of flora and fauna.

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Jungle safari on the Kinabatangan River.
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Spotting proboscis monkeys at the Kinabatangan River.

Places to visit and things to do in Sabah

Kota Kinabalu

The capital of Sabah is Kota Kinabalu (KK), a bustling port city, and with its convenient international airport, functions as the gateway to the treasure chest of natural wonders that Sabah is world-renowned for. In addition, superb white sandy beaches and the breathtaking Mount Kinabalu are just a short boat-ride or drive away. The city has a modest number of sights to boast such as the State Mosque, the Sabah Museum and the waterfront.

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A view of Kota Kinabalu from the plane window.
Sabah State Mosque in Kota Kinabalu (image by Wikimedia Commons).

The Kota Kinabalu waterfront, with its wide selection of Western and local restaurants and bars is a favourite hang-out for the locals and tourists. The city also has several markets, including a souvenir market and the fish market, which are well worth a visit. For a different market experience, plan a visit to a Tamu, a colourful Sunday market where the indigenous people sell cattle, agricultural produce and handicrafts. The Tamu can be found in Kota Belud or Tuaran, just north of Kota Kinabalu.


Kota Kinabalu (KK) vies with other Malaysian cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang for having the country’s best cuisine. Many visitors, in addition to using the city as a base for exploring the rest of the state, also come here to savour the fresh (and cheap) seafood (dozens of types of fish, clams, mussels, oysters, lobsters, crabs, prawns, etc…) that is prepared in many mouthwateringly tantalising ways. For some of the city’s best seafood, head for Ocean Seafood restaurant. You choose your seafood from the large tanks and decide how it should be cooked. Having a meal here is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to KK.

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Fresh prawns

Just a ten minute drive from the city centre is the Tanjung Aru beach. The beachfront, lined with a modest variety of shops, restaurants and bars, is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for a relaxing drink or meal, or to watch the sunset.

Sunset in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Hotels in Kota Kinabalu I can recommend include Le Meridien (city centre, opposite the waterfront), Shangri-La Tanjung Aru and Magellan Sutera. To the north of Kota Kinabalu lies my favourite beach resort in Sabah: Shangri-La Rasa Ria (it even has its own orang utan sanctuary!). Search for accommodations in Kota Kinabalu.

Kinabalu National Park

At the centre of this famous national park is Mount Kinabalu (map), at 4,095 meters, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, and a World Heritage site. The mountain rises majestically, towering over the surrounding plains and hills. The shape of the mountain changes continuously as you travel around it. The top of the mountain is crowned by a series of gigantic pinnacles and large granite humps. It is a fascinating mountain which the natives hold in veneration.

Mount Kinabalu (image by NajuaR/Unsplash)

The park itself is a treasure trove of plants and animals. With an estimated 5,000 – 6,000 plant species within its boundaries, the park has one of the richest biodiversities in the world. Look out for the insect-eating pitcher plants, and if you’re really lucky, you might stumble upon the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia. A leisurely trek up to the summit and down takes approximately two days and offers visitors a bewildering display of thousands of plant and animal species, some of which are endemic to the park. See my pictures of Mount Kinabalu taken from the air.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu (image by LingTang/Unsplash)

Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary

This sanctuary is located about 25 kilometers from Sabah’s second largest town, Sandakan (map), and is devoted to the conservation of the orang utan, a gentle ape that can only be found in Borneo and Sumatera. Search for hotels in Sandakan.

A juvenile orangutan at Sepilok

A visit to the sanctuary to watch the orang utans in their natural environment is a must for visitors to Sabah. Don’t forget to sign up to adopt an orang utan! Your contribution will go a long way in ensuring the survival of these endangered mammals.

Read about my visit to the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary.

Sabah’s islands

Sabah’s coast boasts some of the most pristine islands in Malaysia. Put on your snorkel or diving gear and explore the rich and varied underwater world. Some of the world’s best diving sites are found off the islands of SipadanMabul and Layang Layang.

Schools of fish in the waters off Sipadan Island (image by JChen/Unsplash).

Sipadan is Malaysia’s only oceanic island. Just off the beach, a spectacular coral wall drops 600 meters down to the sea floor. Explore the rich diversity of multi-coloured soft and hard corals and experience swimming among manta rays, huge parrotfish, barracudas, a variety of sharks including hammerheads and a host of other brightly coloured tropical fish. Sipadan was made famous the world over by renowned explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Layang Layang

For a close encounter with Green and Hawksbill turtles, head for the Turtle Islands Park. One of the best places to spot whale sharks, the planet’s largest fish, is Lankayan island, located in the northeastern corner of Sabah, in the Sulu Sea. Sightings of the whale shark are very regular during the months of April and May. Mantanani island, just north of Kota Kinabalu also offers excellent snorkel and diving opportunities. Look up the Sutera Mantanani Resort.

Mantanani island

Sabah’s forests

Sabah’s flora is truly overwhelming, from the oaks and conifers in the mountains, to lowland rainforest and mangrove swamps that hug the coast. Among the most interesting national reserves are the Kinabalu Park, the Rafflesia Forest Reserve (a reserve dedicated to the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia) – both near Kota Kinabalu; the Danum Valley; the Maliau Basin; and the Kinabatangan River.

Read about my Kinabatangan River Safari.

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A kingfisher spotted during a night safari along the Kinabatangan River.
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Gomantong cave near Sandakan

The serious nature lover will be awed by the vast array of plant- and animal life in the Danum Valley. All of Sabah’s mammals and most of its birds (including eight species of hornbills) can be found here. For the adventurous, head for the Maliau Basin, a large area completely surrounded by a high limestone escarpment (rather like a caldera). When this area was first explored in the 1990’s, it was termed the ‘Lost World’ as the impenetrable rainforest made it virtually impossible for humans to inhabit this area. As a consequence, many new plant and animal species have been found here. A conservation and management programme has been started, aided by both local and foreign scientists. The basin is also famous for its magnificent seven-tier Maliau Falls.

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12 Responses

  • […] with superb white sandy beaches and coral islands, and large tracts of virgin tropical rainforests, Sabah is a nature lovers paradise. Sabah is also the home of Mount Kinabalu, at 4,095 meters, the highest peak in Southeast Asia; the […]

  • hi keith, Sabah is a lovely place for Travel, and the food is amazing too. Did you manage to visit the Islands around there?

  • […] the accompanying post: “Sabah: A Nature Lover’s Paradise“. Other Posts from The Happy Explorer:The floating villages of Kota KinabaluA golden […]

  • […] after Greenland and New Guinea, and is divided among three countries: the Malaysian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, the Indonesian province of Kalimantan and the oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei. […]

  • i’ve been to Sabah earlier this year , such a wonderful place! full of suprises!
    you wont regret any of it!

  • WoW!!
    you had a very best time travelling~
    if you love nature, i suggest you to visit Pahang in Malaysia…
    there is a National Park, where you can find the longest canopy walk in South-East Asia…. Elephant Preservation Centre in Kuala Gandah and Cherating beach~

    Lets explore the biggest biodiversity in Tropical Rainforest~!

  • I went to KK with friends last year (we’re from the Philippines, which is really near Sabah) and we had a great time there! The beaches were beautiful, Mt. Kinabalu was quite a sight to behold and the people were very friendly. Most important of all, it was a really cheap trip! I think we spent a little over USD 300 for a three-day weekend, including airfare, accommodations, food, a little shopping, and a private van that took us around the sites and to Mt. Kinabalu.

    Oh! And we went to this tribal village that used to be a community of headhunters – they even had skulls of their enemies displayed in one of the houses!

  • That Rafflesia flower is also to be found in Khao Lak National Park in Thailand. I haven’t seen it, but my friend did… He said it was huge!

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