Travelling Around Borneo – Adventures in Sabah

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Jetty toward Bohey Dulang Island in a clear sunny day.

Malaysia, for me, has always been the city filled with skyscrapers, Kuala Lumpur, the cultural Penang, and the small islands around them which tourists have flocked to since forever. A chance discovery travelling around Borneo led me to Sabah, which is one of Malaysia’s 13 states. It opened my eyes to a whole new world which hasn’t ceased to amaze me for whatever it has to offer.

The island, though pint-sized, packs a hard punch of colour, nature, and adventure. Lush green forests, shiny blue vast ocean, amazing wildlife balanced with bright city night life, and yummy food that can tempt even a full stomach and the most glorious sunsets that are beyond description as they shock you with rich and vivid colours and shades of the sky beyond what a human mind can imagine.

Those who made it their home
Kadazandusun tribe - travelling around borneo
Kadazandusun tribe in their traditional costume during the Sabah State Harvest festival celebration in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Borneo, Malaysia.

Home to a culturally diverse population, Sabah is a mix about 2.5 million people, natives (Muslims and non-Muslims), Chinese, and other smaller ethnic groups such as Indians and Eurasians. Kadazandusun, Murut, Bajau, Suluk, Bisaya and Orang Sungai form the main native groups. Most of the Chinese who migrated to the state during the British era, belong to the Hakka dialect group. There are also large numbers of Cantonese, especially in Sandakan.

Many Filipinos and Indonesians, who entered Sabah illegally, later became naturalized under a controversial state policy. Bahasa Malaysia (Malay), the national language, is the most spoken here. I’d recommend you to pick up a few common phrases that will definitely help you wing your way around as English is not really much spoken here. Selamat Pagi (Good morning or greeting) Terima Karih (Thank you) Tolong (Please) and Sihat selalu (Cheers) when those party shoes come on, you will no doubt make things simpler.

Land Below the Wind

Often called the ‘Land Below the Wind’ as it lies below the typhoon belt, the climate is tropical but pleasant. January to April is a dry, pleasant time exploding with celebrations for Chinese New Year. March to July is when the water is calm and is the best time for diving. June to September becomes pretty hot and often but not definitely rainy. But as I’ve realised, each season throws up a different face and beauty of any place and so is with Sabah. Sabah possesses one of the richest bio diversities on the planet. 53% landmass covered by forests. Home to the oldest rainforest in the world. Possessive about it’s natural resources and marine life, many marine parks are home to shelter these beautiful species which are unique to other parts of the world.

Kota Kinabalu – Gateway to Sabah

Reaching Sabah is simple as you get direct flights to Kota Kinabalu International Airport. KKIA is the second busiest airport in Malaysia and is the busiest airport in Malaysian Borneo. Immigration for tourists require a form to be filled and a stamp in your airport which allows you to then enter this paradise. Hired cars are the simplest mode of transport as well as trains or buses which might take longer but give an interesting viewpoint.

Kota Kinabalu, the state Capital has literally rebuilt itself from ashes after being completely destroyed during the second world war. It’s got an active nightlife for those who love exploring when the others sleep. Sunday fairs are hosted in the Gaya market which are interesting, unique and fun as you can buy all sorts of things from hats to clothes to backpacks and plenty of souvenirs and lots of food items and fresh fruits to choose from. Even if you don’t buy anything still an interesting wander.

The roof on the head and the food in the belly
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Gaya Street weekend market in Kota Kinabalu on a Sunday.

Sabah is lined with beautiful luxurious hotels, tropical ocean facing resorts, pretty guesthouses, scenic cottages but the most interesting option I found was the beautiful homestays hosted by locals as they invite guests to experience traditional local living and wholesome home food. I can write an entire page on just the food alone. The food is fresh, wholesome, delicious, an absolute feast for the eyes, heaven for the stomach and I’m almost salivating as I recall their delicacies such as Ngiu Chap, Tuaran Mee, Roti Canai, Bak Kut The, Ikan Bakar, Curry Laksa and more.

To simplify, noodles in all forms, meats, veggies, lots of teas and coffees, and varieties of seafood which have you lusting for the next meal even as you finish the first. And those with extreme taste buds and experimental souls, don’t miss Butod (Sago Palm Weevil Larvae), Hinava (salted river fish that are eaten raw) and many more indescribable but edible delicacies which I didn’t have the stomach to digest. Coconut, banana and mango filled desserts and many more tropical juices are available easily to quench your thirst. And most importantly the King of fruits, Durian, smelly but loved by too many people and available in various options is a must try. Calories and pounds do latch on like leeches but I’d say, it’s absolutely worth it. Check out some more of the delicious Sabah food

Scaling those heights in the lap of nature
mount kinabalu
Top of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo, East Malaysia.

Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site, Kinabalu Park boasts of more than 5,000 vascular plant species and has no shortage of fauna as well, being home to some 90 lowland mammal species and many others. But the crowning glory of this park is the majestic Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains of South East Asia. A trek to the top needs two days to reach, along with a guide and insurance.

The difficult and rough terrain can be conquered with a good pair of comfortable shoes, an undefeatable spirit and the absolute feeling of accomplishment as the amazing view pans out from the top, justifying each and every ache of the body. For an even better experience, paragliding from top invites all those with strong hearts. Don’t forget warm clothing and gloves to ward off the cold. Raincoats and water resistant knapsacks to help in case of sudden showers. Flashlights are a must as often they prove to the light at the end of the dark tunnel. Accommodation is easily available within the park and the surrounding area.

For those with brave hearts and abominable spirits
blue-ringed octopus
The hovering blue-ringed octopus

A haven for adventure junkies, paragliding from Mount Kinabalu is not the only one. Whitewater rafting from Kiulu or Padas rivers, quad biking on the terrains, and scuba diving, sea walking or snorkelling at Sipadan or Mabul where you can find the most beautiful corals which shine and mesmerize those who dare to enter their land. Scuba divers can give company to sea turtles, barracudas and sharks. Safety is of utmost concern as all these activities are monitored by guides with all adequate safety protections in place.

Exploring the hidden treasures!

Kota Kinabalu The Glass, Suria Sabah, DMS, Signal Hill, KK city mosque, UMS mosque, Menara Tun Mustapha, Su tera harbour resort, KLIAS wetlands are famous spots for watching the sun go down, creating magic in myriads of colours and pallets as the sky magically turned pink and purple to shades of orange and grey interspersed with unbelievable shades that seem almost unreal and orgasmic. Sabah also hosts various festivals such as Borneo Bird Festival, Borneo Eco Film Festival, Kota Kinabalu Food Fest etc.

Museums, golf courses, nature parks, agriculture parks, tea gardens, Orangutan and monkey sanctuary, the list of places goes on and on. What I realized was it’s just an introduction I made and my soul has connected to this beautiful land as it will keep pulling me back to acquaint me with all that it has to offer. My curious heart will not settle knowing that I have just scratched the surface to gain access to these hidden treasures which have remained hidden for so long!

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