Years ago the name Sabah used to remind me of this very pretty girl who was a colleague in my HSBC days. Later I found out about the Sabah region in the world’s 3rd largest island, Borneo! A very diverse place, Sabah is home to some native groups like Kadazandusun, Bajau, Suluk Murut, Bisaya and Orang Sungai. Others being Filipinos, Chinese, Indians and other ethnic groups who live in total harmony. A fusion of their cultures is what makes Sabah very special.
It’s easiest to get a direct flight to Kota Kinabalu (the main city in Sabah) from Kuala Lumpur. Once you get off at Kota Kinabalu International Airport and get through immigration (there is a form you need to fill out and you get a stamp in your passport), you can hightail it to your hotel/resort in a cab. If you are the adventurous sort, you can try and get there by train or bus. It will definitely be a longer trip though and not as straightforward as taking a flight.
Malay is the main language spoken there – so it’s good to learn a few key phrases before you head off there.
Selamat pagi – Good morning
Siapa napa anda? – What’s your name?
Saya dari… – I’m from…
Di mana tandas? – where’s the toilet (very important in case of an emergency from over-eating local food!)
Terima Kasih – Thank you (nice to use after you’ve been directed to a toilet to avoid an accident after the previous emergency)
Scaling Mount Kinabalu
One of the main attractions here is Mount Kinabalu. At 4095.2 m it is the highest mountain in Borneo, Malaysia. You can take a local bus from the main bus station or a shared taxi, or even hire your own car to get to Kinabalu Park. If you are in good shape physically, you can try and scale the mountain. Plan a hike of two days so that it is easy and not stressful.
Entry to the park is minimal, but you have to purchase insurance and hire a guide in order to climb the mountain. Most guides will help you on a trek or hike. It’s good to travel in a group rather than going alone. With an overnight break at Laban Rata (halfway up the climb), it’s a great experience provided you can breathe well in the rarefied atmosphere and don’t have asthma issues like me.
The view from the top is nothing short of spectacular. If you are not up-to scrambling up a mountain, you can do one of the many walking hikes. They are however not conducive to people in a wheelchair or those with walking issues. There are narrow paths and in some sections, stairs.
There is also a botanical garden with some amazing flowers and other plants. You can also visit the Botanical Museum to enrich your knowledge. The food at the park is a bit pricey (like all tourist places are), so if you have the means, carry a sandwich or two and some juice/water. Here’s a bit of General knowledge – the Rafflesia flower (largest in the world, with a diameter of close to 1m) grows in the Crocker Range (Mount Kinabalu is a part of this range).
Paragliding is very popular here. With extreme sports being all the rage with youngsters these days, you could hike up the mountain and then take off from there in a paraglider. It’s not for the faint-hearted – and most definitely not for me! However, the tour operators are world renowned and it’s extremely safe as they take the utmost precautions at all times.
If you are a water person, there is something for you as well – go snorkeling or diving at Sipadan or Mabul. The corals here are simply beautiful – colourful and mesmerizing. Go scuba diving – swim with sea turtles, barracudas and sharks. Ensure you follow instructions of the dive master else you might have to ‘swim with the fishes’!! A la Marlon Brando!! It’s a protected site, hence only 120 divers per day can scuba dive. If you’re lazy like me, snorkel in a cordoned off area and enjoy the colourful coral. You will see reef fish as well.
You can go white water rafting in either of two rivers – Kiulu or Padas. Sabah is very tourist focused – hence guides and tours are available all over. The Kiulu valley is beautiful – for those who don’t wish to go rafting (and lose a few years due to sheer fright), you can go quad biking. A quad bike is an all-terrain, 4-wheeler, hence easy to use.
Sabah Traditional Food
No article of mine is ever complete without some inputs on my favourite subject – food! I am a foodie and will never baulk at trying local cuisine and Sabah traditional food. However, I’ll avoid the scary foods I’m queasy about ie. snakes, frogs, insects etc… but bring on the other food and never say no, as I will eat, enjoy, digest and write about it! See the list below :
Kon lau mee – dry noodles with a dark sauce. Can be had as hakka or a soup.
Satay perut – beef tripe (not for me though – I don’t eat spare parts)
Tuaran mee – egg fried noodles
Roti Kahwin (eaten best with Kopi/Coffee) – a sandwich with butter, egg and coconut jam – I know I know – egg and jam?!! Huh!! But it’s quite nice..
Sang nuk mian – pork noodles (local speciality)
Laksa – spicy noodle soup (one of my favorites – wholesome and comforting)
Seafood – gorge on fish, mussels, lobsters, crab and prawns. Stir fry, in a thick gravy anything…just enjoy!
Bak kut teh – pork spare ribs cooked with cloves, garlic and other herbs in a broth
Dim sums – pork, prawn, vegetable and chicken
For the brave, try :
Butod (these are Sago Palm Weevil larvae).They look like maggots so be brave!
Hinava – salted river fish eaten raw – mixed with lime juice, chilli, shallots and ginger
Busou – fermented freshwater fish
For those of you who don’t care about putting on the odd pound or two:
Pomelo Mango Sago
Tong sui – coconut milk with red beans, green beans etc
Durian pancake – the smell is overpowering but if you’re used to eating jack-fruit, it’s fine
You can visit Sabah almost all year around. If you are a beach person, go in August-September. Turtle watching can be done between June and September. If you like to attend international festivals, there are many all throughout the year, such as the Borneo Bird Festival, Borneo Eco Film Festival, Kota Kinabalu Food Fest and so on. There are only two seasons – dry and rainy. So choose carefully and choose well! Find out what else you can do at Sabah here.