Sabah, Malaysia, is one of our favorite places in the world. We only came to Sabah because it was cheap to fly to it’s capital city, Kota Kinabalu. We had no idea where Kota Kinabalu was, knew nothing about Sabah, or even Malaysian Borneo. Some quick research showed that Sabah Malaysia is one of the most densely diverse regions in the world, and that it has plenty to offer adventurous travelers.
Sabah has the oldest rain forest in the world, one of the tallest mountains in southeast Asia, some of the most elusive flowers and rarest wildlife in the world, the second best diving spot in the world, and some of the best beaches in the world.
Sabah is also incredibly cheap, most locals speak at least passable English, and flights to get around Borneo are super easy.
We came for the famous white sandy beaches and warm turquoise water of the Sabah coastline, but fell in love with all the other incredible things to do in Sabah Malaysia. If you’re an adventurer and have two weeks to spare you’ll love your time here!
Two week Sabah, Malaysia, Travel Itinerary
Days 1-3: Kota Kinabalu
Start your trip in the capital city of Kota Kinabalu. Kota Kinabalu is the travel hub of Malaysian Borneo, so it’s where most international flights enter the country. You could easily spend up to two weeks or more here, but if you’re trying to fit in all of Sabah, Malaysia in two weeks then you can really only spare a few days.
Note: Even though you’re only spending your first three days in KK, you’ll want to book your hotel for 5 nights. The two days following your time in KK are both spent on day trips which will take you back to the city to sleep.
It’s a small city, but there are tons of things to do here!
- Sunrise at City Mosque: Get to the mosque 15-30 minutes before sunrise to make the most of sunrise. Head down the grassy walkway in front of the mosque’s lake to get the best view of the sunrise over the mosque. Yes, it’s early, but the view is incredible. There’s a reason this mosque is the face of Kota Kinabalu!
- Mari Mari Culture Village: Learn about Sabahan tribal history at the immersive Mari Mari Culture Village. The village has recreated the daily life of Sabah’s three most important tribes, which you are guided through for a thorough education on the region. If you don’t have the time to dedicate to the 3-hour Mari Mari tour, at least stop by the Sabah Museum for a self-paced tour of the region. Sabah has a rich history and this basic understanding of their culture will really help you appreciate your time here!
- Kota Kinabalu Observation Deck: This is a must-do for your time in Kota Kinabalu! It’s free, easy to access by car or foot, and gives great views of the city. From the observation deck you’ll get a better understanding of the city and it’s position between the South China Sea and the oldest rain forest in the world.
- Tanjung Aru Beach: Spend a day at Tanjung Aru beach for soft sand, warm turquoise water, gorgeous sunset, and night food market
- Island Day Trip: Day trip to an outlying island for sunsets, snorkeling, and sand.
- Our favorite is Dinawan Island, as it is a private island which limits the number of visitors each day. This way you can actually relax during your island day! They even provide kayaks, an inflatable water park, ocean swings, hammocks, a snorkeling excursion, and seafood BBQ on the beach!
- If you aren’t able to dedicate an entire day to Dinawan Island day trips to other islands leave daily from the Sutera Harbour Jetty and Jesselton Marina. Prepare for these islands to be over-snorkeled and busy, though!
Day 4: Tip of Borneo, Kudat
Rent a car (yes, this driving yourself is the easiest thing to do!) from Kota Kinabalu to drive the three hours to Tip of Borneo in Kudat.
The Tip of Borneo is, as the name suggests, the northernmost point of the island of Borneo. It’s an under-developed section of Sabah with gorgeous beaches leading up to the famous tip. A small parking lot leads you down a short walk to the tip, itself, which features a bronze statue of a globe, stairs, and placard explaining that the Tip of Borneo is where the South China Sea and Sulu Sea merge. Because of the two incoming seas the Tip of Borneo sees dramatic wave patterns, which are absolutely fascinating and gorgeous.
Three hours is a long time to spend in the car, but there are a few sight seeing locations on the way to Kudat. Here are some things to do along the way (In order of when you’ll find them on the road to Kudat):
- Tuaran Crocodile Farm: Stop in to learn about and see live feedings of crocodiles, as well as small pens of other animals. Warning: the crocodile farm can make those sensitive to zoos uneasy. My husband and son loved their time at the far, but I didn’t.
- Borneo Ant House: This attraction not only tells more about ants than you think you’d find interesting, you’ll also find lizards, snakes, hanging bridges, and tribal displays
- Gombizau Honey Bee Farm: This small honey bee farms fuels an entire village. Stop in off the road to see a short demonstration of how the honey bees live and then buy their local honey and handicrafts to support a group of working women
Day 5: Mt. Kinabalu Park
Mount Kinabalu was only recently dethroned as the tallest mountain in southeast Asia. Considered one of the toughest hikes in Asia, visitors can reserve one of the coveted spots to take a 2 day/ 1 night trek to the summit. If you have the time to dedicate to an overnight trek I encourage you to make this one happen, but if not, a day trip to Mt. Kinabalu Park is still worth it.
Two hours interior from Kota Kinabalu, you can either rent a car to take you to the mountain or hire a guide.
- Botanical Garden: There is a world-famous botanical garden inside Mt. Kinabalu Park where scientists and botanists are studying and cultivating tropical plants. They even keep some rare flowers which bloom sporadically throughout the year.
- Mt. Kinabalu walking trails: Once inside the park you’ll see notices for multiple walking trails through the rain forest of the mountain. These can take as long or short as you like!
- Poring Hot Springs: On the far side of the mountain (An extra hour’s drive) is the Poring Hot Springs. As the mountain and rain forest tend to be colder than other parts of Sabah, Malaysia, a visit to the hot springs can be just what the doctor ordered. Sit in any one of many tiled tubs fed by the natural hot water or pay for a private room. You can even access a butterfly farm, cave, and rope bridge system through the canopy layer of trees
- Smoked Wild Boar: Along the drive to Mt. Kinabalu you’ll find many roadside stands barbecuing wild boar. The boar is local to Sabah, and cut, salted, and smoked to order. It’s the closest we came to eating authentic bacon while in Sabah, and absolutely melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The experience is also a fun one, and, at only 22RM (around $5) for 1kg of meat, completely worth it!
Tip: This tour will pick you up from your hotel in Kota Kinabalu and take you to Mt. Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Springs with an air-conditioned transfer van and English-speaking guide. Order fast, though, spaces are limited and likely to sell out!
Day 6-7: Sepilok
On the morning of your 6th day in Sabah Malaysia catch a $13 flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. As opposed to other countries, flying around Sabah is incredibly cheap and easy (self check in means no weighing baggage, and their security check allows shoes, electronics, and liquids to stay on or in bags. It’s amazing.) You’ll definitely appreciate taking a 45-minute flight as opposed to a 6-7 hour drive!
Sandakan is the largest town in southeast Sabah, and as such is the hub for the next few days of travel. Sepilok, the home of the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center and other wildlife conservation projects, is 30 minutes outside of town. Arrange with your hotel or tour guide service to pick you up from the airport for a direct transfer to Sepilok.
We do recommend spending the night in Sepilok to visit the following places, as you’ll be getting exhausted from your previous few days’ trips. It also gives you enough time to see the centers in the afternoon of your first day or in the morning of your second day, depending on when you arrive in Sandakan/ Sepilok. Plus, our recommended hotel, Sepilok Jungle Resort, has a great multi-level pool and is very relaxing!
- Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center: This is definitely the main draw for Sepilok! The SORC is one of the most successful Orangutan rehabilitation centers in the world. Primate experts, veterinarians, and zoologists have provided safe home and rehabilitation to over 700 orangutans since the center opened, and successfully released over 500 back into the wild. The SORC allows visitors to learn about these incredible animals and see their work and progress in real time.
- Borneo Sun Bear Rehabilitation Center: Next door to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Center, which focuses on the care and rehabilitation of the rare Sun Bear. Only 7 sun bears are currently under care at this facility, which makes it less impressive but just as interesting as the SORC.
- Rainforest Discovery Center: This nature park and botanical garden features a jungle canopy walk with great views of tropical birds and flying squirrels.
Day 7-8: Sea Turtle Island
Arrange with your hotel in Sepilok to bring you to the Sandakan jetty in time for the transfer boat to Selingaan. Boats don’t leave until 9:30 a.m., which gives you plenty of time to arrive at the jetty from Sepilok.
Selingan, also known as Sea Turtle Island, is one of three islands off the coast of Sandakan dedicated to the research and preservation of sea turtles. Selingan is the only one of the three which allows visitors to watch their conservation efforts in real-time, and we consider a night on the island learning about these majestic animals as one of the highlights of our 2 weeks in Sabah Malaysia!
Turtle Island visitors arrive to Selingan in time for a buffet lunch and to spend the day enjoying the quiet beach. Selingaan has the deepest, softest sand we’ve found in Sabah, and beautiful water for snorkeling (you can rent snorkeling gear at the island). Visitors are instructed to stay off the beach after 6:00 p.m., at which time they can learn more about sea turtles via a small exhibition museum and movie while they wait for a turn to observe a mother turtle arrive on the beach and lay her eggs.
Mother turtles arrive every night of the year to lay eggs on the familiar beach. Trained rangers watch for the turtles and invite visitors to accompany them with helping the first turtle of the night. Visitors watch the sea turtle lay her eggs in a deep chamber, watch the eggs be transported to a protected hatchery, then help newly hatched baby sea turtles be carried to the ocean.
You could wait until close to midnight for the first turtle of the night, but the opportunity is incredible for people of all ages. You’ll love your time on Turtle Island. It’s hard to believe the entire experience only last 24 hours!
Check availability to stay on Sea Turtle Island here.
Day 8-9: Kinabatangan River
Your boat from Turtle Island will arrive at the Sandakan jetty by 8:00 a.m., which gives you plenty of time to arrive in Kinabatangan for a Kinabatangan river tour.
The Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Borneo, and where you’ll find a wide stretch of rain forest which orangutans, Proboscis monkeys, hornbills, Pygmy elephants, crocodiles, and lots of other rare tropical animals call home. It’s a landscape unlike any other in Sabah, Malaysia, or the world.
Spending the night at a lodge on the Kinabatangan River will not only give you access to river tours to see these incredible animals in their natural habitat the afternoon you arrive and the next morning, it’s also another opportunity to relax and unwind. You won’t get internet service on the river, so there are no distractions from the incredible nature surrounding you.
Tip: Stay at the Bilit Adventure Lodge for great service, 2 river tours + jungle night walk, and delicious meals. We loved it there!
Day 9-12: Islands off of Semporna
Kinabatangan is already 2 hours into the journey to Semporna from Sandakan, which makes this the natural next step!
Ask your Kinabatangan tour guide to take you to the Sukau Junction to catch a bus on it’s way to Semporna. Taking the bus around Sabah can be confusing, so asking a local tour guide to help arrange this leg of the journey is the easiest thing to do. The bus junction isn’t easy to find, and buses may not stop if they aren’t already expecting you. Tour operators all know how to get hold of the busses, though, and can call on your behalf to find the bus schedule and arrange for the driver to stop and pick you up in Sukau.
The bus will take around 3 hours (including a snack and potty break) to get to Semporna and cost around 40RM per person.
Alternately, you can take the Kinabatangan River tour’s transfer van back to Sandakan and then take a flight from Sandakan to Tawau, the nearest airport to Semporna. Tawau airport is still about one hour outside of Semporna, though, which is why it makes more sense to just catch the bus.
Semporna, itself, isn’t a very exciting place to be. Most visitors to the town only use it as a hub to get to the outlying islands, where you’ll find world-class scuba diving and snorkeling along live, active reefs.
Any serious scuba diver has heard of Sipidan, a small island off the coast of Semporna which often makes Top 10 World Diving Spots lists. Sipidan is famous because of it’s hoards of sealife. It doesn’t sit on a contental shelf, so the island is right next to a 600-meter ocean wall. This diversity of geography has lead to schools of jackfish and other tropical fish as well as sharks, sea turtles, and barracudas. Sipidan used to house resorts for divers and their families, but they have closed in recent years after it was deemed too hazardous to the ecology. Now only 120 people are allowed to dive Sipidan daily, and none are allowed to stay on the island overnight.
To access Sipidan and other scuba diving or snorkeling spots we recommend spending your time on or near Mabul Island. Mabul Island is a 40-minute speedboat ride from Semporna, and the best location for snorkeling directly off the beach and to access famous scuba spots like Sipidan Island. Even if you don’t scuba dive, a few days on the islands off of Semporna will give you soft sand and warm water. There’s no downside!
We recommend spending the night of your arrival at MySpace Capsule Hotel. Our son absolutely loved it, and we felt very safe the whole time. It’s a fun, cheap experience (nice, since spending a few days on the island isn’t cheap) and right next to a fantastic restaurant, Summer Breeze Cafe.
We recommend staying at the SeaVentures Dive Rig off of Mabul Island. It’s an oil rig which has been converted to a stationary resort, with a focus on diving and snorkeling. The rig provides 3 meals a day plus afternoon snack, has a game room, sun deck, and spa, take a daily boat shuttle to Mabul Island, and provides 3 scuba or snorkeling trips a day (with all necessary gear available on deck). It’s one of the coolest “hotels” we’ve ever stayed at, and even our son (who is too young to scuba dive) had the time of his life there!
If SeaVentures doesn’t have enough space for your visit, try the Mabul Paradise Lodge. Chalets are built right on the water, with access to great beaches.
Day 13: Back to KK
A speedboat transfer from Mabul Island will take you back to Semporna in the morning. For the sake of time we recommend getting a flight from Tawau to Kota Kinabalu, so you’ll need to arrange a Grab to the airport once in town.
Most international flights leave KK in the morning or early afternoon, which you’ll just barely miss when traveling in from Semporna.
You’ll spend the evening of Day 13 in KK to prepare for your next leg. This is a great time to fit in any last-minute activities you didn’t get to at the beginning of your trip, or catch another sunset on Tanjung Aru beach!
Day 14: Catch your international flight out
Say a sad goodbye to Sabah as you leave this gorgeous place. Sabah Malaysia is incredibly diverse, and I hope you have a moment to reflect on the incredible landscape and wildlife you were able to experience in this nature haven. What other place has mountains, volcanoes, islands, scuba diving, sea turtles, rain forest, orangutans, and so much more in such an accessible space?
Remember to tell your friends and family how much you loved your time in East Malaysia. This relatively undiscovered location has so much to offer the world!
How to spend more than two weeks in Sabah, Malaysia
If you’re lucky enough to have even more than two weeks to travel through Sabah (I’m looking at you, European citizens who get 6 weeks of vacation time!) here are a few ways to spend your extra time:
1. Pulau Tiga, AKA Survivor Island:
Pulau Tiga was made famous by the adventure reality TV show Survivor. It was the very first location of the show, where participants hung out at a volcano and ate Sego (Budot) worms. This island is still considered an adventure haven, and one which would be fun to visit.
Nowadays visitors’ favorite activity on the island is the volcanic mud hot springs, a natural hot springs with warm volcanic mud to play in. The mud is said to have healing properties and makes for a great Instagram capture!
Recommended time to spend on Pulau Tiga: 1 day
Tip: This tour will pick you up from Kota Kinabalu and take you to Survivor Island and back in just one day! Includes transfer back and forth to KK, snorkeling Snake Island, volcanic mud hot springs, and lunch with an Engligh-speaking guide
2. Tenom Rain Forest
Tenom is home to the oldest section of rain forest in the world. As such it’s the leading producer of coffee beans for Sabah, as well as a host of incredible tropical fruits.
We had the pleasure of spending two days and one night at Tenom Padas Farmstay, an organic goat and fruit farm which allows visitors to stay and learn about life on a tropical farm. The farm is in incredible condition and playing with goats was so much fun!
The only reason a trip to Tenom isn’t in our initial 2 weeks in Sabah itinerary is because it’s two hours away from Kota Kinabalu and not near much else to see. It would take an extra 2-3 days in Kota Kinabalu to make this trip, which we recommend if you have the time to spare!
Recommended time to spend in Tenom: 2 days
3. Climb Mt. Kinabalu
Yes, our Sabah travel itinerary includes a day at Mt. Kinabalu park, but that truly is the bare minimum amount of time you should spend there. If you have a spare day or two please consider actually climbing this mountain!
Mt. Kinabalu has been named the 20th most prominent mountain in the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The terrain of Mt. Kinabalu is unlike any we’ve seen, which leads to incredible pictures and a very memorable experience. You even get a professional certificate (and bragging rights) for reaching the summit!
Only 135 climbers are allowed on the mountain each day, so you must register in advance with an official tour company. Keep in mind that the mountain is closed to hikers 15-20% of the time due to bad weather, and you may want to add an extra day to the climb to adjust to the altitude change. Children under the age of 10 are able to climb, but with caution and extra time to acclimate to the altitude.
Recommended time to climb Mt. Kinabalu: 2 days, 1 night to climb, but 3 days, 2 nights in order to spend extra time at the outlying attractions
4. Extra time in Semporna (Mabul Island)
If you come to Semporna hoping to be one of the lucky few to dive Sipidan you will need more than our recommended 3 days. Because slots to dive are limited, resorts around Semporna only offer their allotment of Sipidan tickets to guests on a 3 or 4-day resort package. This is partly to maximize on visitors willing to spend more money for the chance to dive at Sipidan, and partly due to the fact that Sipidan is an open water drift dive, and many dive operators will prefer taking divers with 20+ open water dives or very recent dive experience. Their resort dive package should include extra scuba dives before heading to Sipidan to prepare you.
Recommended time in Semporna: 4 days (as opposed to the 3 we recommended in our travel itinerary)
5. Extra time in Kota Kinabalu
We spent 16 days in KK and still didn’t see/ do everything there is! It seems like a small city, but that doesn’t mean it has less to offer travelers to Sabah. KK is an amazing and diverse place with an equal number of natural and city things to experience.
If you can spare some extra time in Sabah’s capital city here are a few ideas of things to keep you busy:
Recommended time in Kota Kinabalu: At least one week
6. Extra time in Sepilok and Kinabatangan
As you can see, our Sabah travel itinerary hops you from Sepilok to Kinabatangan to Semporna very quickly. This is necessary if you want to stick to a strict 2 week timeline, but if you have an extra day or two consider spending an extra night in either of these locations. You will appreciate the opportunity to relax!
What to know before coming to Sabah, Malaysia
Sabah is a wonderful place, and knowing a few things in advance will help you make the most of your two weeks there!
Using a cell phone in Sabah
You will need a new SIM card to make your phone work in East Malaysia. SIM cards are available with a variety of internet plans and lengths of time at the airport. We recommend using CelCom. CelCom is the largest and cheapest cell phone carrier in Sabah, which means you’ll have the most reliable internet with their service while you travel.
Plans cost 5-20RM depending on the data and length of time package you choose, but any can be upgraded via their app while you travel.
Sabah uses Malyasian Ringitt (RM) currency. 1USD is equal to around 4RM, which makes 1RM roughly $.25. That’s an easy conversion to remember!
Most places around Sabah (with the exception of restaurants, shopping malls, and other such established stores) will primarily accept cash. You can get ringitts from the airport or ATMs in large towns around Sabah, but be sure to take out as much as you may need early: you could end up with no way of getting extra money in a place like Kinabatangan or Mabul Island!
Drink Bottled Water
You’ll need to buy bottled water for drinking in Sabah. Many hotels and restaurants (even some drink stalls on the street) will use filtered water to prepare drinks, but be sure to ask if their water or ice are filtered before drinking. To be safe buy bottled water, which is cheap and widely available.
The Speak English
The official language of Sabah is Malay, but most people also learn English and Chinese at school. Levels of understanding will vary, but there were only a couple of times when we needed to interact with someone and they knew no English. The truth is that many Sabahans know passable English but have limited opportunities to use it (since Sabah isn’t a popular destination for Western travelers). Most are very happy to speak English with visitors!
10RM Tourist Tax
In 2018 the government began to impose a 10RM “Tourist Tax”. 10RM is to be paid for each night a non-Malaysia stays at a hotel. The tax is often collected in cash, so be prepared with this much when you check into a hotel or resort.
There is also a camera tax at many tourist destination. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and Poring Hot Springs, for example, both charge for use of a camera (phone or DSLR). The charge ranges from 5RM to 10RM.
Use Grab to Drive Around
Grab is the Asian equivalent to Uber. It’s a safe, easy way to book a driver from one place to another. Grab is very prolific and cheap in Sabah, with drives up to 15 minutes costing 4RM to 15RM.
Download the Grab app to use the service and automatically attach a credit card to your profile for easy paying. You can pay with cash, however, as long as you choose the right payment option when booking the car.
You earn Grab Points as you use the app, which you can redeem through the app for free rides. Just choose the “Promo” option when booking a car!
Sabah is an incredibly diverse state. There are a variety of ethnicities, languages, and religions in the area, but Muslim really stands out. As opposed to other Asian countries which are primarily Buddhist, you’ll see mosques, modestly-dressed women, and Halal restaurants everywhere.
We encourage you to take this opportunity to learn more about the Islamic faith. The mosques are gorgeous, and the people are very kind!
What to bring for 2 weeks in Sabah, Malaysia
In addition to the basics (swimsuit, walking shoes) here are a few things we are either really glad we already had or had to buy while in Sabah:
- An adventure camera. We use a mirrorless camera when traveling to get great photos, but we really needed an adventure camera while in Sabah. We ended up buying a GoPro Hero 7 Black and an underwater Dome to capture all of the intense action moments we had. I felt better knowing that we were capturing once-in-a-lifetime memories with a camera that could get wet or dropped!
- Bug spray. Malaraia isn’t a concern for most of Sabah, but mosquitoes still exist and are very annoying. Some beaches are also home to sand fleas, which could leave you with 100+ bites (Yes. I know this for a fact.)
- Reef-Safe Sunscreen. The sun is very powerful here, so you’ll definitely want sunscreen on a daily basis. Regular sunscreen can damage reefs, so if you plan to swim/ snorkel/ dive we highly recommend investing in some reef-safe sunscreen.
- Rain jacket/ umbrella. As other tropical climates, weather changes on a dime in Sabah. They primarily have two climates: Wet and Dry, but that doesn’t mean a wet day won’t sneak in during dry months. Carry a small umbrella or a lightweight rain shell with you to protect against unexpected rain.
- Child’s snorkel mask. We did so much snorkeling in Sabah that we ended up buying a child’s snorkel mask while in town. It took us an entire day to track one down, however, so we highly suggest you find one before your visit. Full-face snorkel masks fit children up to 10 years old and make snorkeling much easier, safer, and more enjoyable for them!
Planning a trip to Sabah, Malaysia? Pin this two-week travel guide for later!
*Our trip to Sabah, Malaysia, was sponsored in part by Sabah Tourism Board, Sepilok Jungle Resort, Bilit Adventure Lodge, and SeaVentures Dig Rig. We did additional research and activities on our own to give you the best possible travel itinerary. All opinions are our own.*