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Skip Bali and Hawaii. Get yourself to Malaysian Borneo to see incredible beaches, do a ton of fun activities, play with unusual animals, and soak up the sunshine all on the cheap.
Your friends and family will admire you for choosing such an exotic location, but joke’s on them- traveling through Malaysia and experiencing some of the most adventurous activities and most beautiful sunsets is actually super easy!
Here is why Sabah, Malaysia, should be on your travel bucket list.
1. Sabah has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world
If you’re hoping for some great beach time on your vacation then Sabah, Malaysia, is your place! Sabah’s capital city, Kota Kinabalu, features multiple public beaches with the soft, white sand and warm, turquoise water dreams are made of. Venture a bit out of the city to any of the nearby islands and you’ll find even softer sand and clearer water.
Pair incredible beaches with cheap, delicious parking lot food and drink stalls and you have a real winner. Who wouldn’t love to watch one of the world’s most beautiful sunsets from an empty beach while drinking a glass of fresh mango juice that only cost $.50?
No one, that’s who.
Kota Kinabalu isn’t the only place you can find such amazing warm beaches! If you’re willing to part with $13 you can take a quick flight down south to the town of Semporna to revel in the pristine paradise of island beaches, or east to Sandakan for an overnight trip to the private sea turtle island.
2. Malaysian Borneo has some of the most unique things to do for adventure lovers
Yes, this island has some of the best beaches around, but it’s so much more than a great place to relax on the water.
Love being outdoors? Trying new things? Being the first of your friends to do something adventurous? Look no further.
East Malaysia has one of the most diverse landscapes in the world. Within the state of Sabah you’ll find modern cities with all the luxury accommodations and shopping you’d expect in any other major city, the world’s oldest rain forest, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, a volcano, cave systems, incredible beaches, coastal islands with accessible reefs, and some of the most rare and exotic animal life in the world.
In one week we went from shopping in Kota Kinabalu to snorkeling on a private island to staying at an organic farm in the rain forest to the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu to staying at a sea turtle reserve. Where else in the world can you see so many different landscapes so easily?
In one vacation you can hike a mountain, scuba dive one of the best reefs in the world, zip line between islands, help orangutans and sea turtles, take a speedboat down one of the longest rivers in the world, bathe in a volcanic mud hot spring, and eat worms.
Now that’s what I call an adrenaline vacation.
3. It’s CHEAP!
Though not as cheap as some other southeast Asian countries, you still get a great bang for your buck in Malaysian Borneo. A great AirBnB or hotel will run around $40 per night, and an upscale meal will be around $5.
If you’re interested in being as cheap as possible you can find hostels with some of the best ratings in the world in Kota Kinabalu for $15-20 per night, and tons of street food or cheap restaurants with dishes and fresh fruit drinks around (or under) $1.
If you rent an AirBnB and plan to cook, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the cost of groceries in Kota Kinabalu. Local milk runs $1.50 a liter, fresh vegetables are as low as $.50 a pound, and even imported foods are cheaper than in any other Asian city we’ve found. It’s hard to decide between cooking for yourself or eating at a local night market!
Food and lodging aren’t the only cheap things in Sabah, Malaysia. Transportation is also crazy cheap! Locals and visitors use Grab here, which is Asia’s version of Uber. Input your credit card information directly into the app to easily pay for cars and meals. Grabs are plentiful in Malaysia, and you’ll most likely never wait for more than 3 minutes for your English-speaking driver to arrive and politely take you to your destination.
4. It’s crazy easy to travel to other parts of the country
As an American, I’m used to expensive air travel. Well, that’s just not an a factor in Malaysia. Air travel is so cheap and easy here that you’re able to see way more of this country than you could others!
Most people don’t realize how HUGE the island of Borneo is. It’s the third largest island in the world, which means there’s a lot of land to cover even just on the Malaysian side (because you did know that Borneo is split between three countries, right? Yeah… I did, too…) Malaysian Borneo is made up of the states Sarawalk and Sabah, and each has a ton to experience. You probably don’t want to spend most of your vacation time driving, so Malaysia has made flying from one location to the next super easy!
You can fly between cities, states, and even to Peninsular Malaysia really easily and affordably. Multiple routes between areas are offered each day for as little as $13. There’s not much need to reserve super early, either. A few day’s notice is usually good enough to secure an awesome deal!
Not only are the flights crazy cheap, flying is also really easy. Domestic flights with AirAsia (Asia’s leading flight brand) are self check-in, which means the 7 kg. restriction on carry-on baggage isn’t enforced. Their security is one of the most laid-back we’ve ever experienced, too. We kept asking if we needed to remove liquids, camera, shoes, etc., and the security agents just smiled and said, “It’s ok… keep it inside.” Um, thanks! The airports have all been small and easy to navigate and the flights around half- 2/3 full.
When traveling is this easy there is really no excuse not to experience as much of Malaysia as possible, especially if you only have a short time to visit.
5. They speak English in Malaysia
And Malay, and Chinese…
Sabah was known as British North Borneo until it’s unification with the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. As a British territory, schools in North Borneo were conducted in English. This means that older adults who went through the public school system will know passable English! Due to a high population of Chinese Malaysians public schools are now taught in Chinese, while private schools continue to teach in English.
Nowadays many Malaysians are proud to know each of these three languages: their native Malay, English, and Chinese.
We were pleasantly surprised to realize how easy it is to get around as English speakers, and also a bit ashamed at the fact that Malaysians keep up three languages while we only focus on one…
6. It’s one of the last undiscovered tourist gems
I really can’t stress this enough. People seem to always be asking about “undiscovered gems.” Well, here’s one. Seriously.
Even though most Malaysians speak at least some English that doesn’t mean they get to practice very often. The majority of tourists to East Malaysia are Asian; Chinese and Korean, to be exact. The island is considered just too far away for Europeans or North Americans to visit.
I understand the allure of wanting to go to Bali or Fiji for the effort it takes to fly across the world, but honestly. Be a little more creative than that! Being in a land where you’re not surrounded by the people you left at home is so refreshing! Add in the fact that Borneo is drop dead gorgeous, super diverse, easy to navigate, and cheap and it’s a no-brainer. I mean, it feels like you’re doing this super exotic, difficult excursion which everyone at home will lust after and admire you for, but the truth is Malaysian Borneo is a really easy place to be in! Joke’s on them!
7. It’s one of the cleanest Southeast Asian areas
Yes, you’ll find plastic stuck on the beaches, but the street and air quality in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan are better than any other major Southeast Asian city we’ve been to (and we’ve been to LOTS.) There’s virtually no noise pollution (Honking. Ugh. Some Asians honk as often as they breathe), buildings are kept in good repair, and shops are clean.
There’s really not much more to say, but if you’ve been to a loud, dirty city you’ll understand why this is such a big deal.
7. Sabah, Malaysia, has a rich history
North Borneo isn’t just gorgeous nature and fun activities.
People have lived on the island of Borneo for centuries, and Sabahans are very proud of their cultural roots. They make understanding and experiencing their tribal heritage really easy for tourists. Kota Kinabalu, the East Malaysian travel hub most visitors will find themselves in, has recreated three tribal villages at the famed Mari Mari Culture Village you’re welcome to tour for a real-life peak into the past. There’s also the Sabah Museum, a cheap activity to see excellent displays of historic life and semi-modern life, and Borneo Night, a dance and music performance, which takes you from tribal time through the second World War in the space of 90 minutes (and with a dinner buffet and souvenirs, to boot.)
They’ll even show you historical dances for free at some shopping malls and restaurants.
The clothing, house style, food, and dance are all incredibly artistic and beautiful. Understanding more about these early tribes will help you connect with local Sabahans, and will make your trip to Sabah, Malaysia, more meaningful.
8. Sabah has amazing weather
It’s just delicious. As in, I would eat this warm breeze with a spoon if I could.
If you’re wondering about the best time to visit East Malaysia keep in mind there are two seasons here: Wet and Dry. Sabah mostly says temperate around 86 degrees year-round thanks to it’s position near the equator, with July being the hottest month on average, January the coolest, and October the wettest.
But Sabah is also referred to as the “Land Below the Wind” due to it’s southern proximity to typhoon-prone Philippines. It’s location protects Sabah from most major storm systems, which means that, even in the wet season, you’ll still have a drier time than in other Asian places.
9. Malaysia is very child-friendly
When you travel with children how they are treated becomes very important when choosing a family vacation location. Well, Malaysia is very child-friendly!
During our time in Malaysia our son was treated with warmth and respect. People everywhere were excited to meet this beautiful Western boy, but they complimented his blue eyes without poking and prodding him as he has been in other countries. He had more confidence to look people in the eye and answer their questions in Malaysia than just about anywhere.
Not only are the residents child-friendly, Sabah, itself, is like one giant playground for children. Our 6-year-old loved playing in the warm ocean water at all times of the day, snorkeling for tropical fish just below the water’s surface, seeing a rare flower at the Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden, swimming in a volcanic mud, seeing orangutans up close, feeding goats at an organic farm, and taking speedboats to other islands. We haven’t been to a single other place which offered our son so much to enjoy and learn from in one place than Sabah.
10. Sabah is one of the few places making an effort to protect their natural resources
Whereas other countries (particularly in Southeast Asia) are expanding to service their ever-growing tourist market, Sabah is actually taking a step back. Instead of overcrowding their most popular and beautiful natural areas or ignoring threats to wildlife, Sabah is making admirable strides in protecting it’s natural resources for the future.
The town of Sandakan and it’s outlying area are home to protected lands meant to provide safe haven for the many exotic animal species who call Sabah home. Rehabilitation centers near Sandakan accept orphaned or previously poached orangutans and sun bears, and they are doing a fantastic job. Considered one of the most successful orangutan rehabilitation centers in the world, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center has released more than 500 rehabilitated apes back to their native Borneo.
Off the coast of Sandakan are the Turtle Islands. Here research centers collect sea turtle eggs, nurture them, and release hatchlings safely to the water in order to boost the number of native sea turtles. One of the islands allows people to stay overnight to help with their conservation efforts, but numbers are limited to only 50 people per night so as not to put too much pressure on the island’s resources and the turtle’s sanctuary.
Other islands, like popular dive spot, Sipidan, also limit the number of people allowed to visit each day. Recognizing that hotels and tourists were having a negative impact on the island and it’s famous coral reef, Sipidan recently outlawed overnight guests to the island and limit the number of scuba divers to only 120 each day.
Mt. Kinabalu, one of the most popular hikes in Southeast Asia, is another spot which limits the number of people allowed to climb and camp each day in order to not put pressure on the mountain. If you don’t get one of the coveted hiking spots you are still welcome to visit Kinabalu Botanical Park, where botanists and scientists are growing and studying the unique plant life of Sabah.
New government initiatives are protecting more land from development than ever, and have even begun the Kinabatangan Reforestation Project to plant new growth after the deforestation of essential rain forest decades ago.
As the rest of the world paves paradise for parking lots, it feels so wonderful to support a country and tours dedicated to preserving their most precious resource: their land and wildlife.
Planning a trip to Sabah? Save this list for later!