Malaysia is one of the world’s 17 “megadiverse” countries, with Borneo being their crown jewel of biodiversity! The world’s third largest island, fringed by a coral reef, covered with a 130-million-year-old rainforest, and teeming with endemic species, this is a place of epic proportions. While Borneo is shared between two other countries (Indonesia and  Brunei), Malaysia’s state of Sabah on the north end of the island has the most protected rainforest, the tallest mountain, rich indigenous culture (38 groups making up 59% of the population), and solid tourism infrastructure to access these wilderness wonders…making it the natural choice for a Borneo trip! We gave ourselves 12 days (we could have easily spent a month here) to travel Sabah and are so excited to share the best of Malaysian Borneo. Read this blog as we trek with orangutans, scuba dive the legendary Sipadan, river safari like David Attenborough, and hone in on the best things to do in Sabah, Malaysia.

Shout-out to Allianz Travel for supporting our content and protecting us on this journey…travel insurance is a must for any trip to Borneo!

Sabah Travel Itinerary

Route & Timing:
Sepilok (1 day) > Sukau & Kinabatangan River (2 days) > Sipadan Scuba Diving Trip (3 Days if a diver; skip if not) > Danum Valley Conservation Area (2 days) > Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (2 Days) > Kinabalu Park (2 Days) > Transit Days (add 2 days buffer overall)

This 12-14 day Sabah travel itinerary starts in the northeast at Sepilok and heads in a clockwise direction, finishing in the capital of Kota Kinabalu on the South China Sea. It offers an exciting mix of Borneo rivers, rainforests, islands, mountains, indigenous culture, and cities. This blog has all our favorite experiences (even ones we didn’t get to), and if you zip down to the bottom of this post you can see all the logistical details.

Sepilok, Northeast Sabah

Just outside of the big city of Sandakan, the Sepilok area is worth staying the night for this educational trifecta: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center + Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre + Rainforest Discovery Centre…all within walking distance.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Sabah Travel to the Sepilok Orangutans

Since 1964 the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre has been doing incredible work rehabilitating orphaned and injured orangutans on their 10,611-acre sanctuary. In this massive rainforest reserve, 60-80 orangutans live independently in the wilderness and approximately 25 orphaned orangutans are cared for in the nurseries until they can hopefully be released. The best time to go to Sepilok is at 10am or 3pm when they put out food for the orangutans still in need of assistance. 

We hiked for 10 minutes along the forested boardwalk to reach the feeding platform. Four orangutans were sitting in a circle, sharing snacks, stretching, and tending to an adorably fidgety baby. Orangutans share 97% of our DNA, and it is so evident when you watch their familiar mannerisms. Then came Malim, a 25-year-old flanged male pushing 200 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, swinging in from the ropes. With huge cheeks, pronounced throat pouch, and long red hair, he is the perfect specimen of a dominant male and we were so lucky to see him!

Tip: We know it’s tempting to wait to see these great apes in the true wild, but in the event that doesn’t happen, you’ll be soooo glad you came and supported the rehabilitation center. 

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Borean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Just across the way from the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the first sanctuary for the world’s smallest bear. Being absolutely adorable has caused a lot of problems for the sun bear, and an alarming amount of people were keeping them in captivity! Malaysian biologist and now CNN Hero, Wong Siew Te, wanted to put an end to this practice through the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre’s rescue program, rehabilitation facility, and public education programs. We took a tour, learning fun facts, like sun bears are half the size of a black bear, have 10-inch-long tongues, and get their name from the golden sun-like patch of hair on their chest. We saw two bears pacing, still distressed from their former life in captivity, but we were happy to know this rehab center exists and think it’s worth stopping in for the chance to see a bear in a tree eating from a beehive like Winnie the Pooh!

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Rainforest Discovery Center Sepilok Sabah

Next on our crash course in Borneo biodiversity…The Rainforest Discovery Centre! Walk their impressive skywalk, 80 feet above the forest floor, while you read educational signs about the 3,000 tree species of Borneo. Climb the lookout towers and look into the ancient boughs to spot monkeys and a wide variety of birds, from the Bornean Bristlehead, Blue-headed Pitta, Cream-eyed Bulbul, and more in this official “Important Birding Area” and home to the Borneo Bird Festival. Many people also come here at night for the chance to see the Malayan Colugo. This talented lemur can glide distances over 400 feet in a single leap!

Book this Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, and Rainforest Discovery Centre as a full-day tour.

Kinabatangan River & Wildlife Sanctuary

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Borneo Malaysia

The second longest river in Malaysia, Kinabatangan is home to the Borneo Big Five: pygmy elephant, orangutan, proboscis monkey, rhinoceros hornbill, and estuarine crocodile…plus 325 bird species! Exploring by riverboat with a keen-eyed guide is the best way to wildlife watch, which is why we went with Borneo Eco Tours and stayed at their fabulous Sukau Rainforest Lodge. 

Sukau Rainforest Lodge

Sukau Rainforest Lodge Sabah malaysia

A National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World and winner of a slew of awards for their sustainability efforts, Sukau Rainforest Lodge has been the river’s ecotourism pioneer since 1995. In the face of widespread logging that swept across Borneo in the late 20th century, Kari Bin Ongong, the lodge founder and member of the Orang Sungai indigenous group, helped plant the seed for what would become the government-protected Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Between the luxurious accommodations and the area’s unprecedented biodiversity, the lodge has attracted guests from Judi Dench to Sir David Attenborough, who made this his base for a Borneo wildlife special. Only accessible by boat, this stilted retreat hovers over the river and extends into the rainforest by raised boardwalks. We stayed in one of their 20 recently added villas and loved the chic design and use of local decor. A sarong was hanging in our room with a note encouraging guests to wear this traditional skirt to dinner…and low and behold everyone got decked out for a very festive and familial vibe, as we dined on delicious Sabahan and international cuisine.

Kinabatangan River Safari 

kinabatangan river wildlife sanctuary, Sabah Malaysia

River safari is at the heart of the Sukau experience, with riverboats leaving before dawn, after lunch, and again at night to maximize sightings. We never missed the chance to wildlife watch and we saw the endemic rhinoceros hornbill, a 20-foot crocodile, a troop of macaque monkeys, Buffy fish owls, six species of kingfisher, and wacky Borneo specials like proboscis monkeys, with their big floppy noses! Our guide Fahran was excellent and the time spent with fellow wildlife lovers on the water was a joy. We highly recommend a stay at Sukau Rainforest Lodge and hope you get to see the pygmy elephants for us…the group the day before saw 20 crossing the river!

Semporna & The Celebes Sea

bajau laut people semporna sabah malaysia

To experience the marine side of Sabah’s wildlife, we headed to Semporna and the islands of the Celebes Sea…only to realize this area was just as culturally fascinating! Here, the majority of the population is Bajau Laut, a nomadic seaborne people living in sprawling stilted villages and small wooden houseboats. Their community extends across the waters between the Philippines and Indonesia, and has for thousands of years, yet few “sea nomads” like them are left in the world. We went to the bustling Semporna fish market and the scene was like Miami Vice meets Mad Max! Colorful wooden speed boats were bobbing and weaving to get into port and the beach was packed with vendors and buyers haggling for the freshest catch. We don’t even eat fish, but we went into the gauntlet just to experience this fascinating chaos.

FYI: Semporna has a history of pirates and not-so-long-ago kidnappings. While we felt safe, we’d just recommend having your wits about you to appreciate this unique look into another world. Also, if you are not a scuba diver, you may want to swap the Semporna region for another indigenous cultural experience.

Scuba Diving Greater Sipadan

best things to do sabah malaysia

The Coral Triangle is the most biodiverse marine region in the world, with over 6,000 species of fish and 76% of the planet’s coral species. It’s lined with epic scuba diving destinations, but one that consistently tops the lists? Sipadan, Malaysia. To explore the Sipadan Marine Park and its surrounding islands, we found a PADI-certified scuba diving outfitter like no other…a decommissioned oil rig turned eco-friendly dive resort hovering over the reef! Seaventures’ old cargo deck has been turned into a dive center and restaurant, employee housing into suites, helipad into a sweeping rooftop patio, and the freight elevator into a fun way to reach the sea. Our days were filled with three scuba sessions (plus as many as we’d like at the house reef directly below the rig), with breaks for bountiful meals, roof deck lounging, and high dives off the plank.

Between the 2,000-foot-tall oceanic island of Sipadan and the reef of Kapalai, the varied terrain offered every kind of dive, from high-speed drifts to shipwrecks to otherworldly macro. Bumphead parrotfish, whitetip reef sharks, spotted rays, green sea turtles, countless reef fish, and nudibranchs galore graced our 11 dives.  

Diving in Sipadan’s slice of the Coral Triangle, watching the morning light shimmer over the coral garden and silhouette the bumphead parrotfish, I thought to myself, “Getting scuba certified was one of the best things we’ve ever done.” We’ve traveled the seven continents, but Earth is 70% ocean, and without scuba, we’d just be skimming the surface! Our scuba training allowed us to swim alongside schools of barracuda, go eye to eye with feisty Nemos, watch a Mandarin fish mating dance, and explore inside shipwrecks. With a regulator in our mouth, we not only have the superpower to breathe underwater, but also a reason to stop the chatter and listen to the rhythms of nature and our innermost thoughts. In the deep blue, there is nowhere to be but present.

Do you have the power of scuba? Check out our Instagram gallery above and consider starting your PADI journey or upping your certification (wreck-diving, coral conservation, dive master)…so much more of the world awaits!
Check out (*use the discount code HONEYTREK15 to get 15% off)

Lahad Datu: The Friendly Transit Hub

sabah malaysia travel tips

More rainforest exploration was in our future, but catching our early morning ride into the depths of Danum Valley Conservation Area required an overnight in Lahad Datu. No tourists would come to this town except to transit, but we were so glad we stayed the night to experience a real Bornean town outside of the eco-lodge bubble. For $16 we stayed at the perfectly nice Maya Hotel with a seaview and a short walk to the heart of town. We went to the Ramadan night market, lined with 50+ stalls, selling nasi lemak (the national dish), fried noodles, and delish durian cakes. We ate at multiple stalls and couldn’t seem to rack up a bill higher than $1.50 at any stand. The best part was the locals could not have been friendlier. Soooooo many people said hello, welcome, how are you, or just smiled ear-to-ear seeing a tourist in their underappreciated town.

Danum Valley Conservation Area

Danum Valley is the largest tract of lowland virgin rainforest left in Malaysia. This is not by chance. When the logging spree was headed this way in the late 1970s, World Wildlife Fund worked with the Sabah government to prove this forest is one of the most biodiverse on earth, and in urgent need of protection. Today, this 438-square-kilometer conservation area protects 340 bird species, 124 mammal species, and countless old-growth trees. To minimize disturbance while sharing its wonders, the Sabah Foundation offers travelers access through the Danum Valley Field Centre and one fabulous eco-resort…Borneo Rainforest Lodge. 

Borneo Rainforest Lodge

Check-in at Borneo Rainforest Lodge begins at their Lahad Datu office with cappuccinos and snacks, before a 4×4 drives you two hours deep into the Danum Valley Conservation Area. We reached the lodge and were greeted with cool, lemongrass-scented towels and ushered into their gorgeous dining area with views of the Danum River for an excellent lunch.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge is built to top standards of sustainability. With a raised boardwalk connecting the rooms, they have kept the wildlife corridors open and worked around the existing trees. Rooms are plenty luxurious while taking eco-conscious measures, like cross-ventilation windows, solar-heated showers, microorganism wastewater treatment, and conservation measures at every turn….even used cooking oil gets upcycled into soaps!

Orangutan Tracking

orangutans borneo

Heading into the rainforest with our indigenous Desun Sepan guide, we were just meters from the lodge when we had our first orangutan sightings. Watching them move from tree to tree, nibble the leaves, build their nests, and care for their young, we were in awe of their grace and agility. Orangutans spend 95% of their lives in the trees, so we could safely (and unobtrusively) observe them from below, easily track their movements with the rustling of the leaves, and have intimate encounters with these endangered great apes.

Danum Valley Hiking & Adventures

Hiking along the Danum River and the Coffin Cliff Trail for 2.5 km, ancient trees towered over us. A steep climb brought us to the limestone cliffs, where the nooks in the rock became a pagan burial ground for the indigenous Orang Sungai people. An ironwood coffin, dating back 250 years has largely survived the elements, along with bone fragments of what is believed to be village leaders and esteemed warriors. Reaching the highest point in the valley, there were sweeping views of the lush mountains and snaking river. On our way down we hit multiple waterfalls, the towering Serpent Falls and the Jacuzzi Pools, where we took a refreshing dip! (Tip: If you stick your feet in the water long enough, the little “nibble fish” will gladly give you a pedicure.)

More Borneo Rainforest Lodge activities include the canopy suspension bridges, night safaris (by foot and EV buggy), river tubing, and spa treatments. Whatever we were up to, incredible wildlife sightings were a constant, from endemic red-leaf monkeys, colugos, Bornean Tarsiers, Harlequin flying frogs, and of course, orangutans! 

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Best parks in Sabah Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Across the state of Sabah and just three miles off the coast of Kota Kinabalu lies Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. This five-island reserve in the South China Sea protects the coral reef and an abundance of wildlife, plus offers a slew of recreation opportunities. The mile-long Manukan Island is the hub of the state park with a good marine museum, adorable restaurant, water sports program, and sandy beaches. To be honest, the park is quite busy with Kota Kinabalu day-trippers, but the travel hack is to stay overnight at one of the island resorts like Gaya Island Resort or Sutera Sanctuary Lodges’ Manukan Island Resort to find the serenity of this beautiful place.

Manukan Island Resort

Sutera Sanctuary Lodges

We based our marine park adventures at Manukan Island Resort. While not the fanciest resort in the archipelago, we loved our apartment-style bungalow, private beach with sun sails and loungers, and the dining experiences were unforgettable. By day, Arang restaurant has this great beach-house vibe with colorful decor, chaise lounges, fab food, and beers flowing. By night, we had exclusive on-sand dining room with a sheer teepee and candlelit path framing a table for two. While enjoying a three-course plant-based meal, a trio of guitarists came to serenade us. Ask them to play their traditional Sabahan songs to further your love of Borneo island life.

Water Adventures at Tunku Abdul Rahman

Tunku Abdul Rahman Park Sabah
@honeytrek We never really thought about paragliding until Borneo’s Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Flying over the islands, skimming our feet across the Pacific, and blurring the lines of sea and sky…is this wild or what? #Paragliding #Borneo #Malaysia #Insta360 @Sutera Sanctuary Lodges #Partner @Tourism Malaysia @Sabah Malaysian Borneo ♬ Get Ready – SUPER-Hi & NEEKA

The Tunku Abdul Rahman is a watersport paradise…scuba diving, snorkeling, banana boats, and island hopping. From the Manukan Island dock you can set you up whichever adventure you’d like, and we chose to parasail for the first time! Not gonna lie, it always seemed a little cheesy to us, but hey, don’t knock till you try it…parasailing turned out to be an ultra-fun and scenic way to explore the islands! To continue our park adventures, we ferried over to Mamutik Island. The beach by the jetty is busy with tourists, but walk 15 minutes clockwise around the island and you’ll find a secret cove with gorgeous rock formations and good snorkeling.

Mount Kinabalu

sabah travel

While we did not get the chance to do the two-day trek to the top of this 13,000-foot mountain and UNESCO World Heritage Site, we wanted to put Kinabalu Park on your radar…because it sounds epic and you need to plan ahead. Just 86 kilometers from the Sabah capital, this craggy tectonic plateau, covered in 3,000 species of plants, looks like something out of Lord of the Rings! Treks should be booked 4-6 months in advance to secure permits and lodging. You’ll bed down at Panalaban Base Camp, either in one of the bunkhouses or Sutera Sanctuary Lodge’s Laban Rata, then wake up at 2am to make it to the summit checkpoint by 5am and finish your ascent for a breathtaking sunrise over Sabah and the South China Sea. We hope you go for it! That said, you can still get a taste of Mount Kinabalu with a full-day trip from the capital, exploring trails at the base of the mountain to enjoy the flora, fauna, hot springs, and indigenous villages.

Sabah, Malaysia: Know Before You Go

travel tips borneo malaysia

Borneo is truly a bucket-list trip, so to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible, here are a few tips to prepare for your Sabah travels.

Best time to visit Sabah:  March to September is the dry season, making it the ideal time to travel Sabah. FYI, being along the equator in a tropical climate, it’s always hot and humid. Funny enough, we came during the month of Ramadan (check the ever-changing lunar calendar) thinking that was a downside, but it turned out to be a huge benefit…with lots of hotel and bus availability and lively night markets to break the fast with locals each night.

Do I need a visa for Malaysia? Passport holders from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and most EU countries do not need a passport for Malaysia.

Is Malaysia expensive? Southeast Asia in general is very affordable and Malaysia is one of the most economical in the region. $1 USD = 4.7 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR). When you buy locally in Sabah, lunch will cost you around $2 USD, a decent hotel room $20, and a long-distance bus $10. That said, all-inclusive eco-lodges. which are sometimes essential for experiencing these remote wilderness areas, and are of course at much higher prices.

Travel Insurance for Borneo: Between the complexity of transit, costs of all-inclusive tours, and safety concerns of exploring remote regions, travel insurance is a must. We highly recommend Allianz. We use their AllTrips Premier Plan to get coverage (everything from baggage delays to medical evacuation) whenever and wherever we go throughout the year. They also offer comprehensive single-trip plans if you want to focus on Borneo.

Language: Malay is the national language, with English widely spoken. That said, there are 50 languages across Sabah’s 39 indigenous ethnic groups. At a minimum, learn the Malay words for thank you, “teri-ma ka-see” and delicious, “se-dop” to show your appreciation.

Food in Sabah: The food is fabulous, especially if you like a little spice! Expect rice-based dishes–from Nasi Lemak‘s coconut rice with sambal chili and peanuts to Sabahan leaf-wrapped ketupats, noodle soups like laksa, and the best tropical fruit! With populations of ethnic Indians and Chinese across Malaysia, their fabulous cuisines are widely available. Vegetarian and vegan food is pretty easily available upon request and there are always lots of veggie sides to choose from, including unbeattable fresh tempeh!

Transportation: Traveling eastern Sabah is easily achieved by overland transit. Most remote ecolodges include transportation to and from transit hubs and airports. Between cities, a local bus is a good option, ranging from air-conditioned coaches to on-demand minivans (we did both, booked the same day without a problem, and enjoyed the local color!). Sabah is also very connected by plane, with airports in Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, and Tawau (closest to Semporna). We always try to limit flights for environmental reasons, but would say it’s best to fly to Kota Kinabalu, per the long distance and poor road conditions to cross the state. Malaysia Airlines offers the most extensive options.

Packing for Borneo: Between very strong equatorial sun, rainforest crawlies, and the conservative nature of Muslim populations, covering up is the way to go. Pack lightweight long-sleeve shirts and long pants, wicking t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, high trekking socks, sturdy shoes, a set of beach attire, and a sporty raincoat (no warm layers necessary; unless you trek Mount Kinabalu.) Throw in a small pair of quality binoculars to enhance your wildlife viewing, without adding much bulk to your luggage. See more of HoneyTrek’s essential packing list and save room in your bag for a batik sarong, the local fashion and a handy accessory.

We hope you enjoyed our Sabah travel guide and are stoked to explore Borneo! Let us know what piques your interest, and if you have any questions in the comments below. For more inspiration and behind the scenes from our trip, see our Borneo Instagram Stories and check out for local info.

Thank you to Allianz Travel Insurance for sponsoring our Sabah travel blog and believing in the importance of eco-tourism.


  1. I love your tips at the end even more than the things to see and do. It’s so nice to have a guide on when to go and what to watch for.

  2. Isabellita Pabalan says:

    Sabah sounds like an incredible adventure! I love to read about your travel experiences!

  3. This is a great catalog of interesting locations in Sabah. Someday I might visit there.

  4. I love how much effort they put into rehabilitation and preservation of wild life and their habitats. Its beautiful because so many places don’t even care

  5. Melanie E says:

    It sounds like there is an abundance of wildlife. What an amazing place to visit.

  6. Nikki Wayne says:

    This are some of the reasons why I like going in Asian countries because of their the best tourist spot that you will not expect. This place is nice and for all of the family members can enjoy.

  7. Wow! I had no idea that there is so much to see and do in Sabah. This is actually very near the Philippines and we’d love to visit soon and experience the river safari. Good thing we don’t need a visa to visit Malaysia.

  8. Wow! Sabah, Malaysia looks like a gorgeous location. I would love to go see this stunning scenery one of these days.

  9. Visiting the orangutan rehabilitation center looks like the best must-see in Borneo for this monkey/ape/orangutan lover! And the accommodations’ view looks amazing! I’ve only started to recently become interested in traveling to Malaysia recently after I discovered that I really enjoy The Amazing Race earlier this year. Thanks for sharing your journey! And I have some questions I’ll ask you on FB about the Dell laptop!

  10. I haven’t been to Sabah, although I went to Malaysia. It would be cool to go there again and visit this side of Borneo…the wildlife encounters look incredible!

  11. Really, this is a superb article, and the places all around Sabah look awesome!

  12. Really nice and helpful info you shared, thanks! Sabah looks incredible!

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