Backpacking Borneo – One Week in Sabah, Malaysia

Touching down in Kota Kinabalu, the biggest city of Sabah, Borneo, was both exhilarating and nerve wracking.

My best friend and co-backpacker, Elise, and I had no idea what to expect and so our minds – usually full with Trip Advisor anecdotes and Google images – were racing, conjuring up all sorts of ideas as to what we thought the places we were due to explore could be like.

Borneo is not as heavily written about as some of its other neighbouring countries, this may be due to the lack of a well trodden backpacker trail but that is definitely one of it’s charms – experiencing nature in it’s purest form. We only had one week to explore the northern region of Sabah, which is home to the country’s highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, the famous diving spots of Sandakan, the orang-utan sanctuary of Sepilok and the trekking heaven of Kinabatangan.

Staying in Borneo longer? Also see our epic 3-week Borneo Itinerary.

Arriving in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Exiting ‘Arrivals’ at KK Airport we met Erik from Skypod Hostel. Both Erik and Skypod were fantastic, I cannot recommend them enough. Skypod was our first experience of a hostel on this year-long trip and it was the perfect place to welcome you into the backpacker lifestyle; not only were the staff kind and helpful but the rooms were clean, comfortable and very safe. Oh and you can make your own waffles for breakfast!

The daily market (called the Filipino Market) in Kota Kinabalu

After a very welcome nights sleep we spent the next morning exploring the small city of Kota Kinabalu. Erik had thankfully called ahead to a bus company and checked that there was a bus heading to Sandakan later that afternoon with spaces so this allowed us to spend some time getting public buses the wrong way and face planting in the torrential downpour.

Although the weather was a little extreme it was incredibly funny to watch Elise slip over, legs flailing in the air, and have her umbrella calmly float down next to her on the floor.

After struggling to find another public bus back to the hostel we reluctantly adventured down the path (now more like a river) and hailed a cab. Once back to Skypod we piled our bags into Erik’s car and he kindly drove us to the bus station.

Next stop – Sandakan and Sepilok

We soon arrived and purchased two tickets before lugging our rucksacks over to our bus and hopping on hoping it was the correct vehicle. Thankfully it was and after some incredible mountain views, three films and a few rationed cookies we arrived at Sandakan in the dark.

All we knew from here was that we had to make it to our hostel called ‘Uncle Tans’ near Sepilok to check in before we started our jungle river tour the next morning.

Reluctantly we walked over to a taxi, attempted to barter and then slid onto the back seats. This tiny car had quite the personality and was covered from steering wheel to door handles in stick-on diamantés. Clearly this guy was a trend setter.

We arrived at the hostel rather late and payed for our tour and I must admit this was one of the first times that I really struggled. We were tired, worried about our very basic dorm room, the days in the jungle ahead of us and were very, very hot.

The Orangutans of Sepilok

After a much needed sleep we awoke early and were taken to The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.


We spent some time following the winding paths and eventually made our way to where the incredible creatures were due to be fed. I would definitely recommend visiting this place as it is really magical to see these primates in their natural habitat, plus some of them are real characters trying to steal more food and dangling precariously from the ropes!

After our visit to the Orangutans we were taken back to the hostel to grab some lunch and our luggage and then we were off, beginning our journey into the jungle.


Kinabatangan River – Into the Jungle

During the minibus ride to the Kinabatangan riverside I overheard a conversation regarding the dreaded jungle rats that one of the staff members had previously mentioned – as if the tarantulas the size of dinner plates, angry fire ants and hungry crocs weren’t scary enough – but this was yet another fear I was preparing myself to face!

I was wondering partly what was awaiting me but also how I would handle it. The road there was very bumpy, like 95% of the roads we had travelled on in Sabah, and I was questioning my fate as we narrowly dodged roadworks and a large lorry that was hurtling towards us at an alarming rate – aptly named the terminator.

In order to reach our Jungle base camp we had to travel down the Kinabatangan river by small boat. However, in order to reach said boat we had to tackle a steep decent down a mud hill -backpack in tow- and then proceed to cross a rickety wooden ladder one at a time over a crocodile infested river.

Elise was silently convinced I would turn around and not look back, but surprisingly to both her and myself I took a step onto the old handmade ladder and – whilst holding my breath – quickly made my way across. Once we reached the boats and everyone had their limbs safely inside we took off towards base camp, travelling about an hour to reach our riverside refuge.

Jungle Refuge

Our Jungle Refuge

Having reached our home for the next three nights we were put into groups. Our group was called ‘The Jungle Mafia’ – a local nickname for the long tailed macaques who roam the jungle in large numbers.

Our group consisted of Elise and myself plus six other girls from countries ranging from Holland to South Korea. We ended up making good friends with these girls and formed a tight knit group which worked really well when exploring the river by boat in both the day and night and taking part in jungle treks. If anyone is considering including Borneo in their travel itinerary then I must insist you consider checking out the friendly Uncle Tans!

Although animal sightings cannot be guaranteed, the well trained guides do their absolute best to show you as much as possible and try to answer any questions you may have. Whilst at Uncle Tans I learnt more about gibbons, watched crocodiles disappear into the flowing river, saw the famous rhinoceros hornbill glide above us in the sky and even got a tour of what some of the jungle plants were used for by our young helpful guide called ‘Ning’ – as he liked to say “like morning”.

Leeches Jungle
One of the jungle leeches stuck to my finger!

Lahad Datu

After a both interesting and exhilarating few days at our jungle camp we departed the riverbank and began our journey south to the small town of Lahad Datu. We were promptly dropped by our bus at the side of the road in a completely unknown location where we then hoped that another bus would shortly come to pick us up.

During this time I was greatly entertained by the family who had gotten off of the bus with us who could speak no English or Malaysian and were therefore clinging onto two pieces of paper; one with simple instructions outlining their directions and one with a printed out directors clapperboard with the word ‘Semporna’ written on it.

After a while waiting in the midday sun the minibus finally approaching over the hill seemed like a mirage. After some pit stops and a few more hours we were kindly dropped off at our hotel. This hotel turned out to be an absolute nightmare due to a cockroach infestation and we consequentially left in the night to another much cleaner place!

Leech Socks at the Danum Valley Field Center

After a long awaited comfortable sleep (with no fire ants!) we got a taxi to the Danum Valley Field Center where we met our new guide – Juan. We had a few hours to waste so we grabbed some essential supplies (snacks) and returned to the office where we bumped into a mother and daughter just returning from the rainforest. After a short chat they very kindly offered us their leech socks which I will eternally be grateful for. Tim and Tasha were the extent of our group for this stage of our trip. They were an older couple but equally as nice.

Arriving deep in the 438 square kilometres of nearly untouched rainforest was incredible and we were shown to our 46 bed dorm which had one small fan between eight beds. The heat was intense as we put up our mosquito nets but we persevered. My net was a perfect rectangle covering the entirety of my bed and Elise’s looked more like a jagged mountain range which engulfed her face when she rolled over and this entertained me greatly.

Jungle Trekking and Insect Dodging

During our time at the Danum Valley Field Center we did a few treks which consisted of me primarily dodging any plant below knee level that may be harbouring leechy fugitives and staring at the floor in fear of any thumb sized fire ants. Although this sounds equally distressing and terrifying, I felt accomplished as I continued on with the trek and we eventually hit a clearing in greenery.

Here, stood mightily in front of us, was a huge rainforest tree; one of the tallest kinds in the world. Attached to this leafy giant was a rickety looking, loft style ladder tied on with wires. This was to be my biggest challenge yet.

Rainforest Tree Jungle Ladder

Knees trembling and refusing to look down I began my ascent to the first platform that looked over 40% of the rainforest. I wondered what I would do if I was faced with a spider halfway up then quickly erased this thought from my mind as I fiercely gripped on to the ladder.

With no harness or any kind of protection I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared, however I forced myself up and through the gap onto the first tree platform. I stood and wandered around the circumference of the tree, at the same height as some of the more daring birds, as the rest of the group went to the next platform. I had decided I had already faced enough fears for one day and stayed at the first one admiring the view.


We managed to blag a room transfer later in the afternoon and as we carried all of our belonging on our backs like two overweight snails we caught sight of a rhinoceros hornbill sitting in the tree above us. Incredible. As darkness engulfed the rainforest and fell heavy around us we prepared for our night safari.

Unfortunately we saw no animals, however we were rather entertained by a group of private school kids who had joined us on the truck and I had to stifle a giggle when they made my temperamental head torch look like a candle when they lit up the entire canopy with their professional gear.

Bukit Aktur Sunrise

It was an early 4am start on our final morning to watch the sun rise over the rainforest canopy! We climbed up a wooden tower at Bukit Aktur and watched the mist lift over the trees as the monkeys woke and the birds sung.

On our way back to base camp to collect our stuff we were gifted with the surprise of a King Cobra. Our guide stopped the van and we watched as the graceful serpent made it’s way across the dusty path. Our guide couldn’t believe it and from what I understood he had never seen one before, apparently they are pretty rare to see so I guess we got pretty lucky. A minivan, a long wait and a small flight later and we were back in Kota Kinabalu. 

From Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur and Beyond!

Our flight to Kuala Lumpur to meet our friend Ryan was delayed and so we sat and thought about what we had accomplished in our first week on the road.

We boarded the plane a few hours later and looked forward to the adventure that awaited us in mainland Malaysia. Here we would meet another friend and travel overland into Thailand visiting Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands and Penang along the way.

Touchdown. Hello Kuala Lumpur International Airport. What have you got in store for us?

Staying in Borneo longer? Also see our Borneo Itinerary.

Hayley Ellis | Wild Ever Since

Hayley is the founder of an adventure travel blog called Wild Ever Since which helps travellers to get off the beaten track. She has travelled to 30+ countries and counting including Tonga, Australia, Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

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