Sepilok Orang Utan with Baby

Sabah, Malaysia – Backpacking Guide

Sabah is one of the two states that comprise East Malaysia on the island of Borneo (the other being Sarawak). Home to indigenous tribes, the world’s second-oldest rainforest and amazing wildlife, Sabah is an awe-inspiring destination. 

Most people come here for the wildlife but Sabah has plenty else to offer, from cultural experiences to beautiful beaches, and mountain trekking to world-class diving. More developed than neighbouring Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Sabah is easy to backpack but is off the beaten track enough to still feel like a real adventure.


Sabah, Malaysia – Backpacking Guide

Sabah Map & Resources

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Best Time to Visit Sabah

March to October is generally considered the best time to visit Sabah. This is the dry season but the weather is still hot and humid. Rain can occur at any time in the rainforest, so be prepared if you head into the jungle. July and August are the peak tourist months so avoid them if possible.


Where to Stay in Sabah

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As Malaysia’s second-largest state, Sabah itself is big. However, each of the key locations is relatively compact so choosing the best area to stay should be fairly straightforward. Below are some of the best budget options in each of the main traveller destinations.


Best Hostels in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu is small so anywhere you stay within the city will be fairly central. The Times Square area is a little further out but still within walking distance of the centre and Jesselton Pier, the jumping-off point for the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

Kota Kinabalu 2
It might feel strange to imagine cities in Malaysian Borneo!

Faloe Hostel is a cosy hostel with a social atmosphere. The common area is compact but is a good space for meeting other travellers. There is a kitchen and washing machine available to use and the dorms are clean and comfortable. The staff are very friendly and helpful.

H2 Capsule Inn Backpackers features futuristic style pods so you’ll feel like you’re sleeping in an actual space capsule! There is a good common area with a dining table and sofas and breakfast is included. H2 also organises social activities and Netflix and Xbox are available.

Homy Seafront Hostel offers small but clean and comfortable dorms on KK’s waterfront. The hostel has a homely feel with a comfortable common space, sea views and complimentary breakfast.


Best Hostels in Sepilok

The small town of Sepilok, just outside of Sandakan, is a good base for visiting some of Sabah’s top attractions, including the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sun Bear Conservation Centre and Rainforest Discovery Centre.

Sepilok Sun Bears
This guy looks ‘bearly’ awake!

Nature Lodge Sepilok offers basic, clean dorms with both fans and AC. With hot and powerful showers, comfortable beds and good food at decent prices, it is a great choice for exploring the area.

Sepilok Jungle Resort houses dorms and budget private rooms with fans. With a swimming pool, breakfast included and just a few minutes walk from the orangutan and sun bear sanctuaries, it offers good value for money.


Best Hostels in Sandakan

Bustling Sandakan sits on Sabah’s northeast coast, and while the town itself doesn’t hold much of interest, it has its own airport and makes a convenient base for visiting turtle island or the sanctuaries at Sepilok.

Sandakan Backpackers Hostel has clean 6-bed dorms and budget private rooms in the heart of town. Breakfast is included and there are good social spaces, including one on the roof with sea views.


Best Hostels in Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River, Malaysia’s second longest, meanders through the Bornean jungle, meaning that facilities here are understandably limited. Most people visit on an organised one or two-night trip, which will include accommodation. You won’t necessarily have a choice in where you stay, but many of the tours use Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, which has private rooms and dorms. 

Kinabatangan River at dawn
Accommodation along the Kinabatangan River can be surprisingly plush!

The dorms are basic but comfortable, and the bathrooms, a short walk away, while not the best you will encounter, do offer powerful showers and western-style toilets. The buffet-style lunch and dinners are decent quality too.


Best Hostels in the Danum Valley

The Danum Valley Conservation Area is one of the best places in Sabah to see Borneo’s endemic animals in the wild. There are only two places to stay, and the budget option is the Danum Valley Field Centre. (A visit here isn’t cheap but the experience is one of a kind. You’ll need to arrange accommodation and transport at the office in Lahad Datu.) 

Danum Valley Conservation Area
The Danum Valley is very remote!

The single-sex dormitories here each have 48 beds but are curtained off into sections of four beds. The bathrooms are basic with squat and western toilets and cold water showers.


Best Hostels in Semporna

Semporna is situated on the southeastern tip of Sabah and is the jumping-off point for diving at the world-renowned Sipadan Island.

Island Backpackers offers good value-for-money dorms and private rooms in a good location. The rooms are clean and comfortable with privacy curtains and the staff are highly rated by guests. Breakfast is included.

Cube Bed Station has capsule beds and a common space for socialising, as well as a kitchen, in an excellent location, directly on the seafront.


Things to Do in Sabah, Malaysia

Most travellers will begin their trip in Kota Kinabalu (KK), Sabah’s capital on the West Coast. A popular route is to then head east to Sepilok and Kinabatangan, via Kinabalu National Park, in search of Borneo’s endemic animals. 

There is then the choice of continuing south towards Danum Valley or Tabin Wildlife Reserve to find wild orangutans. For intrepid explorers, the Maliau Basin in the south of the state offers trekking opportunities through untouched landscapes and keen divers can enjoy Sipadan, one of the world’s top diving spots, just off Sabah’s east coast.

For more Malaysian Borneo itinerary ideas, check out this post!

1. Learn About Sabah’s Indigenous Tribes

The Mari Mari Cultural Village, around a 45-minute drive from KK, provides an insight into Sabah’s indigenous tribes and their traditional way of life. On a guided tour around the village, you will learn about daily life in the longhouses, play a traditional game and sample local foods. You’ll also discover more about the fearsome head-hunter tribes and enjoy a dance performance.

There is lots to be learned from a visit to the Mari Mari Cultural Village.

2. Relax on a Tropical Beach

Just a 15-minute boat ride from KK lies the five islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Choose one to visit or island-hop between them all for a day of tropical relaxation. Each has its own character; Mamutik has one of the most pristine beaches in the area and Manukan has the best snorkelling.

Mamutik island 2
Mamutik offers paradise sands like this!

Alternatively, head to the Tip of Borneo for a less touristic experience, heading to the furthest northerly point in Sabah. From snorkelling to surfing and even stargazing, you’ll have a truly wild experience here!

3. Summit the Tallest Mountain in Malaysia

If you’re up for the challenge, try tackling the two-day hike up Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. However, if you don’t fancy the ascent up to 4,095m, there are plenty of other trails to try in Kinabalu National Park, where the altitude makes pleasantly cool conditions for hiking in the jungle.

Also read: Best Hikes in Southeast Asia.

Mount Kinabalu
The epic Mount Kinabalu.

4. Take a Dip in Poring Hot Springs

Soak your tired muscles after hiking in Kinabalu National Park in the naturally warm waters of Poring Hot Springs. There are plenty of other activities to keep you occupied here, including a canopy walk, a butterfly garden, searching for rafflesia flowers (the world’s largest) or taking a refreshing dip in a waterfall.

5. Have Lunch at Sabah Tea Plantation

Break up the long journey from KK to Sepilok with a stop at Sabah Tea, where the onsite restaurant serves up tasty meals with fantastic views over the plantation. Sample some different flavours of tea, fresh from harvesting, with one of the homemade scones. If you have more time, it’s possible to hike in the plantations, take a factory tour and even stay overnight.

Sabah Tea plantation
Hiking the plantations is well worth doing for the views alone!

6. Get Up Close to Orangutans and Sun Bears

Sepilok is home to both the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Orangutans are endemic to just two islands in the world, Sumatra (Indonesia) and Borneo. Sun Bears are the smallest species of bear and are native to Southeast Asia. 

Both centres have been established to care for these threatened animals who face habitat loss due to forest degradation and, in the case of sun bears, illegal hunting and poaching. Here you can observe them in rehabilitation centres that aim to release them back into the wild.

Also Read: Where to See Orangutans in Malaysia 🦧

Orangutan sanctuary 2
Orangutans are the heaviest animals that live in trees!

7. Watch Turtle Hatchlings on Turtle Island

Selingan Island, off of the coast near Sandakan, is better known as Turtle Island and is a favoured site for green and hawksbill turtles to lay their eggs. Spend a night or two on the island to witness female turtles laying their eggs, and hatchlings taking their first steps as they are released into the ocean.

8. Cruise Along the River in Search of Wildlife

The Kinabatangan River is one of the most accessible places to spot wildlife in its natural habitat. Enjoy the feeling of adventure as you cruise down the river at dawn and dusk in search of Borneo’s endemic animals. If you’re lucky, you may just see Borneo’s Big Five: pygmy elephants, rhinoceros hornbills, proboscis monkeys, estuarine crocodiles and orangutans.

Kinabatangan River at dusk
Searching for exotic wildlife along the Kinabatangan River.

9. Be One of the First People to Explore the Maliau Basin

Maliau Basin in the south of Sabah is a barely-explored wilderness home to a range of Borneo’s big mammals including pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and sun bears. Most people that come here are scientists and researchers but the area is open to visitors (via a tour) who want to tackle some serious trekking in ‘Sabah’s Lost World’.

10. Search for Wild Orangutans

The Danum Valley Conservation Area spans 438 square kilometres and is an area of primary rainforest protected from the logging that has wiped out huge swathes of rainforest elsewhere in Borneo. 

Slightly further east, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is the largest in Malaysia. They are two of the best places to see orangutans in the wild, and you can also spot some of Borneo’s other wildlife here including red leaf monkeys, civets and if you’re lucky, clouded leopards and gibbons.

Danum Valley Red Leave Monkey
A red leaf monkey in the Danum Valley Conservation Area.

11. Scuba Dive at One of the World’s Best Dive Sites

Sipadan Island in the Celebes Sea is one of the top diving destinations on the planet. It is Malaysia’s only volcanic island and sits in the centre of the Indo-Pacific basin, one of the richest marine habitats in the world. 

It is home to over 400 species of fish and hundreds of species of coral as well as green turtles and hawksbill turtles, reef sharks, rays, moray eels and barracudas, to name a few! Lucky divers may even encounter hammerhead or thresher sharks. There are a limited number of dive permits per day so forward planning is essential.


Food and Drink in Sabah

Sabah is far less developed than Peninsular Malaysia and most of the food you will encounter here will be cheap local fayre, especially when you’re in the jungle. The bigger towns and cities have more options, including some Western restaurants.

Kota Kinabalu has a good range of options, with something to suit all tastes and budgets. The Living Seed Vegetarian Restaurant is a local eatery that serves Malaysian food and is 100% vegetarian. Choose from the buffet or order from the menu for a cheap and tasty lunch.

Kota Kinabalu Graffiti
In more cosmopoliton areas, there will be a range of food choices.

Little Sulap is a small café tucked away in the corner of KK that specialises in local Sabahan food, while Nook Café is a good breakfast or brunch spot for those craving some Western comforts. Nearby Mamasita Mexican Restaurant and Tapas Bar provides a taste of Mexico in Malaysia with burritos, tacos and enchiladas on the menu.

The restaurant at the Sabah Tea Plantation is a convenient place to stop for lunch on the journey from KK to Sepilok or Sandakan. The meals offer good-sized portions and there is a huge variety of tea choices, fresh from the fields. Try a cup, hot or iced, with the homemade scones.

For cheap eats in Sandakan, head for one of the malls which house food courts. Harbour Bistro Lodge is a waterside restaurant that offers good local food and an even better view – it’s open until midnight so is a good option if you arrive in Sandakan late in the day. Aroma Elopura Bistro is an Asian-fusion restaurant attached to the Elopura, a movie-themed hotel, that offers affordable dishes with a nice atmosphere.

Kinabatangan Drone 2
Places to eat and drink are a bit thin on the ground in some areas!

Getting Around Sabah

Bus

Local buses connect the big cities and are a cheap and easy way to get around the state. Buses depart daily from KK to Sandakan (8 hours), Sandakan to Lahad Datu (3 hours) and Lahad Datu to KK (9 hours), among other routes.

Taxi

Within the towns and cities, taxis are a convenient way to move around. The taxi-hailing app Grab, used in many countries in Southeast Asia, is the easiest and most affordable option.

Kota Kinabalu 1
Taxis are a good way to get around cities like KK.

Boat

Whether it’s the 15-minute ferry to the islands off the coast of KK or a two-hour river cruise along the Kinabatangan, your trip to Sabah is likely to include some boat travel.

Aeroplane

Flying between towns is quick and convenient, but, of course, not the most budget or eco-friendly option. Flights between KK and Sandakan can be found for less than $20USD if booked in advance, but flights in and out of Lahad Datu are significantly more expensive.

Tour

One of the easiest ways to explore some of Sabah’s more remote areas is by booking a tour, a popular choice for the Kinabatangan river cruise experience. You will be able to book tours from your hostel or from tour operators in the big towns. A trusted and recommended option is River Junkie and their sister company Scuba Junkie.

Danum Valley Viper
Who knows what you’ll be lucky enough to spot on a tour!

4WD

The only way to get to some of the truly off-the-beaten-track places is by four-wheel drive. Both Danum Valley and the Maliau Basin can only be accessed this way, and will all be arranged for you if you book a tour. Alternatively, you can organise transport by 4WD to Danum Valley at the field office in Lahad Datu.


How to Get to Sabah

Unless you are travelling from elsewhere in Borneo, the only way to reach Sabah is by air. KK houses the only international airport and the cheapest option is to fly from KL to KK but there are other routes available, including from Penang, Singapore or Kuching (Sarawak). It is possible to travel overland from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu but it is a long and complicated process, including multiple buses and crossing the border in and out of Brunei.


Where to Go Next:

Sarawak: Visit Malaysia’s other state on Borneo, the country’s largest. Get to know the local culture in the capital Kuching, and explore its wealth of national parks. Spot amazing wildlife in Bako National Park and marvel at the pinnacles in Gunung Mulu.

Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia’s capital is a world away from the jungles of Borneo. Enjoy a change of scene in the bustling streets of KL sampling the delicious street food and soaking up the multicultural atmosphere.

Singapore: Spend a few days in Singapore enjoying city life. Some of the best things are free in one of the world’s most expensive cities: visit Gardens by the Bay, the Botanic Gardens, watch the Spectra light and water show and seek out the abundant street art.

Lisa Barham author pic
Lisa Barham

Having always dreamt of travelling the world, Lisa finally decided to follow that dream in her mid-thirties when she left her nine-to-five in London for life on the road. After trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal and learning to surf in Sri Lanka, she headed for wondrous Southeast Asia, where she can currently be found solo backpacking, navigating through life and unfamiliar streets.

Follow her on: Instagram

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