Planning Your Sabah Itinerary – A Guide to Northern Borneo 🦧

Danum Valley Orang Utans

The state of Sabah makes up the northern half of Malaysian Borneo and is a great destination for travellers looking for amazing hiking, diving and whitewater rafting. Perhaps best known for the mighty Kinabalu Mountain, you’ll find far more than just adventure activities here, with exotic wildlife and sweeping vistas worthy of NatGeo magazine!

If you’re looking for a Sabah itinerary to help you plan your visit, look no further. After spending nearly three weeks in the northern part of Borneo and checking several things off my bucket list, I’ve got plenty of recommendations to kickstart your planning!   


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Two Amazing Itineraries for Sabah, Malaysia

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🌎 The Climate is Changing and So Should We! 💚

While it is possible to fly between a lot of these destinations, we’ve recommended overland transport whenever possible in these Sabah itineraries. We all must do our bit to reduce our carbon footprint and work together to save beautiful places like Borneo!

1 Week Sabah Itinerary – ‘The Highlights’

While the infrastructure in Malaysian Borneo is vastly improved when compared to the Indonesian side, it still takes a while to get from A to B. In this one-week Sabah itinerary, I’ve tried to showcase some highlights of the region, however, you’ll need longer to fully explore everything the northern part of Borneo has to offer!

“Borneo is not as heavily written about as some of its other neighbouring countries [which] may be due to the lack of a well-trodden backpacker trail but that is definitely one of its charms – experiencing nature in its purest form.” 

Hayley Ellis, Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker

Day 1 – Kota Kinabalu 

Recommended accommodation: Toojou

Kota Kinabalu (KK) is the capital of northern Borneo and makes for a great first destination on any Sabah itinerary. It is easily accessible from mainland Malaysia – flights leave the capital Kuala Lumpur regularly and are pretty cheap, especially when booked in advance. 

Whale statue Kota Kinabalu
Exploring the urban art of Kota Kinabalu.

Spend the day in KK sightseeing and sampling traditional Sabahan cuisine. Don’t miss a visit to the city mosque but make sure you avoid the scheduled prayers as non-muslims are not permitted to enter during this time. 

Once you’ve marvelled at the mosque, head to the Mari Mari Cultural Village to learn about the indigenous tribes of Borneo. A visit here is cheaper when booked online in advance and also includes a traditional dance performance. Bear in mind that the cultural village is located a way out of the city so you’ll need to account for the journey there and back. 

Mari Mari cultural village 3
About to sample traditional Sabahan cuisine at the Mari Mari Cultural Village!

There are loads of amazing places to eat in Kota Kinabalu and which one you choose depends on your own personal preference. If you are visiting at the weekend, don’t miss the Gaya Street Night Market for cheap local fare. D’Place Kinabalu is a great place to sample the raw sago worm – if you’re brave enough! 

Day 2 – Kinabalu National Park

Recommended accommodation: Amazing Grace

Hire a car or hop on a bus to Kundasang first thing in the morning. This is the jumping-off point for visits to Kinabalu National Park

Hiring a Car in Sabah, Malaysia 🚗

While it is possible to use public transport to get around Sabah, the easiest and most convenient option is to hire a car. Buses have limited schedules and take a long time to complete journeys, with multiple stops en route. Car rental is generally pretty cheap and all the vehicles are automatic. Malaysians drive on the left and abide by road rules far more than in other Southeast Asian countries, making driving a pretty pleasant experience. If you want to drive in Sabah, make sure you are licensed and have an International Driving Permit issued in your home country before travelling. 

Mount Kinabalu
The looming Mount Kinabalu overlooks the town of Kundasang.

Option 1: Summit Mount Kinabalu

If you’re craving some adrenaline, brave the summit to the top of Kinabalu Mountain! You will need to book your guide and arrange the necessary permits in advance so make sure you plan this before you fly to Borneo. (This will be an overnight adventure so you’ll need to sacrifice the Poring Hot Springs on day three of this itinerary.)

“Climbing [Mount Kinabalu] felt like an endless staircase, only the last 2 km gave some variation (a rope and lots of rocks). If you’re generally fit you can do it but [you] will be broken afterwards haha! ”

Mike, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Option 2: Hike in Kinabalu National Park

Many don’t realise that the associated Kinabalu National Park is also worthy of a visit in its own right, with a plethora of hiking trails through dense jungle. Varying in length and difficulty, the trails are a wonderful place to take in the rainforest views. See if you get lucky and spot some of the wildlife that calls this area home! 

Some of the insects that call Kinabalu National Park home.

“Bear in mind that facilities inside the park are pretty limited. If you want to eat in one of the restaurants, it will likely be expensive. I recommend bringing snacks to tide you over to save some cash!”

Sheree Hooker, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker

Day 3 – Poring Hot Springs

Recommended accommodation: Sutera Sanctuary Lodges

Around 40 km from Kinabalu National Park lies the Poring Hot Springs. A visit here will take the best part of a day if you make the most of what is available. The canopy walk is an absolute must-do but take this as your warning if you are afraid of heights. Make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife – you may just get lucky and spot some monkeys!

Once you’ve tackled the canopy walkway, rest those tired legs with a dip in the hot springs. Enclosed bathtubs come at an extra cost but this may be worth it if you want a bit more privacy. You can easily while away a few hours here, soothing your weary muscles! 

Poring Hot Springs are a wonderful place to rest your weary muscles!

It is also possible to see rafflesia in bloom around this area. While the official rafflesia observation centre is located at the Poring Hot Springs and is home to just a few flowers, a handful of entrepreneurial locals have planted out their entire gardens, maximising the chance of seeing one in its all glory! 

Once you’ve finished at the Poring Hot Springs, head back to Kundasang. You won’t stop here for long as come the evening, you’ll be hopping on the night bus to Sandakan (from Kota Kinabalu) for the wildlife section of your adventure! Reserve your ticket on Easybook but bear in mind that you’ll likely have to pay for a ticket from KK; the cabbage roundabout in Kundasang is not an official departure point. 

Day 4 – Sandakan/Sepilok

Recommended accommodation: Nature Lodge Sepilok

Arrive in Sandakan in the morning and hop in one of the shared minivan taxis to the nearby town of Sepilok for a day of wildlife. 

First head to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre to catch the 10 am feeding session. Bear in mind that March-April and September-October are the best times to see our hairy cousins here – during fruiting season they are more likely to head into the forest to find food. 

Sepilok Orang Utan with Baby
One of the sheeky guys at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilation Centre.

“[During our visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre], we spent some time following the winding paths and eventually made our way to where these incredible creatures would be fed. I definitely recommend visiting this place as it is magical to see the orangutans in their natural habitat – some of them are real characters, trying to steal more food and dangling precariously from the ropes!”

Hayley Ellis, Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker

Once you’ve seen the mighty orangutans, head next door to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. These tiny bears have been mostly rescued from captivity and are being rehabilitated at the sanctuary before their rerelease into the wild. 

The final activity of the day will be a visit to the Rainforest Discovery Centre. This corner of rainforest is a great place to learn about endemic flora and fauna. Spend some time traversing the canopy walkways and bird-spotting. 

Baby pit viper at RDC, Sepilok, Malaysia
A baby pit viper spotted at the Rainforest Discovery Centre!

If you are not too tired, head back once night falls to take part in the guided night walk. A night walk is a great opportunity to see nocturnal animals like civet cats, snakes, tarantulas and more!

Day 5-7 – Kinabatangan River

Accommodation arranged inclusive of tour package

The final few days of your trip will be spent wildlife spotting on the Kinabatangan River, one of the best places to see wild orangutans in Malaysia. It is close to impossible to visit the Kinabatangan River without a tour so make sure you do your research before booking. Read our guide to choosing a Kinabatangan River tour here

While there are Kinabatangan tours of all durations, it is best to opt for at least two nights. This way, you will maximise your chances of seeing wildlife. Overnighting close to the river also offers the opportunity to embark on a night walk or cruise. Check what is included in your package as sometimes these activities come with an additional cost. 

Proboscis Monkey Kota Kinabalu
Look at his big nose!

During your Kinabatagan River cruise, you’ll have the chance to see a wide variety of wildlife, including Borneo’s big five – pygmy elephants, rhinoceros hornbills, orangutans, proboscis monkeys and crocodiles. 

“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.”

Hayley Ellis, Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker

Your one-week Sabah itinerary is complete when you take your flight out of Sandakan and onto your next destination. Bear in mind that flights only depart until around 6 pm and will likely transfer in Kota Kinabalu. 

Kinabatangan Drone
A cruise along the mighty Kinabatagan is touted as one of the ‘must-do’ trips!

2 Week Sabah Itinerary – ‘Land Meets Sea’

Day 1-2 – Kota Kinabalu

Recommended accommodation: Toojou

Day 1 – Sightseeing in KK

Arrive in Kota Kinabalu and drop your bags at your accommodation. Spend the day exploring the city, taking in the main sights like the city mosque and the waterfront. Depending on what time your flight arrives and how much time you have, visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village or Monsopiad Cultural Village for a peek into the indigenous cultures of Sabah. 

Day 2 

Option 1: Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park 

Head out to KK pier early for a day of island hopping! There are five paradise islands which make up the marine park, each with its unique character. No matter which ones you choose, make sure you include a visit to Manukan as this has the best snorkelling. Borneo has some of the most impressive underwater life anywhere in the world – it would be a shame to miss it!

Flying into Kota Kinabalu
Flying over the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

If diving is more your thing, get in touch with one of the local companies like Scuba Junkie or Go Aquatic. They can take you out to a range of local sites and offer various dives and packages, including refresher dives. 

Option 2: Whitewater Rafting

Alternatively, if you’d like something a little more fast-paced, head out on one of the whitewater rafting trips located in Kiulu. Offering Level I-II rapids, this is fast-paced fun for all the family! 

Day 3-4 – Kundasang

Recommended accommodation: Amazing Grace

Day 3 – Kinabalu National Park

The following morning head out early towards Kundasang which will be your base for exploring Kinabalu National Park. We recommend hiring a car to use your time efficiently. This also negates the need to find somewhere to store baggage while you explore the national park. 

Spend the day tramping the trails and make sure to schedule a visit to the on-site botanical gardens. Learn all about Sabah’s endemic flora, including pitcher plants! Once you’ve finished in the park, depart for Kundasang where you’ll spend the night. 

Pitcher plants Bako Nationa Park
Did you know pitcher plants are carnivorous?!

⛰️ Climbing Kinabalu Mountain

In this itinerary, we have not budgeted time to climb Kinabalu Mountain. If you feel up to the challenge and want to include a summit attempt in this Sabah itinerary, arrive early in KK and spend just one night. Travel to Kinabalu National Park the following day and skip Poring Hot Springs on day four. 

Day 4 – Poring Hot Springs

Rise early and jump in your car bound for Poring Hot Springs. While you’re there, take on the canopy walkway and make time to have a dip in the hot springs. If you see signage for rafflesia in bloom, don’t miss the opportunity to see the world’s largest species of flower up close!

Once you’ve finished in Poring Hot Springs, head back to Kota Kinabalu to drop off your rental car. The night buses to Sandakan tend to leave around 8 pm so make sure you’re back in time to jump on board to your next destination.

The rafflesia is also known as the stinking corpse lily.

Good to Know!

KK bus station is located a little way outside the city centre so make sure you’ve left yourself enough time to make the journey from the middle of the city to the outskirts. Bear in mind that during rush hour, traffic is very slow-moving. 

If you travelled to Kundasang by public transport, you can hop on the night bus from KK at the cabbage roundabout when it passes through. 

Day 5 – Sepilok

Recommended accommodation: Sabah Hotel (Sandakan)

Once you arrive in Sandakan, drop off your bags at your accommodation and jump on one of the minibuses heading to Sepilok. Here you’ll enjoy a wildlife-filled day, with visits to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre. 

See endangered Bornean sun bears at the conservation centre.

Once you’ve taken in Sepilok’s nature, hop in a minivan bound for Sandakan and enjoy an evening stroll along the waterfront, maybe picking up some food at the eateries nearby. Get an early night ready for an early start the following morning! 

Day 6 – Selingan Island

Accommodation arranged inclusive of tour package

Head to Selingan Island, a.k.a. Turtle Island, on an organised tour. You’ll be picked up from your hotel early to catch your boat from the pier. Be warned the journey can be a little rough so take motion sickness medication if you are prone to washing machine belly! 

“Beware, at this time of year (January-Feburary), the speed boat crossing to Turtle Island is ROUGH. Sometimes the waves were as high as the boat – a fish even got flung in and hit me on the arm!” 

Gemma, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Spend the day wandering around the island, soaking up the sun and relaxing on the beach. This trip gets exciting once night falls, giving visitors a real insight into turtle conservation in Sabah. 

Turtle hatchery, Sandakan, Malaysia Turtle Island
The hatchery on Turtle Island.

Wait in the café until the rangers radio through. Once they receive the call, your guide will lead you onto the beach where you can see a mama turtle lay her eggs in the sand. All the eggs will be taken by rangers and placed in the turtle hatchery to enhance their chances of survival. 

If hatchlings are ready to be released into the ocean, you can witness this on the beach. Make sure to avoid shining any bright light (including your camera flash) as this can confuse the turtles and send them away from the moonlight which guides them to the sea.

This is an unforgettable wildlife experience and an absolute must-do for those visiting Sabah! 

Turtle nesting, Turtle Island, Sandakan, Malaysia
You can see nesting turtles on the beach at Selingan Island!

Day 7-8 Kinabatangan

Accommodation arranged inclusive of tour package

Leave Turtle Island on the first and only boat to be back in Sandakan early. Your guide will pick you up from the port and transport you to the Kinabatagan River. 

Once you arrive at Kinabatagan, you will check into your accommodation. The standard of this will vary depending on the tour that you have opted for. No matter which company you book with, the schedule will be fairly similar. There is an afternoon and morning cruise for each day, with the opportunity to do night walks and night cruises once darkness falls. You have the chance to see a range of Bornean wildlife, from orangutans to pygmy elephants. 

Day 9-11 Danum Valley  

Accommodation: Danum Valley Field Centre

Leave Kinabatagan after the final morning river cruise for the next part of your adventure. If you are combining a Kinabatagan visit with a trip to the Danum Valley, you will be transferred to Lahad Datu as part of your tour. Here you will likely have lunch before being transferred to the Danum Valley Field Centre.  

Danum Valley Red Leaf Monkey
A red leaf langur spotted at the Danum Valley.

If you are doing the Danum Valley part of the trip independently, you will likely need to make your own way there. 

Top Tip!

Even if you are visiting the Danum Valley independently, it is worth asking your Kinabatagan tour company whether they can arrange a transfer to Lahad Datu for you. This will likely come with an additional fee but saves needing to make the return journey to Sandakan. When you only have limited time in Borneo, you want to make the most of it! 

If you are making the journey yourself, you’ll need to get dropped off in Sandakan and head to the bus terminal. From there, catch a bus to Lahad Datu which takes around four hours. Once you arrive in Lahad Datu, you will need to travel an additional two hours to the Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC). Bear in mind that the shuttle bus to the DVFC only operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It is recommended to contact the Danum Valley Field Centre directly for the latest schedules. 

Spend your days exploring the Danum Valley on jungle walks alongside your experienced guide who can help you spot wildlife. 4×4 jungle excursions are also usually available at an additional cost. This is one of the best places to see wild orangutans!

Danum Valley Orang Utan
Can you spot our hairy cousin?!

“Danum Valley has a hostel or private rooms you can book directly as a solo traveller at their office in Lahad Datu, it’s way cheaper than any of the tours, and it includes a guide and full activities.”

Fee, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Day 12-14 – Semporna

Recommended accommodation: Maglami-lami Water House

Once your time at the Danum Valley Field Centre is over, make your way back to Lahad Datu. This will likely be included if you have visited as part of a tour. From there, catch the bus to Semporna which will take around three hours. 

There are some truly amazing accommodation options in Semporna which promise to top off any trip to Sabah. Stilted sea bungalows not only offer incredible views but also promise a unique stay you’ll never forget!

While you’re in Semporna, there is plenty to do. Jump on board one of the boat tours to enjoy a day of island hopping. With so many beautiful spits of sand just a stone’s throw away, the hardest thing will be choosing which ones to visit! While you’re on the islands, hike, snorkel or soak up the sun’s rays – it’s up to you!

YouTube video

The world-class diving hotspot of Sidipan is incredibly close to Semporna and a great place to tick some marine life off your dive bucket list! Head here for colourful coral and the chance to spot hawksbill turtles, barracuda, jackfish and bumphead parrot fish. 

The are plenty of dive outfitters in the area so make sure you check reviews of the different companies before you book. Bear in mind that since 2006, a permit is required to dive around the island. Your dive company can usually arrange this for you but it is best to enquire in advance as numbers are limited. 

Semporna is your last stop in Sabah so when your time here comes to an end, it is time to fly home or on to your next destination. The nearest airport to Semporna is Tawau, 58 km away. This airport services flights to Kota Kinabalu where you can transfer to other international destinations. 


No matter which of these Sabah itineraries you choose, you are sure to have an amazing time in Northern Borneo. Think we’ve missed anywhere off our Sabah travel routes? Drop us a comment below and let us know your favourite spots! 


Contributors:

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank the following for their input to this article…

🙏  Tim Ashdown | Writer at South East Asia Backpacker
🙏  Hayley Ellis | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
🙏  Mike | South East Asia Backpacker Community Member
🙏  Gemma | South East Asia Backpacker Community Member
🙏  Fee | South East Asia Backpacker Community Member
🙏  Louis Williams | @xtremelouis

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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