An out-of-sight tropical paradise, Sabah is an East Malaysian state stuffed-to-the-treetops with exotic wildlife and features glorious landscape. Surrounded by pristine beaches with eye-catching coral reefs, the interior of this slice of Borneo is a mixture of lush forests and green hilly terrain. The main reason people come here is to climb the 4101m Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest peak. Sabah is the embodiment of Malaysia’s natural offerings. The state is home to natural attractions ranging from the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, Tun Sakaran Marine Park and the Danum Valley Conservation Area to the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the muddy Sungai Kinabatangan. Sabah also plays host to a variety of wildlife ranging from cheeky proboscis monkeys, hawksbills and green turtles to the endangered dugong, orang-utan and Sumatran rhinoceros.
Malaysia’s weather can take some getting used to – the hot and humid region has temperatures that rarely drop below 20°C at night and sometimes climb above 37°C during the day. Sabah’s cool hill stations are the perfect way to retreat from the heat – visit the ever-popular Kinabalu Park.
During the monsoon seasons (southwest monsoon: late May to September & northeast monsoon: November to March) there are torrential downpours that provide a welcome relief from the heat but it rarely rains all day.
The northeast monsoon – Malaysia’s major rainy season – brings heavy rainfall, particularly to the Malaysia’s east coast states of Peninsular Malaysia and western Sarawak. Meanwhile, the southwest monsoon usually brings drier weather except in Sabah – the region remains relatively wetter due to the tail-end effect of typhoons.
Sabah can be reached by air from an increasing number of international destinations. There’s only one major airport here – the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA). Just north of the equator, the region’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, will almost certainly be your first port of call. Malaysian Airlines Systems (MAS) flies from Kuala Lumpur daily; there are regular flights that connect KK to a variety of international cities including Singapore, Jakarta and Hong Kong.
The only overland route into Sabah is from Lawas in northern Sarawak from where several buses daily make the short run to the border at Merapok. You can also travel to Sabah via daily boats or ferries from Brunei, which run through Pulau Labuan – from here there are regular connections to Kota Kinabalu. Additionally, there’s a ferry from north-eastern Kalimantan to Tawau.
Getting around Sabah
Minibuses are by far the cheapest and most common form of public transport – they operate both local and long-distance routes but usually travel at breakneck speed. Full-sized buses are roomier but they’re also slower – these sizeable vehicles only run local routes in KK, Sandakan and Tawau.
Outstation (long-distance) taxis can be chartered or shared by three other passengers and they’re relatively moderately-priced but you should always bargain before getting into a cab. Most taxis have meters but few drivers will use them – as we’ve said before, negotiate the fare before you get in.
Major car rental agencies have counters on the first floor at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport – the roads are not too complicated to navigate on your own but if you’re not up to it, then most of these car companies can arrange chauffeured vehicles as well.
All ferries operate to and from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal; commonly referred to as ‘the jetty’ by residents – these boats head to Pulau Labuan, Tunk Abdul Rahman National Park and Pulau Tiga.
Good to Know
Sabah shares many of Malaysia’s national holidays but there are a few that are indigenous to the region namely Good Friday (April 22) and the birthday of Yang di-Pertua Sabah (October 1).
Sabah’s national holidays include New Year’s Day (January 1), Chinese New Year (first and second day of the Lunar calendar), Labour Day (May 1) and National Day (August 31).
Hari Raya Puasa (August 30 & 31) and the Chinese New Year are considered the most celebrated festivals with a two-day nationwide holiday – most banks, businesses and offices close during this time.
Health issues in the tropics and the quality of medical facilities in Sabah vary greatly – journeys into the rural heartland of the region can expose you to a few health risks. However as long as you’re careful, there is usually little or no chance of catching life-threatening infections. Common sense, as well as a well-stocked traveller’s medical kit will be your most useful tools. However if you do become ill in some way, the best place to head to is the Sabah Medical Centre (located approximately 15 minutes north of Kota Kinabalu) – they’ve got the most sophisticated equipment and highly-trained doctors in the region.
Bahasa Malaysia – also known as Malay or Bahasa Melayu in Malay – is Malaysia’s national language. It’s quite similar to Bahasa Indonesia but accents and a few differences in vocabulary are evident. Minority languages (Cantonese, Mandarin and Tamil) are widely used but you’ll be able to get by with English in all but the most rural areas. Most locals are able to understand and converse in both Malay and English but English is the widespread means of communication between different races, as well as the business lingua franca. Manglish (Malaysian English) is commonly spoken in the city especially in international or tourist-oriented establishments.
Sabah has a population of approximately two million, made up of more than 30 distinct racial groups, between them speaking over 80 different dialects. However most Sabahans have learnt English as a second language and speak it relatively fluently.
Money & Taxes
Malaysia’s unit of currency is the Malaysian Ringgit, divided into 100 sen and written as RM. The safest and most convenient way of carrying your money around is as travellers’ cheques. Furthermore major credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard and American Express are accepted at almost all upmarket hotels, shops and restaurants.
Licensed moneychangers are plentiful in the Kota Kinabalu area and more often than not they have better rates than banks – try the one on the ground floor of the Wisma Merdeka shopping complex and the ground floor of the Centre Point shopping mall. Maybank in Lebuh Tiga, Sandakan is a full-service bank with an ATM as well as a sidewalk currency-exchange window – it’s incredibly easy to change cash and travellers cheques here. If you’re travelling in the interior of Sabah for any length of time, it would be prudent to carry a fair amount of cash with you as there are no banking facilities here.
ATMs around the country usually operate 24 hours a day – some ATMs don’t accept foreign cards, so it’s best if you find out beforehand which of them will recognize your card.
Bargaining is de rigeur throughout Malaysia especially when shopping or renting a room for the night. As a general rule, hotels in Sabah are pricier than their counterparts in Sarawak. Most tourist-class hotels impose a service charge of ten percent and government tax of five percent for both food and rooms.
Theft & Violence
Major crime in Sabah is not really a big issue – there’s very little risk of muggings on the street. While muggings do happen in Malaysia – particularly in Kuala Lumpur and Penang – Sabah is relatively safe. Nevertheless you should exercise caution and guard travel documents (passports, travellers cheques etc.) especially if you intend to stay at inexpensive hostels where security locks are flimsy at best.
Time & Phone Calls
Keep in mind that Sabah is 16 hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time. Payphones are easy to use and you can direct-dial long-distance with no trouble using either coins or prepaid calling cards available at TM offices, 7/11 or post offices.
The three main mobile phone service providers in the country are Celcom, Digi and Maxis. Even if you don’t have ‘global-roaming’ facilities with your home cell phone provider, the simplest way to stay connected is to buy a prepaid SIM card on arrival in the country – Celcom has the most widespread coverage in eastern Borneo i.e. Sabah.
Visas & Permits
Sabah is a partially self-governing state – your passport will be checked and travellers are usually given a three-month visa upon arrival. Most people who come to Sabah are usually here for its national parks so unless you’re planning on joining a tour outfit that will take care of your permits, plan ahead! This way you’ll be able to bypass the red tape and enjoy your Sabahan sojourn. z
Customs, Local Culture & Food Etiquette
- Public displays of affection are considered inappropriate in this Muslim-dominated country.
- Women travellers should be aware that modest dressing is recommended; even though non-Muslim women are sometimes seen dressed scantily, its best if travellers are dressed respectfully – nothing too short or too low.
- Sabahans are big drinkers by Malaysian standards – the ubiquitous Chinese kedai kopis (coffee shops) tend to stay open late with customers who come to enjoy the cheap bottled beers.
- Hinava – one of Sabah’s most popular indigenous appetiser – is worth a try when you’re in the region; the raw fish is pickled with fresh lime juice, chilli padi, sliced shallots and grated ginger.
- If you make a trip down to visit one of Borneo’s longhouses, scout around locally for the best tour since an invitation is essential. Turning up unannounced is not only a major cultural faux pas, it’s also bad manners.
- More often than not, longhouse elders don’t speak English, so it’s best if your translator can help you strike up a conversation. There are certain areas of the house where you will have to take off your shoes, so pay close attention to your guide.
- In a longhouse community there’s usually plenty of food available but vegetarians and vegans should be aware that vegetables are often served with meat-based sauces.
- Additionally it’s not considered rude to bring your own food along – however, since meals are eaten in a communal fashion (several dishes are shared amongst a group), don’t place your feet near the food and don’t step over someone’s plate when you are leaving the eating area.
- It’s not necessary to bring gifts when you’re visiting the indigenous longhouses but small gifts are appreciated – simply ask your tour guide for advice on what to get; however if you come empty-handed no one will be offended.