Sabah (Borneo Malaysia)

» Places to visit in Sabah

» Ways into Sabah

» Sabahan Food

» The Sabahan People

» The Sabahan Language

» Do's & Do not's

» Places to stay

» Potential for home?

» FAQ's on Sabah

I wasn't sure whether Sabah would be the wilds of Borneo or an over run tourist Mecca. I thought only of its sights and moving on. Instead, I can't shake the overwhelming friendliness of the people from my head. Sabah is sticking with me for some reason. That must be a good thing ...

Places to visit Sabah
Kota Kinabalu:

The Capital, clean, easy to get around, a great introduction to Sabah.

The City

- I really did not expect Kota Kinabalu to be so very different from the rest of South East Asia's capital cities. But, it is. Well laid out, its remarkably clean streets are orderly and not over crowded. Kota Kinabalu is also not overrun with "over" touristy stalls, nor sterile business. It's a nice city.

Sabah state mosque - A modern mosque, it a short bus ride just out of the city. Set on a water front, it makes for a nice photo. Not worth the tour to it.

Atkinson Clock Tower - A short walk to a small wooden tower, that's often locked up. But, the path does lead up a hill for a longer walk to Signal hill.

Signal Hill - Take a long walk up a winding hill to visit this platform. Honestly speaking, it's not so great as the view is obscured by trees. And, the mall below.

Gaya Street Sunday Market - Every Sunday from 6am onwards Jalan Gaya turns into a two street open market. Food, drinks, plants, toys, clothes, pets and anything else is brought out to sell.

Handicraft Market - Right beside the waterfront is a semi-refurbished Filipino market. Once a place to get repairs, buy / sell gemstones it's slowly turning into a South East Asia free for all market.

Night Market - Right beside the handicraft market at night there is a huge open food market where you can sit and eat all night. Great food from Malaysia, The Philippines and Indonesia can be found here, but bargain for it if you want a good price. .

Restaurants - From small roadside cafes, fast food joints, and expensive fine dining you won't have a problem eating in Kota Kinabalu.

Mount Kinabalu:

Sabah's most famous and revered mountain. A national park and steep climb await!

Kinabalu National Park - 1.5r hours from the city this park offers a good day trip. Mainly a botanical park, all manner of flora from the state is on show here.
Climb Mount Kinabalu - An average 2 day climb with a guide on very well marked trail. Mist will be your biggest adversary as it descends quickly on the sacred mountain. Slippery rocks, and obscured views being the downside.
Small notes on climbing Mount Kinabalu - Sadly I found Mount Kinabalu has become a complete tourist fest. Confusing regulations means often times paying many small fees for permits, entrance fees, and guides. Going it solo is seriously frowned upon, and lodging is often referred to as being booked out, if you don't come with a guide. If you are happy with a guide, go for it. If not, you have been warned. Another common problem, is tours up the mountain, are often booked out in peak season.

Ways into Sabah Malaysia

A ferry from Zamboanga in The Philippines will deliver you to Sandakan port. But, the Sulu sea on the Philippine side is not the safest due to terrorist activities. Likewise all around Zamboanga is labeled unsafe due to kidnappings.

A ferry from Brunei is ferry easy and arrives very close to the center of Kota Kinabalu. In contrast, it's very safe, thought the boats are small and the water can get choppy.

Fly into Kota Kinabalu with cheap Air Asia tickets from most parts of South East Asia. The airport is small, but the ride into town is short. Beware of taxi's not running on meters. Or buy a prepaid ticket. There is bus service too.

Post pandemic Sabah has opened its borders once again. Do please check with your nearest embassy should the situation change again.


Try my custom flight search for the lowest priced flights to and from Sabah! 

The Food

Be prepared for an amazing variety of food. Malay, Philippine, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and Western foods are all available in Sabah. Kota Kinabalu is king for great food in Sabah. Open markets, and cafes dotted this peaceful city.

Outside of Kota Kinabalu and your choices lessen a little in terms of higher end eateries and cafes. Hotels and resorts serve fixed menus. Whilst in the towns it's Malay and Chinese. Look a little closer, and push your way into local eateries and food is excellent.

Food from Sabah, Malaysia

The People in Sabah

I can honestly write that I was genuinely surprised at just how open and friendly the people of Sabah were. Similar to the Philippines the people here were warm and open to conversation.

There certainly is a difference between the people of west Malaysia, Sarawak, and Sabah. It's a contentious issue that many don't like to consider. But it's there.

Sabahan people are very mild, quiet, and proud. I felt a genuine honesty about the people, and it came true on many an occasion. There is a great quality about the people in Sabah, and this something I cannot forget about.

Truly one of the nicest most genuine and honest people I've met on my journey.

The Language

Many people in Sabah speak English. At least in Kota Kinabalu. Outside of the city, and it reduces greatly. But, they are still confident enough to try hard.

Malay or Bahasa Melayu is the national language and is quite easy to pick up. Learning some new words everyday will go a long way.

Do's & Do not's

Do watch out for crazy tour prices.
Do take local transport where ever you can, it's safe and the people make it very easy!
Don't forget the shoe removal thing in people's homes.
Locate the tourist office in Kota Kinabalu, and get as much information there as possible. Ask for bus stop locations, and how to get around.

Places to stay in Sabah

Sabah - I found accommodation here expensive for what you get. A private room at a backpackers often did not have an ensuite, yet the prices were similar to other countries with ensuites. Mid range was again expensive for what you got.

Where I stayed

Kota Kinabalu accommodation

- Gaya Backpackers (Jalan Gaya) Run by Walter and a bunch of very friendly girls it's spotless. Free Wi-Fi and breakfast.

- North Borneo Cabin (Jalan Gaya) Friendly reception, this place has the cheapest single room with Wi-Fi and breakfast included in town. Shared bathroom. Book ahead as it's in high demand.

- Borneo Gaya Lodge (Jalan Gaya) Lots of space, dorms, singles, doubles. Good Wi-Fi, shared bathroom, basic breakfast.

- Borneo Backpackers (No. 24 Lorong Dewan, Kota Kinabalu) Very clean, but shoe removal is mandatory. Wi-Fi and a very helpful reception..

Sandakan Accommodation:

- Sandakan Backpackers (Lot 108, Block SH-11, Sandakan Harbour Square). Cheap backpackers accommodation in a good location. Staff were not that helpful with information. Above average breakfast included.

- WinHo Lodge (Block 19, 2nd Floor, Second Avenue) Good value, spacious privates with working Wi-Fi. Breakfast is basic. Staff are friendly and helpful.

- Labuk Bay Resort (Telephone: (6) 089-672133 (office), (6) 089-230708 (Sanctuary)) Part of a private Proboscis monkey sanctuary. Very clean rooms with good value dorms, privates can be expensive, ask for long-term prices. Food is served at the restaurant and could be improved. Wi-Fi sometimes works, more times does not. Overall though, it's a nice place to stay for a while.

Try my custom search for the lowest priced hotels in Sabah, Malaysia!

Prefer local accommodation? Try Airbnb (get up to USD $40 discount)

Read my articles about Labuk Bay & the proboscis monkeys:


Male proboscis monkeys


Proboscis monkey in Sabah

Potential for home?

Sabah certainly has all the makings of a great place to live. Kota Kinabalu is a modern city with many amenity's and only a short trip from the wilds of Borneo.

I ended up returning to Sabah unexpectedly, and stayed a lot longer than I imagined. There is a difficult element to break in to here, as Malaysia has many immigrants. Break through the local barriers, and one could be onto a good thing.

FAQ's on traveling to Sabah

How much is a daily budget for traveling Sabah?

This is tough as there are many many activities in Sabah that can add to your daily budget.

Single rooms start at USD$15 with shared bathroom. Dorms are less. Private with ensuite start at around $25.

A local meal can be as little as $1.50. $2-3 for decent sized one with drink. $5 + for western basic or mid scale restaurant.

Public transport is about $0.50 for a single bus ride and taxis are metered.

$25 will get your through the day, not visiting anywhere that's not free, eating well with a private room.

The above is based on a low budget, you can spend a lot more per day depending on your needs.

How to save money in Sabah Malaysia?

Package tours: Avoid them if you can, the costs are much greater than booking in person.
Flights: AirAsia if booked ahead, can offer you cheap flights within Malaysia.
Bargain: Room bargaining doesn't really work here, though off peak might for long stays it can. Fixed price menu's stay that way. But in markets, it's a bargaining place.
Eating: Food is cheap. But eating at market stalls can be cheaper, just remember there are tourist prices, so bargain hard but with a smile!
Transport: Go public, and use the bus systems. Kota Kinabalu's bus service is excellent, and easy to follow. Sandakan is also quite easy.

What are the Banks/ATM's like in Sabah Malaysia?

Kota Kinabalu is full of ATM's, many with security doors. There are also several international banks. Debit, Visa and Mastercards are all accepted with ease.

What guide book?

Sabah is relatively small. Most guide books can cover every aspect quite easily. The Lonely Planet is not a bad option for Sabah.

Is Sabah full of backpackers?

Yes, but not the usual kind. I found far too many GAP year students and 17 year olds on school group holidays here. Also, Sabah is where many private schools arrange for children to come for "jungle" safari learning. It means, the solo traveler may often find budget hostels filled with group bookings in peak season.

Indeed, for a while I found Kota Kinabalu quite full or the more "affluent" tourist. So be warned if you are hoping for chilled back tourists.

Volunteering in Sabah?

Limited would be a good word here. Have a degree, or better yet a masters in botany or some aspect of the environment and you stand a chance. And, even then you'll probably be asked to pay.

Visas in Sabah?

Most countries will get an on arrival visa for 90 days. Onward ticket is needed. Sabah has a different visa than Sarawak, or Peninsular Malaysia. All of which have Visa on Arrival.

Do note that in 2010 Malaysia stopped Visa on Arrival for work visas. Tourists seeking 90 visas have no problems, and still get the regular visa on arrival.

Male proboscis monkeys


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Please keep in mind all the above is based on my own personal experience in Romania. It's not intended to be a guide. If the information here can help you on your own travels then that's a good thing!