Sabah is famous for its natural wonders and does not disappoint. Here's a 10-day itinerary that hits all the highlights for first-time travellers to the region, from mountain climbing to spotting orangutans in the jungle to some of the best scuba-diving in the world.
Learn about the region's indigenous tribes at the excellent Sabah State Museum or, if you're more of a hands-on learner, visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village where you can hang out with the descendants of head hunters and try your hand at the blow pipe. If the sun is shining, take the ferry to the Tunku Abhul Rahman Marine Park to snorkel with colourful reef fish at pristine islands just 15 minutes away.
Kota Kinabalu is also known for its markets – get your souvenir shopping over with at the Craft Market then hit the Night Market for a bargain barbecued seafood feast. If you're in town on a Sunday, don't miss the Gaya Street Market for street food and a fun atmosphere.
Kota Kinabalu also has its fair share of shopping malls and restaurants, making it the perfect place to shop for any travel essentials you may have forgotten (such as warm clothes for mountain climbing) and indulge in international cuisine before moving further into the wild.
When you're ready to move on, hop a bus to Kota Kinabalu National Park which is just 80 kilometres away. This park is home to challenging Mount Kinabalu, impressive flora and fauna like the Rafflesia flower and all-around stunning scenery.
To climb the mountain, you will need to make arrangements with Sutera Sanctuary Lodge which arranges the permits, guides and accommodation on the mountain. You will also need to schedule another full day here and perhaps another for your weary muscles to recuperate. If you're not that ambitious or on a tighter budget (mountain climbing ain't cheap), it's still worth spending the day hiking the park's trails and enjoying the fresh air.
We don't recommend traversing the mountainous roads at night, so our suggestion is to spend the night at one of the guesthouses outside the park entrance and flag down a bus bound for Sandakan the next day.
It's nearly five hours from the park to Sandakan, so if you leave in the morning you'll arrive in Sandakan by early afternoon. The city itself is short on charm, but from here you can make a daytrip to the world renowned Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. This is your chance to see Borneo's ginger-haired primates up close in a natural setting at the 9:00 and 15:00 feeding times.
If you just can't get enough wildlife, consider a daytrip to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary or the Turtle Islands Marine Park where you can watch endangered sea turtles nest on pristine beaches.
While in Sandakan you should also confirm the plans for your next adventure -– jungle trekking.
If your dream of Sabah was spotting exotic wildlife in the jungle, this is the part of the trip you've been waiting for. The jungle lining the Kinabatangan River is home to Borneo's iconic creatures including orangutans, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, hornbills, crocodiles and pygmy elephants.
The easiest way to enjoy the jungle is on multi-day jungle tours that typically include accommodation, meals, activities and transport from Sandakan. Prices depend on how many creature comforts you need, ranging from bucket showers at Uncle Tan Jungle Camp to air-con chalets at Bilit Rainforest Lodge. Regardless who you go with, it will be an memorable experience with guided jungle walks and wildlife-spotting boat rides at the break of dawn.
While one-day stays are possible, the orangutans are not aware of your tight schedule so we highly recommend staying at least two nights to maximise your chance of sightings.
To save you from backtracking to Sandakan, tell your jungle tour operator that your next destination is the scuba mecca of Semporna and they'll drop you off at a location where you can flag down a passing bus. Between the boat ride from the jungle to civilisation, waiting for the bus and the five-hour ride itself, most of this day will be lost to transportation.
Once in Semporna, treat yourself to a good meal and a hot shower (you'll need one after the jungle) and make plans for scuba-diving at world-renowned Mabul and Sipidan Islands which lay offshore.
Spend the last two days of your Sabah adventure enjoying some of the best scuba-diving in the world. Sipidan Island is one of Jacques Cousteau's favourite dive sites and is known for its huge schools of barracuda and pelagics like manta rays and sharks, while Mabul Island is known for sea turtles and smaller creatures like nudibranches.
Do note that there are restrictions on how many divers can visit Sipidan each day, so to guarantee a diving permit you'll want to contact a dive centre well in advance; there are no such restrictions for Mabul and it is also possible to stay on this island. The accommodation on Mabul caters to divers and rates typically include all meals and two or three divers per day.
While the diving here is incredible, the beaches are not -– if you do not intend to dive or at least snorkel you may want to give Semporna and the islands a miss.
When it's time to return to the real world, take advantage of the nearby Tawau Airport which offers frequent flights to Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur -– remember the rule that you cannot fly for 24 hours after scuba-diving!
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.