From towering mountains to tangled jungles and deep seas, Sabah is chock-a-block with natural wonders. To get a good overview of the popular highlights, allow at least two weeks to complete the classic tourist trail.
Expect to feel a little like a package tourist rather than an independent traveller, as many activities are sold as an all-inclusive deal with transport, bed and meals, but if you want to see that mountain/jungle/island, it’s sometimes the only way. For a more in-depth trip, see our four-week Sabah loop itinerary, which gives you ample time to explore.
Sabah has an official wet season from October to February, but it can rain anytime. And it does. It’s hot and humid most of the time (with the exception of the Mount Kinabalu region) and temperatures are around the high 20s to low 30s (Celsius), but the humidity is high at around 80 percent. The driest months of July and August are popular and at this time you may need to book in advance. Sabah is a growing destination for Chinese tourists and during Chinese holidays you’ll have trouble finding a room, particularly around Semporna.
In Semporna, the Regatta Leppa happens around April, and in May, all over Sabah, the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun celebrate the harvest festival Pesta Kaamatan. In October Kota Belud’s Tamu Besar is one of Sabah’s biggest events.
If you plan on climbing Mount Kinabalu, you will need to book well in advance of your trip to Sabah, and if you have a particular interest in visiting Turtle Island, advanced bookings are also recommended, though sometimes last-minute bookings are possible if you’re flexible.
Day 1 — Kota Kinabalu
A couple of days in Kota Kinabalu will give you time to have a bit of an explore. We suggest you jump on a boat and head out to the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park for some snorkelling, diving, trekking, zip-lining or just lazing on the beaches. At sundown Kota Kinabalu puts on a fabulous show—pick one of the city’s best sunset viewing spots. Be sure to indulge in the culinary feast of Kota Kinabalu’s night market.
Day 2 — Kota Kinabalu
On your second day, you could master Sabahan cuisine at A Taste of Borneo cooking class. If you’re more of a trainspotter, the North Borneo Railway runs steam train trips on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Seek out bit of local colour at the markets or Mari Mari Cultural Village. For a peaceful break, head to the Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu, the “floating” mosque or Sabah Museum. If you don’t plan to visit the Kinabatangan, go proboscis monkey spotting on a river cruise.
Day 3 — Kinabalu Park
Jump on a bus to Kinabalu Park, the home of Malaysia’s tallest peak, Mount Kinabalu, along with some fascinating endemic pitcher plants and orchids, and all round stunning scenery. If you plan on climbing the mountain, you’ll need to book well in advance—it’s a fantastic experience, but not an expedition to be taken lightly.
Day 4 — Kinabalu Park
Today you’ll be up early and up is the word of the day — enjoy your climb!
Day 5 — Kinabalu Park / Poring
You’ll feel on top of the world this morning as you reach the summit at Low’s Peak — not that low at 4,095.2 metres. Congratulations! Take your time climbing down, then continue on to Poring Hot Springs to soak those weary muscles. You could easily add a couple of days to your itinerary here, staying at Lupa Masa Jungle Camp, or a night at Ranau makes for easy connections to Sandakan and gives you an opportunity to visit Sabah Tea. Alternatively, you could jump on a bus directly outside the park and be in Sandakan in about five hours. We don’t recommend travelling the mountain roads at night though. Check into a room outside the park instead and leave early in the morning.
Day 6 — Sandakan
If your only reason for a visit to Sandakan is to see the orangutans, jump off the bus and stay the night at Sepilok instead. In Sandakan, learn about local history at Sandakan Memorial Park or follow the Heritage Trail. Puu Jih Syh Temple is an atmospheric spot for sunset and Rooftop Bai Lin above Nak Hotel is the hippest place in town for a sundowner. Organise your Kinabatangan trip and arrange to be picked up at Sepilok, then you won’t have to backtrack. If you have another day to spare, add an overnight trip to Turtle Islands Marine Park.
Day 7 — Sepilok
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is a short bus or taxi trip from Sandakan. Sepilok has other wildlife viewing opportunities too — the Borneo Sunbear Conservation Centre is right next door, and can be visited anytime during the day, so it’s good to see between feedings. The Rainforest Discovery Centre offers excellent birdwatching, and on weeknights the guided night walk is not to be missed. If you are not venturing on to a Kinabatangan trip where you will see proboscis monkeys in the wild, take a taxi to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.
Day 8 and 9 — Kinabatangan
If seeing truly wild wildlife is your dream, the Kinabatangan River is the easiest and most accessible place in Sabah to make it a reality. Multi-day Kinabatangan River trips typically include accommodation, meals, activities and transport and have fairly standard itineraries. Prices depend on how many creature comforts and how intimate the group size you desire. You can visit the Kinabatangan as an overnight or day trip only, but two nights will give you a greater opportunity to spot the critters. If you prefer a less packaged trip or have more time (and money), contemplate a trip to Danum Valley near Lahad Datu as an alternative or addition.
Day 10 — Semporna
After a morning river cruise on the Kinabatangan, grab a bus to Semporna, the jumping off point for the world-renowned scuba and snorkelling sites of the Semporna archipelago, including Sipidan Island. You could add in a detour to Gomantong Cave.
Day 11 and 12 — Semporna / Mabul
Permits to dive (or snorkel) Sipadan are limited and to obtain one, you would be wise to book well in advance. Most operators insist that you spend at least another day diving alternative sites — so this is a great opportunity to spend the last couple of days of your Sabah adventure enjoying some of the best scuba-diving in the world. Many divers base themselves at Mabul Island, closer to Sipadan, but you could just as easily base yourself in Semporna itself. Be aware that this area of Sabah is often on highlighted security; check with your government for safety issues before booking.
Day 13 — Tawau
When it’s time to move on, a minivan will get you to Tawau in less than two hours. From here you can overland it in a long bus trip back to Kota Kinabalu — add five days and visit the lost world of Meliau Basin on the way, or catch a ferry to Indonesia (If you need a visa, add a day to arrange at the consulate in town). From Tawau airport, save time and fly to Kota Kinabalu or Kuala Lumpur or Tarakan in Indonesia. If you’ve been diving, make sure you allow 24 hours before flying. An excellent way to fill in time is a day trip to Tawau Hills Park.
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.