I wrote an article for the Gwangju News about travel in Sabah, Borneo. I apologize that I don’t have good quality photos – my camera has been acting up and I only had my phone camera. Besides, you have to just go and experience it. Being so close to an adult orangutan in the wild was surreal!
Borneo is the third largest non-continental island in the world consisting of three countries: Eastern Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. With such massive size, there can be an overwhelming amount of information, but this article will only cover Sabah, the easternmost part Malaysia. From dense rainforests housing endangered animals to thousands of species of fish surrounding Sipadan Island, Sabah is a paradise for those seeking adventure, nature and wildlife.
Adrenaline chasers can satisfy their cravings in Sabah. Adventurers from around the world travel to Borneo to hike Mount Kinabalu, just two hours outside the city of Kota Kinabalu. Proudly towering at 4,095 meters, this World Heritage site is the tallest in Southeast Asia. Along the way, trekkers pass through six distinct vegetation zones. About 5,000 types of plants inhabit the national park including orchids, pitcher plants and the rare rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower. Most people opt to do a two-day trek to reward their labor with an incredible sunrise. Surprisingly, no special equipment is needed to trek to the top, but it is recommended that the hikers are in decent physical shape. The two-day trek to Low’s Peak comes with a hefty cost including park fees, permits, guides and the mandatory hostel. Expect to shell out at least 200,000 Korean won for the challenging, yet rewarding hike. To sooth your guaranteed sore muscles, soak in the natural hot springs at Poring, a short trip away from the mountain.
For those who like their calves but still want to get their blood rushing, there are more adventure options such as paragliding, kayaking and mountain biking. Whitewater rafting is also popular. There are two rivers: one suitable for beginners and another for experienced rafters, respectively. With warm weather year round, Borneo is a great place for outdoor adventures.
To be immersed in a true rainforest, a few days at the Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) is a must. This relatively undisturbed lowland forest spans 438 square kilometers and is recognized as one of the most complex ecosystems in the world. Scientists working at the research center have revealed a tremendous variety of plants, 120 species of mammals, over 300 species of birds and a seemingly infinite number of insects. With hired guides, visitors can go jungle trekking to waterfalls and caves, spotting wildlife along the way. For those on a budget, it is recommended to stay at the Danum Valley Field Centre, a world renowned research center focused on research, education and training. This center mainly houses scientists and students, but there are beds available for tourists.
As an island in a tropical climate, there is plenty of water to be explored. Perhaps the most famous place is Sipadan, renowned for its world class SCUBA diving. The island is surrounded by vibrant coral reefs and abundant wildlife not far from the shore. The nutrient-rich currents attract fish, which brings other animals like turtles and sharks, making this area an exciting dive spot. Just imagine yourself in a vortex of barracudas or massive parrotfish while hovering over lively coral gardens. Many dive sites are recommended for experienced divers, but beginners and those without certifications can still enjoy snorkeling by simply stepping into the water from the white sand beaches.
Borneo’s incredible biodiversity and tropical environment provides resources for a wide variety of animals to thrive. Birdwatchers can tick off their sighting lists by spotting some of the 420 kinds of birds that inhabit Borneo (37 of them can only be found there). Of the estimated 222 species of mammals, 12 of them are primates. Perhaps the most famous is the orangutan, the only great ape existing in Asia.
One of the best ways to spot wildlife is by taking a river safari boat along the Kinabatangan River. This difficult-name-to-remember river is the longest in Sabah, stretching 560 kilometers. While spotting wildlife is never guaranteed, the river guides tend to be knowledgeable and have an impressive eye when it comes to spotting animal. Our guide pointed out crocodiles, owls and other native birds, gibbons, macaques and even a gigantic adult orangutan, a very special moment. With some luck, one can spot wild cats, sea otters, and if lucky, elephants and rhinoceroses. Along the river, there are options to stay with a host family, a bed and breakfast or even a wildlife camp to really be immersed in the rainforest – mosquitoes and leeches included.
The rainforest is not like a zoo; wildlife is never guaranteed. Sightings depend on the weather, your guide and luck. However, it is pretty much guaranteed to see orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The non-profit organization raises orphaned baby orangutans until they are ready to be released back into the wild. I would highly recommend a visit to see the “Man of the Jungle” during feeding time not only to marvel at the striking similarity to humans, but to support the center’s mission and get educated on the status of this endangered species.
Clearly, there is an abundance of beautiful things to see in Sabah. Tourism is not especially high there, so one can easily escape crowds and be surrounded by nature. Any time of year is good for a visit because weather is unpredictable, but the odds are in your favor by traveling during dry season from February to August. Do not forget mosquito repellent, a rain jacket, a camera, small flashlight and a positive attitude!