Malaysia: The Sabah
A home to many cultures…
Until European powers gained a foothold at the northern tip of Borneo in the nineteenth century, the tribal peoples of Sabah had only minimal contact with the outside world. Since then – and particularly since joining the Malaysian Federation in 1963 – these groups have largely exchanged traditional ways for a collective Malaysian identity. As Sabah’s cultural landscape has changed, so has its environment: the logging industry has been allowed to exploit huge swathes of the rainforests, with cleared regions used to plant oil palm – a monoculture that makes a poor habitat for wildlife. On the other hand, many locals would argue, this agro-industry provides work for thousands, and generates much-needed income into the state coffers.
While arguments rage between campaigners, corporations and politicians, tourists continue to enjoy the remaining natural riches of “the land below the wind” (so called because Sabah’s 72,500 square kilometres lie just south of the typhoon belt). The terrain ranges from wild, swampy, mangrove-tangled coastal areas, through the dazzling greens of paddy fields and pristine rainforests, to the dizzy heights of the Crocker mountain range – home to the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea, Gunung Kinabalu (Mount Kinabalu). Although habitats for Sabah’s indigenous animals have shrunk dramatically, the remaining forests still offer some of the best wildlife-watching opportunities in Malaysia. Offshore, damaging fishing practices have as elsewhere in the region taken their toll, but marine parks protect areas of magnificent coral – most famously around Sipadan – and the attendant sea life.
Sabah’s urban centres are not especially attractive or historically rich, thanks to World War II bombs and hurried urban redevelopment. While places like KK (Kota Kinabalu) and Sandakan lack notable buildings, however, they abound in atmosphere and energy, plus good places to eat and sleep. That said, Sabah’s remarkable natural attractions are the major draw for most visitors.
The Klias Peninsula south of KK offers activity-based day-trips such as whitewater rafting or firefly cruises, while with more time you could visit the island of Pulau Tiga; you may also need to transit through duty-free Labuan on the way to Brunei. North of KK lie the beaches and coconut groves of the Kudat Peninsula, where it’s possible to visit longhouses belonging to the Rungus tribe; the northernmost point, the Tip of Borneo, features windy shorelines and splendid isolation.
Heading east from KK, things get truly exciting. Dominating the landscape are the huge granite shelves of the awesome Gunung Kinabalu, a major attraction as getting up and down involves spending just one night on the mountain. Further east is Sandakan, a rapidly modernizing town with offshore attractions including the Turtle Islands National Park. Back on the mainland, at the nearby Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, you can get a ringside view of animals at feeding times.
Deeper into the oil-palm plantations of east Sabah lies the protected Kinabatangan River, where visitors can take boat trips to see wild proboscis monkeys, elephants and orang-utans. Further south, the Danum Valley Conservation Area offers a spectacular canopy walkway, with the choice of staying at a luxury lodge or a humbler research centre. Alternatively try the more affordable Tabin Wildlife Reserve, with a mud volcano and an elephant colony. In the deep south, accessible via the boom town of Tawau, nestles the untouched forest sector of the Maliau Basin, now open for challenging trekking.
For divers, the offshore islands near the southern town of Semporna are the jewel in Sabah’s crown. Sipadan offers world-class diving off coral walls, while its neighbour Mabul is known for its fabulous macro (small-scale) marine life. These two are simply the best known, and the area can keep divers and snorkellers enchanted for days.