Lessons Learned in Sabah, Northern Borneo


The Kinabatangan River

Sabah in Northern Borneo, is home to some of the richest wildlife and most variable countryside in Southeast Asia. With natural beauty such as the Kinabatangan River, Mount Kinabalu and the Tip of Borneo alongside kilometres of palm plantations, jungle and large cities; it’s an ever-changing and intriguing place. It has a rich history and beautiful people making it a fantastic destination to anyone after a tropical adventure filled with tall mountains, wild jungle, busy cities and beautiful beaches.
With that in mind, a little bit of advice can go a long way to making any possible trip that little bit smoother. I will happily admit that I have made mistakes in the past and that I always try to learn from them. This means that when I travel, sometimes even the simplest discovery can make life on the road that little bit easier and more interesting- especially if it’s something I should have probably already known.
My trip to Sabah was no different. What I learned can also be transferred to other destinations within Southeast Asia and the world…well mostly.



1. Buy a travel SIM card
To the seasoned travel veterans out there this is probably a no brainer- I can hear you laughing at me already- but not something I had ever done. The last thing anyone wants to do after collecting their luggage is to stay in the airport and buy a travel SIM. You want to leave, find the closest bar, have a mountain of drinks and fall asleep in the foetal position, attempting to forget the amount of time you just spent trapped on a plane in the sky.
For 40 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) you can purchase a SIM that will give you a Malaysian phone number and, most importantly in this day and age, unlimited internet access. That alone makes it worth its weight in gold.

2. Use ‘Grab’
The Southeast Asian version of Uber is quick, easy, cheap and so much faster than most public transport. Available throughout Southeast Asia, Grab’s were so quick and cheap it was borderline ridiculous. Other than having a stupid name, they can’t be faulted. There will obviously be some places where there are none available but that’s no different to any taxi service.
So, once you have bought your travel SIM, download the Grab app and get a cheap ride to your hotel. For a comparison, it cost 11 MYR for a trip from the airport to our hostel as opposed to 30 MYR in a taxi. That’s three and a half beers difference…mmm beer.

3. Sabah is not as cheap compared to other Southeast Asian countries
There is a common misconception that all Southeast Asian countries as so cheap to travel that it boggles the brain. The thought that you can pay for accommodation, three meals, a bucket full of drinks and couple of tourist attractions daily for the grand total of $10(ish) a day is nice, but unrealistic.
So, let me be clear here; there is no such thing as a 20-cent beer in Malaysia and that includes the Northern province of Borneo, Sabah. So, for those of you out there thinking that everything will be so cheap it will make your eyes water, you are sorely mistaken.
That does not mean that your budget will be shot to shit though. Compared to western countries, Malaysia is still quite cheap. Compared to other Southeast Asian countries it is not.
Instead of trying to set a budget of $25 dollars a day you might have to up it to $50. I know; not exactly breaking the bank.


A night market in Kota Kinabalu

4. K.F.C is popular
So, while the easy availability to fried chicken isn’t a learning point that is going to drastically effect a person’s planning and preparation for a possible trip to Sabah, there is quite possibly more K.F.C’s in this part of Borneo than there are actual chickens. I honestly did not see one live chicken in all my travels over the two weeks I was there. In contrast, there appears to be a K.F.C or a fried chicken store for every five people living here (NOTE: fact completely unverified and almost entirely untrue). Even small, out of the way villages seemed to have one- truck stop, public toilet, seven eleven and a KFC. Nothing else. Nothing else needed really.
The only thing there are more of is other fried chicken chains. Boreno’s, R.F.C (I think the R stands for Royal but don’t quote me) and Kenny Rogers Roasters to name a few. If there is a national dish I am going to go ahead and assume that it comes with a side of fries and a soft drink.
5. Take your own drink bottle
I’ve always tried to be an environmentally minded type of person. I’m not in-your-face about it, I try to keep it simple. Put rubbish in the bin. Recycle cans. That kind of stuff. Brainless sort of stuff.
Single use plastics are a hot topic at the moment, particularly the effect they are having in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The issue is, as travellers, we are told we can’t drink the tap water. Fair enough, I don’t really want to get the shits on holiday either. What I discovered, in Sabah at least, is that a lot of accommodation have filtered water available to refill. So, bring along your drink bottle and avoid buying bottled water where necessary. Undoubtedly, there will be times you have no choice but minimising the amount you use should be a consideration.
Similarly, refuse the plastic bag at the supermarket or straws where you can help it. You can carry your packet of chips. If in doubt, have a look at the accumulated rubbish in the oceans and beaches (shit, even the side of the road)- it’s quite convincing.


The waterfront in Kota Kinabalu

6. Train for hiking Mt. Kinabalu
Don’t be a fool- Mount Kinabalu is a 4095-metre-high mountain and deserves your respect. So, walking 10,000 steps a day because the health experts tell you too isn’t going to cut it as a fitness regime to get you to the top. Well, not the kind of fitness where you will enjoy the experience at least.
I was a dick. Plain and simple.
So, come the 4000-metre mark where I was taking three steps for every foot, getting overtaken by the elderly and young children with a feeling in my chest as though a small Asian elephant was sitting on it- I began to think that this could be entirely my own doing.
Do not underestimate the mountain. The view is too damn good to waste it staring at your feet, preying for it all to end.


Mount Kinabalu

7. Animals in the wild are better than at an attraction or conservation centre
This could seem contentious. In my younger days, on previous trips to Southeast Asia, I made some poor choices regarding animal attractions that in hindsight I would not have made if I could have my time again. Fast forward eight or so years and I found myself venturing along on the Kinabatangan River where everything is wild. I was lucky enough to see some orangutans from a distance and they took my breath away. That orange silhouette hanging high in the trees was a special thing. I went to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre as well and even though I got a close-up encounter, nothing is a thrilling as seeing a truly wild animal doing what it wants, when it wants.
Nature reserves are dotted around but they are quite small. I didn’t quite understand the enormity of the palm oil industry until I took a bus across Sabah. Palm trees plantations stretched as far as the eye could see. What I’m alluding to is that taking the risk and do a proper nature resort experience. Seeing something wild, in its natural habitat, is far more rewarding than hoping to see a monkey on a boardwalk at a rehabilitation centre, which is what we might be left with if palm plantations expand at their current rate.


Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

No matter the reason for your trip, and as much as you might doubt it, you are always learning on your travels. You learn in your planning, you learn in your experience, and you learn by talking to others who have already experienced it. It’s all for the better.
Sabah is an amazing place; one that is very easy to enjoy and should be on the bucket list of many.

Wayward Tip: Sabah is amazing and full of surprises. Beaches, jungle, rivers and mountains. There’s not a lot missing. Worth considering.

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