I went to Sabah early this month with a friend to kick off my summer travels. Sabah is the second-largest state of Malaysia found in the north of Borneo Island. Often dubbed as the “land beneath the wind”, Sabah is known for its sprawling rainforests, diverse culture and warm people. Sabah is also the Malaysian state nearest the Philippines which makes vacation travel very convenient and not to mention, economical. My friend and I explored the region armed with a backpack, a map and some sense of adventure. Having such an unforgettable trip, I noted down some things that I hope can help first-time travelers to the area.
So without further ado, here are the things (I think) you SHOULD do when in Sabah:
Kota Kinabalu (capital city) has some amazing shopping centers that cater to all your shopping needs. May it be up-scale shopping establishments, little packed handicraft kiosks or those narrow street markets setup at night – KK has them all! If shopping for unique items is your kind of fun, do go to the Handicraft Market and make sure to visit the Sunday Market in China Town. Interesting finds can be in the form of accessories, bags, dresses, handicrafts and various shiny happy things. You would be surprised that some of the items are quite pricey but fear not! Haggling is a survival skill and you should always ask half the price (even lower) of what is on the price tag. Never ever settle for what is marked on the tag because these peddlers already assume that you will be bargaining. If you have found something but are not ready to let go of your Ringgit just yet, try searching other stalls because chance are, they might have similar items they are willing to give at a cheaper price.
A note: markets close quite early so be sure to visit shopping centers during the morning and early afternoon. I encourage that you frequent local establishments more and support their local economy J
Kota Kinabalu is a walk-able city. We found ourselves walking in the middle of the night and on deserted roads without any sense of fear and insecurity. We were told that gun possession is illegal in Sabah and crime rates are relatively low. They have well-lit sidewalks too so I say ditch the cab rides if your destination is only a block or two and go on a healthy stroll.
You also have the option to go to Kinabalu Park and hike your way to the top. According to others, the view from the peak is beyond amazing but let me tell you now that packages are quite expensive. A cheaper option is to take a day tour in Kinabalu Park and also get to explore attractions near Kundasang.
Now this is a travel must regardless of your destination. Take Pictures. LOTS OF THEM. When you’re 40, you will thank me for prodding you to take all of these photos no matter how bad you think they are now. The world will never be this beautiful when we grow old and it’s not because I’m cynical about the future – I just think that the youth see things differently – we are ever so curious and see beauty even in the slightest detail. Add in the fact that Sabah is just visually appealing. KK City has a vintage vibe that looks so crisp and beautiful in pictures. The place has character and a lot of stories to tell. Even random stair cases and deserted alleys will tempt you to have a photoshoot. Sabah’s lush forests are also a breath of fresh air from the concrete backdrop of major South East Asian cities. The variations of its flora and fauna will endlessly captivate the shutterbug in you.
Sabah has gorgeous beaches; the place is a beach bum’s paradise! The breathtaking view is more than enough motivation to hit the beach and just enjoy the sun. If lazing by the beach doesn’t excite you, there are tons of water activities that you can do like snorkeling, skim boarding, scuba diving and island hopping. There are also budget hotels near the beaches (Tommy’s Place in Kudat, Seaview in Sandakan) if you’re budget-conscious like us. Most budget hotels though, do not accept credit cards so always have enough Ringgit in handy.
If your schedule is too tight to leave KK City, Tanjung Aru Beach is just 5 minutes away from the airport and has food and lodging establishments lined up by the shore for your convenience.
Be sure to slather on generous amounts of sunscreen and drink loads of water to avoid sunburn (worse, skin cancer) and dehydration.
Great diving spots: Sipadan, Pulau Tiga, Layang layang
Don’t just make transactions, engage people! Language should not be a barrier as there are plenty of ways to communicate (you will never go wrong with the language of The Beatles – it’s universal). Be warm and try going deeper than small talks and Bahasan greetings.
Sabah is also a backpacker’s haven and you will constantly meet people who are just as lost as you are. Backpacker lodges and hostels are lined up in the streets of Jalan Gaya and Lorong Dewan. They’re not only cheap but they’re also good places to get travel tips from other wanderlust creatures. Some of the most interesting people I know, I met in hostels and backpacking lodges. Be sure to check out the rooms though as some hostels are not well-lit and tend to look untidy. Just because you are paying less doesn’t mean you don’t deserve decent service (because you still pay HA!).
So yes, do not be afraid to lose the map and ask for directions and try as much as possible to be warm and open – event to receptionists, waiters, taxi drivers. They have stories too.
There is more to the region than its main city and since moving is the greatest rendezvous known to human kind, road trips are necessary. Buses and taxis are available to take you to any point of the region. Taxis are a bit pricier than buses but they usually are faster and more accessible. The taxis though are shared by four people unless you want to pay for the extra seats. Another thing, most cabs are old vehicles (80s – 90s car models) and some may find them risky but for me, the risk factor usually depends on the driver.
On the road, you would notice that the weather tends to be erratic. Some parts of the highway are dry while some areas look like they’ve been battered by typhoons. I think the natural biodiversity of the place makes things that way. And since the region boasts of lush forests, sightseeing while on the road is a plus.
If you are more adventurous, hitch-hiking is also an alternative mode of transportation. I’m pretty sure someone will stop and take you to your destination for a sincere “Terima kasih” based from experience.
Eating is a way of life in Sabah. Food establishments are in sight every corner of the street. I encourage that you try different cuisines every meal and experiment with your food choices. We ended up getting food we’ve never heard of and eating in local eateries and food kiosks. Almost everything served are Halal and of course, delicious. Be sure to try out the wide variety of seafood dishes because they are really cheap (beer is not) and fresh.
So these are my travel tips when exploring Sabah. If you are just planning your summer getaway, I highly recommend that you make this place your next destination. HAVE A HAPPY ADVENTURE-FILLED SUMMER!