Four to five weeks of travel time in Sabah will let you cover the highlights and get you off the tourist conveyor belt for a bit, too. Visits to mountains/jungles/islands are typically packaged as all-inclusive deals with transport, activities, accommodation and meals. Even as an independent traveller, it’s often the only way to access some places. If you have less time, check our classic Sabah in two weeks itinerary, which covers the most popular sights.
Wet or less wet are the choices in the rainforest. October to February is the official monsoon, and it’s hot and humid most of the time (except for the Mount Kinabalu region). Temperatures are around the high 20s to low 30s (Celsius), and the humidity is high at around 80 percent. The drier months of July and August are popular and you may wish to pre-book activities and accommodation, or at least be flexible. Chinese tourists have recently discovered the delights of Sabah and during Chinese holidays it’s wise to book a room, particularly in island areas.
Sabah’s cultural calendar is dotted with a handful of events. April sees the colourful Regatta Leppa in Semporna, and all over Sabah in May, the harvest festival Pesta Kaamatan is celebrated by the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun. One of Sabah’s biggest events, Kota Belud’s Tamu Besar, is in October. Other festivals are dedicated to the local crops of sago, corn, coconut and durian.
Numbers are limited for climbing Mount Kinabalu and diving Sipadan. If you plan on doing either book well in advance of your trip to Sabah. Advanced bookings for Turtle Island Marine Park are also recommended. However, sometimes last-minute bookings are possible for all if you’re flexible.
Day 1 and 2 — Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu may not seem much on first impression but there’s enough here to keep you busy for a couple of days. Head out to the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park for some beach time, ride the historic steam train on The North Borneo Railway (Wednesdays and Saturdays); cook up a Sabahan feast at A Taste of Borneo cooking class, or have fun with the locals at Mari Mari Cultural Village. If it’s raining, stop by the floating mosque or the Sabah Museum, or pick up a souvenir at the markets. Don’t miss the stunning sunsets and be sure to eat your way around town — you won’t be losing any weight this trip. Kota Kinabalu’s night market is a hungry traveller’s paradise.
Day 3 and 4 — Kinabalu Park
Grab a minivan to Kinabalu Park and be awed by Malaysia’s highest peak. Spend the day walking the park trails before you hit the mountain path. Book well in advance for your mountain climb as numbers are limited. Enjoy the climb and look out for the world’s smallest rhododendron and the world’s tallest moss along the way, as well as the endemic orchids and pitcher plants. You’ll spend a night on the mountain before you summit.
Day 5 and 6 — Poring
This morning is a very early rise, but the thrill of getting to 4,095.2 metres under your own steam is hard to beat (you’ve been training, right?). Take the descent slowly then jump in a share taxi to Poring in time for a quick soak in Poring Hots Springs before you walk into Lupa Masa jungle camp. Even after a good night’s sleep you’re probably feeling a little sore, but a jungle trek will stretch those aches and pains away or a swim in the river might be just the ticket. If nothing works, there’s always rice wine.
Day 7 — Kota Belud
From Poring you could spend all day on public transport connections getting to Kota Belud, but if you jump in a taxi, you can take a detour to Sabah Tea and still be in time for an evening firefly river cruise. If it’s a Sunday, go directly to the weekly Kota Belud markets.
Day 8 — Mantinani Island
Rise early and catch a taxi to the port for Mantanani Island (pre-arrange a pickup for the return journey). You’ll need to book accommodation on the island a little in advance, as it will include your transfer. Enjoy the sea, sun and sand and excellent diving and snorkelling here.
Day 9 and 10 — Kudat
After your boat transfer from the island, take a taxi to Kota Belud bus terminal (or the share taxi terminal) and head to Kudat. If you have private transport, stop at some of the local villages along the way and taste Borneo honey or visit a Rungus longhouse. You could stay in Kudat, but we’d make a beeline for one of the hotels or jungle camps near the Tip of Borneo. Sabah’s best beaches are here so take a day to enjoy them, but if lazing in the sand is not your cup of tea, mountain biking or jungle trekking may be. Don’t miss Sabah’s best (but best hidden) beach bar — La Playa. If you’d like to really get off the tourist trail, add an extra day and take a ferry to Banggi Island.
Day 11 and 12 — Sandakan
Take the bus from Kudat to Sandakan. It’s a long trip but there’s jungle to look at interspersed with the palm oil plantations, and the bus stops at a pleasant seaside location for lunch. In Sandakan head to atmospheric Puu Jih Syh Temple for sunset, or a sundowner at rooftop Bai Lin Bar. Spend the next morning walking the Sandakan Heritage trail and continue your history lesson at Sandakan Memorial Park. Confirm your Kinabatangan trip with a pickup in Sepilok to avoid backtracking.
Day 13 — Turtle Island
Store your big bag at your hotel, then take an easy stroll to the port with an overnight bag for your trip to Turtle Island Marine Park. You will have to book this trip in advance as numbers are limited. Relax on the beach, then wait for the turtle call. Prearrange with a taxi driver to pick you up at the port tomorrow.
Day 14 and 15 — Sepilok
After your boat transfer from Turtle Island take your taxi to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, excellent for close up monkey photos (don’t forget to pick up your stored bag). Your taxi will wait for you then drive to Sepilok. Alternatively get the driver to drop you at Sabah Hotel Sandakan for the shuttle to Labuk Bay. Spend another day in Sepilok visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Borneo Sunbear Conservation Centre, and the Rainforest Discovery Centre — don’t miss the night walk here.
Day 16 and 17 — Kinabatangan
Your prearranged Kinabatangan jungle tour operator will pick up in Sepilok then it’s two days of river cruises, jungle walks and numerous wild animal sightings (good luck).
Day 18 — Lahad Datu
From the river, a trip to Gomantong Cave is easy to add on to your jungle package. Afterwards, jump on a bus to Lahad Datu. Trek some trails around Mount Silam, and climb the Tower of Heaven, or take a bike tour. Be sure to sample the delicious fresh seafood in this seaside town. Note that the eastern part of Sabah is at times risky security-wise—check the current security situation beforehand and make sure you have adequate travel insurance.
Day 19, 20 and 21 — Danum Valley
For the trip of a lifetime, stay at Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley Conservation Area. If that’s beyond your means, the Danau Valley Field Centre is the next best (and only other) option. Both must be booked in advance and they will include transfers from Lahad Datu. Be prepared for a sublime jungle experience regardless of whether you’re being pampered at the lodge or roughing it at the field centre. Danum Valley is one of our favourite spots in Sabah, and if you can afford the time (and money), stay longer.
Day 22, 21 and 22 — Semporna (or Mabul)
Today transfer back from the jungle to Lahad Datu, then catch a bus to Semporna, for world-class scuba and snorkelling around the Semporna archipelago, including Sipidan Island. You probably won’t be in time to dive or snorkel, so take a trip to the nearby archaeological site at Bukit Tengkorak or go on an evening river cruise. Sipadan dive permits are limited and you should book well in advance. Most operators insist that you spend at least another day diving alternative sites if they take you on. Many divers base themselves at Mabul Island to dive Sipadan, but if you are just snorkelling or missed out on a permit, Semporna town is a good base to discover the islands from too.
Day 25 and 26 — Tawau
Catch a minivan from Semporna to Tawau. If you’re really keen on the underwater world, you could leave it until later in the afternoon, as the trip is only 90 minutes (buses stop around 17:00). Take a walk along the esplanade and wave at Indonesia. Get up early and spend the day at Tawau Hills Park, which is often overlooked by tourists (except on weekends), but it’s a great day out and offers waterfalls, hot springs and the world’s (almost) tallest rainforest tree. If you’re heading to Indonesia and need a visa, there’s a consulate in town. Note that visa services operate mornings only.
Day 27 — Departure
From Tawau catch a bus to Kota Kinabalu to complete your overland Sabah loop. If you have another week, break the journey with an adventure in Sabah’s so-called lost world, Maliau Basin. Catch a ferry to Indonesia, or save time and fly to Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur or Tarakan in Indonesia.
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
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.