We love nature and wild places and always prefer authentic locations that are not very crowded. So a trip to Borneo came as a perfect choice for our stay in Malaysia. Despite it is highly exploited, with large areas converted into oil palm plantations, you can still find here a wild, unspoiled charm. I have to admit, until not to long ago, we weren’t even able to point Borneo on a map. But travel is also to learn new things, right?
Borneo is the third largest islands in the world and its territory is split between three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. We did some research in advance and decided to visit only Sabah province, the northern side. We had 10 days to visit Borneo and we felt it would be too much travel to cover more. Also, Sarawak, the other Malaysian province, has a famous cave system, which I consider difficult to explore with a toddler.
There are two airports in Sabah: one in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the province, on the north-west, and another in Sandakan, on the northeastern shore, close to the Philippines. There are lots of flights to each of them from Kuala Lumpur, quite reasonably priced, and many low cost options between the two. The flight takes a bit over 30 minutes, so there’s no point to travel by car over 300 km from one side of the province to the other, as it takes over 6 hours.
We spent 10 days in Borneo and we organised our time as described below. Our focus in Borneo was to see wildlife and natural areas and to spend a few days on the beach. If you want, you can cut some of the days spent in the two cities, just to transit them on the way to the airport. Especially when it comes to Sandakan, as it is small and you don’t really have what to do there. Since we visited Sabah with a toddler we wanted to avoid very early wake-ups or traveling long hours in a single day. Eric skipped some naps during this adventure, but still managed to get a decent amount of rest to avoid major afternoon meltdowns. Actually I can feel he developed a lot in the last few months and it is now becoming easier to plan our travels with him.
Day 1 – Sandakan
We got to Sandakan flying straight from Kuala Lumpur. Even though this is a domestic flight, you still need to pass immigration to get a stamp for entering Sabah, as the region has a high degree of autonomy. There’s not much to do in Sandakan, so don’t plan to much time around. There’s a limited choice of hotels and restaurants too, so we’ve seen about the same tourists everywhere during our stay here.
Day 2 – Sepilok
Just about 25 km from Sandakan, a visit to Sepilok can easily be done as a day trip from the city. But it is much more authentic to spend one nigh here. Sepilok is a green, partially wild area, perfect if you are in Sabah with kids. We took a Grab from Sandakan to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkeys Sanctuary before heading to Sepilok. We spent the whole afternoon at the resort, exploring jungle trails, chasing squirrels and dragon-flies and visited the Orang utan Rehabilitation Center and the Sun Bear Conservation Center only the next morning.
Day 3 – Sukau/Bilit
The safari on Kinabatangan river was the highlight of our stay in eastern Sabah. This was a great chance to see wildlife prevalent in the area, like macaques, proboscis, crocodiles, hornbills and other birds. It is a much better experience to observe them in the wild, not in a zoo or sanctuary! We chose a package from Asia Green Travels and spend the night at Natural Sukau Bilit Resort, an amazing place in the middle of the jungle.
Day 4 – Sandakan
The river safari was a bit tiring for Eric, as it required long car rides and a very early wakeup. So, upon return, we spent one more day just chilling by the pool in Sandakan before moving forward.
Day 5-6 – Kota Kinabalu
As we were done with the eastern side of Sabah, we took a late morning flight from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu, on the northwest coast. Here, we spent two days just relaxing, to soak up all the Borneo experience so far. I have to admit we haven’t explored much of the city, probably because we enjoyed a lot our hotel and its extraordinary facilities.
We’ve chose to stay at Hilton Kota Kinabalu, with top-notch service and state of the art room. We had a large suite, so Eric could easily catch some sleep without being disturbed by us chatting or working to plan the following journeys. He also had plenty of space to play and enjoyed a lot the smart lighting system and motion sensors; I was amazed he figured out very quickly how they work, technology seems to be easier for a 3 years old than for a grown-up!
The rooftop pool at Hilton Kota Kinabalu is surrounded by greenery so you don’t even realise you are in the middle of a bustling city. It is quite large, so the little ones can enjoy their time in the kids pool without interfering with the adults looking to swim or just relax in the sun. Right next to it is the rooftop restaurant, with stunning views, where Eric was happy to find a delicious pizza, like the one we used to eat back home.
For an ultimate experience at Hilton Kota Kinabalu, you can opt for executive benefits. You’ll stay on a private access floor and be able to enjoy the executive lounge. Breakfast can be served here, far from the crowds, and also complimentary afternoon tea or cocktails, with a view to the city.
Day 7-8: Kinabalu Park
We were picked up from our hotel for a 2.5 hours trip to Kinabalu Park, where we spend the following days at Sutera Sanctuary Lodges. This was one of my favourite places we’ve visited in a long time, probably because after all the time spent on tropical climate, I miss a lot mountain areas. I will soon detail the whole experience at Kinabalu Park in a separate article.
Day 9-10: Manukan Island
After my special days in the mountains, it was Andrei’s turn to get to his favourite spot in a while. Manukan Island is a tropical paradise like the surreal photos seen on Instagram, a lush green jungle surrounded by white beaches and crystal blue waters. Sutera Sanctuary Lodges is the only accommodation on the island, ensuring its guests have all their privacy here. It was a perfect end to our awesome trip to Borneo.
Safety in Sabah
We got lots of questions about safety in Sabah, but I have to admit I didn’t even consider this topic while we were there. We read a lot about Abu Sayyaf, the Philippines pirates, while planning for our trip. But this terrorist group does not pose a threat to inland Sabah, maybe to offshore islands in the northeastern side of Borneo or to sailors and fishermen in the same area.
We actually found Sabah safe and peaceful. We never felt we shouldn’t be outside in the evening and people were generally nice and friendly. The whole area is cleaner and more civilised than many other places we’ve visited in Southeast Asia. We also read bad stuff about the traffic in Sabah, but, except for the quality of the roads in the remote Kinabatangan area, both the infrastructure and the driving were better than expected.
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Disclosure: The mentioned hotels and resorts hosted us during our stay, in exchange for an honest review. As usual, all the opinions expressed here are our own.