5 Reasons to Fall in Love with Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah.| ©iStock/yusnizam

On the mysterious jungle-clad island of Borneo, to the east of mainland Malaysia, are the laid-back Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Sandwiched between the Sultanate of Brunei to the north, and Indonesian Kalimantan to the south, these two states are rich in both flora and fauna and home to some of the friendliest Malaysians you’ll ever come across.

1. An Old-Time Atmosphere

Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia.
Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia.|©iStock/Jui-Chi Chan

Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, is so laid back that you’ll think that you’ve warped back in time to 1972. It’s a big river town, and the boardwalk facing the river is lined with cute, air-conditioned cafes and a plethora of unique good antique shops. Chinese trading flotillas have been visiting this port for over 600 years and some of these tiny shops boast large vases, which originally carried tea and can be as large as three feet tall, some dating back hundreds of years.

The Brooke’s (an aristocratic family from England) ruled the state for over 100 years, and although they granted independence to the state just after WWII, the Brooke descendants often visit and are still beloved by the local population. The family also built museums and some of the city’s more interesting buildings, including the fort where Sir James Brooke, the first white Rajah of Sarawak, lived.

2. Natural Beauty

Sarawak also has large areas of pristine rainforest and was once (not that long ago) famous for its head-hunting tribes. This is also one of only three places in Malaysia where you can see orangutans up close in their natural environment. Batang Ai is a good spot for hiking and trekking and you stand a good chance of seeing them on your own in the wild, but to be certain, head to sanctuaries like the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. If you‘re here for a week or longer, they happily accept volunteers.

You’ll also see numerous hornbills and banded kingfishers in the Kubah National Park. There are also carnivorous monkey cup plants in the highland forests, the bizarre and smelly corpse flower (it blooms just once a year) and a bounty of orchids, some so small, and so rare, you need a magnifying glass to see them.

3. This Coastal Town Gem

Kota Kinabalu, or KK to the locals, is the capital of the state of Sabah. This coastal town is blessed with some of the best white sand beaches and Scuba diving in east Malaysia. The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Reserve is perfect for divers of all levels, and the area is surrounded by old growth rain forests and mangrove forests where you can also see

wild boars, long-tailed macaque monkeys, large land and sea monitor lizards, and proboscis monkeys. The latter are harder to find, but you will certainly hear them.

4. Hiking in Kinabalu Park

Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu|©iStock/double_p

Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s highest mountain. Situated in the Kinabalu Park, a designated world heritage site, Mount Kinabalu is also one of the highest mountains in South East Asia, with the summit peaking at 1,563 meters, or 5,128 feet. One guidebook describes climbing the mountain as “a walk in the park,” and if you visit KK, it is literally a walk “through the park”, but it’s not a walk in the park, indicating that it is easy. Climbing to the summit is a serious undertaking. It takes two days and one night, and it can only be done with a registered guide. It’s worth training for, though, as the views from the top, as the sun rises, are simply breath-taking.

5. Diverse and Varied Climates

Kinabalu Park, the gateway to climbing Mount Kinabalu, boasts not one, but four climate zones! It also has the richest collection of biodiversity in the world, with over 4,500 species of plant and animal life. This is a bird watchers paradise, and with over 300 individual bird species to look for you, could easily spend a few weeks in the park alone just trying to spot them.

There are also walls thick with colorful butterflies and moths, and a hot spring to also look forward to. The park was discovered by the naturalist, Sir Hugh Low in 1895. He was the first recorded man to reach the peak of Mount Kinabalu and Low’s Peak, is named in his honor.

For the super fit and adventurous Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon is a race to the summit and back. The Climbathon attracts mountain runners from all around the world, and while most people take two days and one night to reach the summit, these runners have to complete it in under four hours. The winner usually does it in just over two hours.

Borneo was named “The Land Beneath the Wind” by American author Agnes Keith when she moved there in the 1920s to live with her English planter husband. Simply, it is a land that sits below where the cyclones strike. I’ve said this before at the IL conferences and I’ll say it again here: If I wasn’t living in Penang, I would live here. Both KK and Kuching are throwbacks to the island of Penang some 50 years ago. They’re modern capitals, don’t misunderstand me, but they feel more relaxed, more paid back, and friendly. Time seems to have worn well here and changed them very little at all.

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