Sharing the island of Borneo with Sarawak and Brunei, Sabah (aka Malaysian Borneo) isn’t directly reachable from the UK but would make an attractive twin with any Asian hub. The size of Florida, it has a tropical climate, milky white beaches, lush jungle and – its main draw – the Orang Utans. But is a week enough to see it all? Jo Gardner finds out.
Malaysia has Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysian Borneo Kota Kinabalu (KK); a tiny capital that’s gateway to the rest of the country. Spend the first day adjusting to the oppressive heat by mooching around the immaculate harbour with its sparkling yachts, or hop in a taxi to the air-conditioned comfort of Centre Point (£1: five minutes) – a large shopping centre selling cheap electronic goods, beauty products and shoes. At lunchtime, follow the locals downstairs for Malay buffet sold by weight (approximately 50p). Grab an icy drink and a seat and settle in for an afternoon of people watching.
Best bit: dining in 60’s kitsch Atmosphere; a rotating restaurant on the 18th floor of Menara Tun Mustapha tower with great views.
Staying longer: spend time wandering around the city’s many cathedrals, mosques and Chinese temples revealing Sabah’s cultural melting pot.
One of South East Asia’s most important breeding grounds for Green and Hawksbill Turtles is on Selingham Island, east of KK. Rise early and hop on a 30-minute internal flight to Sandakan, followed by a 1.5 hour boat journey to Turtle Island Park. Ask your tour operator for details. Visitors who make the long journey will be rewarded with the chance to dive or snorkel with these elegant creatures. As dusk falls crouch quietly and observe as they lazily emerge from the water to lay eggs on the shores – something they do daily. If the timing is right, rangers will you let you help as recently-hatched turtles are released into the sea.
Best bit: chilling out on a beautiful unspoilt island.
Staying longer: stay overnight in a rustic chalet to spend more time with the Hawksbills. Accommodation is basic yet charming.
The Orang Utan is the closest animal to humans with 23 chromosomes to our 24. The world’s largest rehabilitation centre is at Sepilok, a 40 minutes by bus from Sandakan central station. Don’t miss the introductory video describing what the centre is trying to achieve and how you can help – usually by adopting one of the doey-eyed orphans – before entering the centre. Once inside watch as babies and adults swing between trees to swipe bananas from hands extended from feeding platforms. Inch close enough to get a photograph, but keep your camera away from their curious grasp. Humidity in the jungle can be draining so stay hydrated and use plenty of mosquito spray.
Best bit: meeting the gentle gaze of the Orang Utan, meaning man of the jungle.
Staying longer: cool off in the nearby English Tea House serving cream teas and Pims and lemonade before challenging fellow travellers to a game of croquet – a delicious way to spend an afternoon in the jungle.
Sabah is an undiscovered haven for divers with many of the islands offering white beaches, blue waters and relatively unspoilt coral. The Mantanani group of Islands are reachable by 45-minute speedboat from KK and most visitors head directly to the largest of three and home to Cuttle, Anemone and Scorpion fish as well as the rare Dugong (sea cow). Wreck divers will be intrigued by the three 1944 Japanese warships that lurk 25 metres beneath.
Best bit: enjoying a picnic under the cooling sway of coconut trees.
Staying longer: macro photographers will love muck diving – exactly what it says on the tin – where blue-ringed octopus, seahorses and shrimps can be seen close up.
If a close encounter with wildlife isn’t adventurous enough for you, head to Mount Kinabalu National Park for the highest mountain in South East Asia. Nudging 13,455 feet, it’s Malaysia’s first World Heritage site and a veritable playground for adventure seekers. Embark on a 134 foot-high wobbly canopy walk through the forest at the base of the mountain, stopping to spot orchids and rare plants, before easing sore muscles in hot sulphuric springs. Jet Life offers a day trip including transfers and park entrance from £37.
Best bit: visiting the impossibly-green Sabah tea garden, the only plantation in Borneo producing fine teas.
Staying longer: take the Summit Trail to the top of the mountain where gnarled tree roots provide make-shift steps and ropes help hikers heave themselves up steep slopes. Allow two or three days to complete the walk to combat altitude sickness.
Deep in the jungle, the muddy waters are calm as a duck pond and fringed with bright green foliage, perfect for river cruises. Try the Garama River, accessible via Beaufont two hours south of KK, with its mangroves and high-pitched jungle sounds. Board a small wooden boat and let a driver take you on a peaceful journey to see proboscis monkeys with their large noses and pot bellies, native only in Borneo. Watch the sky turn from deep blue to burning red as the sun vanishes. Once darkness hits, divert your eyes to the trees where fire flies produce random flashes of sparkling light. Touchdown Holidays has cruises from £49 per person including transfers from KK, a 1.5 hour cruise and dinner.
Best bit: spotting water buffalo and flying foxes on the banks of the river.
Staying longer: dine at the Garama River Lodge but don’t forget your mosquito spray.
After nearly a week coming and going, treat yourself to a relaxing final day. KK has five islands within 20 minutes of its marina so charter a Sunseeker (£59 per person) and let a skipper drive you round the clear waters. An on-board hostess will prepare lunch while you spend the day sunbathing on deck or snorkelling nearby. The smallest islands are private and, as yet, devoid of development. Enjoy the solitude while it lasts. On the return, opt to speed toward the skyline while the sun slips behind its lofty building. Sit on the front, grab hold of your bathing suit, and enjoy the exhilarating – albeit slightly wet – ride.
Best bit: a lazy day swimming and snorkelling in the warm, clear waters.
Staying longer: hire a liveaboard – a boat with sleeping facilities – and spend a couple of days drifting.
Carrier offers seven nights at the five-star Shangri-La Rasa Ria Hotel in KK from £1,125 per person twin-share including flights, transfers and accommodation on a room-only basis between February 7 and February 26.
Touchdown Holidays offers day trips to Sepilok from £39 per person including transfers from Turtle Island, entrance to the park and lunch at the English Tea House.
Magic of the Orient has a six-night Wildlife of Borneo tour taking in KK, Kinabalu National Park, Selingham Turtle Island and Sepilok from £488 per person twin-share including transfers, basic accommodation, all meals and the services of a guide before December 2007.
Location: one of the countries making up Borneo; an island shared between Malaysia and Indonesia
Population: 2 million
Demographic: 30 races, 80 dialects
Capital: Kota Kinabalu
Flying time: 12 hours to KL; two hours to KK
Weather: temperatures rarely dip below 30 degrees. March to November is the dry season, December to February the wet.
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