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Malaysia : Sabah
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Sabah [1] is a state in Malaysia. Together with Sarawak to the southwest, the two states form the Malaysian portion of Borneo.


Map of Sabah in Malaysia

Sabah is divided into divisions, a legacy of the British North Borneo days. The divisions are in turn divided into districts. The divisions are:

  • Kudat Division located in the north of Sabah with Kudat and Kota Marudu as the main towns,
  • West Coast Division along the west of Sabah where Kota Kinabalu is located,
  • Interior Division located in the south-west of Sabah, with Keningau and Tenom being its largest towns,
  • Sandakan Division in the east, with Sandakan town as its largest town, and
  • Tawau Division in the south-east of Sabah, with Tawau, Lahad Datu and Semporna as its largest towns.
  • Labuan is a group of offshore islands with federal territory status.


  • Kota Kinabalu - capital city of Sabah and the largest city in East Malaysia.
  • Ranau - a small town about 100km from Kota Kinabalu, from here we can see the amazing view of majestic mount kinabalu at early in the morning, this small town also very close to Poring Hot Spring, Sabah Tea Plantation,etc
  • Keningau - A forgotten town in keningau valley
  • Lahad Datu - a town located on the east coast.
  • Sandakan - a town located in the east of Sabah and was formerly the capital of Sabah prior to WWII.
  • Semporna - a town located on the east coast, main hopping off points to the dive islands
  • Tawau - major town located at the southeast corner of the state, entry point from Indonesia
  • Tenom - main town in the interior of the state
  • Kota Belud - small town on the west coast.
  • Kudat - northern town of Sabah, closest to the Tip of Borneo.

Other destinations[edit]

National parks[edit]


  • Sipadan - one of the world's best dive spots with lots of large pelagic species (sea turtles, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays).
  • Lampaki
  • Layang Layang - an island off the west coast that offers spectacular diving.
  • Mabul - one of the world's best muck diving locations
  • Mataking
  • Kapalai




Sabah, which was known as North Borneo before it joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963, was part of the Sultanate of Brunei in the 16th century while the north-eastern coast of the state became part of the Sultanate of Sulu which was centered in the southern islands of the Philippines. In the mid 18th century, Europeans began making an appearance and the British managed to open a trading post on Pulau Balambangan off the northern tip of Sabah. This post however failed to take off.

In 1865, the American Consul for Brunei, Claude Lee Moses obtained a lease over North Borneo. The lease ownership was passed to an American company which tried to set up a post in what is today Kimanis. That also turned out to be a failure and was abandoned. The lease was then sold to Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul in Hong Kong which he then transferred to Alfred Dent who in 1882 formed the British North Borneo Company to develop the colony. The capital was first established in Kudat, then transfered to Sandakan. North Borneo became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888 but administration and control over the colony remained in the hands of the Company ruled until 1942 when the Japanese invaded. There were of course resistance to the company's rule, including by Mat Salleh in the late 1890s and the Muruts in the early 1900s.

The Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1945 was brutal and this was when the infamous Death Marches by British and Allied soldiers forced by the Japanese took place. British Military Administration took over when the Japanese surrendered and in 1946, North Borneo became a British Crown Colony. Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), which suffered Allied bombing, was rebuilt and chosen to replace Sandakan as the capital.

On September 16, 1963, North Borneo together with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore formed the Federation of Malaysia and from then on it became known as Sabah.


Sabah is one of the most culturally diverse states in Malaysia. Its population of about 2.5 million is a mix of native groups (who are usually divided into Muslim and non-Muslim groups), Chinese, and other smaller ethnic groups such as Indians and Eurasians. The main native groups are the Kadazandusun, Murut, Bajau, Suluk, Bisaya and Orang Sungai. Most of the Chinese who migrated to the state during the British era, belong to the Hakka dialect group although there are also large numbers of Cantonese especially in Sandakan. There are also many Filipinos and Indonesians, many of whom entered Sabah illegally and later became naturalised under a controversial state policy.

The most important festival among the non-Muslim native groups of Sabah is Kaamatan or Harvest Festival. This usually takes place in May and the last two days of the month are public holidays in the state. The most popular event is the unduk ngadau or Harvest Queen in Kadazan, where girls throughout the state compete for the crown. A lot of drinking and general merry-making accompanies the festival.


Unsurprisingly, the most commonly spoken language in Sabah is Bahasa Malaysia (Malay), the national language of Malaysia. All road signs are in Malay, and governmental or administrative affairs are generally conducted in this language. Travellers intending to drive in Sabah should learn some of the words and phrases commonly encountered on the roads; similarly, travellers who need to spend time dealing with civil servants would do well to brush up on their spoken Malay, as lower-level civil servants generally speak little or no English. Some knowledge of Malay is also important when interacting with locals in smaller towns and rural areas. Malay as spoken by Sabahans is significantly different in its pronunciation and vocabulary from Malay as spoken in Peninsular Malaysia. This is because Sabahan Malay is influenced by the native languages of indigenous races, especially the Kadazandusun languages.

That said, English remains the lingua franca of the private sector, especially in the major towns. As such, many shop signs are written at least partially in English, and most businesspersons understand and speak it with varying levels of fluency. As you would expect, the majority of workers in the tourism industry also speak English. Generally, the further away you are from the major towns, the less likely it is that the locals are able to speak English.

Sabah is a melting pot of indigenous cultures. Among the main indigenous local races are the Kadazandusuns, the Rungus, the Murut, the Bajau, the Brunei Malays, the Sungai and the Lundayeh. These are further divided into various subgroups native to certain towns or regions. As such, different indigenous languages predominate in different regions of Sabah. For example, you would expect to hear Kadazan in Penampang, Bajau in Kota Belud, Rungus in Kudat and Bruneian Malay in Sipitang - but of course, this does not mean you would not hear other native languages spoken in a certain area. The majority of indigenous Sabahans speak Malay, but you may find that those in the countryside prefer their native tongue and in the most rural areas not much else may be understood. Many indigenous Sabahans in the urban areas speak English, and some may surprise you with their command of Mandarin or other Chinese dialects (intermarriage between native Sabahans and Chinese Sabahans is extremely common).

The large Chinese minority in Sabah is concentrated in the major towns (i.e. Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Tawau and Lahad Datu) and in several of the smaller towns (particularly Kudat, Beaufort, Keningau and Tenom). The majority of Chinese Sabahans speak Hakka, a southern Chinese dialect which is closely related to Cantonese. There are smaller communities who speak Cantonese, Hokkien and other Chinese dialects. This is a notable difference from other parts of Malaysia as Sabah is the only state in Malaysia (and indeed one of few places in the world) where Hakka is the majority language among the local Chinese populace. However, most Chinese Sabahans also speak Mandarin and English, especially the younger generations. In fact, some younger Chinese Sabahans have adopted Mandarin as their mother tongue at the expense of their family's native dialect. Conversely, it is not uncommon to encounter elderly Chinese, especially in the countryside, who speak only their native dialect. There are a few towns in Sabah where Hakkas do not form the majority in the local Chinese community; notable inclusions are Sandakan (mainly Cantonese) and Sipitang (mainly Hokkien).

Sabah is also home to immigrant communities from other countries. In addition to their native languages, most also speak Malay but very few speak English, with the exception of Tagalog-speaking immigrants from the Philippines.

Get in[edit]

Sabah maintains autonomy on immigration rules, mostly so that non-Sabahans cannot freely immigrate and swamp the state. Malaysians from Peninsular Malaysia and neighbouring Sarawak are subjected to some level of immigration control, such as showing their identity cards, and are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time. Foreigners need to fill out a second immigration form. Nevertheless, for most travellers this is just a formality and an interesting extra stamp in their passport. See Malaysia | Get in for details.

By air[edit]

Kota Kinabalu International Airport [2] (IATA: BKI ICAO: WBKK) (sometimes abbreviated to 'KKIA') is the busiest airport in Malaysian Borneo, and is the main international gateway to Borneo island. KKIA is serviced by the two main Malaysian airlines, which are Malaysia Airlines [] and AirAsia [], which link Kota Kinabalu to various cities throughout Malaysia as well as several international destinations, one of which (Perth, Australia on Malaysia Airlines) is Kota Kinabalu's only intercontinental destination. KKIA is also served by the following foreign carriers:

  • AirAsia Zest [] (Manila, the Philippines)
  • Dragonair [] (Hong Kong)
  • Eastar Jet [] and Jin Air [] (Seoul, South Korea)
  • Indonesia AirAsia [] (Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia)
  • Royal Brunei Airlines [] (Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)
  • Shanghai Airlines [] (Shanghai, China)
  • Silkair [] (Singapore)

Other airlines operating at KKIA include Malindo Air, which competes with Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia on the lucrative Kota Kinabalu-Kuala Lumpur route, as well as Malaysia Airlines' east Malaysian subsidiary MASWings [], which provides rural air services in Malaysian Borneo. As the list of airlines servicing KKIA frequently changes, particularly with respect to foreign airlines and international routes, you are advised to check the airport's Wikipedia page for updated information on the routes that are in operation at any given time.

Tawau Airport [3] is the only other Sabahan airport with international flights, in this case to Tarakan in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan. These flights are operated by MASWings. Tawau is also served by interstate flights to Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur.

Sandakan Airport does not have international flights at present, but is linked to Kuala Lumpur by AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines.

The other two airports in Sabah - which are in Kudat and Lahad Datu - do not have interstate or international flights.

By road[edit]

The only place where you can travel overland into Sabah is from Sarawak through the border crossing at Merapok near Lawas. Those who are not citizens of Sabah or Sarawak will have to go through immigration checks here. The road between Kota Kinabalu and the border is sealed all the way and in good condition. If you are planning to do the overland trail from Sarawak to Sabah, it is possible to get from Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei - or with a bit of a stretch, from Miri - to Kota Kinabalu within a day. See Kota Kinabalu to Brunei in a day for details.

There is no official land crossing with Indonesia, although there may be some informal tracks from the interior of Sabah which locals use to get to East Kalimantan.

By boat[edit]

You can enter Sabah by boat from the Malaysian Federal Territory of Labuan, Zamboanga in the southern Philippine, and from Nunukan in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. However, there are no passenger boat services between Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.

Get around[edit]

By air[edit]

Kota Kinabalu International Airport has flights to all other airports in Sabah on the following airlines:

  • Kudat: MASWings
  • Lahad Datu: MASWings
  • Sandakan: AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and MASWings
  • Tawau: AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and MASWings

All the above flights (with the exception of Kota Kinabalu-Kudat flights) operate several times a day.

Intra-Sabah flights originating at Sandakan Airport go to Kota Kinabalu, Kudat and Tawau, while Tawau Airport's intra-Sabah flights go to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. Kudat Airport has flights to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, while Lahad Datu Airport is only served by flights to Kota Kinabalu.

In addition, there are airstrips such as those in Keningau, Semporna and Tomanggong which do not currently see any commercial air traffic. However, if you wish to visit these places, it is worth checking before your trip to see if flights to these airports have been reinstated.

By road[edit]

Sabah's road network is not as developed as that in Peninsular Malaysia and there are large areas of the interior, such as the Kinabatangan River basin, which are not connected by road. The main road most useful to travellers are those running along the West Coast from the Sabah-Sarawak border at Sindumin through Sipitang, Beaufort and Papar to Kota Kinabalu (called Route A2) and northwards from Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud and ending at Kudat near the northern tip of Sabah (Route A1). The main road into the West Coast interior runs from Kota Kinabalu to Tambunan, Keningau and Tenom.

The main road to the East Coast (Route A4) branches off Route A1 near Tuaran, about 30km north of Kota Kinabalu. It passes the foot of Mount Kinabalu and Ranau right through to Sandakan. The main road to Tawau and the southeastern parts of Sabah (Route A5) branches off from Route A4 about 55km west of Sandakan or 285km from Kota Kinabalu.

A road is being constructed from Keningau through the isolated Pensiangan and Kalabakan districts to Tawau at the southeastern corner of Sabah. Once completed, the road will enable those travelling from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau to cut travelling time and distances significantly without needing to use the KK-Sandakan road.

By bus[edit]

Long distance express buses operate between major cities in Sabah. Most of these are air-conditioned and quite comfortable. There are also non-aircon stage buses running between towns which stop to pick-up and let down passengers along the way. They may be cheaper but take forever to get anywhere.

A lot of short-distance inter-town travel in Sabah is also done by minibuses and minivans. These are either small buses or vans which are converted to take in passeners. They charge the same fare as buses but carry fewer passengers. Most operate in the morning and will only leave when they are full. But once they get going, the journey can be quite fast. You can make long distance journeys with minibuses and minivans but you'll have to change along the way.

By train[edit]

The North Borneo Railway [4] is the only railway network on Borneo. The network is small (134km), linking Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort along the west coast, and then inland along the Padas River to Tenom, which is the more interesting and popular stretch for travellers. The new Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort service opened in Feb 2011. Beaufort to Tenom remains only once a day. See the respective city pages for train details.


Sabah can be said to be one of the best states in Malaysia when it comes to things to see and do. Its attractions range from the breath-taking natural wonders such as mountains, jungles, islands and flora and fauna, to the colourful cultures of its multi-ethnic inhabitants.

Most of the attractions have their own pages. The list below provides the links.

Natural attractions[edit]

  • Mount Kinabalu - This has to be the top of the list of reasons for visiting Sabah. The 4,095m mountain is the second highest in Southeast Asia (outside Papua, which is regarded as part of Oceania) after Hkakabo Razi in Burma, but is probably one of the easiest to climb as no mountaineering experience is needed, just a lot of stamina. The surrounding National Park is also home to many plants and animals.
  • Sipadan and the other islands - World-class diving.
  • Sepilok - The world-famouns Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary near Sandakan is home to orphaned or captured orang utans where they are slowly readapted to the jungle environment.
  • Turtle Islands Park - Three islands in the Sulu Sea off the coast of Sandakan where you can see turtle conservation at work.
  • Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park - Coral islands just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.
  • Poring Hot Springs - Soak in pools of natural hot water to cure your muscle aches after you assault on Mount Kinabalu
  • Danum Valley - See the tropical rainforest near Lahad Datu at its most pristine.
  • Proboscis monkeys - See them in the wild in the Sukau and Kinabatangan areas near Sandakan and the Klias Wetlands area.
  • Rafflesia flowers - The world's largest flowers, nearly 1m in diameter, can be seen in the Crocker Range.


  • Monsopiad Cultural Village - Located near Kota Kinabalu, it tells the story of Monsopiad, a warrior of the Kadazan ethnic group who lived some 300 years ago and slew 42 of his enemies. The skulls of these 42 are on exhibit in the Hall of Skulls.


Hand-in-hand with the many attractions, Sabah is also a place where you will not run out of things to do. You'll have a choice of mountain climbing, diving, paragliding, white-water rafting and jungle trekking as well as many other more sedate activities.

  • Climbing Mount Kinabalu - This should be one of the highlights of your visit to Sabah. See Mount Kinabalu page.
  • Paragliding - This adrenaline rush xtreme airsport is booming everywhere in the world, here you can learn or fly tandem paragliding for about USD30 per flight, the famous sites like Lohan (ranau), tamparuli, kokol(kota kinabalu) or even take off from the top of mount kinabalu. One of the best operator is Borneo Adventure Team @ wazzap/sms/call 0172936717 (Aziz), he got many experience in hang gliding, paragliding, paramotor and also microlight around the world.
  • Camping - If you love camping then you will like Borneo, some site need small fee per person usually less than USD10, you can bring your own gears or just rent for less than usd10 per nite, the best camping site are at Poring Hot Spring (Ranau), Lohan Hill(Ranau), Tunku Abdel Rahman Island Park (kota Kinabalu)..if you have any enquiry dont hesitate to contact(whataps/sms/call) 0172936717(aziz)
  • Diving and snorkeling - You'll enjoy some of the best corals in the world. Locations include Sipadan and Mabul on the East Coast, and Layang Layang Island in the disputed Spratly group. Less hardcore and just a few minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu city, are the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Many dive operators based in Kota Kinabalu are at your disposal. There are a few operators with dive stations on the islands with the rest offering diving from their dive boats.
  • Technical diving - Sabah is very popular for recreational divers. It is also an emerging location for technical diving. You can now learn to dive on a semi-closed rebreather or a closed circuit rebreather during your stay in Sabah. Many other basic and advanced diving courses are also available for visiting experienced divers wanting to develop their scuba diving skills in the tropical waters of the South China Sea. Many of these advanced diver training courses are run from Kota Kinabalu, nearby Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and at the WW2 wrecks located in Usukan Bay along the west coast of Sabah.
  • White-water rafting - along two rivers, Padas and Kiulu. The Padas River, accessed from Beaufort boasts Grade Three to Four rapids.
  • Going into the jungle - many tour companies have itineraries which bring you into the interior of the state. Some popular places include jungle camps along the Kinabatangan River, and going into the isolated Batu Punggul area.
  • Ride on Sabah's Jungle Railway - Catch the slow train between Beaufort and Tenom which runs along the fast-flowing Padas River.
  • Eat - Sabahans love to eat. Consequently different food choices are abundant and choices abound from Malay to Chinese to Indian to Western to Filipino and almost every other style of food in between. For many this is a big attraction in Sabah and should not be avoided.


For the less intrepid explorer who do not know, or do not care for the trouble of finding out, Sabah can be a difficult region to get round independently, in terms of cost and reliable transport. To have everything pre-arranged for you, it's best to contract the services of a tour operator of which there is no short supply in Sabah. If you’re on a shoestring budget you can find good reliable freelance guides at Sabah’s Tourism Board[5] , whose price can be considerably lower than a fixed package.


Ngiu Chap(Beef Noodle), Fresh Seafood, Local Kadazan Cuisine


Lime juice, mango juice, and other fresh fruit juices. Cheap liquors are very widely available at most supermarkets and mini markets in the state. Other alcoholic drinks such as beer and whisky are also widely available.

Stay safe[edit]

Most towns of Sabah are generally safe, but the general rule of not showing off your wealth openly in the public is advisable as pick-pocketing is a danger especially in poorer areas while robbery is rare. You can still shop safely around the towns and cities.

Get out[edit]

  • By air from Kota Kinabalu airport to other parts of Malaysia or other countries in the region.
  • By boat via Labuan island to Brunei.

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