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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 and not part of Sabah.


  • Kota Kinabalu - the state capital and main entry point into the state; a rapidly-growing city surrounded by golf courses, beach resorts and the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
  • Beaufort - largest town in the south; heartland of the Bruneian Malays in Sabah and home to a predominantly-agrarian Hakka Chinese community; notable for the cultivation of limes and pomelos; whitewater rafting possible on the Padas River
  • Kota Belud - west coast town in the heartland of the land-dwelling subgroup of Bajau people, famed for their horsemanship skills; gateway to Mantanani Island
  • Lahad Datu - fourth-largest city located between Sandakan and Tawau; gateway to the Danum Valley Conservation Area
  • Penampang - a satellite town of KK known as the heartland of the Kadazan people; hosts an interesting native tamu (market) on Thursdays and Fridays; home to the Monsopiad Cultural Centre which honours a famed Kadazan warrior of that name
  • Ranau - the largest town in the vicinity of Mount Kinabalu; also near the Poring Hot Springs, Sabah Tea Plantation and Kundasang War Memorial; notable for its links to the 1944 'Death March' undertaken by Allied Prisoners of War
  • Sandakan - pre-World War II state capital and still the largest city on the east coast; known as 'Little Hong Kong' for its seaside location and large Cantonese Chinese-speaking community; gateway to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the Turtle Islands
  • Semporna - heartland of the seafaring subgroup of Bajau people; hosts the Regatta Lepa event; provides access to major diving sites and beach resorts including Sipadan, Bohey Dulang and Pom Pom
  • Tawau - third-largest city and main entry point from Indonesia; surrounded by vast cocoa and oil palm plantations; gateway to the Maliau Basin Conservation Area

Other destinations[edit]

  • Kuala Penyu - small west coast town noted for its annual Pesta Rumbia (Sago Fest) and boat tours in the Klias Wetlands to spot fireflies and rare proboscis monkeys
  • Kudat - northernmost major town; heartland of the longhouse-dwelling Rungus people and home to one of the oldest Hakka Chinese-speaking communities in Sabah; famed for its secluded beaches, coconut and peanut-planting industries and proximity to the northernmost tip of Borneo at Simpang Mengayau
  • Tambunan - small, predominantly Kadazan town in the Crocker Range; known for its picturesque rice fields, pristine montane forests and the Mahua Waterfall
  • Tenom - small interior town famed for its coffee plantations, especially those run by the Yit Foh and Fatt Choi companies; heartland of the Murut tribe; home to the Sabah Agricultural Park and the Murut Cultural Village; southern terminus for the North Borneo Railway

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 and Tawau) and in several of the smaller towns (particularly Kudat, Beaufort, Keningau and Tenom). The majority of Chinese Sabahans speak Hakka, a southern Chinese language. There are smaller communities who speak Cantonese, Hokkien and other Chinese languages. 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 language. Conversely, it is not uncommon to encounter elderly Chinese, especially in the countryside, who speak only their native language. 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 general 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 serves as the main international gateway to Borneo island as a whole. KKIA is linked by direct flights to the following cities outside Malaysia:

  • Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on Royal Brunei Airlines []
  • Bangkok, Thailand on Thai Smile []
  • Fuzhou, China on XiamenAir []
  • Hangzhou, China on AirAsia []
  • Hong Kong on AirAsia and Cathay Dragon []
  • Manila, Philippines on AirAsia Zest and Cebu Pacific []
  • Perth, Australia on Malaysia Airlines []
  • Seoul, Korea on Air Seoul [3], Eastar Jet [], Jeju Air [] and Jin Air []
  • Shanghai, China on Malaysia Airlines, Shanghai Airlines [] and Spring Airlines [4]
  • Shenzhen, China on AirAsia and Spring Airlines
  • Singapore on AirAsia and Silkair []
  • Taipei, Taiwan on AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air []
  • Tokyo, Japan on Malaysia Airlines
  • Wuhan, China on AirAsia

The three main Malaysian airlines (AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air) link KKIA to various major Malaysian cities as well as secondary cities in Sabah and Sarawak.

Other airlines operating at KKIA include 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 [5] 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 one can travel overland into Sabah is from Sarawak through the border crossing at Merapok, near Lawas. Visitors who are not citizens of Sabah or Sarawak will have to go through immigration checks here. The road between Kota Kinabalu and the border with Sarawak is sealed all the way and in generally 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.

Sabah's land border with the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan cuts through an extremely remote and thickly-forested interior region of Borneo. As such, there are no official overland border crossings into North Kalimantan.

By boat[edit]

Since passenger ferries between Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia were discontinued in the 1990s, there have been three ways of getting into Sabah by sea from another state or country, namely from the Federal Territory of Labuan, the southern Filipino city of Zamboanga and the Indonesian island of Nunukan.

  • To/from Labuan: Passenger boats link Labuan with Kota Kinabalu and Sipitang, while vehicular ferries operate between Labuan and Menumbok in the far southeast of Sabah. See the individual city pages for ferry details. You must change boats in Labuan if travelling by sea between Brunei and Kota Kinabalu. See the Kota Kinabalu to Brunei in a day page for details.
  • To/from Zamboanga: Boats run between Zamboanga in Mindanao in the Philippines and Sandakan.
  • To/from Nunukan: At least one ferry daily between Nunukan in East Kalimantan and Tawau.

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.

Most attractions are not connected to public transportation, and are usually reached by tourbusses with arranged tours. Cities near attractions can be easily reached by public transportation, but note that even from here packaged tours or personal transport (car, taxi) are often required to reach the actual attractions.

By train[edit]

The North Borneo Railway [6] 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.

See[edit][add listing]

Sabah can be said to be one of the best states in Malaysia when it comes to things to see and do, although it is predominantly focused on mass tourism and independent travel to attractions can be challenging. Its attractions range from breath-taking natural wonders such as mountains, patches of 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 and a guide. 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 - Very popular 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 when in bloom.
  • Kinabatangan River Safari - A way to see the wild life of the Sabah Jungle – Pygmy elephant, orang utan, proboscis monkey, crocodile and a various of birdlife. There are jungle lodges for accommodation.
  • Kiulu Valley - Experience the way the local community live by the river in the beautiful Kiulu Valley.


  • 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.

Do[edit][add listing]

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 USD50 per flight, the famous sites like Bandukan hill in Keningau, 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 (Capt Azizan), he got many experience in hang gliding, paragliding, paramotor and also microlight around the world. Recently he just introduced a new powered paragliding tour by flying to the summit of mount kinabalu using a certified paratrike with Polini Thor 250 engine.
  • 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 Bandukan riverside campsite, Bandukan Hill paragliding takeoff campsite, 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. Note that hiking without a guide is almost never possible in Sabah, even for easy trails.
  • 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.
  • Quad Biking in Kiulu Valley - Experience the way the local community live by the river in the beautiful Kiulu Valley.
  • Cook -The Borneo Traditional Cooking Class [7] is a great opportunity to experience the best of Borneo traditional food and Borneo traditional dishes while you are on holidays.

Eat[edit][add listing]

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

Drink[edit][add listing]

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]

Sabahans are used to the ever-present safety threat posed by illegal immigrants from the southern Philippines and Indonesia, especially on the east coast of Sabah. You may see groups of them or their children hanging around in shopping malls and other public areas. For the most part they mean no harm, but many would not hesitate to relieve you of your belongings if you are careless with them. Thus, it is not advisable to needlessly wear expensive jewellery, watches or other accessories when in public.

Many of these illegal immigrants live in water villages (groups of wooden houses on stilts built over the sea). Some of these villages have been known to house Islamist extremists from the southern Philippines, particularly members of the Abu Sayyaf group. For this reason, visitors should exercise great care when visiting water villages.

The Abu Sayyaf group and other radical Islamist groups from the southern Philippines actively kidnap foreign tourists for ransom from resorts and islands on the east coast of Sabah. While the situation is currently under control in the wake of increased patrols by the Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian militaries, the situation does flare up from time to time. Before visiting the east coast of Sabah, take heed of the travel advisories issued by your government. Exercise a high level of caution when visiting the east coast, particularly any offshore islands.

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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