Sabah is a large state; the second largest in Malaysia, in fact.
Travellers who wish to see everything there would probably need more than a month to do just that.
I know this because I grew up in Kota Kinabalu and it took me more than 20 years before I finally managed to visit the state’s east coast for the first time.
Okay, it’s not that big a place but somehow my family has always overlooked the east coast during school holidays. Perhaps there was nothing much to do there for a kid way back in the 1980s and 1990s.
These days, however, the east coast of Sabah is where many tourists – from free independent travellers (FITs) to more affluent holidaymakers – head to in search of fun, adventure and the best islands in Borneo.
On a recent media trip organised by AirAsia and the Sabah Tourism Board, a group of us journeyed from Sandakan to Tawau, stopping by Lahad Datu and Semporna in between. It had been a while since I last went to any of these places and it was nice to see many improvements in the Sandakan and Tawau divisions.
(Sabah is divided into five divisions – West Coast, Interior, Kudat, Sandakan and Tawau. Semporna and Lahad Datu are part of the Tawau division.)
Each of these towns offers something unique to visitors, from lush forests and wildlife sightings to pristine beaches and volcanic mud. Experiencing all of this in a single state feels like a bonus, really.
And then there are the colourful, multi-cultural communities. Our many different dialects and distinct accents, interesting cuisine, as well as our infamous chilled-out “OK bah” nature, have always seem to fascinate our friends from Peninsular Malaysia.
The Sandakan Division is the biggest division in Sabah and makes up close to 40% of the territory. Sandakan town itself is the second largest in the state after KK. During the British rule, Sandakan – or Elopura as it was called back then – was the capital of North Borneo.
A trip to Sandakan would typically include a visit to these internationally-renowned places: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre (BSCC), Gomantong Caves and Kinabatangan River. We only managed to visit the cheeky orangutans and cute bears at Sepilok, as well as the macho-est monkeys in Sabah, the proboscis.
These monkeys are found at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, where they are given food but not “handled”. Unlike at Sepilok, the sanctuary is an open space located within an oil palm estate, so the monkeys are free to roam as they please. Our informative local guide Rey from the Borneo Sandakan Tours tells us that the owner had discovered these monkeys living there and decided to turn a part of the plantation into a safe space for the proboscis.
As it turns out, though, it’s not just the proboscis monkeys who hang around the place. During our visit, we were greeted by a barrel of silver leaf monkeys who were sitting around the viewing platform. Among the adult monkeys was an orange-hued baby; their fur changes colour as they come of age.
Don’t worry about getting jumped on or hurt by these animals as they are nothing like the macaques you find in the city. Since there is very little human handling, these monkeys feel safe living among people and therefore do not feel the need to protect themselves.
At Sepilok, a young orangutan walks calmly outside the confines of her home, strutting her rebellious stuff on the cement sidewalk, much to the amusement of unsuspecting visitors. The tour guides tell us to make way for her – we are not supposed to interact or make eye contact with her. A ranger follows her around and patiently waits for her to, well, stop her nonsense (she climbed up the roof of the souvenir shop, stopped by the door of the cafe and then seemed to play peekaboo with a tarp!), all the while making sure not to touch her.
It was a real treat to see an orang-utan that close.
Just next to the centre is the BSCC where the cute Bornean bears reside, while the Rainforest Discovery Centre is only a few minutes away from there. This is a great place for birding enthusiasts but if you have a fear of heights, the canopy walk is a little challenging.
Sandakan is a place with rich history, too. If you go on the Sandakan Heritage Trail, you will get to visit places like the 100-year-old Masjid Jamik, the Pryer Memorial (erected in honour of the founder of Sandakan, William B. Pryer), the Agnes Keith House, Puu Jih Shih Temple and St Michael’s and All Angels Church, a beautiful colonial building.
After three hours on the highway, we finally made it to Lahad Datu from Sandakan. However, it took us another 90 minutes (a good portion of which was on gravel roads!) to get to our accommodation, the Tabin Wildlife Resort.
The resort is located within the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, the largest of its kind in Malaysia. The forest is owned by the Sabah Government and its people and was given its “wildlife reserve” status in 1984 in order to protect the diverse range of wild animals – and plants – living in it.
The resort itself is privately owned, but the company has always made wildlife conservation its main mission. Employees take care of their guests well but are also dedicated in keeping the reserve protected and unspoiled.
We were so happy to see our river lodges at the resort and couldn’t wait to get on our night safari. We took a short hike with our guide, Rafel, across the river before dinner, where we spotted many elephant droppings, left there from a few weeks back. We were all hoping to see or even hear some magnificent creatures during our night safari but, unfortunately, we were not that lucky.
Rafel spotted and pointed out a few leopard cats, civet cats and wild boars but that was pretty much it. We were sad, but at least we got to stare at the clear night sky, with all the beautiful twinkling stars in the cold, fresh air ... something so many of us can no longer experience in the big cities today.
Very early the next morning, we went on another hike, this time to the mud volcano. Rafel has been a guide for seven years and was very generous with his knowledge of the jungle, showing us some basic survival skills like how to make a loud sound using the buttress of a big tree and a rock.
Once we got to the mud volcano, we couldn’t help but put some on our faces. If all those beauty product advertisements are to be believed, volcanic mud is supposed to be “good” for your skin.
Either way, it gave us some nice candid pictures to show off.
The entrance to the Lipad Waterfall is just a short drive away. We had to hike again, but this time only for a few metres, although we did have to cross a river. It’s not a big waterfall but nice enough for anyone to enjoy.
The coastal town of Semporna is about two hours away from Lahad Datu. This is perhaps the best drop-off point for scuba divers; if you’re not staying at any of the island resorts, then you would need to book a place in town.
Our overnight accommodation was at the Scuba Tiger Semporna Holiday Resort, which is sort of a one-stop place for all your water activity plans. From there, we headed to the Tun Sakaran Marine Park the next morning.
Everyone was excited as we had seen magnificent pictures of Bohey Dulang Island online prior to our visit. We were to hike up a hill on the island in order to take similar pictures.
Sadly for us, we were not able to do so because of weather restrictions. It had rained heavily a few days back and the hill was steep and slippery, therefore rendering it unsafe to climb.
To console us, our boatman took us around Bohey Dulang so that we could see what else was on the island. There’s a water village there and a few houses stood sporadically along the way.
A tiny boat with two young girls approached us. I had seen these sea gypsies before on a previous trip, so I knew very well to keep my distance. They are not bad but since tourists always give them gifts and handouts, they have somehow come to expect it from every visitor. Before we knew it, another boat with young boys appeared from the other end. The kids held out their hands aggressively towards us, with a few of them trying to pry open some plastic bags left on the seats.
After our guides handed them some food, the kids went away.
We then proceeded to the other islands – Mantabuan and Sibuan. Along the way, you could see the corals and other sea creatures in the spectacularly clear turquoise water. Soon we were in the water ourselves, happily snorkelling away – or in my case, just treading water.
Truthfully, we didn’t want to leave the islands but Tawau beckoned and we had to continue our journey. The town is about three hours away from Semporna so by the time we got there, it was already dark.
There is nothing much to do at night in Tawau so we asked Rey and our driver to give us a tour of the town. We stopped by a fruit market where a stall was selling tarap, a fruit that’s indigenous to Borneo. It was fun getting the Peninsular Malaysians to try some, though not everyone seemed to enjoy it.
At the Tawau Hills Park the next day, we trekked up the Bombalai Hill to see the world’s tallest tropical tree, a 96.9m-tall wonder of the Shorea faguetiana species. It was so tall we couldn’t actually see all the way to its top!
The park has a few other attractions for nature lovers like a sulphur spring, Mount Lucia and the Bukit Gelas waterfall. Some of these are a little further away, but you can stay overnight at the park.
If you’re looking for snacks as souvenirs, head on over to the Tanjung Market in town where rows and rows of dried seafood, crackers and biscuits are sold cheaply.
Our final stop for the trip was Giram Nek Legek in Kampung Balung, Cocos, where we saw the magnificent natural wonder, the columnar basalt. This is a collection of volcanic rocks that formed after an eruption. Located on private property, the owner and caretaker Ariffin allows visitors in as it is the only one in Malaysia.
During our visit, he proudly told us how rare the columnar basalt at Cocos is, as it is one of a few in the world where you can actually stand on the hexagonal-shaped rocks. There’s also the freshwater aspect – apparently, most columnar basalt formations found in the world are located around salt water.
As our flight back to KL was just a few hours away, we weren’t able to join Ariffin as he excitedly swung from a tree and jumped into the water. But I knew that on my next trip back to Sabah, this would definitely be on my list of fun things to experience.
AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan 21 x weekly (one way) and from KL to Tawau 38 x weekly (one way). The carrier flies to 26 destinations from Sabah; 20 from Kota Kinabalu, four from Tawau, and two from Sandakan. To see more pictures and videos, check out our Instagram page (@star2dotcom).