East Malaysia or Borneo (as locals call it) is unfamiliar to most of us in the Peninsular when it comes to travelling on the largest island in Asia. Situated at the north of Borneo, Sabah is, in fact, the ultimate stop on its own.
Sabah makes up 9.79% of the large island and is globally popular for two main tourist things–hiking in Mount Kinabalu and diving in Sipadan. But that is not all there is, we’re here to change that perception.
The amazement of Sabah lies in the proximity of various landscapes, coasts, villages and mountainside to Kota Kinabalu, the main city centre. Therefore, the plan for this itinerary shows how travellers can easily cover the lesser-known sights and attractions on a road trip!
The culturally diverse destination is only 2 hours and 30 minutes flight away from Kuala Lumpur. The comfortable and reliable Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has multiple flights a day to Kota Kinabalu International Airport.
Car rentals can be arranged without difficulty from tour agencies or car rental companies as long as you have proper driving license documents. However, from my experience, it is best to get a local behind the wheels for this road trip as parts of the journey involved driving on the narrow passageway, hilly terrains and dirt road.
Day 1 – Kota Kinabalu
Pillars of Sabah
The art exhibition site in the city is a collaboration with WWF Malaysia. The 30 pillars showcase 30 threatened animals found in Sabah, as presented by 30 Sabahan artists. The creative platform is to raise awareness on issues regarding the conservation and biodiversity of wildlife in Sabah.
This project is completed on a heritage building–one of the only surviving 3 buildings in Sabah that survived World War 2–which operated as a tax office by the British colonisers. However, the building caught fire in 1992 and what was left has now turned into space for art.
Lorong Bank 3, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, Kota Kinabalu
Tanjung Aru Sabah State Library
Inspired by the greenhouse concept, this state library just recently opened in April 2019 after an RM60 million budget development. “Nantuapan”, the innovative golden pattern is actually a traditional motive by the Murut race. Symbolically means unity, “Nantuapan” design is often used in making ornaments and decorations.
The largely-integrated glass walls are to allow ample sunlight to the main atrium of the building and exposure to bring natural light to various study corners in the library. Spot state-of-the-art technology in the facilities and the kids’ themed library section is a must-visit for travelling families with children.
Jalan Tasik, Luyang, Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market
Drop by to purchase popular dried foods such as the anchovies and salty fish chips. Other souvenirs include real pearl accessories that are harvested from the sea of Sabah. Therefore, pearls in Sabah are sold cheaper than anywhere else in Malaysia. If time permits, buy food items on the last day before your flight departs from Sabah.
Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, Kota Kinabalu
D’Place Kinabalu (Local Traditional Lunch)
Experience a traditional Kadazandusun meal here. Their classic traditional set serves up the local’s authentic flavours. Pictured are linopot (red bario rice wrapped in Tarap tree leaf), bambangan (pickled wild mango), kinoing om hado topuak (salted fish with white pepper), hinava tongii (marinated fish), tuhau (pickled wild ginger), tontohu oosin (salted egg), sambal and vege of the day.
Challenge yourself to taste butod (sago worm) sushi at the restaurant!
2nd floor, Plaza Shell, Kota Kinabalu
Day 2 – Kota Belud
Bengkel Kraftangan Tenunan Dastar
(Dastar Weave Handicraft Workshop)
Native from Mindanao, Philippines, the Iranun ethnic group has long resided on the west coast of Sabah–bridging cultures and introducing their distinctive tradition to the community.
One such representative is Madam Hajah Pandian. Recognised and awarded by the state, she is a weaving master that incorporates traditional Iranun motifs and contemporary designs in her workmanship. At the workshop, Madam Hajah demonstrates the traditional weave of Kain Mudah, Kain Ampik, Kain Dastar and Kain Sambitan.
Jalan Rampayan Laut, Kota Belud
The newly opened glamping site at Kota Belud has a list of outdoor tours and adventurous sports by the coast. Welcoming both resort guests and walk-in visitors, there are ATV rides on the beach, paramotor, jet ski, surfing class, paddleboard and banana boats to choose from.
Also, check out the “Mantanani Tour”, a day trip to the Mantanani island for scuba diving or snorkelling in the diverse marine waters. “Rivercruise & Fireflies Tour” brings one along Tempasuk River for a chance to spot the proboscis monkeys and embrace the local village settings.
Jalan Rampayan Laut, Kota Belud
Bajau Horsemen of Kota Belud
The Sama-Bajau ethnic is integral to the horse culture in Kota Belud. Dubbed as “Cowboys of the East”, the Sama-Bajau locals are expert equestrians and horses are important to their culture. The rider and horse are dressed and decorated in colourful fabrics and accessories for special occasions and festivals. If lucky, you may meet them when you’re in town.
Day 3 – Kudat
Gong Making Sumangkap Village
Sabahans are fondly appreciative of gongs and the instrument is predominantly used throughout the state in festivities, cultural performances and marriages.
Sumangkap Village is known to produce authentic idiophone by hand. Visitors can catch the skilled craftsmen working behind the scenes and purchase gongs at the village. Fun fact, the gong making practice is a generational knowledge for the Rungus locals in Sumangkap Village and the entire community are skilled gong makers.
Jalan Kg Sumangkap, Matunggong, Kudat
Beads Craft Tinangol Village
The women of Rungus ethnic in this village gather at the longhouse makeshift deck to craft beads accessories from 9am till 5pm in the evening. They warmly welcome visitors to join the beads making process to share the stories and usage of different beads design for the Kadazan-Dusun people.
Kampong Tinangol, Kudat
As one of the pioneers of boosting tourism in Kudat, Datuk Cobra (or Jeffry) is a humble man who offers nearly everything a tourist is looking to explore in Kudat. Check out Misompuru Homestay activity lists and homestay packages for the night in Kudat here or call 60168155056 for enquiries.
The Tip of Borneo
Be blown away by the sweeping panoramic view at this spot in Kudat. Literally, the tip of Borneo marks the northern-most end of Kudat in Sabah and traveller can see the convergence of the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. It is highly recommended to hike before sunset to catch the breathtaking view.
Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, Tip of Borneo, Kudat
Day 4 – Ranau–Kundasang
Sabah Tea Garden
A trip to Sabah would not be complete without visiting Borneo’s only organic tea farm. Encompassing over 6,200 acres, the highland plantation attracts the crowd with a variety of recreational activities such as tea factory tour, deer farms, trekking at Kamunsu Hill, chilly night walk, a tour of the greenhouse and visiting deer farms.
Spend the afternoon at Sabah Tea Resort Restaurant over tea-infused food and desserts. The halal restaurant also serves a good range of Borneo local food for dining with a picturesque view.
KM 17, Jalan Ranau/Sandakan, Kampung Nalapak, Ranau
Desa Dairy Farm
One hour away from Sabah Tea Garden, the dairy farm is popularly known as “Malaysia’s New Zealand” since its inception in 2008. There are almost 600 cattle and goats on the farm including high-grade Australian breed for its daily dairy provisions.
While the fresh Desa milk can be found anywhere in Borneo, its cheese and ice-cream products are only available for purchase on the farm. At the farm, visitors can watch the daily milking process, feed the calves and enjoy a cup of fresh yoghurt or gelato.
Desa Dairy Farm, Kundasang
Kundasang War Memorial
The memorial site is dedicated to the natives of Sabah and prisoners of war who perished during World War II–especially Australian and British soldiers from the allied forces. The well-manicured gardens in the memorial site represent the different homelands of soldiers together with a contemplation garden that inscribed the names of victims. This war memorial in Ranau is the last stop for the infamous death march of the soldiers from Sandakan POW camp, a distance of 260 kilometres.
Jalan Kundasang Kauluan, Kundasang
H. Benjamin Residence
Get a close-up view of Mount Kinabalu in the morning at the hotel, located at the foot of the mountain. H. Benjamin Residence has basic hotel amenities for couple or family travels at Kinabalu Park. Non-hotel guests are welcomed to enjoy the flowers around the grounds. Also, the surrounding cool climate calls for a delicious hotpot of steamboat and bbq at the restaurant.
D17, Mount Kinabalu Golf Club, Kundasang
Based on each person travelling preferences, you can also start the trip by travelling to Kota Belud first and ending the trip at the main city centre, Kota Kinabalu. Anyhow, you can definitely cover most of north-east Sabah from this 4D3N itinerary!
Text and photos by Jessy Wong. Video edited by Janet Tan.