Top Things to do in Sabah, Malaysia
Sabah is a super diverse region of Southeast Asia, crammed into a relatively small area.
Hike Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. Then, carry on through ancient jungles home to some of the world’s most unique animal species before you dive incredible coral reefs and stumble upon pristine beaches hidden away on remote islands.
Here we take a quick crash course on 12 awesome things to do in Sabah, Malaysia. We guarantee it’ll have you coming back for more.
1. Climb Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. The granite capped peak is 4095 meters above sea level. This is surely one of the most bucket-list worthy things to do in Sabah.
If you have never hiked to this altitude, then you will be in for a shock as the air becomes noticeably thinner as you pass 3000 meters. I thought I was fit until I took on the mountain.
The Mount Kinabalu hike takes two days in total. The first day you will make the steep ascent to the Laban Rata Resthouse. The second day you summit before sunrise, then make the full descent after an early lunch.
Ready to hike? Read this complete guide on climbing Mount Kinabalu
2. Kota Kinabalu Night Food Market
Malaysian street food, smelly Durian, Teh Tarik, and fruit smoothies. To Malaysians, durian smells like heaven, to many westerners, it smells like a garbage bin. Cure your curiosity and just try it.
You have to visit Kota Kinabalu’s massive Night Food Market to satisfy your food cravings. It’s cheap, it’s lively, and it’s local. Worth it in just about every way.
You will find Kota Kinabalu’s food market by the waterfront next to the seafood market. It is open daily from 5.30pm until late. We suggest visiting around sunset for an early dinner.
3. Kinabatangan River
The Kinabatangan River (long name, long river) is located nearby Sandakan on the east of Sabah.
The river runs through the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary which has an amazing diversity of animals. If you are lucky you will see wild Pygmy Elephants by the river, and Orangutans in the tree canopy.
Boat trips start before sunrise, so you’re best staying at an accommodation nearby the sanctuary.
There’s also a night walk in the forest where you can see other nocturnal animals. It’s not for the faint-hearted as you’re also guaranteed to get attacked by leeches. I had to pull off 13 leeches after this short walk!
4. Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
Whether or not you saw Orangutans at the Kinabatangan River, the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary is still totally worthy of being on your list of things to do in Sabah.
The sanctuary covers 43 square kilometers and is home for up to 80 Orangutans. The Orangutans are free to roam about, and even leave the sanctuary if they like. I unexpectedly met two of them out in the car park as I was leaving!
The Orangutans are fed a few times a day at certain locations. While you’re not guaranteed to see an Orangutan here, the chances are very high.
I’ve done a full write up on the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary here, including how to get there and opening hours.
5. Sandakan Death March Trail
Finished the Mount Kinabalu hike and still got energy? Serious hikers and historians can take on the Sandakan Death March Trail.
The story behind this trail is actually a sad one. Back in World War 2 the Japanese Army made Australian, New Zealand, and English Prisoners of War hike through the jungle with heavy loads on their shoulders. Sick, starving, and exhausted they would walk all day every day until they dropped dead.
To follow the entire route and take in the war history you will need to spend about 8 days on the trail. There are also shorter hikes that take you along certain sections of interest.
6. Scuba Dive Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Mabul
The islands of the east coast of Sabah, Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Mabul are known as some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. Divers say the only problem is that one you dive here then no other dive site will seem quite as amazing.
It is common to see Hammerhead Sharks, Turtles, Whale Sharks and a huge range of fish at Pulau Sipadan. If the ocean currents are right, then you can also see huge Manta Rays.
There is no accommodation on Pulau Sipadan, which is a good thing as this keeps the dive sites pristine. If you want to stay and dive a few days, then you will need to check out the accommodation on the nearby islands of Pulau Mabul and Pulau Kapalai.
Serious divers must add both Sipadan and Mabul to the list of things to do in Sabah.
Check out a whole list of other dives sites around Sabah.
7. Poring Hot Springs and Canopy Walk
The Poring Hot Spring is a great place to relax after conquering Mount Kinabalu. There are both private indoor and public outdoor baths here where you can soak your sores hiking legs.
The water contains natural sulphuric minerals which some locals suggest has healing powers and health benefits. If you’re a believer in this stuff, then even more reason to go. I’m satisfied with it being a relaxing hot bath.
Not too far away you will also find Poring Canopy Walk. The elevated canopy walk is suspended about 30 meters above ground level and is just over 100 meters long. You will also need to take a short 20 minute walk through the jungle to reach this elevated section.
8. Hike the Maliau Basin
The Maliau Basin is regarded as one of the least explored regions on the planet. In fact, it is said that many areas are still unexplored and unmapped making it feel like a journey to the end of the earth.
As it has completely escaped industrial human activity, the Maliau Basin maintains a very high diversity of plants and wildlife. It is essentially a closed ecosystem that surrounds the Maliau River.
Getting here is not easy. You will need to take a domestic flight to Tawau, followed by a six hour bumpy road deep into the jungle. Once here, there are plenty of animals to see, waterfalls to visit, and a 1675 meter tall mountain to summit.
Adventure time? Read my complete guide to the Maliau Basin
9. Explore the Danum Valley Conservation Area
Those that are lucky enough to visit the Maliau Basin commonly combine it with a trip to the Danum Valley Conservation Area. The Danum Valley is located on the east of Sabah nearby Lahad Datu.
You will find a range of nature activities here such as bird watching, jungle trekking, night walks, and sunrise trips. You can also swim in the middle of the jungle in the Segama River, a beautiful refresher from the tropical heat.
The Danum Valley is the perfect place to spot wild animals including; Orangutans, Leopards, Pygmy Elephants, Langurs, Hornbills, Gibbons and so much more.
It is easy to spend a few nights at the Danum Valley with a range of accommodation available from camping and dorm rooms to the super-luxury Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
10. Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a group of 5 islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu including; Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik.
The closest and largest islands Gaya just 3 kilometers away, while Manukan is about 8 kilometers away. All these islands can both be easily visited as a half or full day trip from Kota Kinabalu.
There are quite a few nice beaches, snorkeling and diving spots to explore (though not quite as incredible as Sipadan and Mabul). There are also hotels on the islands such as the Manukan Island Resort where you can have an easy overnight island escape.
11. Sea Villages in Semporna
Perhaps one of the most unique lifestyles in Malaysia is that of the Bajau Laut people, more commonly referred to as the Sea Gypsies. These minorities live in small villages in the ocean off the coast of Semporna. That’s the far east of Sabah.
From here you can take a day trip with a local fisherman to visit the small villages such as Tatagan Village, Pulau Bodgaya, and Omadal Village. Unchartered Backpacker has a great article on the Bajau Laut villages which I highly recommend if you’re planning a trip there.
Bear in mind that while many photos might show pristine oceans everywhere, one of the side effects of this lifestyle is ocean trash. Inevitably some of it ends up in the ocean, and swimming around the villages can be unsuitable for visitors.
12. Dive the Mantanani Islands
While Sipadan is a well-known divers paradise, the Mantananai Islands still remains relatively untouched. This remote chain of islands is located in the far north-east of Sabah, just two and a half hours from Kota Kinabalu.
There are actually three islands here to visit including Pulau Mantananai Besar, Pulau Mantananai Kecil, and Pulau Lungisan.
Underwater this is a diver’s paradise. There are World War 2 Japanese wreck dives, water clarity reaching 40 meters, and a huge range of marine life. Expect to find turtles, dolphins, string rays, octopus, eels, and even dugongs.
If you’re an intrepid traveler like me that just needs to get off the tourist trail, then the Mantananai Islands are one of the must-visit destinations in Sabah.
Got island hopping vibes? Get your guide to the Mantanani Isalnds
Sabah truly is that remote side of Southeast Asia you have been longing for. There are epic hikes, untouched jungles, and very diverse wildlife both on land and below the water. With so many awesome places to visit in Sabah, you will find the most difficult part is simply trying to leave.
What is your favorite destination in Sabah Malaysia? Let me know in the comments section below!