Malaysian Borneo: Focus on Sabah

Sabah, Borneo

Sabah, Borneo

After a day in the Muslim country of Brunei, dazzled by Bandar Seri Begawan’s ornate mosques and intricate, golden architecture, I was ready to hit the road again. I had walked all day with both backpacks on, and my untrained legs were still wobbly from the hike in Bako National Park a few days prior. Needless to say, I was tired and eager to move on. Unable to secure a night bus, I awoke at 4:30am, trying to track down reliable transportation. Finally, at 8am, I hopped on the bus and prepared myself for nine hours of bumpy road.

Located in the northeast of Malaysian Borneo, it is just as unique and spectacular as its western neighbor, Sarawak. Its capital, Kota Kinabalu, is a waterfront city known for its busy markets, modern downtown, and proximity to some of the region’s most beautiful natural wonders.

Sunset over Kota Kinabalu's waterfront

Sunset over Kota Kinabalu’s waterfront

Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu might be a large city, but it still has plenty to offer for the nature lover and culture-seeker. With its eclectic mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese culture, the diverse cuisine available is out-of-this-world. As I visited when Ramadan was ending, the locals were out celebrating, donning their traditional Muslim attire.

Past the markets filled with durian and mangosteen, the waterfront is a gorgeous place to watch the sunset. The mountains loom over the landscape and a giant swordfish sculpture stands proudly near the edge, making for excellent photography. As the sun goes down, it lights the sky in brilliant hues of pink as ships come in to dock and Borneans get ready to go home after a hard day’s work.

White water rafting in the Padas River (Photo courtesy of Borneo Wavehunters)

White water rafting in the Padas River (Photo courtesy of Borneo Wavehunters)

Padas River

The capital is also a fantastic hub for day trips. A couple days after I arrived in Kota Kinabalu, I arranged to be picked up early in the morning by Borneo Wavehunters for a rafting trip. Shortly thereafter, I was boarding Malaysia’s oldest railway- the Sabah State Railway. Riding on the rickety train, the lush verdure passed before my eyes, I got a peek into the mysterious life in Borneo’s countryside.

Arriving at my destination, my tour group and I hopped off the train. We were almost immediately geared up with helmets, life jackets, and paddles. The guides gave us an oh-so-brief lesson on what to do, and what not to do, and then we set out. Little did I know, I was about to battle class IV waters on an inflatable yellow raft.

I had been white water rafting before in Peru, but that was child’s play in comparison to what I was about to experience. I sat in the front, getting the best view of the furious waters, and also the brunt of the river’s wrath. The boat tipped over several times, sending my paddling companions and me out of the boat like miniscule ragdolls. We boarded the raft again and again, the rushing river carrying us along as we tried to avoid ominous boulders and dangerous currents.

The moment that the Padas River calmed, I took in the gorgeous scenery that surrounded me- the thick forest brimming with wildlife, the crystal blue sky, and the patterns of water flowing around me. And just as I was meditating on its beauty, the river picked up again, sending me and everyone into a paddling frenzy. It might have been one of the most dangerous activities I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the most thrilling.

Garama Village


The gloom sets in over the Garamas River

There is no rest for the wicked- or at least for curious adventurer. The next day, I set up a tour with Only in Borneo entitled “Proboscis Monkey River Cruise and Fireflies Tour.” I headed to Garama Village, located about 81 miles south of Kota Kinabalu. This small, desolate area was situated next to the Garama River and amongst ages-old mangrove trees. Long-tailed macaques and domestic cats existed on either side of the village, either ignoring each other or accepting the others’ presence.

I stepped carefully into a fuel-propelled metal boat with several Chinese tourists and an amiable British couple. From what I’d read, I was to see silver leaf langurs, proboscis monkeys, water buffalo, crocodiles, monitor lizards, and- if I was lucky- fireflies. Almost immediately after embarking the Garama River, the other tourists and I spotted a group of buffalo gathered neck-deep in the murky water.

Passing by eerily-abandoned stilted homes, I learned that most of the residents had relocated due to the area’s lack of work. We continued to wind down the river’s narrow path, anticipating a glimpse of wildlife. The guide suddenly pointed out something rustling in the trees; after noticing its grey fur, I realized that we were witnessing a silver leaf langur. Endemic only to Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, and Sumatra, this old-world monkey is undoubtedly a rare sight to see.

Soon thereafter, we spotted a family of proboscis monkeys coming down the trees to eat. After watching them for about five minutes, I felt a drop of rain on my cheek. Seconds later, the rain was pouring down in monsoon sheets. We headed back to base, thoroughly drenched and defeated, and ate dinner as the sky drowned in precipitation.

I can’t express enough how much Sabah has to offer. It is truly a paradise for anyone interested in the gems of the natural world. Borneo was an area of the globe I had dreamed about for years, without thinking that I would actually get there. It just seemed too remote, too exotic, and too out of reach. Perhaps I felt this way simply because the desire to visit had grown so much year after year. Nonetheless, if you’re already in peninsular Malaysia, Borneo is completely accessible. It’s just a short flight from Kuala Lumpur, and relatively affordable.

Borneo embodies everything within a destination that I could have ever dreamed of. The locals are friendly, the food is delicious, and the natural wonders are boundless. While I only had a week there, those seven days will continue to resonate with me, as this was one of the most beautiful regions I had ever witnessed.

Appropriately, on that last night in Garama, as suddenly as the downpour had begun, the sky cleared and we set out on the river again in the pitch black. Glittering lights shone in one tree, and then the next, and the next. The complete darkness of the Garama River was lit with thousands of fireflies’ flashing yellow-green lights. It was one of the most enchanting scenes I’ve ever before witnessed. Borneo refused to disappoint.

Have you ever been to Sabah or Sarawak in Borneo? If so, what was your experience? If you’ve been to Indonesian Borneo as well, what were the differences you noticed? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences; please leave a comment below!

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