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Sabah is located on the northern part of the Borneo Island, the third largest island in the world. It has a land mass of 73,619 square kilometres, which is just slightly bigger than the Washington state of USA. Two thirds of Sabah shoreline are surrounded by seas and with its long shoreline, it also comes with many tropical islands, as many as one hundred, which range from the habitable big ones to exotic tiny ones.
Last century a prize winning book called “Land Below the Wind” which was written by celebrated American writer Agnes Keith, has created a lot of interest from the Western world to explore this wonderful mysterious land. Today with avid promotion done by the state government in many developed countries and also via words of mouth, Sabah is fast becoming the popular choice for an ultimate tropical vacation.
Tourism industries are very well organized in Sabah. Some guide books even commented that it is being too organized. From the high end resorts to the budget hostels, plus the good support of the tour agencies, travelling around Sabah is a breeze. The west coast region is well known for it's beautiful nature sceneries, where rolling hills, lush green forest and mountains fill the landscape. While on the east coast, wildlife exploration and underwater spectacles are waiting for guests to discover.
Conservation is the true hope of preserving the eco-system of Sabah, and to date there are seven national parks in the state. When added up the total areas of all the parks are a staggering 2,724 square kilometers. The most visited parks in Sabah are the Kinabalu National Park and the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, both are located on the West Coast. On the East Coast, Turtle Islands Park and Sipadan Island Park are the most visited, but the newly gazetted Tun Sakaran Marine Park will be the up and coming star.
Sabah are divided into five divisions and each has its special and unique feature to offer the visitors. From nature to wildlife, and from white sandy beach to beautiful corals, they all continue to attract visitors to come back to Sabah for more. Below are the destinations on each respective division.
West Coast Division
The West Coast Division has the second smallest land area with only 7,588 square kilometres or just 10.3% of Sabah territory, yet it is the most visited region of the state, if not the whole of Borneo Island. This is also the most populated region in Sabah.
Mt. Kinabalu is a famous landmark with a height of 4,095 metres. Visitors to Sabah through the Kota Kinabalu International Airport especially in the morning will see the huge Mountain from a distance. It is also very important to the world community because of the diversity on its bio-ecosystem. In 2001 UNESO has selected Mount Kinabalu to be the first world heritage site of Malaysia. Apart from climbing Mt. Kinabalu for the adventurous individuals, the park is a great place for visitors to enjoy the beauty of nature, where fauna and flora are plenty.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
For those who love the sun, sea, and sand, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is the place to be. With a total of five islands, where all are just a stone throw away from capital city of Kota Kinabalu, travelling to the islands is easy and does not cost too much. Manukan Island, Sapi Island and Manutik Island are very popular day trip excursions for visitors as well as locals. Sun bathing, swimming at the sea, snorkelling with the marine life or exploring the beautiful corals, and even scuba diving, all these are the normal activities on these three islands. One can also choose to stay at the classy wooden chalets at Manukan Island.
Apart from Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Mantanani Islands located on the north-western corner of Sabah, is also a popular island destination on the West Coast Division. Mantanani Islands is made up of three island groupings, including the small island Pulau Linngisan which has an interesting cave. Mantanani Islands is also well known for its crystal clear water, great for snorkelling and scuba diving. Pulau Mantanani Besar, an island measuring 7km long and 3 km wide has no roads or cars, very pollution free. It is also a serious place for avid birders as this island has the famous residential scope owl, which is only found around the Mantanani Islands.
Although a very young city compared to cities around these regions, Kota Kinabalu has become a very important city for the state of Sabah. It is also believed to be the liveliest city and the most happening city on Borneo Island. The statistic also supports this claim, for the last decade, Kota Kinabalu International airport recorded the second highest air traffic after Kuala Lumpur International Airport. In 2011 KKIA is expected to handle some nine million passengers.
The city is a small piece of land sandwiched between the Signal Hill and the South China Sea. Through reclamation, today about two thirds of Kota Kinabalu city is actually part of the sea bed. With modern facilities like shopping centres, hotels and restaurants, Kota Kinabalu is a splendid place to stay and enjoy the sun, to go for bargain shopping and to dine on the fresh seafoods that many of its restaurants offer. The city waterfront has a good view of the islands and a great place to watch sunset.
Wildlife is what makes Sandakan region a special place for visitors to the East Coast of Sabah. The Sandakan Division is the largest and has a land mass of 28,205 square kilometres containing about 38.3% of Sabah's land mass, which provides a lot of area for these wildlife to roam around. From the lovely and cute orangutan to the very endangered seas turtles, wildlife is really the centre of attention while visiting Sandakan Division. Apart from orangutans and sea turtles, visitors can also see pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, wild boars, monitor lizards, and crocodiles.
For bird lovers, Sandakan region is a paradise. To date, there are 32 types of birds that are endemic to Sabah, and many of them are ocassionaly spotted in the Sandakan region. Bornean Bristlehead, Diard's Trojan, Banded Kingfishers, and Black and Crimson Pitas are some of the brids one can find here. Eight species of hornbills has so far been documented in the Kinabatangan river region, they are often spotted soaring across the river especially in the early morning.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre &
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
A great place to start looking for wildlife is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Here visitors can watch a few of these orangutans which are under the rehabilitation programme, managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department before releasing them out to the rainforests again. Equally good and not to be out done is the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, where plenty of Proboscis Monkeys can be spotted. While orangutans prefer to live a solitary life, the proboscis monkeys have a completely different approach, where life in social grouping is the norm. The proboscis monkeys even have an hierarchy of it own.
Cruise along the longest river of Sabah, the Kinabatangan river, with enough luck visitors will get to see as many as ten species of wildlife at any given time. The WWF reckons there are only two places left on earth that can have this, and Kinabatangan floodplain is one of them, while the Africa safari being the other. The region also contains many oxbow lakes, some 23 of them. A trek to the oxbow lake gives visitors a taste of the forest encountering mammals small and big. Visitors will also notice many insects, like the colourful butterflies and dragonflies, plus learning some useful wild plant knowledge from the local guides.
Established in 1977, the Turtle Islands, which consists of three islands, has been visited by many people around the world. The turtle as a species has been around the earth for a long time, way back to the time of the Mesozoic era. At Selingan island visitors will be able to witness green turtles and hawksbill turtles laying their eggs on the beach late into night. The eggs are collected and hatched by the Sabah Parks staffs before visitors can participate with the release of the baby turtles back to the sea. Visitors to the turtle islands are limited to only 62 persons per day.
Through awareness and exhibition, great effort has been made by NGOs and Sabah Government on protecting these species from going the way of the dinosaurs, sad to said their number one enemy is still us humans. Our activities including the greedy plantation owners converting more and more forests to plantation lands, where profit is deemed more important than the well being of the wildlife. Poaching, to a small extend, is also another major issue. Due to a lack of education and understanding, many locals still regard turtle meat and their eggs as delicious delicacies.
Sandakan is the second oldest administrative centre, after Kudat town in North Borneo, the former name of Sabah. The North Borneo Chartered Company established their capital in Sandakan as early as 1884. The main town area of Sandakan was completely destroyed in the Second World War. Today only some temples and churches survived this era. St. Michael’s and All Angels' Church, up on a small hill near the town, are worth a visit, and the Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple higher up the hill has a breathtaking panoramic view across the Sandakan Bay.
Notable area to stay in Sandakan town is the newly completed Sandakan Harbour Square situated right on the waterfront. Early birds will catch the spectacular sun rise from the Sulu sea. Here is a little secret on food, where Kota Kinabalu has good seafood, the seafood in Sandakan is excellent and also much cheaper in general.
Bordering the Philipine Archipelago on the east and the Kalimantan, Indonesia in the south, Tawau is located on the south east part of Sabah. It has a total of 14,905 square kilometres or 20% of the whole land mass of Sabah, which make it the third largest in Sabah. Tawau Division used to be the hot bed of cocoa plantations. Today the most popular attraction for tourists to this region are the islands. Scuba divers and snorkellers from all over the world are coming to this paradise to check out what it is all about. Besides the underwater adventure, Tawau Division is also home to three of Sabah forest reserves, namely the Danum Valley, Tabin Forest Reserve and the Maliau Basin. Here jungle trekking, wildlife, flora and fauna are the norm.
Without a doubt this is the most famous oceanic island in Malaysia. A true paradise for scuba divers and snorkellers from all over the world. Its sea walls are a true wonder, where many species of corals are seen building on top of each other, and the number of marine life here is also mind blogging. A day diving in Sipadan island will easily compile enough tales for a diver to talk for decades. From conservations it is understood that only 120 persons are allowed to visit the island each day. Since 2005 over night stay at Sipadan Island had been disallowed. The main accommodation for visitors to Sipadan island today is at Mabul island.
Tun Sakaran Marine Park
While waiting for their turns to visit Sipadan Island, Semporna does have many islands for visitors to explore. Tun Sakaran Marine Park, also known as the Semporna Islands Park, has enough dive sites to keep scuba divers busy for weeks. Recently an underwater study was done by 17 scientists from countries like Netherlands, USA, and Malaysia, and they found that the Semporna region has the highest diversification of marine life in the world. They take mushroom corals as an indicator, as many as 42 types of mushroom corals are found here.
Other islands like Siamin, Mataking, Bom Bom, Timba-timba are also good places for scuba diving. Rumour has it that under the waters at Siamin island lies a Second World War Japanese fighter jet at eight meters deep.
Danum Valley, Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Maliau Basin
Danum Valley is the most favourite place in demand for scientists around the world to conduct research, and the forests here continue to surprise with the discovery of new species. Visitors will enjoy the night safari, where they can go out to search for wildlife, like bats, frogs, orangutans, and slow lorises. Tabin Wildlife Reserve has a special geology feature with volcanic mud field, where many animals like wild cats and wild deers are often found coming here for the salted mineral. The Sumatra Rhino has also be spotted at the Tabin Forest. The Tabin Wildlife Resort offers comfortable rooming while exploring this forest. Dud the Lost World of Sabah, Maliau Basin is a true wonder. Its many mesmerizing waterfalls are worth the two days journey to get there.
While orangutans have good exposure and awareness programmes going on, the plight of the Sumatra Rhino should be given the highest priority. Only around 50 surviving rhinos are believed to still wander in the jungle of Sabah. If poaching is not stopped, there are just not enough numbers for the species to continue.
Tawau town is the administration centre for the Tawau division. It gets very little attention by the tourists. As visitors arrive at the Tawau Airport, many, if not all, will take the one hour ride to the coastal town of Semporna. Although there are some hotels in Semporna, many tourists would choose to stay at the island accommodation in Mabul and the surrounding islands, like Kapalai, Mataking, and Pom Pom.
After Sandakan Division, the Interior Division occupies the second largest land areas with a total of 18,298 square kilometres which is about 25% of Sabah's territory. Considered to be the least developed part of Sabah, where the main industry is just plantations. It does not have many major tourist destinations, but a visit to these areas especially along the Crocker Range visitors will be treated with lush green forests, rolling hills, great mountain views, and a few stunning waterfalls.
Tenom Agriculture Park
Tenom Agriculture park is quite a big place with nine different gardens from simple flower gardens to commercial plants. Visitors can easily spend half a day here. It is a must for the plants and flowers loving people. The special one is the Borneo orchid farm where you can find some exotic wild local orchids. Quite a few of these will only blossom once in every five years. Accommodation is available in this park too.
Travelling some two hours south of Kota Kinabalu visitors will reach the Klias wetland area, which is home to the proboscis monkeys. There are two main rivers here for the river cruise tour, Klias is the main river and the tributary form the other small river called Garama river. Organized river cruise either in the morning or afternoon will bring visitors out to the rivers in search of Proboscis Monkeys. Proboscis Monkeys are often found resting on tree tops or branches along the rivers. The mackey and silverleaf monkeys are also seen here, cohabiting with the Proboscis Monkeys. At night visitors will be treated with a show of dazzling lights from the fire flies, blinking on trees.
Padas White Water Rafting
White water rafting at Padas river is one of the most adventurous things to do in the Interior Division. Talk about adrenaline pumping, charging at grade 3 to grade 4 rapids are surely going to bring your heart beat throbbing. Apart from having fun rafting down the Padas river, rafters also get the chance to experience the only train ride in Borneo, which was completed by the British in 1916. This is one of the trips where visitors get to kill two birds with just one stone.
If you can visualise the map of Sabah which is like the head of a dog, then Kudat Division occupies the lands on both the ears of the dog. These two ears are actually the Kudat Peninsula and the Pitas Peninsula which is separated by the Marudu Bay. With just 4,623 square kilometres or 6.3% of Sabah's territory, Kudat is indeed the smallest of the five divisions in Sabah. Small does not mean less, tourists still have many interesting places to visit like the Rungus longhouse, Traditional Gong making factory, Bees farming, the alluring sea sides along Pitas and of course the Tip of Borneo. For those who like to stay out of the tourists' radar, Bangi island, the largest in Malaysia and twice the size of Singapore, is well worth a visit.
Tip Of Borneo
This is the northern-most part of Borneo island where the land meets the seas, on one side is the mighty South China Sea and on the other side the Sulu Sea. The junction gives rise to many unique geology features. At the point where the land meets the seas lies the age old bed rocks that look like a submarine, often exposed during the low tides. The scenery here is also second to none where long sandy beaches together with small pockets of secluded beaches are found. And the sunset here is truly one of the best and unique in Sabah.
Kudat Town was the first capital of North Borneo, but it only lasted two years from 1882 to 1884. Today this small town offers a good place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Relaxed at the three star Kudat Golf and Marina resort. Walk down to the old town to get some yesteryear feeling of North Borneo, especially at the old warehouse area. In the evening one can take a stroll at the Sidek esplanade, soak in the sceneries between the sea on the Marudu Bay and the hills on the land beyond. During the months of December and January Kudat area is just ever so slighty colder than the rest of Sabah.
Not only Sabah is a great place for adventure, with its many beaches and islands, it is also the vacation destinations to relax, to unwind, and spend some quality time with friends and family members. When is the best time to visit Sabah? As it is located between 4 degrees N to 7 degrees N from the equator, the State experiences a tropical climate throughout the year. As Sabah lies just below the typhoon belt which hite the Philippines, Hong Kong and Taiwan during the North-east monsoon, Sabah receives very little attention by the typhoons. So it is good to visit Sabah with its sun shine and blue skies any time of the year.
How to get there? The easiest way to come to Sabah is by plane. There are three airports in Sabah. Kota Kinabalu Internation Airport is the largest and it has many connecting flights to the surrounding regions. Some of the airlines that serve KKIA are the popular budget airline Air Asia, other airlines include Malaysia Airlines, Silk Air, Dragon Air, Cebu Pacific and Asiana Airlines. The other two domestic airports are in Sandakan and Tawau which provide direct daily flights from Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur.
The Land Below The Wind, a well known tag for Sabah, is fast becoming the must visit destination for the South East Asian regions. It's natural beauty, endangered wildlife, underwater spectacles and most of all its friendly people, are what capture the attention of the people around the world to this wonderful land below the wind.