Pan-Borneo Adventure: A 14D13N Itinerary of the Best of East Malaysia

Pan-Borneo Adventure: A 14D13N Itinerary of the Best of East Malaysia

Get ready to explore all that is Sabah from its awe-inspiring mosques, tantalising local cuisine and the renowned Mount Kinabalu of course.

Well, it’s time to officially start the Sabah leg of the itinerary. While not as massive in terms of land mass compared to Sarawak, there’s still plenty to do in Sabah. For starters, Sabah is home to some of Malaysia’s most beautiful natural landmarks, including the country’s most famous mountain, Mount Kinabalu.

As you travel through Sabah, brace yourselves for some of the breathtaking natural views in the region, especially when you arrive in the lovely town of Kundasang but we’ll get to that later.You’ll also be able to experience some truly unique cultural activities and dive in some of the most pristine waters in the country. Without further ado, here we go!

Kota Kinabalu

Day 8: Signal Hill → Sabah State Museum → Mari Mari Cultural Village → Sabah City (Floating) Mosque → Sinsuran Night Market

Image credit: Jason Thien

To start your day, have breakfast at Seng Hing Kopitiam. Choose from a variety of breakfast noodles to fill your tummy in a bid to prepare for your next hike to the peak of Signal Hill. Don’t worry, it’s not that difficult of a hike. From the peak, you’ll be able to get a nice aerial view of Kota Kinabalu city.

Try to spot famous landmarks in the city like Jesselton Point and the State Mosque. On your way down, stop for a few pictures of the Atkinson Clock Tower. It’s the oldest building in the city and one of only three buildings which survived World War II bombing raids.  

Image credit: Shoestring

Move on to the Sabah State Museum and Heritage Village next. True to its name, it is the leading museum in the state and popular among both locals and tourists. Learn about the history of Sabah and the cultural heritage of the various indigenous tribes here. Make this a short pit-stop before heading to the Mari Mari Cultural Village right after this.   

Cultural diversity is a major part of the Sabahan identity on display at the Mari Mari Cultural Village. The village is a living showcase of some of Sabah’s ethnic communities’ way of life. Not only will you be able to visit their traditional houses, you can also learn about their culture, and enjoy their performances.

For lunch, share a meal with the lovely people at the cultural village and sample some of their authentic cuisine. If you’re lucky, they might even give you a quick lesson on how to make some of the dishes!

Image credit: Uwe Aranas

By evening, return to the city and pay a short visit to the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. What makes it special is that the mosque is actually constructed over a man-made lake, making it seem like it is floating. It’s a popular spot for photography, so get clicking for the ‘gram!

Note: As of 25 June 2018, the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque has been temporarily closed to tourists due to an untoward incident which took place on the day before. We’re not sure when the ban will be lifted but we’ll keep you updated.

Next, visit one of the liveliest places in Kota Kinabalu during the night: the Sinsuran Night Market. Located next to Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu, the night market is a hotspot for quirky accessories and handicraft and a great place to find delicious street food. In particular, the night market is famous for its succulent grilled seafood! Have dinner and head back for the night.

Day 9: North Borneo Steam Railway → Kundasang War Memorial

Image credit: Uwe Aranas

In the morning, head to Tanjung Aru for a pretty special half day outing. Board the North Borneo Steam Railway for a unique travel experience aboard an old-fashioned steam locomotive bound for a quaint little town called Papar. Along the journey, pass by Kota Kinabalu’s urban sprawl and catch glimpses of the South China Sea.

While the train makes a few stops along the way, the main attraction is the themed ride itself. Everything from the interior decor to the staff’s colonial style uniforms of the staff just screams nostalgia. For a basic return tour package, you’ll be served breakfast and a simple tiffin lunch as well.

Image credit: Percita

No time to dally after returning from your North Borneo Railway excursion. It’s time to hop aboard a bus to beautiful Kundasang. Located at an elevation 1,900m with an unobstructed view of Mount Kinabalu, the town is the tallest settlement in the country.

Upon arrival, head straight to the Kundasang War Memorial. This attraction is a beautiful memorial garden commemorating all the victims of the Death March during the last days of World War II. Read about the tragic stories of the British and Australian victims and the inspiring anecdotes of those who died trying to help them, all while enjoying the magical alpine views surrounding the area.

Image credit: 89 Station Kundasang

Head to the popular 89 Station Restaurant for dinner. Find a variety of Chinese-style dishes here with a few local twists added in.

Now, before returning to your accommodation to rest up, go stargazing! An ideal place for that is the area outside the Kundasang Golf Course. The location here is so secluded that it is said that on clear nights, you can see the Milky Way prominently painted across the sky! So, bring your tripods and hope for the best.

Kundasang

Day 10: Mount Kinabalu (National Park) → Poring Hot Springs → Ranau

Image credit: Stephane Enten

The day has finally arrived! No trip to East Malaysia will ever be complete without a visit to the highest peak in the region the sky-piercing Mount Kinabalu. Alternatively, visit Mount Kinabalu National Park.

As much as hiking to the peak is a bucket list-worthy activity, you would need to arrange for specialised guides to take you there. But in the event where you’re not able to do so, well, you’ll be glad to know that Mount Kinabalu National Park is just as charming.

Image credit: Steve Cornish

The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to literally thousands of flora and fauna. There are plenty of nature trails in the park to enjoy too. You’ll be surrounded by colourful orchids and butterflies as you trek through scenic patches of jungle terrain.

Give yourselves a pat on the back for surviving the climb and the jungle excursions and treat yourselves to the park’s Balsam Buffet Restaurant.

Image credit: Mike Prince

For the past few days, you’ve climbed mountains, explored caves and trekked through numerous jungles. So, give your bodies a little bit of TLC at the famous Poring Hot Springs. Housed in the cozy tourist resort of Poring, the water in these picturesque springs is said to contain therapeutic properties. So, relax and wash away the fatigue from the past few days.

Next, head to the town of Ranau, just a short distance away. Tuck into a hearty dinner at the Ranau Hakka Food Court, where you can choose from a great variety of local favourites. What’s special about the food court is that you will find halal and non-halal food stalls operating side by side, something which is rarely seen in Peninsular Malaysia.

Day 11: Desa Dairy Farm → Kota Kinabalu → Sandakan Kim Fung Night Market

Image credit: Desa Dairy Farm

They did say that it’s great to start your morning with a glass of milk. Visit the place where the freshest milk is produced in Kundasang: the Desa Dairy Farm. While the cattle here are the main attraction, you’ll be stunned into silence by the scenery long before you’ve met them.

An endless field of green pastures stretching beneath a backdrop of Mount Kinabalu is what greets the eye. Words do this magical scenery no justice whatsoever and you might even believe that you’re in New Zealand! Take your time to admire the awesome scenery and learn about the process of handling milk. And don’t forget to try their signature dairy products.

Image credit: Desa Dairy Farm

Next, begin your journey towards Sandakan. To do that, take a bus back to Kota Kinabalu. There, have a quick lunch before boarding a transfer to Sandakan. This bus journey will take about six hours and departs only twice a day, so it’s imperative that you make the 2pm bus.

Image credit: Vinci Tan

After arriving in Sandakan, head to the Kim Fung Night Market for dinner. There are both halal and non-halal stalls selling finger food and snacks that you may not have heard of before. Do note that the market is only open on Saturdays.

Sandakan

Day 12: Sandakan Heritage Trail → Gomantong Caves → Kinabatangan River Cruise

Image credit: M. King

Today, go on a walking tour of Sandakan! Start at Masjid Jamik and follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail. This leisurely one hour walk takes you through some of the town’s most important sites and monuments. You’ll pass by historical buildings such as the Prayer Memorial and the Agnes Keith House. You can also catch an impeccable view of Sandakan from a scenic vantage point in the area.

Next, head to the Gomantong Caves housed within the Gomantong Forest Reserve. The limestone cave system contains no less than nine different caves, only two of which, Simud Putih and Sumid Hitam, are accessible to visitors. Sumid Hitam is a much easier and hassle-free route as you will need a permit to explore Sumid Putih.

The caves here are famous for being the most significant source of edible bird’s nest in the state. As you journey through the caves, notice workers who scale great heights to harvest these Chinese delicacies. You will also encounter quite a number of insects that call the caves their home. So if you’re not a fan of creepy crawlies, stick to the outer rims of the caves and the forest.

Image credit: Mike Prince

Leaving the caves behind, head to the village of Sukau for lunch. More importantly, Sukau is one of only two points at which you can take a boat ride along the Kinabatangan River. Along the cruise, you’ll be able to spot a plethora of wildlife hanging out by the river banks. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some rare animals like orangutans and maybe even an elephant!

It’ll be great if you time the boat ride to coincide with the sunset. The view is absolutely breathtaking. After that, return to Sandakan and enjoy dinner before proceeding to Turtle Island Park.

The “park” is actually made up of three islands, namely Selingan, Bakungan Kecil, and Gulisan. Situated in the Sulu Sea north of Sandakan, it is a sanctuary for endangered hawksbill turtles. The main attraction here is the rare opportunity to witness turtle landings on the beach.

You will also be able to watch as park personnel collect eggs, release hatchlings and tag new turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs. However, it must be said that a lot of it is down to luck. So, keep your fingers crossed!

Day 13: Semporna → Mataking Island → Tawau

Image credit: Mataking

Alas, your final day in East Malaysia has arrived. As painful as it is to do so, rise early and board the 7.30am bus out of Sandakan for a six-hour journey to Semporna! Upon reaching, have a quick lunch and board the ferry to your actual destination: Mataking Island.

Image credit: Christian Holland

Made up of two islands (aptly named Mataking Besar and Mataking Kecil), the island is a true hidden gem tucked away in the Celebes Sea. It is a pristine diving spot, full of coral reef colonies and different species of marine life that form a dynamic underwater ecosystem.

Apart from diving, there’s also plenty to do on Mataking Island. Climb to the top of the watchtower for an awesome panoramic view or visit the turtle hatchery on the island. When the tide is low, you will also find a sandbar connecting Mataking Besar to Mataking Kecil, enabling you to walk across the two islands on foot!

Image credit: Dcubillas

Head back to Semporna after dinner. Unfortunately, by this time, there are no more major buses in operation. So, you can either stay the night and take a bus to Tawau in the morning or hire a cab and head there now (about RM95, (~S$32)). I would recommend option two if you’re travelling in a group and can split the cab fare. From Tawau, catch a 50-minute flight back to Kota Kinabalu and from there, you can plan your journey home.

And that concludes your great Pan-Borneo adventure! Congratulations, you’ve now seen more of East Malaysia than most actual Malaysians. Let that sink in for a bit…

There’s still tons of places to explore and travel gems to uncover. So, I hope this itinerary will encourage you to visit East Malaysia and experience a different side of Malaysia!

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.

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