The Land Below The Wind mesmerises with its blend of nature and culture
Breathtakingly beautiful – just one of the many flattering expressions that have been used to describe the land of Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state on the island of Borneo.
Blessed with natural biodiversity, rich in indigenous and contemporary culture, and boasting a colourful and storied history, Sabah is the perfect destination for holidaymakers and adventurers looking for new and unique travel experiences.
Sabah is renowned for pristine beaches and islands – most notably Sipadan Island, rated the best dive site by numerous authorities. Travellers to Sipadan can rest assured that their holiday will be relaxing and, if need be, private and secluded. The island has no overnight facilities, as officials are keen on preserving its natural beauty. Accommodation can be found on nearby islands of Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking and Pom Pom – all veritable vacation spots as ravishing as Sipadan, teeming with marine life, colourful corals and majestic reefs.
Another spot for fun in the sun and sand, the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park is a cluster of five beautiful tropical islands – Sapi, Gaya, Manukan, Sulug and Mamutik – each a unique destination. The marine park offers a unique island hopping experience, especially in the 250-metre zipline visitors can take to get from Pulau Gaya to Pulau Sapi as a shortcut. Between Manukan and Gaya is Borneo Reef World (borneoreefworld.com.my), an activity centre on a pontoon where you can sign up for reef activities such as sea-walking, fun dives, snorkeling and even a sunset cruise with dinner.
Of course, Mount Kinabalu, reaching up majestically with its highest point being 4095metres above sea level, remains ever popular with visitors around the world. The beauty of Mount Kinabalu is that climbers do not need special equipment nor specialised training for the trek. As long as you are healthy, with reasonably good stamina, a “fast-track” day trip may be arranged (mountkinabalu.com) for those not looking to exert themselves trying to conquer the highest peak in Borneo's Crocker Range on the highest mountain in all of the Malay Archipelago, which also includes Indonesia, the Phillipines, Brunei and East Timor.
Conifers, climbing bamboos, Agathis trees, orchids and orange Rhododendrons are sights you will be seeing along the trail on a 12-hour day trip, which takes you to the Layang-Layang checkpoint before the descend to Timpohon Gate from which you will be transferred back to Kinabalu Park, and subsequently back to your hotel.
If you were to go all the way up, though, you will be discovering for yourself just how true all those stories are – about the breathtaking views from the top, especially during sunrise. Never before did you know that you could hold your breath for so long, caught up in the majestic beauty of the scene unrolling before you. It is practically a no-brainer that the mountain and Kinabalu Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
If Mount Kinabalu is out of reach, Mount Trusmadi, at 2,646 metres, and Mount Tambayukon, at 2,579 metres, are two alternatives that will also yield excitement, insight and inspiration.
Another way to get close to nature in Sabah is by participating in events conducted year-round by state tourism authorities, such as the Borneo Bird Festival (borneobirdfestival.com), held every year in October.
Increasingly, Sabah is emerging as a bird-watching destination in the Asia Pacific region, with international researchers and bird watchers congregating with the hopes of catching a glimpse of the rare and elusive Bornean Bristlehead with its bright colours of black, red and yellow. There are also the 59 species endemic to Borneo, out of the 688 resident and migratory birds that flock to Sabah annually. This year, the Borneo Bird Festival will be held at Kinabalu Park on 23-25 October.
A joint effort by the Sandakan Borneo Bird Park and the Sabah Parks agency, with support from the Sabah Tourism Board, the festival saw as many as 6,000 visitors in 2014 – a significant jump since its inception in 2009. It is widely recognised as being instrumental in creating awareness of these magnificent creatures as well as the environment they live in among the younger generation, further affecting a sense of responsibility towards nature, while also enhancing eco-tourism activities.
Of course, any mention of Sabah wildlife must include Sandakan and its Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary. Opened in 1964, the centre is an institute focused on rehabilitating orphaned baby orangutans that have been rescued from logging sites, plantations, illegal hunters as well as individuals illegally keeping them as pets. The sanctuary is a bona fide orangutan welfare and research centre; some of its park rangers and tourist guides have received guidance and training from preeminent primatologist Dr Francine Neago, who is also the founder of the Sabah Wildlife Sanctuary.
At the centre, located within the virgin rainforest of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, there are about 60-80 orangutans at any one time. Visitors may view from a platform how they are nursed back to health and trained to survive before being released back into the wild. A new nursery for younger orangutans to learn and play was opened for viewing recently, where visitors can learn more about these primates and their behaviour. Next to the sanctuary is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre – another excellent destination for learning about the wildlife of Borneo.
While in Sandakan, a visit to the Sandakan Memorial Centre, about a half hour’s drive from Sepilok, is highly recommended for history buffs. The site is a tribute to about 2,400 Australian and British prisoners of war held by the Japanese during World War II who died during the Sandakan Death Marches – a series of marches where POWs were forced to carry baggage and supplies on foot towards Ranau, 260 kilometres away. Those who were too weak to continue were shot dead or left to die. Only five Australian soldiers and one Brit were known to have escaped, helped by villagers. The event is even more tragic as it is believed that the last of the POWs died only a few days or weeks before the Allied victory that led to the Japanese surrender.
For a very different trip back in time, taking the steam train on the North Borneo Railway will give you a taste of colonial life during the heydays of the British administration. (borneotrails.com.my is one of many booking sites for this). A wood-burning British Vulcan locomotive, with carriages built in the style of coaches in the 1900s, brings you from Tanjung Aru station to the small town of Papar, going past green or golden paddy fields and rustic villages. On board, passengers are treated to breakfast, and later lunch, in the well-appointed dining coaches decorated to look like trains in the 1800s, served by waiters in colonial uniforms.
Finally, the Upside Down House in Tamparuli, about 45 minutes by car from Kota Kinabalu, is a fun and quirky destination to check out, especially for families. As one might expect, visitors will find furniture stuck to the ‘ceiling’ while they walk on the ‘floor’, making for great photo opportunities to remind travellers of the fun they had in Sabah.