Buckle up for the ultimate Bornean adventure
With international borders still closed, it’s the ideal time for a great Malaysian road trip – one that begins right at your doorstep. Or, if you aren’t up for quite so much driving and want to start closer to the finish, just take one of Malaysia Airlines’ newly reinstated domestic flights to your starting point, and pick up a rental car from there.
Avis Malaysia, an international car rental brand, is a great option for road trip rentals. It has a comprehensive fleet of modern automobiles that caters to diverse needs. Whether you’re after an SUV that can withstand rough terrain and fit large families or a sleek saloon for a solo trip, Avis Malaysia has you covered. You can rent a vehicle for the weekend or choose from daily, weekly and monthly rental packages. At your request, the delivery and collection of your Avis vehicle may also be arranged for maximum convenience.
Visit any of its 16 outlets in Malaysia, which include branches at Kota Kinabalu International Airport and Sandakan Airport.
This one takes you from Sabah’s capital city of Kota Kinabalu to the city of Sandakan in northeastern Borneo. This adventure-filled trip takes you along forest-lined roads through the heart of Southeast Asia’s eco-tourism hub to one of the most bio-diverse places on earth, Kinabalu National Park. (For seven other road trip ideas, click here.)
Total distance: approximately 330km
Suggested duration: 3 days, 2 nights
Perfect for: Outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers
Before you hit the road
Kota Kinabalu is home to the mighty Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, popular with trekkers and mountaineers from around the region. This coastal city is also a beloved destination for water sports such as scuba diving, stand-up paddle boarding, paragliding and white-water rafting – all of which you can sign up for at Borneo Exotika Adventure, a one-of-a-kind tour company run by Borneo natives that offers everything from fishing tours to luxury yacht tours. Go island-hopping and explore the untarnished beaches of Sapi, Manukan and Mamutik, or pick up some survival skills on a trek through the jungles with an experienced, local guide. For something a little more laid-back, there’s a river cruise through the Weston Wetland Park, where you might spot a long-tailed macaque, proboscis monkey or silver langur.
Kota Kinabalu is also the gateway to some of Borneo’s most splendid natural landscapes. The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a world-renowned diving paradise and home to islands like Mamutik and Gaya, is only a 15-minute speedboat ride away. Expect plenty of sun, sand and sea, so remember to pack in your SPF and other sun-protective must-haves, like the cruelty-free Iconic °5 hair mist and perfume.
Borneo Divers has been leading groups to wonderful dive destinations (such as Sipadan and its neighbouring islands) for nearly 40 years, offering PADI-certified training from its beachside resort on Mabul island. The resort’s house reef, which is popularly known as Paradise 2, boasts exotic microorganisms, diverse marine life and sunken boats for divers to explore. Leisure travellers can also look forward to snorkelling and kayaking. Opt for a night dive at the house reef to see unusual sea creatures come out of hiding or take in the sunset from the jetty with a drink in hand.
The city itself boasts plenty of gems: the “floating” City Mosque is a stunning example of Islamic architecture, while its waterfront boardwalk is especially beautiful during sunset. Fusion seem to be the de facto cuisine in Kota Kinabalu, with many eateries serving classically Malaysian dishes with a uniquely Sabahan spin.
For international fare options, head to Teppanya or 50 Shades Bistro. Taking inspiration from the trilogy of erotic novels by EL James, 50 Shades Bistro is a cheeky stop to begin your road trip, with its backdrop of erotica-inspired décor, including a display of adult toys behind the bar counter. The menu is equally carnivorous, with hearty Western comfort fare like pan-seared salmon, Wagyu striploin and grilled baby lamb rack. On the local side are dishes such as curry chicken rice at affordable price points. There’s a good list of cocktails as well, featuring classics like Tequila Sunrise, Cosmopolitan and Cuba Libre – careful, though, you’re driving!
Teppanya Cafe & Bar is a Japanese joint that opened in 2018 and was recommended as one of the top three restaurants in Sabah by Malaysia Airlines. With two locations in Kota Kinabalu, and a third one opening in December 2020, the restaurant’s DIY spin on Japan’s famous grilled dish has proved a hit among the locals. Here, diners can craft their own teppanyaki plates down to the finest detail, building it up from a menu of ingredients like steak, katsu chicken, beef and lamb slices, before enlivening it with a wide selection of spices and add-ons. Teppanya Cafe & Bar also makes its own specialty sauces, such as the Garlic Soy Sauce and Honey Brown Sauce, and serves a variety of other Japanese favourites, like Udon soups and donburi, alongside a wide selection of sake, beer and fresh fruit smoothies.
After a day’s worth of water sports and sightseeing, take a nightcap in the city’s tranquil nature retreats. Stay at the luxurious Hilton Kota Kinabalu and place yourself on the doorstep of Sabah’s most tantalising outdoor experiences. Situated near Kota Kinabalu’s waterfront, your stay at the Hilton means you’re just a short transfer from the Jesselton Point ferry terminal – the gateway to the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Here, you can enjoy another day of exciting outdoor excursions, such as diving, snorkelling and hiking, as well as a selection of quiet beaches perfect for sunbathing. Afterwards, drink in the citywide views over dinner at the hotel’s Rooftop Poolside Bar & Grill – the perfect backdrop for a sun-kissed evening.
There are plenty of options too if you prefer a beachfront stay. With 498 contemporary rooms and suites, the luxurious Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa takes inspiration from the natural wonders of Borneo. The waterfront resort is a 10-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu International Airport, and overlooks Tanjung Aru Beach, coral islands and Mount Kinabalu. Picturesque photo-ops aside, the resort also offers six on-site restaurants and bars. The Sunset Bar, in particular, is worth a visit for its stunning evening views. Have a dip in the 2,000m² pool, zip down the water slides at the Water Park, head to STAR Marina for some water sports or get a full-body massage at Chi, The Spa, where the signature treatments are inspired by five natural elements – metal, water, wood, fire and earth.
Pitstops along the way
It’s a relatively easy drive from Kota Kinabalu to its nearest town, Kundasang, but pay attention around the lower slopes of Mount Kinabalu as there are some sharp bends, and roads in Sabah can sometimes be bumpy.
About an hour outside of the capital city, make a stop at Upside Down House Sabah, a quirky tourist attraction where, you guessed it, a traditional house stands on its roof. After snapping some pictures, drive another hour or so to Kundasang. This is the highest settlement in Malaysia and just 6km from Kinabalu National Park, home to more than 4,500 species of plants and animals and of course, Mount Kinabalu. Definitely schedule in some time to explore this amazing park. The Desa Dairy Farm, a farm and homestay with a dramatic backdrop of Mount Kinabalu is a must-visit too while you’re here.
The final stretch
From Kundasang, journey to Sandakan. Arguably the hub of the Sabah’s most crucial animal conservation efforts, you’ll find both the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center and the adjoining Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center here. And if you’re feeling adventurous, why not try spelunking at the Gomantong Caves?
While in Sandakan, book an afternoon tea – a welcome respite after a long, weary drive – at the expansive colonial-style English Tea House and Restaurant. Sandakan also boasts some of Sabah’s most beautiful eco-resorts. The Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, for one, is a nature retreat only a 10-minute walk away from the orangutan rehabilitation centre. The resort can help organise a unique jungle trek, a perfect way to wrap up an epic adventure.
With thanks to our partners Borneo Divers, Borneo Exotika, Teppanya, 50 Shades Bistro, Shangri-la Tanjung Aru and Hilton KK