- 1 Kota Kinabalu — the largest city in Malaysian Borneo, and the state capital of Sabah; main entry point into Sabah for international visitors
- 2 Beaufort
- 3 Kudat — laid-back homeland of the Rungus people and the first part of Sabah to be settled by Chinese migrants
- 4 Kundasang — small town featuring the War Memorial and also popular for its fresh vegetables, plantations and farms suitable for temperate climate
- 5 Lahad Datu — staging point for travellers headed for the forests of Danum Valley
- 6 Ranau — largest town in the vicinity of Mount Kinabalu
- 7 Sandakan — former capital of Sabah; famous for seafood, the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and as a jumping-off point for the Turtle Islands Park
- 8 Semporna — jumping-off point for dive sites and resort islands in southeastern Sabah
- 9 Tawau — largest town in the southeast; main entry point into Sabah from Indonesia
- 10 Tenom — largest town in the heartland of the indigenous Murut people; home to the Sabah Agricultural Park
- 1 Mount Kinabalu — the tallest mountain in Malaysia with an elevation of 4,095 m.
- 2 Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park — a group of coral islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.
- 3 Turtle Islands Park
- 4 Danum Valley Conservation Area
- 5 Kinabatangan River — Second longest river in Malaysia known for its remarkable wildlife and fascinating habitats. Organized tours from Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan.
- 6 Kapalai
- 7 Labuan — a separate Federal Territory and an International Offshore Financial Centre
- 8 Lankayan Island
- 9 Layang Layang — an island off the west coast that offers spectacular diving.
- 10 Mabul — one of the world's best muck diving locations
- 11 Mataking
- 12 Pom Pom Island — a well kept secret dive location, it has large numbers of resident and nesting green and hawksbill turtles, clear water and fantastic marine biodiversity with excellent macro marine life
- 13 Sipadan — one of the world's best dive spots with lots of large pelagic species (sea turtles, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays).
- 14 Poring Hot Spring — natural sulphur hot spring baths
- 15 Sepilok — famous orang utan rehabilitation centre
Sabah, which was known as North Borneo before it joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963, was part of the Sultanate of Brunei in the 16th century while the north-eastern coast of the state became part of the Sultanate of Sulu which was centered in the southern islands of the Philippines. In the mid 18th century, Europeans began making an appearance and the British managed to open a trading post on Pulau Balambangan off the northern tip of Sabah. This post however failed to take off.
In 1865, the American Consul for Brunei, Claude Lee Moses obtained a lease over North Borneo. The lease ownership was passed to an American company which tried to set up a post in what is today Kimanis. That also turned out to be a failure and was abandoned. The lease was then sold to Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul in Hong Kong which he then transferred to Alfred Dent who in 1882 formed the British North Borneo Company to develop the colony. The capital was first established in Kudat, then transferred to Sandakan. North Borneo became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888 but administration and control over the colony remained in the hands of the Company ruled until 1942 when the Japanese invaded. There were of course resistance to the company's rule, including by Mat Salleh in the late 1890s and the Muruts in the early 1900s.
The Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1945 was brutal and this was when the infamous Death Marches by British and Allied soldiers forced by the Japanese took place. The British Military Administration took over when the Japanese surrendered and in 1946, North Borneo became a British Crown Colony. Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), which suffered Allied bombing, was rebuilt and chosen to replace Sandakan as the capital.
On September 16, 1963, North Borneo together with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore formed the Federation of Malaysia and from then on it became known as Sabah. This was opposed by Indonesia and the Philippines, both of whom claimed Sabah as their own territory, with President Sukarno of Indonesia launching a policy known as konfrontasi in which the Indonesian government sponsored terrorist attacks in Malaysia. Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto in 1968, who ended konfrontasi and abandoned Indonesia's claims to Sabah, and peace has held ever since. The Philippines still claims Sabah, but is not pursuing its claim.
Sabah is one of the most culturally diverse states in Malaysia. Sabah's population in 2017 is more than 3 million, including immigrants whose numbers are not always recorded. There is a mixture of native groups, Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Asians. The main native groups are today the Kadazandusun, Murut, Bajau, Suluk, Bisaya and Orang Sungai, though there are at least 33 native groups in total, speaking 50 languages and 80 dialects. Most of the Chinese who migrated to the state during the 19th and early 20th centuries under British rule belong to the Hakka dialect group, although there are also large numbers of Cantonese, especially in Sandakan. There are also many Filipino and Indonesian immigrants many of whom entered Sabah illegally and later became naturalised under a controversial state policy.
The most important festival among the many indigenous groups of Sabah represented by the KDCA (Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association) is Pesta Kemataan or Harvest Festival. This usually takes place from the end of May into June, and the last two days of the month are public holidays in the state. The most popular event is the unduk ngadau or Harvest Queen in Kadazan. Girls throughout the state compete for the crown.
The most commonly spoken language in Sabah is Malay, the national language of Malaysia. Travellers intending to drive in Sabah should learn some of the words and phrases commonly encountered on the roads; similarly, travellers who need to spend time dealing with civil servants would do well to brush up on their spoken Malay, as lower-level civil servants generally speak little or no English. Some knowledge of Malay is also important when interacting with locals in smaller towns and rural areas. The dialect of Malay spoken in Sabah is somewhat different in its pronunciation and vocabulary from Malay as spoken in Peninsular Malaysia. This is because Sabahan Malay is influenced by the native languages of indigenous peoples, especially the Kadazan Dusun. Cocos Malay is also used.
That said, English remains the lingua franca of the private sector, especially in the major towns. As such, many shop signs are written at least partially in English, and most business persons understand and speak it with varying levels of fluency. As you would expect, the majority of workers in the tourism industry also speak excellent English and increasingly more forms of mainland Chinese language. Generally, the further away you are from the major towns, the less likely it is that the locals are able to speak English, so learning, communicating in Malay becomes more important to help you get around and get meals and accommodation.
Sabah is a melting pot of indigenous cultures. Among the main indigenous cultures are the Kadazan Dusuns or Kadazandusun, Rungus, Murut, and the Bajau. These are further divided into various geographical subgroups. As such, different indigenous languages predominate in different regions of Sabah. For example, you would expect to hear Kadazan in Penampang, Bajau in Kota Belud, Rungus in Kudat. Of course, this does not mean you would not hear other native languages spoken in those areas. The majority of indigenous Sabahans speak Malay, but you may find that those in the countryside prefer their native tongue. In the most rural areas not much else may be understood. Many indigenous Sabahans in the urban areas speak English, and some may surprise you with their command of Mandarin or other Chinese dialects (intermarriage between indigenous Sabahans and Chinese Sabahans is extremely common).
The Chinese minority in Sabah is concentrated in the major towns (i.e. Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Tawau, Lahad Datu) and in several of the smaller towns (particularly Tuaran, Kudat, Beaufort, Keningau and Tenom). The majority of Chinese Sabahans speak Hakka, a southern Chinese dialect. There are smaller communities that speak Cantonese, Hokkien and other Chinese dialects, though these people usually speak Hakka as well. This is a notable difference from other parts of Malaysia as Sabah is the only state in Malaysia (and indeed one of few places in the world) where Hakka is the majority language among the local Chinese populace. However, most Chinese Sabahans also speak Mandarin and English, especially the younger generations. In fact, some younger Chinese Sabahans have adopted Mandarin as their mother tongue at the expense of their family's native dialect. Conversely, it is not uncommon to encounter elderly Chinese, especially in the countryside, who speak only their native dialect. There are a few towns in Sabah where Hakkas do not form the majority in the local Chinese community, notably including Sandakan (mainly Cantonese) and Sipitang (mainly Hokkien).
Sabah is also home to immigrant communities from other countries. In addition to their native languages, some also understand/speak a form of Malay that is used across Indonesia, but very few speak English. They live in the Kampung Laut Air (Sea Water Village). Some of the Tagalog-speaking immigrants from the Philippines are found in the larger towns, Kinarut and Papar townships south of KK and Kota Kinabalu itself along the waterfront.
Like neighbouring Sarawak, Sabah maintains autonomy on immigration rules, mostly so that non-Sabahans cannot freely immigrate and swamp the state. Malaysians from Peninsular Malaysia and neighbouring Sarawak are subjected to some level of immigration control, such as showing their identity cards, and are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time. Foreigners need to fill out a second immigration form. Nevertheless, for most travellers this is just a formality and an interesting extra stamp on their passport. There is an exception, if you arrive in Sarawak then enter Labuan and on into Sabah there is no need to go through immigration. This can cause problems/delays when exiting Sabah as you have not entered via immigration. To avoid any problems if arriving via Labuan it would be best to voluntarily go via the immigration and have your passport stamped on entering. See Malaysia | Get in for details.
Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI IATA, abbreviated to 'KKIA') is the second busiest airport in Malaysia, is the main international airport in Sabah. KKIA is serviced by the two main Malaysian airlines — Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia — which link Kota Kinabalu to various cities throughout Malaysia as well as several international destinations. These foreign carriers connect KKIA with the following international destinations:
- AirAsia — Bangkok, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Singapore, Taipei
- Air Busan — Busan, Seoul
- Air Seoul — Seoul
- Cebu Pacific — Manila
- Jeju Air — Seoul
- Jin Air — Busan, Seoul
- Malaysian Airlines — Taipei, Tokyo
- Philippines AirAsia — Manila
- Royal Brunei Airlines — Bandar Seri Begawan
- Scoot — Singapore
The only place where you can travel overland into Sabah is from Sarawak through the border crossing at Merapok near Lawas. Everyone will have to go through immigration checks here. The road between Kota Kinabalu and the border is paved all the way and in good condition. If you are planning to do the overland trail from Sarawak to Sabah, it is possible to get from Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei - or with a bit of a stretch, from Miri - to Kota Kinabalu within a day. See Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land for details. The trip includes multiple border crossings (each with an exit and an entrance stamp as (North to South) you exit Sabah, enter Sarawak, exit Sarawak, enter Brunei, exit Brunei, enter Sarawak, exit Sarawak, and enter the main part of Brunei again before crossing back into Sarawak after BSB.
You can enter Sabah by boat from the Malaysian Federal Territory of Labuan, Zamboanga in the southern Philippines, and from Nunukan in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. However, there are no passenger boat services between Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.
- From Labuan: passenger boats depart Labuan for Kota Kinabalu and Sipitang while vehicular ferries operate between Labuan and Menumbok in the southern part of Sabah. See the individual city pages for ferry details. Labuan is where you have to change boats if you hope to travel by boat between Brunei and Kota Kinabalu. See the Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land page for details.
- From Zamboanga: boats run between Zamboanga City in Mindanao in the Philippines and Sandakan.
- From Nunukan: at least one ferry daily between Nunukan in East Kalimantan and Tawau.
Kota Kinabalu International Airport has flights to all other airports in Sabah on the following airlines:
- Kudat: MASWings
- Lahad Datu: MASWings
- Sandakan: AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and MASWings
- Tawau: AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and MASWings
All the above flights (with the exception of Kota Kinabalu-Kudat flights) operate several times a day.
Intra-Sabah flights originating at Sandakan Airport go to Kota Kinabalu, Kudat and Tawau, while Tawau Airport's intra-Sabah flights go to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. Kudat Airport has flights to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, while Lahad Datu Airport is only served by flights to Kota Kinabalu.
In addition, there are airstrips such as those in Keningau, Semporna and Tomanggong which do not have any commercial air traffic. However, if you wish to visit these places, it is worth checking before your trip to see if flights to these airports have been reinstated.
Sabah's road network is not as developed as that in Peninsular Malaysia and there are large areas of the interior, such as the Kinabatangan River basin, which are not connected by road. Existing roads are not in perfect state with numerous potholes. There is a lot of trucks going very slow on Sabah roads, this can slow down your journey significantly if you are not brave enough to overtake as often as locals do.
The main roads most useful to travellers are those running along the West Coast from the Sabah-Sarawak border at Sindumin through Sipitang, Beaufort and Papar to Kota Kinabalu (called Route A2) and northwards from Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud and ending at Kudat near the northern tip of Sabah (Route A1). The main road into the West Coast interior runs from Kota Kinabalu to Tambunan, Keningau and Tenom.
The main road to the East Coast (Route A4) branches off Route A1 near Tuaran, about 30km north of Kota Kinabalu. It passes the foot of Mount Kinabalu and Ranau right through to Sandakan. The main road to Tawau and the southeastern parts of Sabah (Route A5) branches off from Route A4 about 55km west of Sandakan or 285km from Kota Kinabalu.
Another main road leads from from Keningau through the isolated Pensiangan and Kalabakan districts to Tawau at the southeastern corner of Sabah. This road enables those travelling from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau to cut travelling time and distances significantly without needing to use the KK-Sandakan road, and perform a circular route between all the above areas. Although this road is relatively new, a few small stretches of it are not properly pawed, and other streches are damaged by heavy logging trucks, especially in the direction towards Tawau. This road is managable in normal car, but most locals would use 4x4 car.
Long distance express buses operate between major cities in Sabah. Most of these are air-conditioned and quite comfortable. There are also non-aircon stage buses running between towns which stop to pick-up and let down passengers along the way. They may be cheaper but take forever to get anywhere.
A lot of short-distance inter-town travel in Sabah is also done by minibuses and minivans. These are either small buses or vans which are converted to take in passengers. They charge the same fare as buses but carry fewer passengers. Most operate in the morning and will only leave when they are full. But once they get going, the journey can be quite fast. You can make long distance journeys with minibuses and minivans but you'll have to change along the way.
The North Borneo Railway is the only railway network on Borneo. The network is small (134km), linking Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort along the west coast, and then inland along the Padas River to Tenom, which is the more interesting and popular stretch for travellers. The new Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort service opened in Feb 2011. Beaufort to Tenom remains only once a day. See the respective city pages for train details.
Sabah can be said to be one of the best states in Malaysia when it comes to things to see and do. Its attractions range from the breath-taking natural wonders such as mountains, jungles, islands and flora and fauna, to the colourful cultures of its multi-ethnic inhabitants.
Most of the attractions have their own pages. The list below provides the links.
- Mount Kinabalu - This has to be the top of the list of reasons for visiting Sabah. The 4,095m mountain is the second highest in Southeast Asia (outside Papua, which is regarded as part of Oceania) after Hkakabo Razi in Burma, but is probably one of the easiest to climb as no mountaineering experience is needed, just a lot of stamina. The surrounding National Park is also home to many plants and animals.
- Sipadan and the other islands - World-class diving.
- Sepilok - The world-famouns Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary near Sandakan is home to orphaned or captured orang utans where they are slowly readapted to the jungle environment.
- Turtle Islands Park - Three islands in the Sulu Sea off the coast of Sandakan where you can see turtle conservation at work.
- Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park - Coral islands just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.
- Poring Hot Springs - Soak in pools of natural hot water to cure your muscle aches after you assault on Mount Kinabalu
- Danum Valley - See the tropical rainforest near Lahad Datu at its most pristine.
- Proboscis monkeys - See them in the wild in the Sukau and Kinabatangan areas near Sandakan and the Klias Wetlands area.
- Rafflesia flowers - The world's largest flowers, nearly 1m in diameter, can be seen in the Crocker Range.
- Monsopiad Cultural Village - Located near Kota Kinabalu, it tells the story of Monsopiad, a warrior of the Kadazan ethnic group who lived some 300 years ago and slew 42 of his enemies. The skulls of these 42 are on exhibit in the Hall of Skulls.
Hand-in-hand with the many attractions, Sabah is also a place where you will not run out of things to do. You'll have a choice of mountain climbing, diving, white-water rafting and jungle trekking as well as many other more sedate activities.
- Climbing Mount Kinabalu - This should be one of the highlights of your visit to Sabah. See Mount Kinabalu page.
- Diving and snorkeling - You'll enjoy some of the best coral and fish diversity in the world. Locations include Sipadan, Mabul and Pom Pom Island on the East Coast, and Layang Layang Island in the disputed Spratly group. Not as good but still worth visiting and just a few minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu city, are the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Many dive operators based in Kota Kinabalu are at your disposal. There are a few operators with dive stations on the islands with the rest offering diving from their dive boats.
- Technical diving - Sabah is very popular for recreational divers. It is also an emerging location for technical diving. You can now learn to dive on a semi-closed rebreather or a closed circuit rebreather during your stay in Sabah. Many other basic and advanced diving courses are also available for visiting experienced divers wanting to develop their scuba diving skills in the tropical waters of the South China Sea. Many of these advanced diver training courses are run from Kota Kinabalu, nearby Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and at the WW2 wrecks located in Usukan Bay along the west coast of Sabah.
- White-water rafting - along two rivers, Padas and Kiulu. The Padas River, accessed from Beaufort boasts Grade Three to Four rapids.
- Going into the jungle - many tour companies have itineraries which bring you into the interior of the state. Some popular places include jungle camps along the Kinabatangan River, and going into the isolated Batu Punggul area.
- Ride on Sabah's Jungle Railway - Catch the slow train between Beaufort and Tenom which runs along the fast-flowing Padas River.
- Eat - Sabahans love to eat. Consequently different food choices are abundant and choices abound from Malay to Chinese to Indian to Western to Filipino and almost every other style of food in between. For many this is a big attraction in Sabah and should not be avoided.
- Meet bunnies - There are numerous "rabbit gardens" across Sabah, where you can play with pet rabbits. This seems to be popular among locals.
For the less intrepid explorer who do not know, or do not care for the trouble of finding out, Sabah can be a difficult region to get round independently, in terms of cost and reliable transport. To have everything pre-arranged for you, it's best to contract the services of a tour operator of which there is no short supply in Sabah. If you’re on a shoestring budget you can find good reliable freelance guides at Sabah’s Tourism Board , whose price can be considerably lower than a fixed package.
"Kin-Zhi Mien" (Economy Mee) is liked by locals for morning breakfast, topped with meat, tofu, eggplant, fried eggs, etc. "Sang-Nyuk Mien" (Rare Pork Meat Noodle), Laksa Mee (Spiced Curry & Coconut Noodle), Mee Soto (Beef Stew Malay Style) and more. Ngiu Chap(Beef Noodle), Fresh Seafood, Local Kadazan Cuisine
Lime juice, mango juice, and other fresh fruit juices. Alcoholic drinks such as beer and whisky are also widely available.
Do not mix up personal safety in cities/towns with the kidnappings/terrorism off shore in the Eastern Sulu Sea off the eastern coast of Sabah. Rural and city crime is completely different: It is low-grade distraction snatch-thefts or moped drive-by snatch thefts. The way to think of it is: If I were at home, would I do this? Do not leave you camera/cash unattended. Most towns of Sabah are generally safe, but the general rule of not showing off your wealth openly in public is advisable as pickpockets are a danger, especially in poorer areas. You can still shop safely around the towns and cities. Dress correctly/cover up if you are female, do not be loud in public places, learn Bahasa Melayu so you fit in.
In March 2013 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to all islands off the coast of eastern Sabah from Kudat to Tawau, including Lankayan, Mabul, Pom Pom, Kapalai, Litigan, Sipadan and Mataking due to tourist kidnappings and other problems. ESSCOM, Malaysian Eastern Sabah Security Command is co-ordinating the protection of the Eastern zone along with the police and armed forces, a curfew of night time boat traffic is still enforced (Dec 2017). Security patrols prepositioned on islands disrupting smuggler activities and incursions into Malaysian/Sabah waters have been jointly managed in turn by Malaysian forces then Philippino military forces with support from allied nations. Malaysian military presence and air flights across Sabah have increase and been maintained in 2018 maritime air patrols are flown day and night to monitor incursions. Always check travel advice, such as https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/malaysia
Some countries have set up consulates or honorary consulates in Sabah, all in the Kota Kinabalu area, and often with "Kota Kinabalu" in the consulate's name except for one consulate in Tawau. The Brunei, Chinese, Czech, and Indonesian consulates-general and the Consulate of Japan are in Kota Kinabalu. There are several honorary consulates in Kota Kinabalu as well. Full listings for these consulates and honorary consulates are in the articles for those cities. There is only one consulate out of Kota Kinabalu which is the Indonesian consulate in Tawau.
To other parts of Borneo:
- Malaysian federal territory of Labuan
- Malaysian state of Sarawak
- Brunei — tiny oil-rich sultanate
- The Indonesian province of Kalimantan