Sabah travel guide and things to do: 20 reasons to visit

1. SPOT: ORANG-UTANS Orang-utans are the number one stars of Sabah, one of two (along with Sarawak) Malaysian states on Borneo, the world's third largest island. Certainly, any visit to Borneo would be utterly incomplete without some sort of viewing of these remarkable creatures, which share an incredibly similar degree of DNA as that of humans. Here in Sabah you can view orang-utans, which in Malay means "man of the jungle" close-up at a respected rehabilitation centre or in the wild in areas such as along the Kinabatangan River or the densely vegetated Danum Valley.

2. SEE: RAINFORESTS One of the most extraordinary and underrated places on the planet, Borneo – just a 2½- hour flight from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore – is home to the world's oldest rainforests – and the most threatened. These forests, or what's left of them, represent the highest biodiversity density on earth. They're home to a myriad of rare and endangered wildlife species, most, if not all, of which may no longer exist in the near future – so get your walking boots and mosquito net on.

*3. EXPLORE: KINABATANGAN RIVER The majority of visitors to Borneo encounter the island's fascinating wildlife at conservation centres rather than venturing into the distant yet relatively easy-to-access jungles of the island. One of the best places to see wildlife in abundant numbers is along the Kinabatangan River, a few hours high-speed boat ride from Sandakan, Sabah's second city. At 560 kilometres in length, the Kinabatangan is Borneo's longest river with animals driven to the forest lined along it by loss of habitat due to the march of development and deforestation. See tourism.gov.my; sabahtourism.com

4. VISIT: SEPILOK​ ORANG-UTAN REHABILITATION CENTRE One of the most popular tourist destinations in Borneo, the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre is an essential stop for all visitors to Sabah, even if you're taking a proper jungle or river safari trip to see the creatures in their wild state. This respected, government-run centre, located near Sandakan, is built within a forest with visitors viewing the rust-coloured primates in the trees from the vantage point of eco-friendly boardwalks leading to special galleries and feeding platforms. See sabahtourism.com 

5. VISIT: BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTRE The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre – next door to the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre – was only recently opened to the public, having previously operated as a private facility. The Conservation Centre's mission is to rescue these delightful creatures – the smallest species of bear on the planet with a distinctive gold stripe on its chest – from the effects of deforestation, commercial hunting and the pet trade. See bsbcc.org.my

*6. STAY: SUKAU​ RAINFOREST LODGE The only Malaysian member of National Geographic's prestigious Unique Lodges of the World collection, this eco-lodge may be short on five-star luxuries but not on extraordinary opportunities to view Borneo's remarkable mammals, reptiles (including crocodiles) and birds in the wild. Guests here can head out on day and night open boat-tours conducted by expert Malaysian guides with an uncanny ability to spot wildlife and there's also a See sukau.com; nationalgeographiclodges.com

7. SPOT: BIRDLIFE Sabah, and for the matter the whole of Borneo, is a paradise for twitchers with more than 700 resident migratory and endemic bird species calling the island home for some time of the year. And even if you're not a birdwatcher you'll be amazed by the diversity and abundance of species. The most distinctive of them is the hornbill, named after its strange helmet-like feature above its beak. There are no less than eight species of hornbill on Borneo. See borneobirdfestival.com

8. SEE: KOTA KINABALU The biggest and most cosmopolitan city in Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, once known as Jesselton in its British colonial era days, is also the main entry point by air to Sabah from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Head to the hills, a short distance from the city centre, to the Signal Hill Observatory Platform, Kota Kinabalu's highest point, where you'll enjoy views of the city and outlying islands spread along the coast. See sabahtourism.com

9. STAY: GAYA ISLAND RESORT If you've been sweating it out in the jungles or mountains – or both – of Borneo for a few days or more, you'll value the luxuries offered by this excellent, 120 villa five-star resort. It's just a zippy boat-ride off the coast from Kota Kinabalu but you'd hardly know you were close to a major city. It's a perfect and indulgent choice before flying out of Kota Kinabalu to KL or Singapore. See gayaislandresort.com 

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10. VISIT: AGNES KEITH HOUSE Unlike mainland Malaysia, Sabah is noticeably free of colonial-style architecture, with much of it destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II. But there's always this house, perched atop a hill a short distance from Sandakan, that was rebuilt soon after World War II and which is now a museum. It was the home of Englishman Harry Keith and his American wife Agnes, author of the book, Land Below the Wind, which has become a motto for Sabah. Hollywood filmed Three Came Home, another of Keith's works, into a movie starring Claudette Colbert. See museum.sabah.gov.my

11. SEE: PROBOSCIS MONKEYS Orang-utans are understandably the star attraction in Sabah but the proboscis monkey deserves, though fails to receive, as much attention. Then again, it's not the prettiest of primates, receiving its name as a result of the extraordinary long noses of the males (females have smaller snouts). Despite their endangered status, proboscis monkeys can be encountered in deceptively large numbers in trees along the banks of the Kinabatangan River. See sukau.com 

12. VISIT: DANUM VALLEY CONSERVATION AREA Regarded as of the world's most complex ecosystems and an alternative to the Kinabatangan River, this remote forest region in south-eastern Sabah is home to a host of endangered wildlife including pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, orang-utans and proboscis monkeys. See sabahtourism.com

*13. SPOT: PYGMY ELEPHANT Yes, as the name suggests, these are the world's smallest pachyderms and a sighting of them in the wild is among the most rewarding experiences that can be enjoyed by visitors to Borneo. Yet another endangered Bornean species, they can be best sighted by boat on a guided eco-tour along the Kinabatangan River, where they come to bathe and water. See wwf.org.au

14. STAY: SANDAKAN There's not a lot to see in Sandakan. It's a scruffy service town forever remembered for its association with the eponymous notorious World War II death marches inflicted by the Japanese on Allied prisoners of war. But it's the most suitable staging point if you're planning to visit the orang-utan and sunbear conservation centres or if venturing up the Kinabatangan  River. The best digs is the Four Points by Sheraton, right on the waterfront. See sabahtourism.com; fourpointssandakan.com.

15. WALK: AUSTRALIA PLACE When you're in Kota Kinabalu take time to stroll around this area or take a guided heritage walk of it an colonial Kota Kinabalu as a whole. Australia Place, as locals still informally call it, located just below Signal Hill (see below) is the site of an Australian army camp during World War II. Today the area is full of backpacker hostels, shops and police barracks but it's worth checking out. See kkheritagewalk.com 

16. CLIMB: MOUNT KINABALU Sabah's most sacred, prominent and popular natural attraction, the 4095 metres high Mount Kinabalu – the tallest peak in south-east Asia is popular with walkers and climbers from the whole region. However, at the time of writing, activities were temporarily suspended due to an earthquake earlier this year. Keep an eye on the official tourism websites for updates on when the peak will be reopened to the public. See sabahtourism.com   

17. SEE: PALM OIL PLANTATIONS One of the least attractive, and definitely saddest, sights in Sabah, these plantations nowadays proliferate in Sabah and Borneo as a whole. Their spread poses one of the biggest threats to the island's eco-system, including its unique wildlife, as forests continue to be clear-felled to make way for the planting of trees for palm oil, a lucrative commodity which is used in products as diverse as lipstick and ice-cream. See wwf.org.au

18. SPOT: THE LESSER MOUSE DEER From its pygmy elephants to its virtually extinct rhinos, Borneo boasts many of the smallest species of animals in the world. Among them is the lesser mouse deer, also known as the lesser oriental chevrotain, the world's smallest of hoofed-mammals. The diet of this tiny animal, distinguished by its slender legs, is comprised of leaves, shoots, fungi and fruit with one the best times to try and spot being at night during their foraging forays. See wwf.org.au

19. EXPERIENCE: BORNEO ECO TOURS Owned by the same company as the Sukau Rainforest Lodge (see above), Borneo Eco Tours is a professional outfit which runs environmentally-friendly tours to all corners of Sabah, as well as to to the neighbouring state of Sarawak and the tiny nation of Brunei elsewhere on the island. Aside from its world-class rainforests, Sabah is also renowned a haven for diving, a pursuit around which Borneo Eco Tours can easily organise itineraries. See borneoecotours.com

20. VISIT: TURTLE ISLAND PARK The roll-call of wildlife in Sabah, and off its coastline, is endless. Located 40 kilometres north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea, Turtle Island Park is a sanctuary for endangered green and hawksbill turtles with visitors to the park having the opportunity to observe their landings. The island is also home to a turtle hatchery and accommodation with basic facilities. See turtleislandborneo.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Malaysia (see tourism.gov.my) and Air Asia (airasia.com)

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