Of all the special places in Asia, the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, has to be up there with the best. It is multi-faceted, multi-cultural, safe, clean, accessible, and full of lovely, welcoming people. It also has great food.
Many travelers start their journey in Kota Kinabalu, a bustling highly organized town with a great location, ideally situated as a hub for so many of Borneo’s attractions. This may read like a clichéd tourist brochure, but it’s true. From KK, as Kota Kinabalu is universally known, you can visit not only the city and the offshore islands to see the turtles nesting, but also the iconic Mount Kinabalu.
You don’t actually 'climb' Mount Kinabalu, rather you walk and slog your way up through the rainforest during the day. You sleep over at a very organized rest-house, and then you summit in the dark, hauling yourself up on a ropeway at one point. Your reward? The sun rising over Borneo.
It isn’t particularly difficult, but the fact that you go up and down in two days means you will spend the rest of your Borneo trip with sore knees and aching limbs. For the next week, we recognized fellow climbers by their gait.
If you are a wildlife enthusiast, then Borneo is absolute heaven.
Top of the pops are the orangutans, which you can visit in Sepilok. There are crowds, there are strict timings for visits, but when the orang utans swing through the jungle to the feeding platforms, the buzz is unmistakable. As it is when one of these endangered creatures decides to take a stroll through the crowd. People back off in awe, as the animal ambles through, and then leaps up into a tree and off into the jungle.
Another amazing inhabitant of Borneo is the bizarrely human looking proboscis monkey, with its long nose and big fat belly, which reminded the Malays and Indonesians of the Dutch colonizers. Hence its cheeky local name 'orang belanda' or 'Dutchman'.
In Sungei Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary, you take a boat down the river in the relative cool of the evening, and sit and watch as these odd creatures go about their noisy evening business in the trees.
In the Tunku Andul Rahman National Park, you can go watch turtles laying their eggs on the shore, then watch the tiny hatchlings emerge. We took a boat across, stayed overnight, and watched entranced as the damp weather encouraged the babies to hatch.
For scuba divers, Sabah is home to one of the world’s legendary dive sites, the island of Sipadan.
We drove across country to the bustling port of Semporna, from where launches take you out to dive or, in our case, to our resort – a hotel on stilts. The advantage of staying out on a resort at sea – a cool concept in itself – is that you get to the dive sites much more easily.
A quick skills refresher course, and we were off. Turtles, rays, sharks, corals galore – all accessible in well-organized, strictly controlled dives. You can no longer stay on the island and there is only a limited number of permits issued each day, to protect the eco-system, but every bit of (admittedly benign) paperwork is worth it, for that first sight of a turtle swimming lazily past you.