Sabah has been divided into divisions since the British colonial era. It is currently divided as follows:
- Kudat - Northern tip of Sabah; main towns: Kota Marudu, Kudat, Pitas
- West Coast - From the western coast to central Sabah; main towns and cities: Kota Belud, Kota Kinabalu (state capital), Papar, Ranau and Tuaran
- Interior - From the southwestern coast to south-central Sabah; main towns: Beaufort, Keningau, Sipitang and Tenom
- Sandakan - From central Sabah to the central east coast; main towns and cities: Telupid, Kota Kinabatangan, Sandakan
- Tawau - Southeastern corner; main towns: Kunak, Lahad Datu, Semporna and Tawau
Each division is further divided into several districts.
- Kota Kinabalu - The largest city in Malaysian Borneo, and the state capital of Sabah; main entry point into Sabah for international visitors
- Kudat - Laid-back homeland of the Rungus people and the first part of Sabah to be settled by Chinese migrants
- Lahad Datu - Staging point for travellers headed for the forests of Danum Valley
- Ranau - Largest town in the vicinity of Mount Kinabalu
- 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
- Semporna - Jumping-off point for dive sites and resort islands in southeastern Sabah
- Tawau - Largest town in the southeast; main entry point into Sabah from Indonesia
- Tenom - Largest town in the heartland of the indigenous Murut people; home to the Sabah Agricultural Park
- Mount Kinabalu - the tallest mountain in Malaysia.
- Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park - a group of coral islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.
- Sipadan - one of the world's best dive spots with lots of large pelagic species (sea turtles, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays).
- Pom Pom Island is 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
- Lankayan Island
- Layang Layang - an island off the west coast that offers spectacular diving.
- Mabul - one of the world's best muck diving locations
- Poring Hot Spring - natural sulphur hot spring baths
- Sepilok - famous orang utan rehabilitation centre
- Rumah Terbalik - The Upside Down House of Borneo
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. 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.
Sabah is one of the most culturally diverse states in Malaysia. Its population of about 2.5 million is a mix of native groups (who are usually divided into Muslim and non-Muslim groups), Chinese, and other smaller ethnic groups such as Indians and Eurasians. The main native groups are the Kadazandusun, Murut, Bajau, Suluk, Bisaya and Orang Sungai. Most of the Chinese who migrated to the state during the British era, belong to the Hakka dialect group although there are also large numbers of Cantonese especially in Sandakan. There are also many Filipinos and Indonesians, many of whom entered Sabah illegally and later became naturalised under a controversial state policy.
The most important festival among the non-Muslim native groups of Sabah is Kaamatan or Harvest Festival. This usually takes place in May 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, where girls throughout the state compete for the crown. A lot of drinking and general merry-making accompanies the festival.
Unsurprisingly, the most commonly spoken language in Sabah is Bahasa Malaysia (Malay), the national language of Malaysia. All road signs are in Malay, and governmental or administrative affairs are generally conducted in this language. 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. Malay as spoken by Sabahans is significantly 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 races, especially the Kadazandusun languages.
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 businesspersons understand and speak it with varying levels of fluency. As you would expect, the majority of workers in the tourism industry also speak English. Generally, the further away you are from the major towns, the less likely it is that the locals are able to speak English.
Sabah is a melting pot of indigenous cultures. Among the main indigenous local races are the Kadazandusuns, the Rungus, the Murut, the Bajau, the Brunei Malays, the Sungai and the Lundayeh. These are further divided into various subgroups native to certain towns or regions. 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 and Bruneian Malay in Sipitang - but of course, this does not mean you would not hear other native languages spoken in a certain area. The majority of indigenous Sabahans speak Malay, but you may find that those in the countryside prefer their native tongue and 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 native Sabahans and Chinese Sabahans is extremely common).
The large Chinese minority in Sabah is concentrated in the major towns (i.e. Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Tawau and Lahad Datu) and in several of the smaller towns (particularly Kudat, Beaufort, Keningau and Tenom). The majority of Chinese Sabahans speak Hakka, a southern Chinese dialect which is closely related to Cantonese. There are smaller communities who speak Cantonese, Hokkien and other Chinese dialects. 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; notable inclusions are Sandakan (mainly Cantonese) and Sipitang (mainly Hokkien).
Sabah is also home to immigrant communities from other countries. In addition to their native languages, most also speak Malay but very few speak English, with the exception of Tagalog-speaking immigrants from the Philippines.
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 in their passport. See Malaysia | Get in for details.
Kota Kinabalu International Airport (IATA: BKI) (sometimes abbreviated to 'KKIA') is the busiest airport in Malaysian Borneo, and is the main international gateway to Borneo island. KKIA is serviced by the two main Malaysian airlines, which are Malaysia Airlines [www.malaysiaairlines.com] and AirAsia [www.airasia.com], which link Kota Kinabalu to various cities throughout Malaysia as well as several international destinations, one of which (Perth, Australia on Malaysia Airlines) is Kota Kinabalu's only intercontinental destination. KKIA is also served by the following foreign carriers:
- AirAsia Zest [www.airasia.com/ph/en/home.page] (Manila, the Philippines)
- Dragonair [www.dragonair.com] (Hong Kong)
- Eastar Jet [www.eastarjet.com] and Jin Air [www.jinair.com] (Seoul, South Korea)
- Indonesia AirAsia [www.airasia.com] (Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia)
- Royal Brunei Airlines [www.bruneiair.com] (Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)
- Shanghai Airlines [en.ceair.com] (Shanghai, China)
- Silkair [www.silkair.com] (Singapore)
Other airlines operating at KKIA include Malindo Air, which competes with Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia on the lucrative Kota Kinabalu-Kuala Lumpur route, as well as Malaysia Airlines' east Malaysian subsidiary MASWings [www.maswings.com.my], which provides rural air services in Malaysian Borneo. As the list of airlines servicing KKIA frequently changes, particularly with respect to foreign airlines and international routes, you are advised to check the airport's Wikipedia page for updated information on the routes that are in operation at any given time.
Tawau Airport (IATA: TWU) is the only other Sabahan airport with international flights, in this case to Tarakan in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan. These flights are operated by MASWings. Tawau is also served by interstate flights to Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur.
Sandakan Airport (IATA: SDK) does not have international flights at present, but is linked to Kuala Lumpur by AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines.
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 sealed 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.
- To/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 between Brunei and Kota Kinabalu. See the Kota Kinabalu to Brunei by land page tails.
- To/from Zamboanga: Boats run between Zamboanga in Mindanao in the Philippines and Sandakan.
- To/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 currently see 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. The main road 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.
A road is being constructed from Keningau through the isolated Pensiangan and Kalabakan districts to Tawau at the southeastern corner of Sabah. Once completed, the road will enable those travelling from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau to cut travelling time and distances significantly without needing to use the KK-Sandakan road.
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 passeners. 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.
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 Stuffed Meat To-fu, Eggplant, Fried Egg, and 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. Cheap liquors are very widely available at most supermarkets and mini markets in the state. Other alcoholic drinks such as beer and whisky are also widely available.
Most towns of Sabah are generally safe, but the general rule of not showing off your wealth openly in the public is advisable as pickpockets are a danger especially in poorer areas while robbery is rare. You can still shop safely around the towns and cities.
Since 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 (but not limited to) Lankayan, Mabul, Pom Pom, Kapalai, Litigan, Sipadan and Mataking due to tourist kidnappings and other problems.
Always check travel advice, such as https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/malaysia
- By air from Kota Kinabalu airport to other parts of Malaysia or other countries in the region.
- By boat via Labuan island to Brunei.
- By coach overland to other parts of Borneo, including the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, or Brunei.