Malaysia: The Sabah
A home to many
Until European powers gained a foothold at the northern tip of Borneo
in the nineteenth century, the tribal peoples of Sabah had only
minimal contact with the outside world. Since then – and particularly
since joining the Malaysian Federation in 1963 – these groups have
largely exchanged traditional ways for a collective Malaysian
identity. As Sabah’s cultural landscape has changed, so has its
environment: the logging industry has been allowed to exploit huge
swathes of the rainforests, with cleared regions used to plant oil
palm – a monoculture that makes a poor habitat for wildlife. On the
other hand, many locals would argue, this agro-industry provides work
for thousands, and generates much-needed income into the state
While arguments rage between campaigners, corporations and
politicians, tourists continue to enjoy the remaining natural riches
of “the land below the wind” (so called because Sabah’s 72,500 square
kilometres lie just south of the typhoon belt). The terrain ranges
from wild, swampy, mangrove-tangled coastal areas, through the
dazzling greens of paddy fields and pristine rainforests, to the dizzy
heights of the Crocker mountain range – home to the highest peak
between the Himalayas and New Guinea, Gunung Kinabalu (Mount Kinabalu).
Although habitats for Sabah’s indigenous animals have shrunk
dramatically, the remaining forests still offer some of the best
wildlife-watching opportunities in Malaysia. Offshore, damaging
fishing practices have as elsewhere in the region taken their toll,
but marine parks protect areas of magnificent coral – most famously
around Sipadan – and the attendant sea life.
Sabah’s urban centres are not especially attractive or historically
rich, thanks to World War II bombs and hurried urban redevelopment.
While places like KK (Kota Kinabalu) and Sandakan lack notable
buildings, however, they abound in atmosphere and energy, plus good
places to eat and sleep. That said, Sabah’s remarkable natural
attractions are the major draw for most visitors.
The Klias Peninsula south of KK offers activity-based day-trips such
as whitewater rafting or firefly cruises, while with more time you
could visit the island of Pulau Tiga; you may also need to transit
through duty-free Labuan on the way to Brunei. North of KK lie the
beaches and coconut groves of the Kudat Peninsula, where it’s possible
to visit longhouses belonging to the Rungus tribe; the northernmost
point, the Tip of Borneo, features windy shorelines and splendid
Heading east from KK, things get truly exciting. Dominating the
landscape are the huge granite shelves of the awesome Gunung Kinabalu,
a major attraction as getting up and down involves spending just one
night on the mountain. Further east is Sandakan, a rapidly modernizing
town with offshore attractions including the Turtle Islands National
Park. Back on the mainland, at the nearby Sepilok Orang-utan
Rehabilitation Centre and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, you
can get a ringside view of animals at feeding times.
Deeper into the oil-palm plantations of east Sabah lies the protected
Kinabatangan River, where visitors can take boat trips to see wild
proboscis monkeys, elephants and orang-utans. Further south, the Danum
Valley Conservation Area offers a spectacular canopy walkway, with the
choice of staying at a luxury lodge or a humbler research centre.
Alternatively try the more affordable Tabin Wildlife Reserve, with a
mud volcano and an elephant colony. In the deep south, accessible via
the boom town of Tawau, nestles the untouched forest sector of the
Maliau Basin, now open for challenging trekking.
For divers, the offshore islands near the southern town of Semporna
are the jewel in Sabah’s crown. Sipadan offers world-class diving off
coral walls, while its neighbour Mabul is known for its fabulous macro
(small-scale) marine life. These two are simply the best known, and
the area can keep divers and snorkellers enchanted for days.
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