One with nature and culture. A Bornean escape in Malaysia’s rich diverse state – Sabah.


You don’t wake up in the morning with the sound of a boorish alarm clock like a cat that’s hit by a pan. You don’t scuttle, walk like a zombie and hurriedly go downstairs for a sip of coffee that’s too hot that it could almost cook your tongue. Rather, you wake up to a symphony orchestra brought on by 568 species of birds and amplified by a refreshing tropical zephyr from one of the world’s oldest rainforests. You check the time, slowly get up from the bed and head out to open the door to welcome a new day in Sabah.

That’s how I usually recount my evocative days I had with the ‘Land Below the Wind’ to my forever curious friends. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how I ended up in the second largest state of Malaysia. I never had enough pixie dust to carry my own weight, nor could I be blown away by traversing along the typhoon belt. It would also be wishful thinking of having to teleport myself in a zap or by a magic carpet ride. As I dwindled over the matter, I looked inside my bag and found the very simple answer to my quandary – my boarding pass.

I recalled flying an altitude of 14,000 feet heading to the easternmost region of Malaysia and seeing Mt. Kinabalu’s rugged terrain and elevation from my window. I could almost touched the pinnacle of South East Asia’s tallest mountain.

The city of Kota Kinabalu loomed in the distance like a shining silver blanket. Sabah’s capital serves as an international access point to Malaysia’s eastern gateway and caters flights from Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Kuching, Singapore, Manila, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Jakarta and Brunei. If travelling domestically, daily flights between Labuan, Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau are available too.

Just before the plane touched down, I felt like I had been sucked into a wormhole and had been transported to a different era – to the historical period of WWII or shortly thereafter.  Originally founded as Jesselton, the city is a living witness to the Japanese invasion against the British-Australian forces. After the war, it was rebuilt and renamed Kota Kinabalu in the year 1963.

Today, Kota Kinabalu or universally known as KK, is becoming a great global player in the hospitality and tourism industries. The heart of the city is filled with stalls that sell native products and shopping centers where an encounter with 31 different ethnicities such as Kadazans, Bajao’s, Sulu, Muruts, Kedayan’s, Rumanau, Minokok, Rungus and Bisaya from neighboring Philippines is a common happening. Away from the buzz of the city, the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a must visit.

A 25minute flight from the vibrant city of KK to the little Hong Kong of Sabah, I reached Sandakan. The second largest city in Sabah situated on the north-eastern coast of Borneo and is the administrative center of the Sandakan Division. It had served as the capital of the British North Borneo during the colonial time.

The pages of history came flashing before me once again. Sandakan, formerly known as Elopura, was also a site of WWII. The Sandakan airport used to be a Japanese airfield that was built by the forced labor of 6000 Javanese civilians and allied prisoners of war. In 1945, the surviving Australian prisoners were sent on the Sandakan Death Marches and only 6 of them survived.

This sleepy ancestral town is now an ecotourism destination which houses the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Built in 1964 within the 4,300 hectare Kabili-Sepilok forest reserve, the center is home to a notoriously friendly rehabilitated chimps that will soon be re-introduced back into the wild. The Sun Bear conservation center looks after the world’s smallest bear is a draw amongst visiting wildlife lovers. Those who are blessed with high energy levels, trekking the Rainforest Discovery Centre is absolutely rewarding where the trail leads to the deeper part of the rainforest. A 300 meter canopy is erected, 25 meters above the ground and offers majestic views of the lush rainforest that is home to different species of birds and animals. Nearby are the heart-stirring Turtle Islands Park, Kinabatangan River and Gomantong caves.

The three-to-four story concrete shop houses hoisted side-by-side with taller office buildings seen in the center of town evokes a memory of a distant past. The presence of Agnes Keith House, the succulent scones of the old English Tea House, Sandakan war memorial Park, the Japanese Cemetery, the granite parish church of St. Michael and All Angels, Puu Jhi Shih Buddhist Temple, Sam Sing Kung Temple (the oldest building in Sandakan completed in 1887) Barhala and Lankayan island are just some of the town’s highlights.
As I ambled along the pavement, down the old shops in the cool month of January, rain started to fall. From a drizzle to a heavy downpour, locals were squeezing themselves to a corner for cover, the umbrella that I tightly held onto was twisted by an angry gust of wind.

The chill made my frail figure shiver in a banshee-like reverberations. Did the gods of the rainforest know that I would be leaving the next day and sent the storm? Or was it a way to make me stay a little longer so I could go back to the woods and help in the conservation efforts? 

I walked and entered the Four Points Hotel by Sheraton that lies in the scenic harbor pedestrian promenade overlooking the Sulu Sea. I may have saved myself from getting totally soaked but I failed to save my heart now drenched with the feeling of already missing the places that I have traveled to in a short span of time. 

I could go on. Yet there aren’t enough pixie dusts to carry me back there soon or be whisked away by a Boeing 737. Perhaps I shall wait for the bold pirate of Sabah’s Forestry Department to grab me by his hook and get back on his jungle boat as we go sailing along the river past the deepest and mysterious expanse of Borneo’s 130th million years old rainforest.


Tomorrow I will be back in my apartment and my reality will flash before me again and with that, I will throw the boorish alarm clock out of the window and the cat outside will welcome the change.


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  1. What a beautiful post 🙂 I always wanted to visit KK and Sabah when I was living in Singapore but never made it out there. Now I want to go even more. Your stories and photos really light up the place!

  2. Hi Eddy! Thank you for always taking the time reading my travel murmurs. I hope my future posts will continue to whet your appetite and never put you to sleep 😉 Thanks again and cheers!

  3. I am such an avid reader of your blog. I have read every single article here and I must say you have such an amazing gift for writing.