I have just got back from a 4 week trip to Sabah and have been asked by a couple of people to do a JBR so here it is! I have also done separate reviews for all the individual places we stayed and some of the places we visited so I won't go into too much detail here.
I travelled with my husband and son, who had his 8th birthday while we were there. Hubby and I have been to Sabah before 9 years ago, but it was the first trip of this type for Littleman who was totally new to the concept of backpacking and hadn't been out of Europe, so kept the pace of the trip very relaxed.
Due to the Foreign Office warnings and the news we'd thought long and hard about travelling over to the east of Sabah, however when we go to KK we asked around a lot, kept an eye on the news, spoke with other travellers etc, and we did not meet anyone who had experienced any sort of trouble whatsoever. We cautiously proceeded while keeping an ear to the ground, and ended up visiting everywhere that we had planned to. We had an amazing trip, I wish we could have stayed longer and travelled further!
We arrived in KK on 19th March and headed to Lavender Lodge where we stayed for 5 nights and did a few day trips while we acclimatised and let our 7 year old get used to the sights and sounds of somewhere completely new to him! I had done most of my research before our holiday either on Trip Advisor, or in the Lonely Planet guide. Lavender Lodge was somewhere I found on T.A and it lived up to every good review it has been given- and the staff really make the place.
In our few days in KK we visited the Sabah Museum (interesting and informative), Mari mari culture village (touristy but loved it), Lok Kawi wildlife park (I have mixed feelings but was great for Littleman) and got the boat over to Mamutik Island for the day (beautiful island and good snorkelling).
We like eating at local restaurants- we reckon the sign of a good eatery is if it's full of locals! We ate at the Chinese place a couple of doors down from the hostel which we weren't particularly impressed with, but there are loads of cheap and cheerful kedai kopi around, which do great food and are always very popular. There is a brilliant food court downstairs at Centre Point shopping mall where you can get a good feast for a good price. There are loads of tasty goodies to be had at the night market by the waterfront too.
After KK we flew to Sandakan which seemed almost devoid of travellers. On speaking with staff at the hostel they were having a very quiet period and believed it to be because of the Foreign Office warnings regarding the security situation. We didn't do anything in Sandakan- after a few days of trips out etc in KK my son was ready for a chill out day so we took advantage of a nice hostel with a big TV and relaxed. We stayed at Harbourside Backpackers- another great hostel, and the restaurant downstairs is highly recommended- it was so good we saw no reason to eat anywhere else!
The next morning we went to Turtle Island….what a gorgeous place….typical postcard perfect tropical island with white sand, clear sea and palm trees. We spent the afternoon snorkelling and chilling out on the beach. I was a little startled when I came across a security guy by the beach hiding behind a pile of sandbags in the trees with a big gun, but that made us feel more secure being so close to the Philippines.
In the evening we felt very privileged to be able to see a large green turtle laying her eggs. Previous reports have made this place out to be a bit of a circus, however we felt it was all very sensitively handled….we were not allowed to roam around the beach at night, we were only allowed to watch the one turtle we had to be silent and keep clear of the other turtles. We watched the rangers harvest the eggs, tag and measure the turtle, then she was left to her business while we watched the rangers bury the eggs in the hatchery. Then there were some new hatchlings to release into the sea. We were made to stand in a semi circle away from the babies while they were release near the edge of the sea. The only contact we were allowed was to point one in the right direction if it came towards us. My son helped a few out, and was the most thrilled kid in Sabah….this was without doubt the highlight of the holiday for him and was a really special experience.
After there we went to Sepilok. I have been here before on a previous trip and it was just as wonderful. The orang utans are fascinating, I could watch them all day. At the morning feeding time we were lucky enough to see 9 of them, including a mum and her 10 week old tiny baby. In the afternoon there were only 4, but there were loads of macaques (both pig tailed and long tailed) that are great fun to watch.
In the evening we did a night walk at the centre. It was about an hour long, and was only along the boardwalk to the feeding platform (I'm not sure if they do other walks normally, but the walking trails were closed for renovation when we were there). Despite the short walk there was lots to see. We saw several hornbills, an eagle chasing a hornbill, the mum and baby orang utan, a flying squirrel and lots of weird and wonderful creepy crawlies. The sound of the jungle at dusk is amazing!
There isn't much else to do around here, and all the hotels/hostels seem to have taken advantage of the lack of shops etc by upping the price of food and drinks substantially.
After a couple of days chilling by the pool at Sepilok Jungle Resort, we headed to Uncle Tan's for a 3d/2n trip to the Kinabatangan River. What an amazing trip. Uncle Tan's isn't the place to go if you want to see elephants, but we did see loads of wildlife including a large male orang utan, gibbon, leopard cats, crocs, lots of macaques and proboscis monkeys and countless birds including several species of eagles and hornbills. We loved the chilled feel of the camp and the staff are absolutely brilliant…they also cook enough to feed a small army, nobody will ever go hungry here. We met a great bunch of people there and were sad to leave. The jungle here isn't great on the scale of things, but the river safaris are good and the guides are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The only downside is a numb bum on the river safaris, but the wildlife more than makes up for that!
We had another day back at Sepilok Jungle Resort and got the shuttle bus to Labuk Bay probiscis monkey "sanctuary". It's not a patch on Sepilok, but it was great to see the monkeys up so close and there were lots of fab photo opportunities. Silver Leaf Monkeys are officially the cutest monkeys in Sabah!
We were heading for Poring next so needed to get the Sandakan-KK express bus to Ranau. We didn't want to go back into Sandakan to get the bus, so the helpful staff at Uncle Tan's kindly arranged for a taxi driver to get us a bus ticket and drop it off at our hotel so we could just hop on the bus at the end of the road to Sepilok. If anyone does this, make sure you are clear with the bus driver where you are getting off….he either didn't listen or misheard me and drove straight past Ranau, refused to turn round and take us back so he had to pay for us a taxi back there!
We found a local chap willing to transport us for a small fee from Ranau to Poring, where we met Mike from Lupa Masa jungle camp. The camp is a good 30-40 mins walk out of Poring into the jungle- far enough away so you really feel in the middle of nowhere. It's a brilliant place for a back to basics jungle experience, or just to chill out and step off the world for a while. The bath is the river and the shower is the waterfall. The jungle here is fantastic especially once you cross the boundary into Kinabalu park, and the night walks are great for spotting wildlife, we also did a trek to a stunning waterfall. Lupa Masa is well worth a visit if you want something different, you need to book in advance though so they can meet you in Poring village as you wouldn't find it on your own! A warning for the squeamish- there are leeches here, especially if it has been wet. We all got bitten but they are no big deal really- I would choose a leech bite over a mosi bite anyday.
We walked back into Poring one day to visit the hot springs. The little guy really wanted to do the canopy walk so I had to push my fear of heights aside to be brave for him….gulp. I didn't enjoy it to be honest, although I did manage to get to the end. We had a nice hot bath in the hot springs afterwards though to calm my nerves!
Our plan was then to travel by bus up to the Tip of Borneo near Kudat…the Lonely Planet guide made us believe that was possible…however in reality unless you've booked a seat on an express bus beforehand or are willing to spend a couple of days taking short hops there on local buses you haven't got a chance!
We ended up getting a local taxi in Poring to take us to Kota Belud, where we were sure we'd get a bus….wrong! So we got another taxi to Tampat Do Aman near the tip of Borneo. It wasn't the cheapest way to travel, but it was the fastest and most comfortable. It was about 4 hours drive in total, so would have been a nightmare if we'd gone ahead with our idea of bussing it.
Tampat Do Aman is brilliant, one of the best places we stayed. The accommodation was a traditional-style longhouse at the pretty jungle camp. The owner Howard is a great host, and does regular shuttle runs to his Tip Top Café about 2km away where the food and the service is as good as the camp. Howard kindly arranged a local guy to drive us to a little village just the other side of the Tip of Borneo, where I worked 16 years ago building a longhouse as part of a voluntary project. He went out of his way to make sure I got there, spending half his birthday morning sorting out transport for us- he is such a nice guy and goes above and beyond the call of duty to make his guests feel special and valued. Everyone should visit here!
At the end of our stay there Howard dropped us off in Kudat and we got a taxi (yep, no bus again!) to Usukan Cove Lodge near Kota Belud. This was just a stop over for 1 night as it is near Kuala Abai where we needed to be at 9.30 the next morning for the boat to Mantanani Island. In hindsight we should have just stayed another night at Tampat Do Aman and got an early taxi. Don't bother with Usukan Cove Lodge….facilities were poor and the beach is dirty.
Mari Mari Backpackers at Mantanani was great…we hadn't planned to visit here initially but my son saw a poster in KK and decided he wanted to go there. We had a couple of days spare, so we went for 2 nights and he had his 8th birthday there. The island is gorgeous and the staff are amazing, they went out of their way to make sure he had a special birthday, even getting him a cake and candles and all singing happy birthday to him and one of them bought him a t-shirt. There is sadly quite a bit of rubbish around on the island, but if you can look past this it really was beautiful and we had a lovely relaxing couple of days there.
The boat trip back to the mainland was "interesting". There was a storm and the sea was really rough, there were waves crashing into the boat and we all ended up soaked to the skin. My son found this highly amusing and spent the whole trip whooping and laughing, which had the rest of us in fits of laughter. Thankfully the bus driver gave us time to change out of our soggy clothes before the trip back to KK!
For our last 4 nights we had booked a room at the Pacific at Sutera Harbour Resort- a few days of luxury to wash away the smell of the jungle before we set off home. On our arrival we were informed that the room we had booked was not available, so we were upgraded free of charge to an executive suite! We felt a little out of place at first arriving at this huge smart hotel and our massive with our faded backpacker rucksacks, but it was really good to have a few days of home comforts at the end of the trip.
Overall, we had an amazing time. The security situation did not impact on our trip at all, although it has had a massive effect on tourism in the area. Some places we visited had a 50% drop in the number of visitors, which is devastating for them.
Sabah is a fantastic place. There is some stunning scenery, so much to see, and the people are incredibly friendly. Of all the countries and places we have visited, Sabah is the place we have felt safest and most at home….it has so much to offer, whatever type of holiday you like. I was very, very sad to leave, and I would not be surprised at all if we end up back there again sometime in the future. I fell in love with Malaysia 16 years ago and I haven't had enough of it yet.