Many travelers in Southeast Asia are interested in exploring the region’s absolutely stunning natural side, which can be found throughout the region. However, for the environmentally oriented tourist, few destinations rival Sabah, Malaysia. Located on the northeastern corner of Borneo, Sabah is home to a huge number of endemic plants and animals, as well as a plethora of gorgeous natural landscapes. Tourism in Sabah is well developed, but not yet overinflated, which means activities are cheap and easy to organize. You may be surprised at the range of environmental tourist attractions this lovely state has to offer.
There’s little doubt that Sepilok is the center point of the Sabah ecotourism industry. Though this town is very tiny, it has a number of upscale resorts and quality Western restaurants. Most tourists come for one reason: the orangutans. Sepilok is home to one of the world’s best orangutan rehabilitation centers, and every day they invite tourists to witness the feedings. Unlike other rehabilitation centers, the orangutans are not kept in captivity, but allowed to freely roam the forest. This means that the orangutans who come to the feedings are as close to an actual, wild orangutan as most people will get an opportunity to see. Plus, it’s a good deal of fun to watch these playful and eerily human primates go about their lives.
Sepilok also has a sun bear conservation center, which is home to a population of Malaysian sun bear, the smallest bear in the world. From an observation deck, you can watch the sun bears climb trees, wrestle each other, and pry open thick coconuts with their teeth and claws.
Finally, Sepilok is also home to the Rainforest Discovery Center. This environmental center is essentially a protected rainforest with numerous well maintained hiking paths. There’s also a network of canopy walks, which offer great views of the surrounding area and the treetops. The park is home to dozens of species of birds, including the majestic hornbill. There’s also a small botanical garden showcasing important crops and indigenous plants of the rainforest.
The Kinabatang River is one of the best maintained and largest rivers in all of Borneo, and any ecominded traveler is sure to notice the numerous touts offering river cruises and wildlife tours. The river is a haven for wildlife, making it easy to spot wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and even Pygmy elephants. Unfortunately, the story behind why these animals are so easy to find around the Kinabatang River is quite sad. Much of the rainforest in Malaysian Borneo has been cut down or cleared, in favor of enormous palm oil plantations. Most jungle animals cannot live in these plantations, so they migrate to the river, one of the last undisturbed areas. Still, this dark past doesn’t stop hundreds of eager tourists from visiting the river in hoped seeing rare Bornean species.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Borneo (and all of Southeast Asia, for that matter), but it’s still an accessible climb for most reasonably fit people. The climb takes the better part of a day. You then stay in a guesthouse overnight and summit in the morning to see the sunrise before heading back down. Even if you’re not up for climbing the mountain, the national forest around the base of the mountain is extremely lovely and features a number of less strenuous hikes. The slopes of Mount Kinabalu are also one of the only places in the world to see the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. It blooms for only 3-5 days per year, at a random point throughout the year, and is a carnivorous plant that eats insects to survive. The flowers can be nearly a meter in size. If you’re interested in seeing the rafflesia, ask the locals where it can be found. There’s typically one blooming on someone’s private property close to the Poring Hot Springs, another section of the Mount Kinabalu national park, that you can visit (for a fee, of course).
Diving in Semporna
Malaysia may not have the reputation for diving that other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines might have, but Sabah does have a number of fantastic diving locations. Semporna is probably the most famous, as well as the most expensive. It built its reputation on the huge numbers of exotic marine critters in the area, and it’s often claimed that you’ll see 4-5 times more wildlife in a dive in Semporna than you would on a dive anywhere else in the world.
There’s also a few great locations around the five islands in the bay outside of Kota Kinabalu, the main city of Sabah. Mamutik Island is a particularly nice place to dive, in addition to being where I got my open water certification. There’s a really spectacular pyramid reef of the coast of the island that will impress any diver interested in seeing tropical coral and fish.