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Sabah Borneo - Perfect 10 Day Itinerary - Rainforest and Island Hopping

This guide to Sabah includes all the top locations, the best things to do, and everything you need to know to plan your trip to Borneo. With our perfect 10-day itinerary, you can explore the wildlife, see orangutans, hike to the famous Bohey Dulang viewpoint, and enjoy diving and snorkeling in some of the best spots in the world.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary
My favourite picture from this trip to Borneo - A baby orangutan is learning to climb on its own.

Sabah is a Malaysian state located on Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, renowned for its unique wildlife with species found nowhere else. The Borneo rainforest, aged 130 million years, is among the world's oldest rainforests. Unfortunately, due to decades of logging, land clearing, and agricultural activities, only half of its original size remains.


Apart from the jungle, Sabah stands out for its exceptional diving sites boasting abundant ocean life, stunning coral reefs, and charming small islands surrounding Borneo. We dedicated over a week to exploring Sabah's top natural attractions to craft this stress-free, all-in-one 10-day itinerary.


Watch our YouTube video from Sabah, Borneo




Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary
Bohey Dulang Viewpoint

What are the top attractions of Sabah Borneo

The unmissable things to do in Sabah are the Orangutan Sanctuary, Kinabatangan River Cruise, Mount Kinabalu Hike, Island Hopping and Diving Tours in Semporna.


How to get to Sabah Borneo

The best way to reach Sabah Borneo is undoubtedly by flying to one of the three main airports:


Kota Kinabalu - The largest airport with the most convenient international connections, located in the western part of Sabah. Consider flying to this airport if you plan to hike Mount Kinabalu.

Sandakan - A medium-sized airport in northern Sabah, offering decent international and domestic connections. Choose this airport if you intend to start your trip by visiting the rainforest or Kinabatangan River.

Tawau - A small airport in the eastern part of Sabah, with very limited connections. Opt for this airport if you want to begin your trip with diving and island hopping.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

What to do in Sabah Borneo?

The best things to do in Sabah Borneo are wildlife safari tours on Kinabatangan and island hopping tours to some of the best diving sights in the world. Those who're seeking adventure will surely enjoy the multi day hike to Mount Kinabalu - The highest peak of Malaysia.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary
Kids at Mabul Island

Hiking Mount Kinabalu in Sabah Borneo

Mount Kinabalu stands as the tallest mountain in Borneo and Malaysia, reaching an elevation of 4,095 meters. It holds the rank of the third-highest peak on an island globally. The hike to its summit takes two days, involving an overnight stay in a mountain shelter. This trek is only possible with a permit from Sabah Park, along with hiring a mountain guide and booking accommodation in advance. When organising this trip on your own, you have to remember to book your transportation and accommodation on the day before and also cover the price of meals.


Unfortunately, attempting to organise this journey on your own might not result in significant cost savings compared to the budget tour option available on the Sabah Park website. For conservation reasons, the park restricts daily climbers to 165, and due to the high popularity of this activity, bookings must be made several months or even a year in advance.


Regrettably, due to the spontaneous nature of our trip, we were unable to secure a spot for this hike. It was a major disappointment for us, as we had hoped to check Mount Kinabalu off our bucket list. We traded the days we had originally dedicated to hiking Mount Kinabalu for additional days of snorkelling and diving, which turned out to be quite enjoyable!


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Meeting the Bajau Laut - Sabah Sea Gypsies in 2024

Visiting the Bajau people was supposed to be the highlight of our trip to Sabah. If you've been following us for some time, you undoubtedly know that we love meeting people from around the world, immersing ourselves in their cultures, and understanding their daily lives – a passion which reflects in our photographs. Upon learning about the Bajau Laut from Sabah, a nomadic group that cherishes a life spent entirely at sea, we were certain that we had to meet them.


To make this happen, we headed to the public jetty of Semporna right after arriving in the city. For a few days, we attempted to find a boatman willing to take us to see the famous Bajau houses on stilts, but unfortunately, nobody wanted to take us there. We later discovered that the island of Bodgaya, where they reside, was banned to visitors due to past incidents.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

The Bajau people, owing to their unique lifestyle, have developed the remarkable ability to hold their breath underwater for at least five minutes. This skill, challenging even for the most experienced divers, comes almost naturally to the Bajau. It's no wonder that such an intriguing ethnic group has become popular among visitors to Sabah. However, Bajau Laut tourism reached a point where visiting them resembled a trip to a "zoo." Unfortunately, some tourists misbehaved and disrespected the Bajau, leading to aggressive incidents.

Being sea nomads with minimal possessions, the Bajau, seeing an opportunity to receive gifts from visitors, also began to push boundaries. A few loud incidents prompted the government to close the area, making it impossible to visit Bodgaya Island without a government permit. The only place where you can still encounter the Bajau people is Mabul Island, which we visited during our trip to Sabah, Borneo.


10 Day Itinerary to Sabah Borneo

Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime! With our perfect 10-day itinerary, you'll explore Borneo's wildlife, see orangutans, hike to the famous Bohey Dulang viewpoint, and enjoy diving and snorkelling in some of the best spots in the world.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Day 1 - Arrive at Sandakan Airport

After landing in Sandakan, take a Grab taxi to the jungle lodge in Sepilok, where the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre are located. Although you can visit these attractions from Sandakan, I highly recommend staying in one of the lodges in Sepilok to experience the real jungle vibe.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

While staying in Sepilok, all the local attractions will be within walking distance from your accommodation. If you have some spare time on the day of your arrival, you can visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre or even sign up for a night walk—an experience you don't want to miss.



Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Day 2 - See the Orangutans and Proboscis Monkeys

Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is one of the biggest and most well-known orangutan sanctuaries in Malaysia. Around 80 orangutans live within the 43-square-kilometer forest reserve. Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary has no gates or fences, so the orangutans here are free to roam in the jungle on their own. That’s why it’s not certain to see them during a visit to the sanctuary. To maximize your chances of seeing orangutans, visit the sanctuary during feeding time. If some orangutans have trouble finding food, especially outside of the fruiting season, they can always count on getting a snack in the sanctuary, every day at 10 am and 3 pm. If you come earlier, you can also see the feeding in the nursery at 9 am.

If you make it to the first feeding at the Orangutan Sanctuary, where you'd spend somewhere around an hour observing the orangutans from the viewing platform you can head next to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Although the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is technically not in Sepilok but in the remote oil state of Labuk Bay, it's only a 25-minute drive from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, making it easy to visit both places on the same day. Unfortunately, there's no public transportation that can take you there, so the best way to reach the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is by hiring a private driver from the hotel where you stay to take you there and back.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Similarly to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, you can expect the most action during the daily feeding time. The sanctuary has two platforms. Feeding takes place at Platform A at 9:30 am and 2:30 pm, and at Platform B at 11:30 am and 4:30 pm. At most feeding times, groups of proboscis monkeys descend from the nearby forest and mangroves and head to the wooden platform for a free meal. Schedule this day at your hotel reception so you'll make the most of your time.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

If you find some time in the afternoon, use it to go to the Rainforest Discovery Center. The RDC is one of the most accessible natural rainforests in Sabah. It is truly unique to be literally in the middle of a jungle, hearing and seeing all the local animals from a very safe, comfortable, and, most of all, extremely fun skywalk. The RDC is a fantastic place for people who want to observe or photograph the unique flora and fauna of Borneo. The skywalk is a couple of hundred meters long and features observation towers from which you can see as high as the tops of trees.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Day 3 - Kinabatangan River Cruise

The primary starting point for river tours in Kinabatangan is Sukau village. Unfortunately, there is no public transportation available to take you directly to Sukau. However, your accommodation in Sepilok can help arrange a private driver (+/- RM250) for you, as this is the sole option to reach Sukau from Sandakan or Sepilok.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

The Kinabatangan River Cruise is organised by various River Lodges located in the Sukau area, offering four daily cruises, each lasting 2 hours. These cruises can be booked along with your accommodation. According to what we learned from our guides, it's not certain to see animals on every tour as they come and go. However, after studying their routines, the guides can find them at the riverbank whenever they appear.


Do your best to arrive in Suaku to catch the evening tour. We must check in before 3 pm to sign up for our tour in Wildlife Lodge.



Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Day 4 - Kinabatangan

If you joined the evening cruise, you're likely eager to board the boat once more. Get up early to catch the sunrise tour. Some animals are active in the morning, others in the evening or at night. To see the most, consider taking multiple tours during your visit.


The Kinabatangan is home to captivating creatures like orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, langurs, wild cats, crocodiles, diverse birds, and more! You will have a chance to see all of them from a comfortable seat on the boat.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary
The City of Semporna, Sabah


Day 5 - Catch a ride to Semporna

I won't lie when I say that getting to Semporna from Sukau is quite a challenge. The two most common ways to make the journey are by bus or with a private driver. Even if you choose the bus, a private driver must still take you back to the Sepilok junction or Lahad Datu, which is almost halfway to Semporna, to catch the public bus. We opted for a private driver again because it was much easier to organise. We arranged the ride with Mr. Monzs, the driver who initially took us from Sepilok to Kinabatangan, you can contact him by WhatsApp +60 109431833, but your accommodation can also help you with organising the transportation. The bus ride takes around 7 hours. Even if you go with a private driver, the roads aren't in the best condition, and although it's a bit more comfortable, you won't arrive much faster than with the bus.


After arriving in Semporna, head straight to the tourism jetty next to Dragon Inn or to jetty Pelancongan (depending where you have closer) to book your tour for the next morning. The earlier you sign up, the more certain you'll find a place in the tour you want. There are many tour operators on both jetties, so you'll also get a place somewhere if you'll walk in right before the meeting time (between 8am to 9am).


There's no possibility to start the tour at sunrise or finish at sunset, even if you'd like to sign up for a private boat, as there's a security curfew in Semporna that doesn't allow any boat transportation after dark.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary


Day 6 - Island hopping trip to Mabul and Kapalai

There are three standard island hopping tours in Semporna, each covering different islands and snorkeling spots. Since we couldn't visit the Sea Gypsies on Bodgaya Island, we had plenty of time to try all the tours. The trip to Mabul was our favorite, and I wouldn't want to miss it when visiting Semporna. The best part was that we could go to the island and meet the local people who live there in a small village. The vibe on Mabul is very unique, and the locals are very friendly. People stopped us at every corner to ask where we're from and wanted to know if we enjoy our trip. Since no one else besides us signed up for this tour, we could decide the time at each location ourselves. We spent about two hours walking around the island with our guide, who could translate some conversations with the locals. We learned a bit about everyday life of the villages and even played soccer with the kids.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary
Kids at Mabul Island

After visiting the village, we went free diving right next to Mabul. Mabul is an exciting diving spot; we saw sea turtles and lots of different fish. Although our time on Mabul Island was awesome, we didn't enjoy snorkelling at Kapalai Island. First, we stopped there for lunch. The island is very small, and at that time of the day, there were a lot of people who later went snorkeling all at the same time. The reef at Kapalai isn't too impressive, and we didn't see too much ocean life there.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

We asked our boatman to show us some of the Sea Gypsy huts on stilts around Mabul. Although we were able to see some huts from a distance, our guide told us that most of the Bajau people on Mabul live on boats or have moved to the land. Unlike our expectations built up from TV documentaries and online photographs, the Bajau weren't cheerful, and we could clearly tell that their life on the sea is very difficult. We saw some families on small boats trying to sell coconuts to the tourists or begging for money and food. It was a truly heart-breaking experience, totally different from what we expected.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary
Bohey Dulang Viewpoint

Day 7 - Hiking to Bohey Dulang viewpoint and snorkelling at Mantabuan

The Bohey Dulang hike is the only trail in Tun Sakaran Marine Park in Sabah, Malaysia. At the top, you'll enjoy an incredible 180-degree panorama over a crater-shaped lagoon. Hiking on Bohey Dulang island was one of the highlights of our trip to Sabah, and adding a hike to an island-hopping itinerary was a great way to diversify the activities on that day.



Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

The Bohey Dulang hike is a short and steep trail. The route is a clear dirt path, and there's no way to get lost. Starting from the ticket counter, every couple of hundred meters you will pass a park guide, who's keeping an eye on whether you're breaking any rules. The biggest challenge of this trail is the steep incline, which you have to ascend over a very short distance, especially on a hot day. To prevent damaging the trail, the hike is closed during and after rain.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

During our one-day tour to Bohey Dulang and Mantabuan, we snorkelled in two different locations. Compared to other places we visited while island hopping in Sabah, these were the worst diving spots of all. Don't get me wrong; the waters of Sabah are some of the best diving spots in the world, with clear water and a huge variety of sea life. However, we enjoyed snorkeling more at Mabul and Mataking. We were still fortunate to see many different fish and even sea turtles, so don't be discouraged by our opinion. Instead, consider choosing a tour to the diving spots I mentioned above if you really want to focus on snorkeling or diving.



Timba Timber Isl Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary and in Sabah, Borneo
Timba Timba Island in Sabah, Borneo

Day 8 - Snorkelling trip and Island Hopping at Mataking & Timba Timba

We made our first stop at Timba Timba Island, which is basically a white sand strip in the middle of nowhere. It was a very cool experience to find ourselves in such a unique place. Besides walking on the hot sand or taking a dip in the water, there's not much to do on Timba Timba, and there's even less shade over there. After a 30-minute break, we headed for free diving just next to the island. The reef at Timba Timba is very impressive. We spent an hour in the water and saw lots of beautiful soft and hard coral, tons of fish, stingrays, white-tip sharks, and more sea turtles than we could count. This was absolutely the best diving sight of all we visited here in Semporna.


After lunch on Matakin Island, we went snorkeling again. After having such an incredible experience during our previous dive, now the expectations were set very high. The waters around Matakin were also very interesting, maybe not equally as good as at Timba Timba, but it was still a very decent diving session.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Where's the best diving in Sabah Borneo

Besides all the diving sites we visited, unfortunately, we must have skipped the best one at Sipadan Island. There are few places in the world that offer such rich biodiversity. Sharks, turtles, swirling barracuda tornadoes, enormous schools of trevally, and bustling reefs full of fish are just a few of the highlights when diving at Sipadan. Sipadan is a marine protected area, and entry to the island is limited to 176 visitors per day. Besides that, you need to be qualified to dive in Sipadan, and divers without proper certifications aren't allowed to explore this site. All these limitations come with a high price per trip, and from what we learned, companies only provide multi-day trips to Sipadan. Unfortunately, all these factors mentioned above put away our idea of diving in Sipadan.


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Day 9 - Long bus ride or domestic flight to the airport

Have I mentioned already that transportation around Sabah is a nightmare? If you don't find any good return connection from Tawau airport (which is highly possible), you will need to head to one of the two other airports in Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu. In our case, we got the best return connection from Kota Kinabalu. It is possible to find a budget flight to KK airport, but as budget travellers with some time to spare, we decided to take the bus.


You can take a direct bus from Semporna to Kota Kinabalu from Semporna bus station.

The bus station in Semporna is a typical Southeast Asian bus terminal with a few private operators offering their services. We bought our ticket the day before to make sure we wouldn't miss our flight. The bus ride took around 10 hours with a lunch break halfway and a few short cigarette breaks for the driver. The whole ride wouldn't be that bad at all if some kids hadn't vomited on our bags - but hey! We're here for the adventure!


Sabah Borneo Travel Itinerary

Day 10 - Flight back home

We ended our trip to Sabah with a flight back to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where we spent a few days exploring all the best things KL has to offer. I hope this itinerary came in handy for planning your own trip to Borneo. Let us know in the comments if you enjoyed it!



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1 Comment


Guest
Apr 06

Many thanks for the tips! We will go to Borneo in May and I agree it is really difficult to find information on a transport from Sukau to Semporna, so thanks again for the contact of your driver. Would you let me know what you paid for this transfer? Just for an idea.

Thanks in advance,

Sonja

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