Strange creatures dwell amongst the exotic plants of the jungles of Malaysian Borneo, and off the idyllic coastline there's another kind of exotic garden to explore: long, colourful ribbons of coral reef. More than just a tropical island, this region has impressive mountains and remote communities living unique cultural lives. But it's also a tropical island holiday, and this itinerary allows for both exploration and languor.
So many travel guides talk of places having incredible contrasts, but Malaysia's humming and buzzing capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the jungles and reef ringed islands of Malaysian Borneo are so vastly different that there's no other way to begin a guide. Most international flights arrive in Kuala Lumpur, so even if you're steering clear of the city life and heading into nature you'll probably get to be surprised by the comparison. The main airport of the Sabah and Sarawak regions is at Kota Kinabalu, so most visitors start their exploration here.
Known for beaches, hotels and nightlife, Kota Kinabalu is also a good spot to base yourself for excursions to the Mount Kinabalu National Park, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park and the marine reserve around Turtle Island.
Assuming some of your first day will be taken up with setting in and poking around your hotel, take an afternoon/ evening stroll into Kota Kinabalu and look around the markets and restaurants and wander along to the ferry port. This is a port town rather than a beach town so leave your beach towel at the hotel.
Bring your towel on your second day and retrace your steps into town and the ferry port where you can get a ferry out to the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Visitors can stay overnight on the larger islands but Pulau Sapi, or Cow Island, one of the smallest of the five, is the quietest, and ideal for a day trip to swim, snorkel, hike though the rainforest, have your toes nibbled by tiny fish and your lunch stolen by an exotic monkey or giant monitor lizard. Cow Island is well known by tourists for the naughty monkeys and huge lizards, but not everyone ventures into the interior and meets the chameleons and other exotic creatures who live there, so bring sturdy shoes and do more than just lounge on the beach getting harassed by your first zoo worthy animals of the trip.
Trekkers who don't mind a bit of uphill work can conquer Mt. Kinabalu in two days – it's the 20th tallest in the world - but one day is enough to sample the pleasures of the Mt. Kinabalu National Park at its base, including the orchid gardens, Poring Hot Springs, and hopefully one of the park's biological pleasures – a fleshy, flash smelling rafflesia plant, on which grow the world's largest flowers. Some resorts will be able to help you arrange transport up to the mountain and the jungles that spread all over it, and the easiest way to go is as part of a group.
Spend the morning relaxing then move on to Sandakan. While Kota Kinabalu was bombed twice during WW2, Sandakan was the location of a famous prisoner of war camp, and where the infamous Death Marches began. While Kota Kinabalu has the scenery, Sandakan has the wildlife, most fascinatingly the Orang utans at Sepilok and the turtles of Turtle Island Park.
The marine sanctuary of Turtle Island is an overnight stay. They can only accommodate very small groups, but in the evening you're there to welcome the mother turtles on to the beach as they lay their eggs, then able to release some of the babies from a clutch laid 60 days earlier. The accommodation is pretty basic, the food isn't breathtaking, but getting a kiss a baby turtle on its shell just after it's dug its way out of its nest before it scuttles down the beach to the sea is something indescribable.
The amazing and ancient turtles aren't the most famous local inhabitants of this region: the Old Men of Borneo, as the locals call them, are. Living under difficult conditions, the orang utan's habitat is shrinking, and as man encroaches we need to give them a little help. They get that at Sepilok, a conservation centre where orang utans are brought to be rehabilitated before being released into the wild. Visitors to the park get as close to them as they're able to anywhere, when these furry jungle men come in for a feed and put on impromptu shows on the ropes and platforms around the feeding platforms. Animal lovers take note – it's possible to volunteer at Sepilok, but you need to commit quite a bit of time and organise it well in advance.
Divers won't want to travel to this region without diving off Sipidan Island, which has some of the world's best dive sites, but explorers may be more interested in visiting the Mulu, Gomantong or Niah Caves, renowned karst structures, Kuching for a bit of the lively culture of the place and the orchid garden, or for a unique cultural experience, a traditional longhouse community, so these last days should be used up according to personal interest.
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Malaysia is a destination for bustling-Asian-city shoppers and travellers hoping to meet rare animals and visit exotic natural worlds. Ten days is enough to see most of the highlights.
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