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Fascinating Malaysia - East Malaysia

by The Expatriate Lifestyle Editorial Team 1 Jan 2011
Fascinating Malaysia - East Malaysia


After visiting one side of Peninsular Malaysia, a traveller might think they’ve seen it all. However, East and West Malaysia are surprisingly quite distinct. Characterised by dense and wild jungle, East Malaysia is less populated and less developed than West Malaysia.

East Malaysia consists of the states of Sabah, Sarawak, and the island of Labuan. Sabah and Sarawak are located on the island of Borneo to the east, across the South China Sea from Peninsular Malaysia, which is located on the Malay Peninsula.

Compared with the rest of the country, East Malaysia’s general land mass is larger and full of natural, undisturbed resources, mainly oil and natural gas reserves.

There are many things that make this region a highly desirable tourist spot. Offering a diverse array of unique experiences and exciting activities, visitors to East Malaysia are able to visit the Gunung Mulu National Park and its exotic wildlife and cultural longhouses; view the sunrise from the World Heritage Site Mount Kinablu and scuba dive off of Pulau Sipadan, one of the best scuba diving islands in the world, Sipadan Island, all in the same region!

Duty Free shopping and delectable seafood add to the ambiance and attractiveness, making East Malaysia a major tourist attraction.


Currently, the vast majority of visitors arrive in East Malaysia by plane. Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI) is the main gateway to Sabah, and about 7km from the city. Major international carriers, as well as smaller budget airlines, such as Air Asia, use this airport, offering a vast array of direct and connecting flights to all over the world.

In addition, East Malaysia is large, distances are long and roads are poor. Domestic flights are affordable and by far the fastest way to get around, especially outside the coastal region.


Mt. Kinabalu
If you are looking for the ultimate climbing challenge, consider Mt. Kinabalu. Malaysia’s first World Heritage site, Mt. Kinabalu is the the highest peak in Asia at 4,095.2m. The mountain and its surroundings feature a huge variety of flora, and is one of the world’s most important biological sites.

This historic site is also a sacred resting place for the Dusun tribes. Low’s Peak, the main peak of the mountain, is considered a good hike for climbers of varying experience. Anyone in good physical condition will be able to complete the hike in a matter of hours and without mountaineering equipment.

However, there are more challenging courses on the mountain. One tour of the mountain has adventure seekers beginning their climb at 2:30am. After a three-hour hike to the peak, the accomplished climbers are able to enjoy one of the most breathtaking sunrises on earth.

Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary
There are only four orang utan sanctuaries in the entire world, and tourists will be happy to know that Malaysia is home to one of them! Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary is located on the island of Borneo in the state of Sabah. Started in 1964, the sanctuary is a safe haven for baby orang utans from plantations and illegal hunting.

At the sanctuary they are trained to survive again in the wild and released after rehabilitation. One of Sabah’s top tourist attractions, visitors to the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary are able to observe the cheeky little things swing from tree to tree, and also during feeding time (usually between 10am and 3pm).

Tunku Abdul Rahman (TAR) National Park
Established in 1974 and named after the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park consists of the serene offshore islands of Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan, Sapi and Sulug. The national park makes up 49 sq km, two of which are sea, and the rest is coral reefs and five islands.

Those who visit TAR National Park often remark that it possesses the most beautiful beaches in Malaysia, with crystal-clear waters and wealth of marine life. Natural beauty, such as exposed sandstone forming cliffs, caves, honeycombs and deep crevasses along the shore, mark this national park as a true treasure.

Pulau Sipadan
Located east of Borneo, in the Celebas Sea, Pulau Sipadan is a virtual underwater playground for scuba enthusiasts. Famously known as one of the top five scuba diving excursions in the world, Pulau Sipadan is famous for its rich marine habitat, with over 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species. Greenback turtles, schools of barracudas, eagle rays, hammerhead sharks and whale sharks can all be seen here.

Since 2005, Pulau Sipadan has been under the observation of Parks & Wildlife management, resulting in a select group of operators allowed to bring divers to Pulau Sipadan. Only day trips are now permitted with a certain number of people allowed to enter Pulau Sipadan each day. Make sure to research licensed operators and make reservations ahead of schedule, as the waiting list is extremely long and fills up quickly.

Gunung Mulu National Park
Named after Mount Mulu, the second highest mountain in Sarawak, the Gunung Mulu National Park is a nature lover’s paradise.

Listed as a World Heritage Park, the exotic habitat is home to lush rainforest, network of underground passages, limestone pinnacle spikes, and vast array of varying wildlife (included 27 different species of bats!) Mulu is a very inaccessible area; the only practical way of getting to and from it is by air, mainly from Miri airport, with a domestic flight only taking 30 minutes. Do bring plenty of cash as there are no ATMs or credit card facilities within the area.

Batang Ai National Park
Batang Ai National Park is located in the Sri Aman Division of Sarawak, in eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo. It is located in Lubok Antu, some 250km east of Kuching. Tourists should be aware that the park itself is not especially easy to get to, but yet again, not impossible. Boat is the main method of transportation used, usually requiring visitors to take a bus from Kuching to Sir Aman, and then charter a boat to Batang Ai National Park.

In addition, once you reach the part, there are no overnight accommodations. It is advisable to take a tour or employ the help of local travel agents to reach this destination. Despite the lack of facilities, however, the park has become an increasingly sought after tourist destination. The adventure of getting there is only made more worth it when one arrives in the tranquil, undisturbed beauty of the National Park.

Sarawak Cultural Village
Nestled in the foothills of the legendary Mount Santubong, just 35km from Kuching, Sarawak Cultural Village is described as a “living museum.” The Sarawak Cultural Village features a collection of traditional long-houses situated across 17 acres of landscape.

There are seven traditional houses, each carefully maintained to provide visitors with a real-life demonstration of Sarawak’s varying cultures, architectural styles, and social practices. There are also 45 minute cultural performances scheduled throughout the day for visitors to enjoy and learn more about the culture.

The capital of the East Malaysian State of Sarawak, Kuching is the most populous city in the state of Sarawak and the fourth largest city in Malaysia. Sarawak is definitely a place to experience culture and history in abundance, and when planning a trip to the state’s capital, the museums should not be missed. From the Cat Museum, to the Police Museum, the Timber Museum, the Islamic Museum, the Textile Museum, to the Sarawak Museum, there is something for everyone, no matter what their interest.

Labuan comprises one main island and six smaller islets covering an area of 95 sq km. It is located off the coast of Borneo, mainly flat with a few rolling hills, yet still covered with beautiful vegetation. Most of the island’s prime land, waterfront and suburbs are reserved for tourism and cultural activities. Great shopping is a major attraction, as Labuan is a duty-free zone. The rich history of Labuan can also be experienced, with military cemeteries and memorials throughout the island. Balmy weather and two annual monsoon seasons also mark Labuan as a unique travel destination.

Sandakan is the second-largest city in the state of Sabah, on the north-eastern coast of Borneo. A hub for ecotourism destinations, this city is a beloved base Kinabatangan River. The Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia, with a length of 560km from its headwaters in the mountains of southwest Sabah, to its outlet at the Sulu Sea, east of Sandakan.

River cruises are open to tourists who would like to experience this beautiful river, known for its incredible wildlife, riverine forest, freshwater swamp forest, and salty mangrove near the coast. In addition, Sandakan is legendary for its incredible, fresh seafood.


The main entertainment hub in Sabah is Kota Kinabalu. There are a few bars around the centre of KK, as it is known locally. Around the area known as BB Plaza, you can buy a bucket of beer in ice for a reasonable cost and enjoy it while sitting outside in the square.

All kinds of performances, including local dance, fashion shows and live bands, are performed regularly. For dancing and more exciting nightlife, head to The Beach, a large and lively bar/disco on the waterfront. Inside there are huge screens for sport and pool tables. On Saturday nights, western DJs and dancers on podiums are the main attraction.

For those who prefer to hear themselves think, you can bask in the evening warmth and neck a few cold ones on picnic tables outside with a sea view.

Once a year, the Sarawak Cultural Village holds the much anticipated Rainforest Festival. In the tranquil shadow of Mount Santubong, the land is transformed as independent musicians flock to the cultural village to play local world and ethnic music.

The popularity of the Rainforest Festival has continually grown each year, and nowadays thousands of music lovers flood the village that special last weekend of July. Those who’ve attended describe an inspiring buzz in the air during the festival, as music workshops and jam sessions spring up organically throughout the weekend.

Besides the Rainforest World Music Festival that is held annually in July at the Sarawak Cultural Village, the nightlife in Kuching is rather lively. Several drinking dens line Jalan Bukit Mata, while high-end hotels and resorts, such as the Hilton Kuching, offer posh lounges and bars.

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