Climb the highest mountain in Southeast Asia
Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s one of the most popular climbs in the region due to its accessibility and you don’t need mountaineering skills to get to the top; although a good level of fitness is necessary. There are about 5 to 6,000 plant species including three species of Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. The climb begins at Timpohon Gate and it’s an 8.8km trek through two summit trails – Ranau and Kota Belud – till the Panabalan Base Camp. Spend the night and begin the ascent at 2am to reach the summit for sunrise at 5.30am. The world’s highest via ferrata is also located here – a good way to conquer a fear of heights!
Photo: Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC)/Facebook
Orangutans and sun bears
The orangutan is on the WWF critically endangered list due to loss of habitat, poaching for the illegal pet trade and fires that destroy the jungle. Established in 1964, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre provides medical care and food, and trains orphaned or injured orangutans to survive in the wild with the aim of eventually returning them to their natural habitat. For a reasonable entry fee (considering the work they are doing), visitors can observe young orangutans, watch them at feeding time and go for a walk through the reserve. However, there should be no interaction as we can spread human illnesses to them. Don’t forget to visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre nearby where orphaned or ex-captive bears are rehabilitated for release into the wild or kept safe for those who cannot be released.
Photo: Desa Dairy Cattle Farm/Facebook
Are we really in Sabah?
A two-hour drive away from Kota Kinabalu is the town of Kundasang, which is famed for being typically rural with the activities to match. It’s near the Kinabalu National Park so you can see Mount Kinabalu, and at night the clear skies are ideal for stargazing. But what’s interesting here is the uncanny resemblance to a lower alpine village or even New Zealand! The Desa Dairy Cattle Farm is all white picket fences, green pastures and black-and-white Highland Holstein Friesian cows! The kids will love feeding the kids (baby goats – pun intended) and calves, and there’s fresh milk, cheese, yoghurt and gelato to be had in the farm store.
Sipadan Island is in the Celebes Sea and is the only oceanic island in Malaysia. Diving is the main activity here with visibility going up to 50m during the dry season (March to October). Underwater biodiversity is second to none with divers regularly see green and Hawksbill turtles, schools of barracuda and trevally, mantas, hammerhead sharks and if you’re lucky and there at the right time, whale sharks. Turtle Cavern is a unique dive site within a cave system – it’s thought turtles go here to die, but you must go with an experienced guide and technical diver. The most famous dive is the Drop Off, one of the top beach dives in the world with a drop of 600m! There are several resorts with dive schools who share the 120 daily diving permits.
Photo: Tourism Malaysia
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Named after Malaysia’s first prime minister, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a state marine park comprising five small islands – Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug. Conveniently located only three kilometres from Kota Kinabalu, it’s easy to get to and makes for a nice day trip. Visit on a weekday as weekends can get very busy. Boats depart every 20 minutes from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal and avoid going between November and February when the sea can get rough.
Photo: Sarawak Tourism Board
World’s largest cave chamber
The Sarawak Chamber is the world’s largest cave chamber by surface area and measures over an astounding 154,000 square metres, 610m long and 80m high. Located within the Gunung Mulu National Park, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage area, this is one of the most extensive cave systems in the world. There are several tours to embark on and they are all extremely interesting. Book through the official park service and choose from three-hour walking tours and night walks in the surrounding jungle to overnight stays in the chamber for the adventurous. The Garden of Eden Valley walk is highly recommended and watching the millions of bats fly out at sunset is quite incredible.
Kubah National Park is considered one of the smaller parks in Borneo and is easily accessible from Kuching. Come here for the waterfalls, streams, bathing pools and jungle trails; and to see the largest collection of orchids and palms on the island. If you’re interested in birdwatching, there’s an amazing array of tropical bird species including Black Hornbills, Bornean Bristleheads and Blue-banded Pittas. Hike one of the six trails of varying difficulties from an easy walk to climbing up Gunung Serapi, one of the three summits of the Matang Range. There’s the option of staying overnight at the park’s headquarters in a hostel or two-bedroom bungalows – bookings can be made through the National Park Booking Office in Kuching (+608 224 8088).
Photo: Sarawak Tourism Board
Bako National Park is the oldest park in Sarawak, and is unique because it encompasses all the different types of ecosystems found in the tropics from mangroves and primary jungle to beautiful deserted coastline. The park is a 45-minute drive from Kuching followed by a 30-minute boat ride to the park headquarters. There are 16 colour-coded jungle trails that differ in length, difficulty and scenery, and visitors can opt for leisurely walks, full-day hikes or overnight camping expeditions in the jungle. There’s plenty to see in terms of wildlife from silver leaf and rare (oddly human) proboscis monkeys to wild boars to many bird species.