Sabah Vs. Sarawak: Which state is best for your Borneo Vacation

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Introduction: Sabah Vs. Sarawak

Traveling to Malaysian Borneo invites you to discover a world of different landscapes. The states of Sabah and Sarawak, each with their own particular charm, attract visitors seeking an immersive Borneo experience. However, the question often arises: which to choose when time is limited, or whether to explore both when afforded the luxury of two weeks or more. After visiting both states, I discovered that, while time is a constraint, the allure of each is different.

While seeing both Sabah and Sarawak provides a well-rounded Borneo experience, time restrictions sometimes require a decision. Sabah, with its brighter tourism spotlight, may be the obvious pick for some, but a deeper look into Sarawak may show a better fit for certain interests. The decision ultimately comes down to your preferences, such as whether you are attracted to Sabah’s natural treasures or Sarawak’s rich culture.

A proboscis monkey Malaysian Borneo
A proboscis monkey Malaysian Borneo

Overview of Sabah Malaysian Borneo

Sabah, located in the northeastern part of Borneo, is a Malaysian state known for its beautiful scenery, diverse wildlife, and lively culture. The state has become known for its lush rainforests, towering mountains, and pristine beaches.

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, serves as the entry point to the area. The city, located on the northwest coast and facing the South China Sea, is known for its thriving markets, dynamic street food scene, and the landmark Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. Sabah also has some of the best beaches in the region. 

In addition to its natural beauty, Sabah is home to well-known animal rehabilitation centres, which help support regional conservation initiatives. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is a highlight since it provides refuge for orphaned and injured orangutans, allowing them to recover and eventually return to the wild. Other important facilities are the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and Turtle Islands Park, where conservation efforts are aimed at safeguarding sea turtles and their breeding places. 

Baby Orangutan Face, Sepilok Orangutan Centre Borneo
Young Orangutan at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Borneo

What to see and do in Sabah, Borneo

Kota Kinabalu & Surrounds

Start your exploration in Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah. Stroll along the bustling streets, marvel at the modern and colonial architecture, and experience the vibrant atmosphere of this coastal city.

Tanjung Aru Beach

Relax and unwind at Tanjung Aru Beach, renowned for its stunning sunset views. This picturesque beach offers a tranquil escape with its soft sandy shores and clear blue waters. It’s far from the most beautiful beach in Borneo, but its right in Kota Kinabalu and the sunsets are amazing.

Tanjung Anu Beach, Kota Kinabalu Borneo
Tanjung Anu Beach, Kota Kinabalu Borneo

Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

Go Island hopping through Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park – Embark on a day of island-hopping through Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a marine park comprising five tropical islands. Snorkel in crystal-clear waters, relax on pristine beaches, and explore the vibrant underwater world.

Eat amazing Malaysian food at the street vendors

Indulge your taste buds in the delicious Malaysian street food available throughout Kota Kinabalu. Sample local specialties such as satay, laksa, roti canai, and seafood dishes, which are abundant in flavors and spices.

Bowl of noodles with chopsticks
Bowl of noodles from a streetside cafe

Visit the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

Also known as the “Floating Mosque” due to its location surrounded by a reflective lagoon the KK city mosque is worth a visit. The mosque’s stunning architecture and serene surroundings make it a must-visit attraction.

If you are interested in more than just the Mosque, consider doing a full day tour of all the main sights of Kota Kinabalu.

Local handicraft markets

Explore the vibrant local handicraft markets, such as the Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market or the Gaya Street Sunday Market. These markets offer a wide array of traditional handicrafts, souvenirs, and local products, making them perfect for picking up unique souvenirs.

Climb Mount Kinabalu

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a highlight for adventurers visiting Sabah, Borneo. Mount Kinabalu is Southeast Asia’s highest peak, standing at 4,095 meters (13,435 feet). It is part of Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The climb is a difficult but rewarding experience, with amazing views and a sense of accomplishment.

The climb typically starts at Timpohon Gate and takes climbers through diverse ecosystems, ranging from lush lowland rainforests to alpine meadows. The peak, known as Low’s Peak, is reached in the early morning, usually before sunrise. Climbers have a breathtaking panoramic view as the sun bathes the area in golden hues. The feeling of standing on the highest point in Borneo, surrounded by clouds and gorgeous peaks, is truly breathtaking.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu requires a permit, and it is best to book the climb through accredited tour operators.  The climb is divided into two days, including an overnight stop in one of the mountain huts. It is important to be physically prepared, as the altitude and changeable weather conditions may be challenging.

I did really love this climb and while it is very steep, its not awful. I wasn’t looking forward to it as I had only had my Achilles reconstructed about 8 months before this but you climb very slowly and there is enough diversity that you calves and quads can cope with the pace. We had people in our group that hadn’t done anything in preparation and while they were very sore the next day they made it ok.

Heading down Mount Kinabalu
Heading down Mount Kinabalu

Visit Sandakan (especially for Chinese New Year)

Sandakan, a beach town in Sabah, Borneo, is a fascinating combination of rich cultural heritage and historical landmarks. Especially around Chinese New Year, the town transforms into a colorful celebration hub, adding a festive appeal to its attractions.

Agnes Keith House

Visit the Agnes Keith House, a historical colonial-era residence that once belonged to Agnes Newton Keith, an American author. Explore the well-preserved house, which offers insights into the region’s history and the life of the author.

Puu Jih Syh Temple

Puu Jih Syh Temple, perched on a hill, is a significant Chinese Buddhist temple in Sandakan. The temple provides a peaceful retreat, and its elevated location offers panoramic views of Sandakan Bay and the surrounding areas.- During Chinese New Year, you may witness cultural festivities within the complex.

Dragon Dance for Chinese New Year in Sandakan

The dragon dance for Chinese New Year in Sandakan, Borneo

Sandakan War Memorial

Pay your respects at the Sandakan War Memorial, dedicated to the memory of those who suffered during the Sandakan Death Marches in World War II. The memorial stands as a reminder of the historical events that took place in the region. While it might seem like its not much, if you do a tour and get a good guide they explain really well what happened in the region and lots of personal stories around the war.

I’m never great at war history (I cried my way around the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam and Japan’s Hiroshima Peace Museum) but I always think its the right thing to do to pay your respects.

Buli Sim Sim Water Village

Explore the Buli Sim Sim Water Village, a traditional stilted village situated along Sandakan Bay. Wander through wooden walkways, observe the unique architecture, and gain insight into the daily lives of the local community. With the right tour group you will get into one of the homes and have tea with the family which is a great experience.

This does involve taking a boat across the bay from Sandakan and while it isn’t that far it can get quite rough. I personally thought it was fine, but others on our boat were very uncomfortable. It is safe, but if you aren’t experienced with boats just be warned it can be rugged.

I think the best way to experience this is on a half or full day Sandakan Tour. This will allow you to do the War Memorial, visit the local markets, have some lunch and also visit the Muslim Sim-Sim Village.

Buli Sim-Sim water village off Sandakan, Borneo
Buli Sim-Sim water village off Sandakan, Borneo

Gomantong Caves

The Gomantong Caves are famous for their unique environment, abundant biodiversity, and the traditional harvesting of swiftlet nests, a prized ingredient in Chinese bird’s nest soup. It is made up of two main caves: Simud Hitam (Black Cave) and Simud Putih. The caves are situated on Gomantong Hill, which is part of the Gomantong Forest Reserve. 

One of the highlights of Gomantong Caves is the swiftlet population that nests within the cave systems. Swiftlet nests, which are made with their saliva, are gathered for culinary and medicinal purposes. Locals enter the caves twice a year, during specified harvesting seasons, braving the darkness and guano-covered surfaces to gather nests. This historic technique has been passed down through generations and is strictly monitored to ensure sustainability.

Visitors can explore the caves on guided tours, which provide insights into the geological formations, the delicate ecosystem, and the cultural significance of the swiftlet nests. While the caves are open year-round, it’s advisable to check the local regulations and tour availability before planning a visit.

Gomantong Caves Sandakan
Gomantong Caves Sandakan

Stay at a lodge on the Kinabatangan River

Staying at a lodge on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo, is an unforgettable experience that immerses visitors in the region’s rich wildlife and lush scenery. These riverside accommodations provide a cozy hideaway along the riverbanks.

The Kinabatangan River is famous for its abundant wildlife, and lodges provide an ideal base for wildlife safaris. Guided boat tours, a highlight of the Kinabatangan experience, take guests deep into the rainforest and wetlands.

Early morning and late afternoon excursions offer excellent opportunities for spotting proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, and a variety of bird species. Aside from wildlife adventures, lodges actively engage in conservation efforts and environmental education.

You may participate in guided walks or talks, gaining insights into the importance of preserving this unique ecosystem and the challenges faced by local wildlife. To make the most of the Kinabatangan experience, consider booking a multi-day package that includes guided safaris, meals, and accommodations.

We had amazing luck here and spotted a herd of pygmy elephants in the jungle on our walk down to a local lake. Another group were lucky enough to see them get in and swim across the river!

Our chance came one afternoon when we saw a huge male Orangutan making his nest for the night in the trees. It was just incredible to experience such a wonderful thing. I do have a video but because we were on a boat on the river we are bobbing around like crazy so this photo will have to do.

Huge male Orangutan making his nest for the night on Kinabatangan River Borneo
Huge male Orangutan making his nest for the night on Kinabatangan River Borneo

You can take a one day trip from Sandakan to Kinabatangan River which is about 10 hours long, however I would recommend you do a multiday tour. It was the early morning and evening boat trips where we saw most of our wildlife. The lodges range in accommodation levels but all are safe and are for the most part inclusive of all meals.

I stayed at Bilit Rainforest Lodge and it was fine. It is one of the more budget oriented ones but great for what it is.

Rhinoscerous Hornbil on the Kinabatangan River Borneo
Rhinoscerous Hornbil on the Kinabatangan River Borneo

Multiday Tours for River Lodges On the Kinabatangan River

Wildlife Experiences in Sabah

Sabah offers a variety of unique and diverse experiences with some of the world’s most iconic wildlife. Among the most notable wildlife encounters, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center near Sandakan is worth visiting. This sanctuary is dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned and injured orangutans, and visitors may see these primates up close at feeding times and as they walk freely around the area. 

The Proboscis Monkey Centre at Labuk Bay provides an opportunity to interact with indigenous proboscis monkeys. These endangered monkeys, known for their large, pendulous noses and potbellies, may be seen in their native environment from elevated platforms. 

The Bornean Sun Bear Protection Center in Sepilok is committed to the well-being and protection of the world’s smallest bear species, the Bornean Sun Bear. Visitors may explore the center’s natural forest environment and see rescued sun bears engage in recreational activities. 

Selingan Turtle Islands, located near Sandakan, offer a one-of-a-kind refuge for endangered sea turtles. As part of the Turtle Islands Park, these islands serve as vital nesting grounds, allowing visitors to witness the incredible sight of female turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. Guided tours offer an amazing experience, allowing you to see the hatching and release of newborn turtles into the sea.

Turtle laying eggs on Sianagan Island Borneo
Turtle laying eggs on Sianagan Island Borneo
Wendy Wu Wanderlust Tour Sale

Overview of Sarawak

Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, located on the western side of Borneo, is known for its diverse landscapes, cultural richness, and abundant wildlife. In Sarawak’s western region, sandy beaches are overshadowed by thick rainforests and several national parks, offering a paradise for nature lovers.

The region is home to several national parks. Bako National Park, Sarawak’s oldest, showcases diverse ecosystems, including mangrove swamps and dipterocarp forests, as well as pristine beaches. Gunung Gading National Park is known for its Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, while Kubah National Park has waterfalls and caves.

Sarawak is also known for its cultural diversity, with indigenous tribes like the Iban, Bidayuh, and Orang Ulu. The Sarawak Cultural Village, located near the capital city of Kuching, offers an immersive experience into the customs and lifestyles of various ethnic groups. Speaking of Kuching, the capital city is a blend of modernity and historical charm, featuring colonial architecture, waterfront promenades, and street markets. 

The focus is on nature adventures rather than sandy beaches in Sarawak’s western region. Sarawak’s focus on exploring rainforests, limestone caves, and various ecosystems makes it an ideal ecotourism destination.

Kurching river at sunset after a huge storm
Kurching river at sunset after a huge storm

What to see and do in Sarawak, Borneo

Kuching City

Embark on a captivating journey through Kuching, the vibrant capital of Sarawak.

Cycle tour around Kuching

Explore the charming city of Kuching on two wheels with a cycle tour. This allows you to leisurely navigate through the city streets. Many tour operators offer guided cycling excursions, so make sure you book one ahead.

Eat along the waterfront

Indulge in culinary offerings along Kuching’s scenic waterfront. The waterfront is lined with cafes, food stalls, and restaurants serving a variety of local and international cuisines. Sample Sarawak laksa, a local specialty, or enjoy fresh seafood while taking in views of the Sarawak River.

Go to Bako National Park

Plan a day trip to Bako National Park, which is accessible by boat from Kuching. This national park supports a variety of ecosystems, including mangrove swamps, dipterocarp forests, and gorgeous beaches. Hiking trails lead to unique geological formations, wildlife sightings, and panoramic viewpoints.

Check out my article on going to Bako from Kuching, or alternatively if you would like to be a little lazy about it, consider doing one of the day trips below.

Fort Margherita

Visit Fort Margherita, an iconic historical landmark on the Sarawak River. Built in the 19th century, the fort has served various purposes throughout history and now houses a museum. 

Kuching Chinatown

Immerse yourself in Kuching’s Chinatown, which consists of narrow streets, traditional shophouses, and bustling markets. Discover Chinese temples, sample local cuisines from street vendors, and browse stores selling everything from antiques to traditional crafts.

Sarawak Cultural Village

For a cultural immersion, visit the Sarawak Cultural Village, located just outside Kuching. This living museum showcases the diverse indigenous cultures of Sarawak, allowing visitors to experience traditional longhouse living, witness cultural performances, and participate in hands-on activities.

Iban Dancer at the Cultural Village Kuching
Iban Dancer at the Cultural Village Kuching

Gunung Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu National Park, located in Malaysian Borneo, is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its stunning karst formations, cave systems, and outstanding biodiversity. Mulu has no roads; therefore, fly-in, fly-out access is an important feature of the park

The park provides a variety of hiking opportunities, with trails catering to different fitness levels and interests. Visitors may discover Mulu’s natural beauty through hikes via lush rainforests to challenging climbs leading to panoramic views. Notably, the Pinnacles Trail is known for its challenging climb and breathtaking views of the park’s limestone formations.

Gunung Mulu National Park is also home to one of the world’s largest cave systems. Clearwater Cave, Deer Cave, and Wind Cave are three of the most impressive caves accessible to tourists. Deer Cave, in particular, is well-known for its vast size and hosts the magnificent nightly bat exodus, in which millions of bats emerge from the cave. In addition to the caves, the Canopy Skywalk provides visitors with a different perspective of the rainforest. 

The park offers different levels of accommodation from bunk houses to private lodges, home stays in the area and even a Marriot Hotel right next to the park. Brad bought me a few nights at the Marriot as a surprise and it was amazing to be in such a beautiful hotel after months of hostels.

I would recommend booking your hikes, caving adventures and other guided tours before you get there. They have a great online system and its worth securing the tours you want to do before you arrive. They can fill up fast. There are many you don’t have to book for, like the Deer Cave or just hikes in the area, but a lot of the cave tours are guided and you do need to book.

The Pinnacles Hike At Gunung Mulu National Park

If you are looking at doing the Pinnacles hike you MUST have a decent level of fitness and leg strength. There is a point of no return that they will not take you past if you aren’t fit enough. Its not excessively aerobic but its a tough hike and jelly legs are the order of the day!

The Pinnacles Mulu National Park
The Pinnacles Mulu National Park

Gunung Gading National Park

Located in the lush landscapes of Sarawak, Gunung Gading National Park offers an encounter with one of nature’s rare wonders—the Rafflesia flowers. 

The park is well-known as a refuge for the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, with the Rafflesia tuan-mudae being the main attraction. Witnessing a Rafflesia in full bloom is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as these remarkable flowers can reach diameters of up to one meter.

While the exact timing of Rafflesia blooms is somewhat unpredictable, park officials often provide information on their blooming condition. You can check with the park’s information center for the most recent information on the Rafflesia flowering season, which normally lasts a few days. Timing your visit during the blooming season increases your chances of seeing this incredible natural display. 

Rafflesia Flower Borneo
Rafflesia Flower Ganung Gading National Park Borneo

Visit Miri a Small City on the Coast

Miri, a small coastal town, not only has its own unique attractions but also acts as a gateway to nearby adventures. The proximity to Brunei makes it ideal for a day or two trip into the neighboring country.

Go into Brunei for a day or two from Miri

Miri’s proximity to Brunei makes it ideal for a day or two trip into the neighboring country. You can visit the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, which is famous for its grand mosques, the Istana Nurul Iman (the Sultan’s Palace), and the iconic Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque. Immerse yourself in Brunei’s rich culture, visit the Royal Regalia Museum, and relax in the Kampong Ayer Water Village.

Niah Caves

Visit the Niah Caves, located not far from Miri.  The caves are well-known for their archeological significance, including traces of early human habitation dating back thousands of years. Explore the caves and see old cave paintings while admiring the limestone formations. The Niah National Park has hiking routes where you can admire the surrounding rainforest and its unique flora and wildlife.

See the cliffs of Tusan Beach

Visit Tusan Beach to witness the stunning cliffs that are especially beautiful after sunset (or the bioluminescence in season). The beach is known for its unique landscape, featuring tall cliffs that create a captivating seascape. Additionally, if you visit during the right season, you might have the chance to experience the bioluminescence phenomenon in the water.

Visit the Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park to learn about the local marine life. This park is home to magnificent coral reefs, rich marine life, and beautiful beaches.

Niah National Park day trip from Miri
Niah National Park doable via a day trip from Miri

There are many day tours available from Miri. Check out Viator to search for something that suits your time frame and budget. I did one to Brunei which was great and made it super easy to get in and out of the country.

Wildlife Experiences in Sarawak

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre outside Kuching – Located just outside Kuching, the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is a well-known orangutan rehabilitation center. The center is home to semi-wild and wild orangutans and plays an important role in their rehabilitation and conservation. Visitors may see orangutans at feeding times and observe their habits in a semi-natural environment.

Mulu National Park – Mulu National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its limestone formations, cave systems, and diverse wildlife. Mulu’s Bat Cave is well-known for its bat exodus, which occurs in the evening when millions of bats emerge to forage. The park also has multiple hiking paths where visitors may see a variety of animal species such as birds, insects, and small mammals.

Bako National Park – Bako National Park is Sarawak’s oldest and biodiversity-rich national park. It is home to a variety of ecosystems, including mangrove swamps and dipterocarp forests. The proboscis monkeys, with their unique long noses and potbellies, are one of the park’s main attractions. You can observe these rare primates in their natural environment with other wildlife such as macaques, silvered langurs, and a variety of birds.

Me at Bako National Park Kuching
Me at Bako National Park Kuching

Sabah Vs. Sarawak: A Travel Comparison

Sabah and Sarawak both provide different travel experiences with diverse landscapes, cultures, and attractions. Sabah is famed for its breathtaking natural beauty, including Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, lush forests, beaches, and vibrant coral reefs. Sarawak, on the other hand, is known for its variety of indigenous cultures, which include the Iban, Bidayuh, and Orang Ulu. 

Deciding between Sabah and Sarawak for your Borneo vacation

When choosing between Sabah and Sarawak for your Borneo vacation, the best option is mostly determined by your own travel preferences and any time limitations you may have. While visiting both states will give a thorough overview of Borneo’s different offers, your own interests might help you choose the best destination.

If you’re a nature and wildlife enthusiast looking for wildlife, gorgeous beaches, and tropical rainforests, Sabah is the ideal destination. On the other hand, if you have a deep interest in cultural immersion and historical exploration, Sarawak is the place to be. 

For those with extended itineraries and varied interests, a combination of both Sabah and Sarawak ensures a well-rounded Borneo experience. This allows you to climb mountains, dive in waters, explore caves, immerse yourself in indigenous cultures, and appreciate historical landmarks without feeling rushed. Ultimately, whether you like Sabah’s natural beauties or Sarawak’s cultural richness, Borneo offers a memorable trip that fits your particular travel choices.

Conclusion: Making the most of your Borneo vacation.

A Borneo getaway provides an array of experiences that combine natural marvels, cultural richness, and wildlife encounters. Plan an itinerary that takes you to both states for a complete Borneo experience. Stay up-to-date on the best times to see certain natural phenomena, such as Rafflesia flower blooming or Tusan Beach’s bioluminescence. Consider guided tours for in-depth information on the region’s environment and conservation activities. Plan carefully, immerse yourself in the beauty of this island, and relish the moments that will make your Borneo adventure unforgettable.

Swimming in the crystal clear wates of Gunung Mulu National Park, Borneo
Swimming in the crystal clear wates of Gunung Mulu National Park, Borneo

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She’s always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.