Borneo to be wild

White-water rafting down Kadamain River.

Landing in Kota Kinabalu, we weren’t sure what to expect. The name, to most globetrotters, conjures up the sky-piercing Gurung Kinabalu — a mountain whose conquerable peak of 4,095m entices both novice and serious mountaineers from all over the world. But we weren’t here for that. We were here for everything else (that the Malaysian Tourism Board could stuff) in between.

First, a bit of background. Kota Kinabalu (known as “KK” to the locals) is the capital city of Malaysia’s 13th state of Sabah. A modern bustling town full of markets, malls and fancy hotels like Le Meridien, Shangri-La and Hyatt Regency Resort, KK is the starting point and hub for everyone wishing to travel around Sabah.

Sabah takes up a small chunk of Borneo — the third largest island in the world shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The state, as we came to know in the following week, is home to a distinctively different culture and wildlife that many travellers come here to experience.

For the adventurous

With its roaring rivers, ancient jungles, a mighty mountain and crystal clear seas, Sabah offers a ton of activities for those who aren’t able to relax idly at the beach.

From day one, we got a small taste of the extreme sport of white-water rafting. Located some 80km away from Kota Kinabalu is the Kadamain River. Stretching from the foot of Mount Kinabalu, the Kadamain River rafting route spans 10km and is graded at class 1 to 2 — perfect for beginners who just want a fun and relaxing ride. Those who want a 30km treacherous route at class 3 to 4 can head to the Padas River instead.

The Kadamain River, bedded with black sand and volcanic rock, is sandwiched between lush tropical forests on either side. Sitting on the side of the raft with paddles in hand, we paddled forward as the local guide helped manoeuvre us through tough obstructions, spin us through rapids, drag us through low tides, splashing us with the river’s cool water when we started losing morale. The tide was so low at certain points that it was simpler to just get out and walk — so better check the tides before booking if you don’t want this to happen.

White-water rafting down Kadamain River.

What made up for the “white-water walking”, as we later joked, was the stunning view of Mount Kinabalu peeking through the clouds with every twisting turn we took. An hour into paddling and dragging the raft downstream, the guides stopped us at a fork in the river to witness Mount Kinabalu in its full glory; and, of course, give time for us Thais to pose and snap a few hundred pictures.

After two hours of rafting and dipping into the cool stream, we dried off and hopped back onto the tour bus to spend a night at Kinabalu National Park. As Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site designated by Unesco in 2000, the park covers 754km² and is considered to be one of the most important biological sites in the world. For those who wish to summit Mount Kinabalu, Kinabalu National Park is where it all starts.

Stepping off of the bus at the Kinabalu Park complex, we were greeted with fresh and crisp 20C winds thanks to its 1,562m elevation. Settling into our impressive mountain-view bungalow, we headed outside to try one of the 10 well-marked jungle trails around the Kinabalu Park complex. With the well paved trails and the easy terrain, both young and old can easily manage the trek if given enough time.

Waking up at the crack of dawn the next day, we were greeted by the jagged edges of Mount Kinabalu towering above us. Snapping pictures at the viewpoint, we had to hop back on our bus, heading back to KK for our next adventure at sea.

A 15 to 20 minute speedboat ride away from KK city is Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Home to a cluster of islands like Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sapi, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sulug, travellers can spend a full day island hopping to do watersports like snorkelling and sea-walking, or land activities like trekking in the lush jungles and ziplining over stunning waters from one island to another. But for serious divers, it’s best to head to Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sulung.

Snorkelling on these islands can provide a fun and up-close experience with marine life, even though most of the corals have been bleached due to climate change. But for those who love a big rush of adre­nalin, the Coral Flyer zipline is a must. The thrilling adventure starts with a short trek, gathering all your safety gear, and another short uphill trail to the starting point of the rig. As for safety concerns, don’t worry — Coral Flyer is tested and managed by Ropeskills Rigging, fully compliant with international standards and known for setting up some of the best and safest ziplines in Asia. Once at the station, a team rigs you up, sits you down, and lets you go. 250m long, 45m high, and flying at 60kph, you zoom from Gaya Island to Sapi Island within a blink of an eye.

For the family

From Kinabalu National Park to KK city, there are a few family-friendly attractions for those who don’t want to immerse themselves in any physically draining activities.

Just 10km from the national park on the foothills of Mount Kinabalu stands the Desa Cattle Dairy Farm. Dubbed “Little New Zealand”, the 199 hectare dairy farm could be compared to a smaller, but more attractive Chokchai Farm due to its stunning panoramic scenery. Visitors can watch the black and white dotted cows graze in the grass, feed calves and kid goats, and get a taste of their various dairy pro­ducts ranging from frozen yoghurt to cheese. Each year, the Desa Dairy Farm produces 900,000 litres of milk per year, providing Malaysia’s Borneo states with fresh dairy products.

Around an hour’s drive from the farm is Poring Hot Springs — Sabah’s source of mineral-rich waters. Inside the area, people can dip their feet inside the many hot spring pools (which unfortunately are tiled and not natural rock formations), visit the butterfly sanctuary, the orchid conservation centre, or test one’s fear of heights at the Poring Treetop Canopy Walk. The canopy walk, which consists of string bridges suspended 40m above Sabah’s lush rainforest, may seem like an “adventurous” activity to some, but with its relatively short route, it’s better categorised as a family-friendly experience. A fair warning though — if you want to take photographs or videos at the canopy walk, you have to buy tickets for at least 5RM (40 baht) per camera.

For those who really want to relax and have an amazing sunset view, head either to Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort Spa’s Sunset Bar for one of the best sunsets you’ll ever see. Or, if you want an even more dramatic night, book a dinner buffet cruise with SeaTango’s Sunset Cruise. The two-hour luxury boat ride provides good food, good views, and even the dancing and karaoke by the cruise staff was perplexingly fun.

Last but not least, and the family friendliest of all — the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Sabah is home to more than 3.5 million people from ethnic minorities stemming from countless tribes in the past. Relaying the importance of the history and culture of these tribes, the Mari Mari Cultural Village is a fun, educational and interactive experience. It features five different ethnic tribes, including their distinctive languages, fashion, architecture and customs. For each tribe, we see how they lived, what they ate, what they wore, and even the weapons they used to hunt food or enemy. There’s the Bajau cowboys and sea gypsies, the Kadazan rice farmers, the Murut headhunters, the Lundayeh agriculturalists and the Rungus tribe with their impressive longhouse architecture.

After an exhausting but enjoyable week in Sabah, I can safely say that it’s worth a visit for both adventurers and idle travellers. It truly is a one stop destination.


Kinabalu National Park.

Desa Dairy Farm.

Desa Dairy Farm.

Poring Hot Springs Canopy Walk.


Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.

Sunset at Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort Spa.

SeaTango Sunset Cruise.

Mari Mari Cultural Village.

Mari Mari Cultural Village.

Mari Mari Cultural Village.

How to get there: AirAsia provides direct flights from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Go to  for more information. How to get around: The services of Amazing Borneo Tours were used in the duration of this trip. Go to for more information.

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