Our holiday to Sabah Borneo was certainly an adventure. Before the trip, I didn’t know much about Sabah, except for the fact that it was home to the orangutans. It turns out though that there is so much more, including strong ties to Australia through World War II that I had no idea about. Here are some of the things we discovered about Sabah Borneo…
A Quick History of Sabah Borneo
I’m a big believer in knowing a little of the history of the country you are visiting so you can understand culture and context. in the 1700s-1800’s Sabah was run by a British trading company as a port for trade, before becoming part of the British empire in 1888. There it remained until it was occupied by the Japanese in 1942 as part of their strategy in WWII. The Japanese used Australian and British POW, housed in brutal camps, to build infrastructure such as airstrips to help their war effort.
Once the Allies liberated Borneo in 1945 it remained with Britain until 1963, when Britan encouraged them to join with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia. While Malaysia’s national religion is Muslim, one of the conditions of Sabah joining Malaysia is that they do not have an official state religion. Everyone in Sabah is free to practise their own religion, with Christianity as the majority religion.
To get to Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) from Australia you fly to Kuala Lumpur (about 8.5 hours) and then transfer to Kota Kinabalu (about 2.5 hours). There is a direct flight from Perth on Sundays though. It’s a big flight, with a late night arrival, so if you are travelling with kids then this is something to take into account. all up it took us 12 hours of travel time from Sydney to Kota Kinabalu with transfers and waiting time.
What to Do in Kota Kinabalu
We travelled around Sabah with Borneo Eco Tours and they were amazing. All our guides were fantastic- enthusiastic, friendly and so knowledgeable about their local area. Special shout out to Adrian- we couldn’t have loved him more! So here’s some of the activities we did while in Kota Kinabalu.
Mari Mari Cultural Village
The Mari Mari Cultural Village is the perfect way to explore the cultural history of Sabah in half a day. It features the cultural history of five tribes of Borneo, with replica houses, cooking demonstrations and samples, cultural presentations and interactive exhibits. I really didn’t expect to have so much fun here- I thought it would be more like a museum but it’s 100% interactive and it was one of our favourite days in Sabah. Zali loved it just as much as me I did and 16-year-olds are pretty hard to impress!
Kota Kinabalu City Tour
Borneo Eco Tours took us on a city tour so we could see the sights of KK (as the locals call it!) We visited the Buddhist temple, the amazing mosque, the Sabah Museum, the handicraft market and we had lunch at the Jesselton Hotel- which is the oldest hotel in KK. Borneo Eco Tours can also tailor the tours to suit you and your interests.
About 15 minutes off the coast Dinawan Island is an untouched piece of paradise. It has very basic accommodation but tourist infrastructure is almost non-existent. It is perfect for snorkelling and swimming and it’s got that perfect tropical water you only see in photos.
Upside Down House and 3D Museum
This is a total novelty location but fun for the kids. The Upside Down House is exactly that- a whole house built upside down. So when you enter you are standing on the roof and everything is turned around. It’s strange but entertaining. Next to it is the 3D Museum which will be a big hit for the kids. It’s a selection of interactive murals you can photograph yourselves in them. When you look at the photo it looks 3D. It’s lots of fun.
As well as visiting KK we went over to Sandakan, which is about a 9-hour drive or a super speedy 40-minute flight- so flying is definitely the way to go!
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
A lot of people come to Borneo purely for the orangutans. The Borneo Orangutan is now listed as critically endangered and it is conservation centres like Sepilok that are working hard to change this. They rescue orangutans that have been orphaned due to poaching or palm oil deforestation and they seek to rehabilitate them and release them back into protected rainforest.
Visiting the conservation centre was one of the most moving moments of the trip. These orangutans share 94.6% of our DNA and when you see them they seem so human in many ways. You have the opportunity to learn about their work and see the orangutans at feeding time. We also visited the outdoor nursery where the young orangutans live until they are about 10 years old.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Sun bears are highly at risk throughout Asia, they are poached for food and medicine, deforestation has destroyed their home and the babies are taken to be kept as pets. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre seeks to rescue captive and orphan sun bears and rehabilitate them so they can be returned to the wild. Here you can see them as they learn to live in the wild.
Sukau Rainforest Lodge
Sadly, we missed out on going here but it looks absolutely amazing! We were all set to go but I got sick so we stayed in Sadakan. This lodge is the only place you can stay in the rainforest and you have the chance to see orangutans, proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants in the wild. Everyone says its spectacular so it’s definitely where I’m heading next time!
Agnes Keith’s House/ The English Tea House
Before I got to Sandakan I knew nothing of Agnes Kieth but she has a fascinating story. Agnes was an American writer who married a British government employee who was stationed in Sandakan. When the Japanese occupied Borneo during WWII they imprisoned Agnes, her husband and their baby son George on Berhala Island, along with other British employees in a prison camp. They were imprisoned for two years and she wrote about their experience in the book Three Came Home, which was made into a Hollywood film in 1950.
Now, in Sandakan, there is a replica of the Kieth’s house in its original location (the original house was bombed by the Japanese), with a museum of Agnes and her life. On the grounds is the English Tea House, designed to emulate what life was like in Sandakan for the British pre-WWII. The food was great and the location is gorgeous. It’s definitely a must do.
One of the highlights of Sandakan for me was the water village. These villages are built using pole houses over the water. They are considered affordable because the owners don’t have to pay any land tax to the government. The people in these villages are primarily fishermen of Chinese/Malay decent. The water villages have such a lovely community feel to them, with all the brightly coloured houses and children playing. It was such a privilege to be able to experience it.
What I didn’t know about Borneo is the close ties that Australia has with them due to WWII. Over 2000 Australian soldiers were imprisoned in Japanese POW camps in Borneo. Most were transferred from Changi in Singapore and forced to work on constructing the airport. When the Japanese knew that the Allied Forces were about to win they forced the remaining soldiers into a death march to a new camp in Ranau, they all died on the way. From more than 2000 soldiers in the camps in Borneo there were only six survivors. The loss of this huge number of soldiers is considered one of the worst tragedies in Australian military history. The location of the Sandakan POW camp is now the war memorial, where a large ANZAC Day memorial is held every year. This is absolutely worth your time.
Our trip to Borneo was an eye opener for many reasons. It was a place I never knew much about but it has a fascinating history and culture. The years of British influence gives Borneo a very western feel in a lot of ways, with the roads and buildings organised and easy to navigate. There is none of the traffic chaos you see in other Asian countries such as Indonesia.
It’s a fantastic holiday for families with older children. (I’d say 9 plus) unless you are just looking for a resort holiday. It is hot and it is spread out so there is a lot of travel involved.
Check out the video that Zali made of our travels!
We traveled to Borneo as guests of Sabah Tourism. All opinions are our own.
Oh you have brought back a lot of happy memories. I spent quite a bit of time in Sabah as a 20-something backpacker. The colonial and wartime history is fascinating and heart breaking too. There wasn’t a memorial at that time. The natural wonders of Sabah are immentse, and those gorgeous orang utans. Would love to take the kids one day.
I am from Sabah and have not explored much of my own place. It’s good to read about my own place from other people point of view and experiences. I have been to Memorial War before, twice now. The 2nd time after almost 10 years. The first time i was there, I did not know why it was named Memorial war…I was thinking why War? I dont remember we had war in Sabah. Sorry for my ignorance. The 2nd time when I was much older and smarter…I read the old newspapers displayed on the board and also watched the Documentary in one of the room provided. I could not hold my tears. I could not imagined how the soldiers sufferred during the Japanese time. I wished there was a miracle…
And people(The locals) basically come to that place just to enjoy the flowers and the unique buildings, busy taking pictures and most forget to understand why it is a memoral war.
The previous President/prime minister of Japan made a visit and apologize on the newspaper but….it’s just different…
It’s just not enough*
It’s devastating isn’t it when you see what they went though. I had no idea either- we are taught here about the prisons in Singapore like Changi but nothing about what happened in Sabah. Thanks so much for reading this- Sabah is beautiful!
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