Sabah in Northern Borneo is one of the most amazing nature and wildlife destinations. Places like the Danum Valley are still largely unspoiled, yet Sabah is much easier to visit than you’d think or than other remote wildlife destinations. Once you have made your way to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, (read my tips here) you have found your “hub” for the exploration and now need to get around the province – read my Travel Made Easy tips how!
Getting to/from Kota Kinabalu airport: If you are staying a few days in town, your best bet is to get a taxi to your hotel. Compared to other airports in South East Asia, this is easy. You purchase a coupon from the official taxi counter in the airport terminal for MYR30 (US$7.50) and take the coupon to the taxi stand outside – that’s it. It worked flawlessly for me without any hassle or anybody trying to sell my some outrageously priced taxi instead. While the taxis had seen better days, the driver was courteous and a reasonably safe driver. While some hotels offer to arrange an airport pick-up, it’s hardly worth paying extra for that, it’s so easy!
If you are only staying in Kota Kinabalu overnight, before you fly on to Sepilok or Danum Valley, you can stay at an airport hotel that offers free pick-up and save yourself some time and money – the C’haya Hotel is basic, inexpensive, 5 minutes from the airport and offers a reliable, free pick-up.
Getting around Kota Kinabalu: Kota Kinabalu – or short KK – is a nice walking town. From most of the hotels in the city center, you can walk along the shore, to the malls and restaurants, without issues. And that’s a good thing: While the Sabah government is regulating taxi fares and has set reasonable ones (MYR10 for first 3km or 9min, MYR1.20/km after) , nobody is enforcing them, so you are on your own to negotiate a price with the driver. Try your best with the rates above as a base – I’ve never used a taxi in town on any of my trips and avoided the hassle.
Sights around Kota Kinabalu: KK doesn’t have an easy to use public transport system – there are not trains and the buses operate on an imaginary schedule, basically whenever they get around to it. Fortunately, for many of the sights around Kota Kinabalu there are plenty of inexpensive tours on offer to take you there. While I usually prefer to travel independently and don’t recommend tours, places like Mount Kinabalu are much easier to visit that way. You can sign up for the tours through the desk at your hotel or at one of the shops in the various malls all-over town – you won’t have trouble finding one. If you are a family or small group, you can alternatively hire a car and driver – a car (2-3 people) for about MYR 160, an MPV (4-6 people) for MYR250 or a van (10-12 people) for MYR300. Unless you are familiar with driving in countries that – ahem, let’s say – have a more liberal interpretation of traffic laws – I’d not recommend to rent a car – the savings over a car & driver are not worth the hassle…
Sights around Sabah: My favorite sights in Sabah are best visited by plane. The Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center in Sepilok is located near the airport of Sandakan. There are frequent flights by maswings (a Malaysia Airlines subsidiary) and AirAsia, often available for under US$50 round-trip on AirAsia. It’s feasible to visit Sepilok as a day trip by plane: there are plenty of flights and check-in and security are very quick! You can find flights on Kayak!
You can reach the beautiful Danum Valley via the airport at Lahad Datu, served by maswings and often under $100 round-trip. Because Danum Valley is so remote and wildlife watching in nature requires time and patience, you will need several days to visit!
Some people try to see all the sights on a “round trip”, traveling from Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu and on to Sandakan and Danum Valley by road – it seems to make sense when you look at a map and I considered it, but the travel reality in Sabah just doesn’t make it a convenient way to do it. With flight so cheap, it makes more sense to make KK your base and travel from there. It’ll give you a chance to mix some beach or city time into your wildlife and nature adventure to make it an all-around rewarding vacation for even a group of travelers with different interests…