They say “third time’s the charm” and in this case, I wholeheartedly agree. My first two trips to Sabah only brought me to Kota Kinabalu, and I didn’t get the chance to explore much beyond the city. This time though, I was whisked away on an adventure outside the comforts of the city to experience the Best of Borneo in Sabah.

Fireflies Watching & Glamping

Upon arrival at KKIA, our group was greeted by our cheerful tour guide and we were brought to Tuaran, a 2-hour journey from the airport. We were led to Cabana Retreat Activities and into a boat to cruise Sungai Rampaian in search of fireflies. As I had never chanced upon fireflies in person (city girl here!), it was one of the activities I anticipated, together with the sighting of Proboscis Monkeys along the river. Alas, by the time we reached Sungai Rampaian, it was already dark and the monkeys were no longer visible at night.

The fireflies however, did not disappoint. The view was magnificent! No amount of photographs or videos were good enough to capture the moment when the fireflies came waltzing inside the boat, egged on by the tour guide who was holding a special light made to attract the fireflies. Apparently the light was made to replicate the light emitted by the fireflies, so a decent amount flew by lazily around us, following the direction of the light.

We were told that had the moon shone a little less brighter, thousands more fireflies might be seen.

We then made our way to Cabana Retreat, where we would be camping the night. We were treated to a special Bajau dance performed by the students of SK Narinang, before we filled our bellies and retired to our respective camps.

Honestly the idea of ‘glamping’ couldn’t come up sooner, I had always wished to go on trips that can get me closer to nature, without parting with the daily essentials one would be deprived of at a normal camp site. For city folks who wish to be near nature but refuse to do away with your gadgets and other necessities like me, Cabana Retreat is certainly ideal.

To top it off, every corner of the pop up beach resort is picture-worthy. It was definitely made for the ‘gram!

Stairway to Heaven

Cabana Retreat

Kampung Rampayan Laut, Jalan Kudat, 89150 Kota Belud, Sabah, Malaysia

Community-Based Tourism

Dastar, Gong & Beads

We visited the Kraftangan Tenunan Dastar on the following morning where we met Pandian Sulaiman, an expert in the craft of weaving Dastar, a kind of cloth usually woven into tengkolok, a headgear used by the Irranun tribe.

The workshop is managed by Pandian with the support of Kementerian Pembangunan Luar Bandar Sabah with the hopes to preserve traditional customs by promoting the weaving industry including kain sambitan, tenunan dastar, dan tenunan mugah.

At the workshop, we were shown the process of weaving and we couldn’t help feeling amazed by the commitment to this craft which requires hard work and dedication. A piece of intricate selendang (shawl) made through this weaving process could take up to a couple of months!

Kraftangan Tenunan Dastar

Jalan Rampaian Laut, 89150 Kota Belud, Sabah

On the way to our next destination, we stopped along the road lined with a number of shops selling a variety of fruits and produce common in Sabah like buah nona, tongkat ali and corn. What attracted me though, was buah tarap. Native to Borneo, this fruit is easily found in Sabah and is a close relation of the cempedak in the fruit family. With a bit of sweet and sour taste, its tangy, juicy and somewhat fibrous texture reminds me of mangosteen.

We continued our journey to witness the process of gong making by the Rungus tribe in Kampung Sumangkap, a village dedicated to the gong industry under Satu Daerah Satu Industry (SDSI), a government initiative that promotes specialization of one industry in every district.

We were introduced to a few families in the village who have dabbled in the gong business across a number of generations. One of the gong makers, Solina Mogimbing explained the process of making different types of gongs and entertained us with a performance, making use of the gongs she made.

After browsing through the souvenirs made in the village, we were brought to see the huge replica of gong at the far end of the village, which was more than 8 feet.

Bengkel Pembuatan Gong Kampung Sumangkap

Jalan Kampung Sumangkap, Kudat

Our journey to explore community-based tourism continued at the Long House in Kampung Tinangoi where it houses the Rungus tribe known for their colourful beads (or manik in Malay). Beads are very important in Rungus culture where they are used as decorations especially during festivities or big events like weddings or to welcome visitors. We were each decorated with a necklace made of beads, a reception similar to the Hawaiian’s Lei greeting where visitors are presented with a garland of colourful flowers upon arrival.

Pusat Gubahan Manik Kg. Tinangol, Kudat

Kg Tinangol, 89050 Kudat, Sabah

Upon arrival at Misompuru Homestay in Kudat for lunch, we were treated to a Rungus dance performance. I was pleasantly surprised as we were served traditional Bario rice in the ‘isip’ leaves, along with the delicious crabs, chicken masak lemak with pucuk ubi.     

We made our way to Simpang Mengayau, and witnessed the scenic sunset view at the Tip of the Borneo before we retired to our rooms in TSM Merrimas Villa.

Tip of Borneo

Simpang Mengayau, Kudat

Local Produce

The next morning, we braced a 2-hour journey to Sabah Tea Garden. The Sabah Tea Garden not only has a restaurant for visitors to enjoy some delicious food along with their famous tea, they also have a tree house which overlooks the plantation that allows visitors to capture the aerial view from a vantage point. As a Teh Tarik lover, I couldn’t resist the temptation and ordered the Pandan Teh Tarik, specially made with Sabah Tea.

Sabah Tea Garden, Ranau

KM17, Jalan Ranau/Sandakan Kampung Nalapak, Beg Berkunci, No.2, 89309 Ranau, Sabah

Our trip to the colder part of Sabah had to include the main attraction in Desa Cattle Dairy Farm in Kundasang, affectionately dubbed as the Little New Zealand of Sabah by the locals. After a brief introduction on the milking process and the company profile, we were served with the yogurt that was freshly produced at the farm. With background views that give one the feeling of ‘being overseas’, cool temperature and fresh dairy products to boot, it is no wonder that Kundasang is a favourite spot by the locals who visit during weekends and holidays.

Desa Cattle Dairy Farm

Dr. Macel Gisain, P.O. Box 71, 89308 Kundasang, Sabah

 We spent the night at the picturesque boutique hotel, the H Benjamin Residence, located 1700 m above sea level. While preparing to savour steamboat, we were presented with yet another traditional dance, this time by the Dusun tribe.

On the way to Kota Belud, we stopped by Pekan Nabalu for a quick stop. Local products and souvenirs galore, Pekan Nabalu is a famous tourist attraction offering a myriad local delicacies and crafts surrounded by the mountains. We were counting our blessings when the sky cleared and Aki Nabalu showed his face to reveal majestic views.

In Kota Belud, we enjoyed a swim at the Polumpung Melangkap View Camp Site, which has been in operations since 2017 by Somboton Gunsalahon. Under the sweltering heat that day, we cooled down in the chilly water, whose clear water source can be traced directly from Mount Kinabalu. Somboton explained that the camp site was made possible by the huge earthquake in 2015 which changed the landscape of the ground and turned it into a site suitable for camping. After Somboton and his family cleared the ground and equipped it with various amenities including tents for rent and toilets, many locals began to visit and it became a new attraction.

The swim worked up our appetite and we made an hour’s journey into KK city. Lunch was at D’Place Kinabalu where we ravished traditional Kadazan dish with Bario rice wrapped up in ‘isip’ leaves, similar to what we had in Misompuru. The highlight came in the form of an exotic dish, Butod Sushi,  a popular entrée at D’Place. For the uninitiated, Butod is Kadazandusun for “ulat sagu”. Yes, the insect you can find on palm trees. The more adventurous among us even tried fresh Butod, still very much alive, wiggling on their hands before they were eaten raw.

With our filled tummies (some with more protein than others), we made way to our last accommodation for the trip at Toojou Social Hostel in Kota Kinabalu.

Toojou Hotel began operations merely 3 months ago, which was designed for digital nomads who work on the go. Interestingly, the name Toojou is taken after the Malay word “Tuju” which means going towards a destination. The idea is to bring people together, with its capsule rooms which allow guests to mingle with people from various backgrounds, and studio rooms which are provided for friends or coworkers to share space. The hotel is decorated with colourful murals that can cater for your insta feeds.

  We explored Kota Kinabalu city on our last day in Sabah. The first stop was Pillars of Sabah where 30 endangered species were featured on pilllars of a decrepit building that had seen better days. The guide informed us that it was one of the few buildings that survived WW2 bombings. Each pillar was decorated by different artist which included their thoughts on the specific endangered species they featured. I am all for tourist attraction that is both artsy and educational. It helps that the colourful arts also appeal to our generation that feeds on trendy attractions that look good on social media.

Dozens of snapshots later, we dropped by Pasar Kraftangan Kota Kinabalu to get some goodies for loved ones back at home. This market is well known for the assortment of food stuff, crafts and souvenirs among locals and tourists alike. It is almost impossible to go home empty handed. While haggling may not get you the price you want, it is certainly the currency here. The locals are very friendly and the cheap price will tempt you nonetheless.

Our last stop may not be on your usual travel list, but the all new Perpustakaan Negeri Sabah in Tanjung Aru may entice you with its unique architectural design made of the traditional motive of “Nantuapan”, a heritage design by the Murut tribe that symbolises mesyuarat or meeting.

Perpustakaan Negeri Sabah, Tanjung Aru Branch

The attraction does not stop there – there are dedicated spaces for various needs within the 5-floor building that may keep you in for hours, like the Maker Studios where kids are encouraged to do more hands-on activities like building or setting up model cars; or practising their music skills by jamming in the Music Room; or chilling on the Reading Net while reading; or just concentrating on their reading materials at the reading corners in secluded nooks.

We capped off our trip by heading to Pak Andi, Tanjung Aru, for some great seafood just 3 mins walk from the library.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Sabah and even though we made sure our itinerary is filled up with as many attractions in Sabah that a 5-day schedule can possibly fit, we have only scratched the surface. There are many more things to do and see in Sabah that it is no wonder that the state alone had already attracted more than 3.8 million tourists for the first 9 months of 2019!

As reluctant as I was to leave Sabah (and the fresh seafood!), I could tell it wouldn’t be my last.

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