Planning a short-haul adventure soon, but seen enough of West Malaysia? The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are blessed with diverse cultures, some of the planet’s best underwater adventures, and rainforests home to intriguing wildlife. To top it off, these destinations are just a short flight from Singapore. All you need is a ticket to the Malaysian Borneo and you could be enjoying once-in-a-lifetime experiences like staying in an Iban longhouse, diving with hammerhead sharks or being awed by the sunrise from the top of Malaysia’s highest peak!
The sprawling state of Sarawak offers easy access to spectacular national parks for hikes, encounters with wildlife and longhouse visits. In the vibrant cities of Kuching and Miri, you can expect urban comfort and great food.
Sarawak’s capital is one of Southeast Asia’s most charming cities. Perched on the banks of the milk coffee-coloured Sungai Sarawak, Kuching’s colourful history is best seen through visits to Fort Margherita, the Sarawak Museum and a walk through the vibrant Chinatown area, where you can peer into temples and load up on colourful kueh lapis and Sarawak laksa. After dark, be sure to eat at Top Spot food court for great value seafood and the opportunity to try Sarawak dishes including umai, a sour and spicy raw fish dish of the Melanau people.
Kids will love exploring the traditional houses and catching the dance performances at the Sarawak Cultural Village, which hosts the Rainforest World Music Festival each year attracting music lovers from around the world. Another great family day out is a wildlife boat cruise at Santubong, a short drive from town. Expect to see Irrawaddy dolphins, crocodiles, fireflies and proboscis monkeys.
Airlines that fly to Kuching: Scoot, AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines
Best time to visit Kuching: Plan to visit during the driest months from April to October, where you will be able to catch the Rainforest Music Festival and the Gawai Dayak Festival.
Those thirsting for a real Malaysian Borneo adventure will need to hop off the plane in Sibu before venturing into the interior. Before you head off on your intrepid trip upriver, be sure to check out some of Sibu’s best sights including the Sibu Heritage Centre, where you can get the lowdown on the diverse indigenous cultures and Chinese communities of Sibu and Sarawak. Another must here is to take a walk along the Rejang Promenade or hop in a ‘flying coffin’ boat for an exhilarating river tour.
Also, be sure to head off into the Batang Ai National Park for a jungle experience that’ll give you the opportunity to spot Sarawak’s last remaining truly wild orangutans and a chance to stay in an Iban longhouse to learn more about this fascinating indigenous Borneo culture.
Airlines that fly to Sibu: AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines (both via KL)
Best time to visit Sibu: A good bet for a Sibu visit is July when the weather is reasonably dry and you can catch the Borneo Cultural Festival.
The booming oil town of Bintulu may not be bursting at the seams with attractions in town, but it’s a great base for exploring the surrounding countryside, which includes Similijau National Park. The park is a short drive from Bintulu and has loads of great hiking trails where you can easily spot hornbills, gibbons and an array of gorgeous orchids. Another fun Bintulu activity for the family is an overnight stay in a Melanau longhouse where you can refine your blowpipe skills, swim in waterfalls or go rafting and jungle trekking. Back in Bintulu, enjoy a sunset walk along the Bintulu Waterfront Promenade and snap up one of the deliciously refreshing coconut juices on sale along the path. After your sunset stroll, hunt down the best local street food at Tanjung Batu Beach, well known for its satay and es campur.
Airlines that fly to Bintulu: AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines (both via KL)
Best time to visit Bintulu: The best time to visit Bintulu is between April and September for dry(ish) days.
Miri may not have the historic charm of Kuching, but thanks to the money pouring in from the offshore oil reserves, this city is a very comfy place to base yourself whilst exploring the delights of eastern Sarawak. In town, check out the Petroleum Museum, built on Canada Hill and the site of the first oil well in Malaysia. Another good bet in Miri is the vibrant Seberkas Weekend Market (open Thu, Fri and Sat evenings) where you can stock up on jungle produce and souvenirs to take home.
Out of town, the main attraction is the Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its huge caves, including the Sarawak Chamber, karst rock formations and pristine rainforest. The park is criss-crossed by a number of famous treks such as the Headhunter’s Trail and the Pinnacles Summit Trek, both of which take you through the sublime rainforest for encounters with nature. Also near Miri are the Niah Caves, dotted with caves including the spectacular Great Cave and Painted Cave, once home to an ancient culture that left rock art and burial mounds.
Airlines that fly to Miri: AirAsia
Best time to visit Miri: For trips to Mulu and Niah, the best time to visit is April to September, when rainfall is at a minimum.
The Federal Territory of Labuan
The Federal Territory of Labuan lies off Sabah and the oil-rich country of Brunei and is perhaps best known for its duty-free shopping opportunities with visitors pouring in to snap up bargains. If you are into sea sports, Labuan could be a perfect destination for you as the island is home to some fantastic wreck diving opportunities and some excellent deep-water fishing off some of the offshore islands nearby. Kids will enjoy the Bird Park, with over 580 species to gawp at and those looking for a slice of sand to relax on can find some pristine beaches in the Labuan Marine Park.
It is also feasible to combine a trip to Labuan with a day or two in Brunei’s sleepy and verdant capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. Here, you will be able to feast on Malay treats at Pasar Malam Gadong, visit the beautiful Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and explore Kampong Air, a gigantic community home to 30,000 and with houses built on stilts over the Brunei River.
Airlines that fly to Labuan: AirAsia, Malindo Air, Malaysia Airlines (all via KL)
Best time to visit Labuan: The driest months are from February to August, but you should still pack your umbrella!
Sabah is somewhat dwarfed in size by neighbouring Sarawak, but punches well above its weight in attractions including the massive Mount Kinabalu, amazing underwater experiences around Tawau, and opportunities to hang out with orangutans, sun bears and turtles in Sandakan.
6. Kota Kinabalu
The cultural melting pot and gateway to Sabah, Kota Kinabalu offers all the comforts of city living with access to some of Borneo’s best attractions. In town, be sure to pop into the lively Sunday Market on Jln Gaya to pick up some local treats from forest honey to batik. After dark, explore the Night Market to chomp your way through the cuisines of Sabah without breaking the bank.
For many visitors, the main reason to visit Kota Kinabalu is to climb the brooding giant Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain. Slots to climb are limited to 120 per day so make sure you have booked your climb well in advance. You don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to experience sunrise on the roof of Borneo! Thrill-seekers can also opt to clamber along the Via Ferrata here, the highest on earth and guaranteed to get your heartbeat raised. If mountains are not your thing, find beach bliss and underwater adventures on Pulau Gaya, a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu.
Airlines that fly to Kota Kinabalu: Scoot (direct), AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines (via KL)
Best time to visit Kota Kinabalu: The best time to visit Kota Kinabalu is between December and April, which is peak season for tourists looking for a slice of beach heaven and dryish days for summiting Mount Kinabalu.
Read more: 10 unique treks in Southeast Asia
Bustling Sandakan is also known as Little Hong Kong due it its large Cantonese community. Good news if dim sum and seafood are your things – this little town is blessed with tonnes of top eateries. Sandakan was once the capital of British North Borneo, but was bombed badly and few colonial buildings remain. However, Agnes Keith House and the attached tearoom are a great place to learn about the past of the city, enjoy a game of croquet, savour scones and jam, and marvel at the views.
Those looking to chill with orangutans should head out to Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary to catch a feeding session, and be sure to pop into the nearby Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre to get up close and personal with some of these gorgeous bears. Another great spot for nature lovers is Pulau Selingan, a short boat ride away. It’s a famous turtle nesting beach for Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles. Once you’ve had your fill of turtle action, you can flop on a pristine beach or grab your snorkel and check out some of the abundant marine life.
Airlines that fly to Sandakan: AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines (both via KL)
Best time to visit Sandakan: Head to Sandakan from December through to February for cool(ish) and dry(ish) weather.
This town of Sabah may seem a bit rough ’round the edges, but its proximity to incredible underwater adventures in the Celebes Sea means that Tawau sees a steady flow of visitors from around the world. If you are staying in town, indulge in some of the great Indonesian food on offer from nasi kuning to soto makassar, rarely found elsewhere in Malaysia. The nearby Tawau Hills Park is a must-visit, with great jungle trekking and opportunities to spot the rare pygmy elephant. However, the great lure of Tawau is access to nearby diving snorkelling opportunities at the offshore islands of Mataking, Mabul, Pompong, Kapalai and Sipadan, where you’ll be diving with turtles, sharks, jackfish and barracuda for a superlative underwater experience.
Airlines that fly to Tawau: AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines (both via KL)
Best time to visit Tawau: Most people come to Tawau to enjoy diving. For the best underwater visibility, book your adventure between April and June.