Sabah presents a wonderland of natural scenery, lush primary rainforest, vibrant coral reefs, and mysterious indigenous cultures. It is, in my opinion, Southeast Asia's hidden treasure. A playground for adventure seekers, extreme sportsters, and bums in search of the ultimate beach, Sabah rewards those who venture here with a holiday in an unspoiled paradise.
Covering 73,711 sq. km (28,747 sq. miles) of the northern part of Borneo, the world's third-largest island, Sabah stretches from the South China Sea in the west to the Sulu Sea in the east, both seas containing an abundance of uninhabited islands, postcard-perfect beaches, and pristine coral reefs bubbling with marine life. In between, more than half of the state is covered in ancient primary rainforest that's protected in national parks and forest reserves. In these forests, some rare species of mammals like the Sumatran rhino and Asian pygmy elephant (herds of them) take effort to witness, but other animals, such as the orangutan, proboscis monkey, gibbon, lemur, civet, Malaysian sun bear, and a host of others can be seen on jungle treks if you search them out. Of the hundreds of bird species here, the hornbills and herons steal the show.
Sabah's tallest peak is one of the highest mountains between the Himalayas and Irian Jaya. At 4,095m (13,432 ft.), it's the tallest in Malaysia, and a challenge to trek or climb. The state's interior has endless opportunities for jungle trekking, river rafting, mountain biking, and 4x4 exploration for every level of excitement, from soft adventure to extreme sports.
This state holds not only mysterious wildlife and geography, but people as well. Sabahans count among their many ethnic groups some 32 different peoples whose cultures and traditions are vastly different from the Malay majority that makes up the rest of the country. In fact, ethnic Malays are a minority in Sabah.
About one-third of the population are Kadazandusun, a group that inhabits mainly the west coast and parts of the interior of Sabah. They are one of the first groups travelers come into contact with, especially during the Pesta Kaamatan, or harvest festival, held during May, where the high priest or priestess presides over a ceremony performed to appease the rice spirit. Although it's a Kadazandusun tradition, it has come to be celebrated by all cultures in the state. Although this group produces the majority of Sabah's agricultural products, most members live in towns and hold everyday jobs. The exception is the Runggus, the last group of Kadazandusun to live in traditional longhouse communities, where they produce exquisite basket weaving, fabric weaving, and beadwork in traditional designs.
The Bajau are a group of seafarers who migrated from the Philippines only a couple hundred years ago. The Bajau on the eastern coast of Sabah carry on their traditional connection to the water, living as sea gypsies and coming to shore only for burials. On the west coast, however, many Bajau have settled on dry land as farmers and cattle raisers. Known locally as the "cowboys of the east," Bajau men are very skilled equestrians. During festivals, their brilliant costumes and decorated ponies almost always take center stage.
Kota Belud, 76km (47 miles) north of Kota Kinabalu, is a town inhabited mostly by Bajau people. In the background is Mount Kinabalu, which dominates the landscape in most of Western Sabah. The town comes alive every Sunday morning with the weekly tamu, or market.
The third-most-prominent indigenous group, the Murut, shares the southwest corner of Sabah with the Bajau, expanding inland along the border with Sarawak and Kalimantan (Indonesia). Skilled hunters, they use spears, blowpipes, poisoned darts, and trained dogs. In past days, these skills were used for headhunting, which, thankfully, is not practiced today (although many skulls can still be seen during visits to longhouse settlements). One nonlethal Murut tradition involves a trampoline competition. The lansaran (the trampoline), situated in the community longhouse, is made of split bamboo. During Murut ceremonies, contestants drink rice wine and jump on the trampoline to see who can reach the highest. A prize is hung above for the winner to grab.
Sabah also has a small community of Chinese families that settled during colonial days, and newer Filipino immigrants, many of whom are illegal plantation workers.