Backpacking in Sabah, Malaysia

Home to rich biodiversity and where eco-tourism thrives, Sabah attracts backpackers from all around the world, especially the younger generation who are increasingly environmentally conscious. 

Situated in the north of Borneo, with flora and fauna to historical urban sites to city hotspots as well as local marketplaces, Sabah has a lot to offer backpackers on a budget. 

The best time to travel to Sabah

Backpacking in Sabah - travel to Sabah
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The good thing about Sabah being situated near the equator is that weather and temperatures do not fluctuate much throughout the year. Average temperatures range from 24°C in Tenom – an inland area in the state – to as high as 27°C in areas such as Kudat – the northmost tip of Sabah – and Bangau, situated at the southwest coast.

That being said, as a tropical state, Sabah has humidity levels averaging 70%, and there are wet and dry seasons – the former running from October till February, and the latter across the other half of the year.

 Essential items to bring with you

Backpacking in Sabah
Backpacking in Sabah requires packing a few essential items with you
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Despite the large amount of space covered by rainforest, it is relatively easy for you to find all your necessities, especially since shops operate till as late as 10pm. 

As a backpacker, it is essential for you to travel light while not compromising on comfort. Aside from necessities such as snacks, water, clothes and footwear, here are other items that you should have by your side:

  1. Insect repellent – This keeps annoying insects that thrive in the tropical climate away
  2. More than 1 power bank – The more, the better. Since going backpacking likely means less luxurious modes of travel, such as taxis, you’ll need to keep your devices fully charged while navigating on the road.
  3. Travel scarf – To double as a warmer as well as a towel
  4. Headwear/Lightweight poncho/travel umbrella – To shield you from the sun and rain
  5. First aid kit – Essential medication such as paracetamol as well as first aid dressing will come in handy if you plan to camp instead of staying at a hostel or hotel

– Things to take note of while backpacking in Sabah –

Backpacking in Sabah - Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu
Image credit: @rayv_drums


Malaysia has a large Muslim population that can be conservative, so keep pro-LGBTQ+ sentiments to yourself and respect that alcohol consumption may be frowned upon. 

Drug offences are also strictly dealt with according to the law. Being in possession of or trafficking prohibited substances can see offenders being sentenced to heavy fines, imprisonment and even death.


Sabah is a relatively safe state with low crime rates. But as a backpacker, you may stick out due to the bags that you’re lugging around. Thus, you should always keep a lookout and be vigilant of your surroundings so you won’t fall victim to petty crimes. 

That being said, the locals are very warm and friendly so feel free to ask for help or directions, and you will be addressed with a polite and enthusiastic tone.

Also, rest assured that there are plenty of secure guesthouses and hotels in the state, with tap water certified by the National Water Service Commission as clean and safe to drink. Of course, you may choose to boil your water or drink bottled water instead.

Getting around Sabah

Backpacking in Sabah - public transportation
A public bus, Sabah State Railway train, and taxi in Sabah to take note of while backpacking in Sabah.

Image adapted from: Wikipedia Commons, Wikipedia Commons and Wikipedia Commons

There are multiple ways to travel around Sabah. 

Public transport such as local buses and taxis are available in the city areas. To avoid surprises when you get your fare, you may wish to seek a taxi driver recommendation in advance, and always agree on a fee with taxi drivers. 

Trains are another way of travelling around Sabah. There is only 1 railway service in operation in Borneo, the Sabah State Railway that runs southwards from Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort where you can find the dish ambuyat (combination of sago flour and special sauce) and on to the town of Tenom, famous for its coffee. Travelling down the entire railway line from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom journey takes approximately 5 hours. 

If you are not comfortable with taking public transport, you can also opt to rent a car in advance with an international driver’s license. 

Backpacking in Sabah - Jesselton Point
Boat trips to Sabah’s surrounding islands and Brunei start at Jesselton Point

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For island-hopping trips or to travel across borders to Brunei, there are boats and ferry services available at Jesselton Point in the north of downtown Kota Kinabalu. 

– Things to do in Sabah –

There are plenty of activities for backpackers to indulge in Sabah. Here are the top 3 routes and what you should look out for if you’re backpacking.

1. Marvel at wildlife at Danum Valley

Backpacking in Sabah - Danum Valley
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Home to over 340 species of birds, 124 species of mammals, 72 species of reptiles and 56 species of amphibians, the Danum Valley Conservation Area is a nature treasure occupying 438 sq km of land – about the size of over 61,000 football fields

Book a guided tour and you might get a chance to spot rare and endangered wildlife species such as the Proboscis monkeys and the Pygmy elephants. There are different types of guided tours – the most common ones let you trek through the jungle, but there are those for river swimming, bird watching and even night jungle walks for the adventurous.

Backpacking in Sabah - Danum Valley
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If you’re staying overnight at Danum Valley, and you’re backpacking, chances are that you’ll opt to spend a night at the dormitories. Do note these accommodations are segregated by genders, so you won’t be able to stay together if you come in a mixed group. There are pricier, fully furnished private chalets that the park rangers stay in that you can book too.

The dormitories have a kitchen and fridge that you can use if you prefer to cook to save money. Otherwise, there is a vegan restaurant located near the Field Office in Lahad Datu to hit up for your meals. 

Backpacking in Sabah - Danum Valley
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Google Maps

Getting to Danum Valley is relatively straightforward. All you have to do is get to the Danum Valley office in Lahad Datu, which you can do so by plane or bus. From there, you will be able to transit to another bus that will take you straight to Danum Valley. Alternatively, if the buses are running at maximum capacity, you can hire private transportation with the offices, which will set you back around RM350.

2. Conquer Mount Kinabalu

Backpacking in Sabah - Mount Kinabalu
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Sabah’s most well-known landmark is definitely Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th in the world, sitting at 13,435 feet above sea level. 

Climbing the mountain is no easy feat – you should already be exercising regularly, at least once or twice a week, and be able to climb flights of stairs without getting out of breath. You’ll need a permit to attempt the climb too. Permits are limited to less than 150 per day to international tourists while Malaysians, including Sabahans, are entitled to fewer than 185 permits per day. 

Backpacking in Sabah - Mount Kinabalu
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Plan for a 2D1N trip to scale the mountain, including rests at camps along the way up. Every climb must be accompanied by a mountain guide, with one mountain guide only allowed to take a maximum of 5 climbers aged 16 years and above in the same group, according to the Mount Kinabalu Climb Booking & Information Center’s website.

Expect to pay about RM1,000 for a 2D1N Package which includes accommodation and climb, or RM1,580 for the 3D2N Package from the Mount Kinabalu Climb Booking & Information Center here.

3. Explore Atkinson Clock Tower and Signal Hill Observatory

Backpacking in Sabah - Atkinson Clock Tower
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Aside from nature attractions, Sabah has its fair share of historical sites and places to enjoy the cityscape. The Atkinson Clock Tower is a historical landmark and the oldest man-made structure in Kota Kinabalu. Built in 1905 in memory of the First District Officer of Jesselton, Francis George Atkinson, this structure is constructed with only wood, without the help of nails. It has endured through World War II and is still functioning to date.

Within walking distance from the Atkinson Clock Tower is the Signal Hill Observatory Tower. All you have to do is follow the Signal Hill trail for a cityscape view of Kota Kinabalu.

Backpacking in Sabah - observatory tower
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The best part about these two attractions is that they are totally free! 

Atkinson Clock Tower
Address: 88400 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

Signal Hill Observatory Tower
Address: 78, Jalan Asrama, Signal Hills, 88400 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Opening hours: 9AM-11PM, Daily 

Visiting Sabah on a budget by backpacking

Sabah contains plenty of Mother Nature’s treasures and a great collaboration between nature and civilisation. 

With its friendly locals, convenient ways to travel, and beautiful scenery, you’ll be in for a treat if you want an all-in-one backpacking in Sabah experience without breaking the bank.

If you enjoyed these tips on backpacking in Sabah, check out these articles too:

Cover image adapted from: @jadrizalwashif, @borneo3sixty and @hanan.picturesque

This article was produced in collaboration with National Youth Council Singapore‘s Asia-Ready Exposure Programme.

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