Out of all of the epic best things to do in Sabah Borneo, it’s almost impossible to cram it everything into a one-week itinerary. However, if you’ve got more sense of adventure than time, then following this Sabah itinerary 7 days will make sure you cover as much travel ground as possible.
First and foremost, as this is an adventure travel blog, the itinerary caters more to those more interested in hikes, wildlife, and outdoor adventures than KK shopping. That being said, even luxury travelers will still get some great travel ideas from this Sabah itinerary blog.
Things to Note When Planning Your Itinerary for a Sabah Trip
Firstly, as I’ve already mentioned, in order to tick every single item on the list the best things to do in Sabah Borneo, you’re going to need more time.
What many people don’t know is that Borneo is, in fact, the third-largest island in the world. While northern Sabah is only a comparable chunk, that chunk still covers a total land area of over 73 630 square kilometers.
Unfortunately for the long-distance-travel-weary backpacker, this means you’ll need to spend a significant amount of your time on buses, or on domestic flights.
However, I guess that’s the price we pay if we want to make the most of our limited time in Sabah.
Do I Need Travel Insurance for Sabah Borneo?
Truthfully, I never travel without travel insurance. And, since I’m always traveling, I guess I’ve always got travel insurance cover. Ever since I had my entire backpack (everything I own) stolen at a Barcelona airport back in 2015, I vowed to always purchase travel insurance.
The insurance that I use is World Nomads because I believe they have the best cover for adventure travelers. If you’re following this Sabah itinerary 7 days, then you’ll be spending your days hiking in the jungle, sleeping along the banks of rivers, island hopping, snorkeling and maybe even scuba diving. Unlike most insurance companies, World Nomads covers all of this.
To give you an idea of what to expect, here are some Sabah itinerary 7 days highlights.
- Hike in the foothills (or summit) of South East Asia’s tallest mountain
- See the endangered Bornean Orangutans and Sun Bears at the incredible Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
- Spot proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants on one of the world’s most biodiverse jungle river systems
- Go island-hopping off the coast of Semporna
- Dive in one of the world’s best dive sites
7 Day Sabah Itinerary Map
Here’s an interactive map that you can use for reference or save to help visualize your Sabah itinerary.
Getting Around Sabah Borneo
Covering such vast distances over the course of a single week is going to be a little tiring. To add insult to injury, it’s also fairly difficult to plan transport within Sabah if you haven’t got some experience or tips.
Ultimately, you’ll have three options for getting around Sabah Borneo, overland buses (long), flying (quicker but can be more expensive), and organizing a private driver (very expensive).
My style of travel is almost always budget-oriented. Truthfully, I prefer jumping on public buses, hitching rides with locals and experiencing the occasional travel mishap, because hey, they make for the best stories, right?
But, if you only have the time for a Sabah itinerary 7 days, then I understand that you want to get it right. So, here’s a low down on your options.
Getting Around Sabah Borneo By Bus
Getting around by overland buses is how I experienced Sabah. There is a long freeway that connects the capital Kota Kinabalu (KK) to Tawau and Semporna in the southeast. Thankfully, this same road connects to most of the highlights on this list of best things to do in Sabah Borneo, including Sepilok and Sandakan.
If you choose the bus route, expect long-distance journeys of around 8 – 12 hours. To maximize time, you can always catch the early morning buses to free up your afternoon, or alternatively, take the night bus (limited routes).
Don’t worry, I’ll go into more detail about how you’ll get from A to B within the actual 7 days Sabah itinerary.
For those looking to save time, it’s actually possible to fly to the major points on this itinerary for relatively cheap.
Air Asia occasionally offers cheap flights starting at $30 per person from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan Airport and to Tawau.
Also, if you’re looking to get to bypass KK and fly straight into Sandakan, then you can also find many budget flights connecting from Kuala Lumpur.
This is easily going to be the most expensive option. Truth be told, I’ve never been one to hire my own personal driver, so I can’t vouch much for this option. However, below is a list of useful resources for finding private drivers or organized tours in Sabah and South East Asia.
Where to Stay in Borneo
Sabah caters for both luxury and budget backpacker accommodation. Of course, the latter won’t be as budget-friendly as other places in Asia like Indonesia or Thailand. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to find double rooms for under $15 USD per night.
In this Sabah 7 day travel itinerary, the locations where you’ll stay are:
The capital of Sabah is Kota Kinabalu. This is where, most likely, you will start your Sabah trip. This city is a modern metropolis with surrounding national parks and some tropical islands.
For adventure travel, I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time here, because it really is just another city.
However, some of the best things to do in Sabah Borneo are just on the outskirts, including the famous Mount Kinabalu and the Kinabalu Park Region.
Sepilok or Sandakan
Sepilok is in the northeastern region of Sabah near the larger town of Sandakan. Here is where you’ll find the famous and incredibly-well run Orangutan and Sun Bear rehabilitation sanctuaries.
Sepilok also borders some of the last remaining Bornean rainforests, making it a popular spot for nature lovers.
Where I stayed: Nature Lodge Sepilok – Cheapest dorm beds in Sepilok. Super clean and again, great breakfast.
Sukau (Kinabatangan River)
Staying on the Kinabatangan River is a must on any Sabah itinerary. From here, you can take wildlife-spotting boat trips into the Kinabatangan Conservation Area.
This region is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for wild orangutans, Bornean pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, to name a few.
Where I stayed: RB Lodge – Cheap rooms right on the edge of the Kinabatangan River. The real-deal jungle experience with free breakfast. These guys also organize cheap river cruises.
Sabah’s southern coastal city isn’t exactly a top pick for most beautiful places to visit. However, it’s a necessary stop that serves as the gateway to the surrounding island gems.
Where I stayed: Ozzy Lodge – Close to the harbor but far enough to still be clean and less chaotic. Super friendly owner who can organize cheap island-hopping trips.
Known as the Maldives of Malaysia, Mabul Island is an incredible coral reef island an hour’s boat ride away from Semporna. Many people visit Mabul for diving and snorkeling, and in hopes of doing a diving trip to one of the world’s best dive sites; Sipidan Island.
Where I stayed: Mabul Backpackers – Easily the cheapest place to stay on Mabul with all meals included in the price. Everything was great besides their attitude to plastic and waste. Hence, I wouldn’t stay with them again. Pay a bit more and compare the other rooms below.
Sabah Itinerary 7 Days
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s get into the complete Sabah Itinerary 7 days.
Remember that since all of the best things to do in Sabah listed below are a little crammed in to meet the 7-day itinerary criteria. If you want to skip one or two items on the list then the plan will still work well.
Day 1: Kinabalu Park Hikes
Depending on what time you land in Kota Kinabalu, you might be able to get to adventuring straight away.
Famous for being the tallest mountain in South East Asia, Mount Kinabalu is a great attraction for travelers in Sabah. Unfortunately, if you only have a week to explore, then hiking to the summit is a little far-stretched, as the hike itself is a two-day venture.
Regardless, you can still get your hiking fix in the Kinabalu Park foothills. There are loads of trails that you can choose from. I’ve written a detailed guide on all of the trails which will help you plan out your first day on the Sabah itinerary 7 days trip.
Buses to Kinabalu Park leave at 6:30 AM from the inner-city bus station near “Dreamtel”. If that’s too early, then I’d suggest booking the trip to Kinabalu Park online in advance here. This trip includes transport, time at Kinabalu Park as well as a stop at the nearby hot springs.
Finish the day off by returning to Kota Kinabalu and prepare for a long bus to Sepilok the following morning. Alternatively, you could take a flight to Sandakan to save time.
Day 2: Sepilok Nature Walks
Buses depart from the Inanam Bus Terminal on the hour, every hour from about 6 AM to Sandakan. Take the earliest bus you can, and hop off at the Sepilok interchange and walk to your accommodation.
For the rest of the day, you can relax in the vicinity of the Sepilok Conservation Area or visit the Sepilok Rainforest Discover Centre. For a great list of things to do in Sepilok to fill out your day, Bizzare Globe Trotter has written a very useful Sepilok blog.
Day 3: Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and Sun Bear Sanctuary
In the morning, walk down to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary in time for feeding at 10 AM. This is important as the sanctuary encourages gradual rehabilitation of orangutans by encouraging them to venture further into the jungle, away from the sanctuary.
This means that they are usually hanging out far into the jungle. As a result, the orangutan’s who are further along the rehabilitation process only venture close to get food in the morning and afternoon.
After seeing the incredible orangutans, head out of the gate and cross the road where you’ll find the Sun Bear Sanctuary. All of the sun bears here are being rehabilitated due to a previous life of exploitation in the exotic pet trade.
Honestly, you don’t need a guide to visit these two sanctuaries. However, if you want to support local tourism and get some great inside information about the animals and the area, you can hire a guide for the whole day for under $100.
Day 4: Kinabatangan River Cruise
If you’d prefer to stay in Sandakan or Sepilok another night and still join in on a Kinabatangan River Cruise, then it’s possible to arrange a day trip online here.
Otherwise, the best way to get to the next destination, Sukau, is to message Mr Choy on Whatsapp. His number is 019-536-1889 and he does daily transfers from Sandakan or Sepilok to Sukau on the Kinabatangan River for 50 RM per person. For more information and alternatives to getting here, I’ve written a complete guide here.
Once you’re in Sukau, your lodge will be able to organize as many wildlife-spotting river cruises as you’d like. Typically, they have a sunrise, sunset and night cruise, where you’ll have the chance to spot wild proboscis monkeys, orangutans, pygmy elephants, leaf monkeys, crocodiles, hornbills and many, many more.
If I had to pick the number one best thing to do in Sabah Borneo, then a Kinabatangan river cruise would easily make the top. Being privileged enough to be able to see the incredible biodiversity of this river system is something that I’ll never forget.
I’d also recommend staying in Sukau so that you can experience a night cruise and the incredible rainforest sounds at night time. The lodge I stayed at (RB Lodge) is located right on the bank of the river, which really makes you feel like you’re getting the most authentic Bornean jungle experience possible.
READ MORE ABOUT WHAT TO EXPECT: SUKAU KINABATANGAN RIVER CRUISE – INDEPENDENT TRAVEL GUIDE
Day 5: Semporna and Bohey Dulang Island Hopping Trip
For the last few days of the ultimate Sabah itinerary 7 days trip, you’ll be soaking in the sun on some of Sabah’s best islands.
If you get transport with Mr. Choy, organize for him to drop you at the restaurant where you can take a bus from Sepilok to Semporna. The journey is only a couple of hours. However, you’ll want to leave early to maximize time for an Island hopping trip in Semporna.
Drop your bags at your accommodation and head to the public boat jetty to jump aboard a trip. If you’d rather not leave bookings up to chance, then you can arrange a private trip with transport in advance here.
There are a few different itinerary options available to choose from. However, I suggest taking the one that goes to Bohey Dulang, Mantabuan, and Sibuan Island.
Most trips include snorkel gear and lunch and run for about 8 hours.
Finish the day off by catching some sleep in Semporna. However, you’ll need to be ready to depart early the next day for a trip to Mabul Island.
Day 6: Mabul Island and Sipidan Diving
Mabul Island is one of the most budget-friendly snorkeling and scuba diving islands off Semporna. Most lodges here double as dive shops. So, if you want to dive at Sipidan Island, then I suggest that you book in advance with your host. This way, you’ll save money and they can also organize your boat transport from Semporna to Mabul.
The trip to Mabul Island only takes roughly one hour, meaning if you leave early enough, you’ll have time to get some dives in and explore a bit of the island.
If you’re not diving, then there’s still plenty to do. Exploring the interior, where you can mingle with the island locals who have migrated here from the Sulu islands in the Philippines.
All lodges can also arrange snorkeling trips. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to try parasailing, then Mabul has one of the most affordable deals I’ve ever seen at only $25 if you book online.
For more information, you can read my full guide to Mabul Island here.
Day 7: Back to Kota Kinabalu
And just like that, the Sabah itinerary 7 days trip has come to an end. By now, you’re probably looking forward to a long, well deserved rest.
If you’re flying back from Kota Kinabalu, then you can take the overland bus for 12 hours from Semporna Bus Station. Or, to save time, I’d also suggest taking a flight from Tawau airport, which is only a short hop from Semporna.
More Photos of Sabah Borneo to Inspire Your Travels
Hopefully this 7 day Sabah Borneo itinerary has inspired you to visit one of Asia’s best wildlife gems. If not, then I hope these photographs I captured on my travels will convince you.
If you have any itinerary questions or suggestions for this blog, then please leave a comment below or email me personally. Seriously, don’t be shy.