A bulk of Sabah's development - including Kota Kinabalu - is positioned along the west coast. One major road connects East Sabah and the remote dive sites in the southeast. Roads are generally in good condition and travel by bus is easy; there are no trains in Sabah.
Before making an itinerary, read about festivals in Borneo that may affect your travel plans.
Most tourists arrive to Sabah in the capital and bustling tourism hub of Kota Kinabalu. Kota Kinabalu is well connected by cheap flights from Kuala Lumpur and international flights from other parts of Asia.
- Air: The airport (BKI) is 4.5 miles south of the city; a fixed-rate taxi to town will cost $10.
- Bus: Kota Kinabalu's North Bus Terminal is located in Inanam six miles north of the city. Buses are available from Inanam to Ranau, Sandakan, and even as far as Semporna. With only one main road going east across Sabah, it is possible to get seats on buses going farther then get out early at your destination. Buses heading to sites south of Kota Kinabalu leave from Wawasan Center on the southern edge of the city.
- Boat: The ferry terminal is located in the north of Kota Kinabalu; two daily boats depart for Labuan Island (four hours) as well as the nearby islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
For travelers more interested in exploring the attractions of East Sabah such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre, the city of Sandakan is the best place to enter Sabah. Sandakan is also preferable over Kota Kinabalu as an entry point for people planning to dive around Sipidan.
Sandakan is approximately 160 miles from Kota Kinabalu; the journey by bus takes around six hours. Sit on the left side of the bus for some nice views of Mount Kinabalu from the winding road.
- Air: Sandakan's airport (SDK) is located on the outskirts of the city; a taxi to town costs $10. Flights from Kuala Lumpur are sometimes cheaper to Sandakan than to Kota Kinabalu.
- Bus: The long-haul bus terminal in Sandakan is located three miles north of the city at Batu 2.5. Multiple bus companies run to Kota Kinabalu and south to Tawau and Semporna.
Getting to Mount Kinabalu
All buses plying the main road to East Sabah actually pass the entrance of the Kinabalu National Park - tell the driver that you intend to get out at the park. Buses leave regularly from the north bus terminal in Kota Kinabalu; the ride takes around two hours and tickets cost $5. Buses traveling west from Sandakan take around six hours to reach the park entrance.
Buses crossing Sabah usually take a break in the village of Ranau - about 67 miles from Kota Kinabalu. Despite being a part of the national park, the only real attraction in Ranau is the Poring Hot Springs.
Getting to Sukau and the Kinabatangan River
Travelers wanting to visit Sukau to view wildlife along the riverbanks should arrange transport in Sandakan. To save money by avoiding tours, take the once-daily minibus from the lot near the waterfront. Sukau is around three hours from Sandakan; a ticket costs $11.
Getting to Sipidan and Mabul
The world-famous dive sites off the southeast tip of Sabah attract thousands of enthusiasts each year. Unfortunately, the sites are located in the most remote corner of Sabah for people traveling overland. Overnight buses to Semporna - the gateway to the islands - can be arranged from Kota Kinabalu (10 hours). Buses leave from Sandakan at the Batu 2.5 Bus Terminal - three miles north of the city - and take around six hours.
The hassle-free way of accessing the dive sites in the south is to book one of the new low-cost flights from Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabalu to Tawau - roughly one hour from Semporna by bus. All traffic to the islands passes through the small town of Semporna. There is no public transportation to the islands; boats must be arranged through dive companies or your accommodation. It may be possible to charter a ride to the islands with one of the small fishing boats.
- Read more about world-class diving in Sabah.
Crossing From Sabah to Brunei
The journey by southbound bus from Kota Kinabalu requires you to pass through immigration multiple times as you enter and exit Sarawak before reaching Bandar Seri Begawan - the capital of Brunei.
The best option for getting to Brunei is to take one of the two daily boats from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan Island (four hours) then onward to Bandar Seri Begawan (90 minutes). Many travelers choose to spend time on the island and check out some of the interesting things to do on Labuan before moving on to Brunei.
Crossing From Sabah to Sarawak
No easy way exists to bypass Brunei completely when crossing between Sabah and Sarawak on the ground! Although it is possible to cross the border at Sipitang into a tiny finger of Sarawak, you must still pass through Brunei to reach Miri and the rest of Sarawak. Taking a bus directly from Sabah to Sarawak is an immigration nightmare, requiring two full pages worth of passport stamps as the road winds between Malaysian territory and Brunei!
To avoid the hassle, take the ferry from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan Island then onward to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. The bus from Bandar Seri Begawan to Miri takes around four hours and requires only one pass through immigration.