Sabah itineraries can be tailored to different kinds of Borneo adventures, emphasizing either orangutans and other wildlife, beaches, rainforest hikes, river cruises, or cool colonial city getaways. Choose from six exciting routes ranging from 3-5-day stay to one-week itineraries. Read on to find the best destinations for your interests and budget – and start planning your trip to Sabah, Borneo!

After checking out our ultimate 2-week itinerary through Malaysian Borneo, several people have asked us where to go in Borneo if having only one week or even 3-5 days to spare. Our answer is clear: pick only one area in Malaysian Borneo and make it Sabah!

All these short Sabah itineraries have now been field-tested by our readers and we’ve received raving reviews.

Can You Really Visit Sabah In Just 3-5 Days?

Of course, crafting just a 3-5-day itinerary in Sabah is a hardcore task. To be realistic, you need to select which highlights of Sabah you’d like to experience if your time is limited to one week or less. If you have 2 weeks or more, please check our complete 2-week Borneo itinerary (link above).

The other warning: excluding Sarawak is not fair play – go there if you can expand your trip to Malaysian Borneo. We also love Kuching, so we made an extra itinerary for those who’d prefer Sarawak: check it out here to make the tough choice between Sabah and Sarawak.

All the same, all these short Sabah trips have the potential to be just that elusive trip of a lifetime! You can pack amazing things in 3-day itinerary in Sabah: orangutans, sun bears, proboscis monkeys, river cruises, and rainforest hikes to name a few.

This Article Contains Six Sabah Itineraries

1. Short Sabah Itinerary With Orangutans: Kinabatangan River, and Sepilok (3-5 Days)

2. Sabah Trip in the Real Wilderness: Danum Valley (3-5 Days)

3. Diving or Snorkeling Trip in Sabah: Lankayan Island (3-5 Days)

4. One-Week Sabah Itinerary “Orangutans, Sun Bears, and Colonial Charm”: Kinabatangan, Sepilok, Sandakan, and Kota Kinabalu

5. One-Week Sabah Itinerary “The Ultimate Orangutan Encounter”: Danum Valley, Kinabatangan River, and Sepilok

6. One-Week Sabah Itinerary with Orangutans And Turtles: Lankayan Island and Kinabatangan River

An orangutan munching a leaf in rainforest of Sabah, Borneo
An orangutan munching a leaf in rainforest of Sabah, Borneo

1. Short Sabah Itinerary With Orangutans: Kinabatangan River and Sepilok (3-5 Days)

Our first itinerary is a classic for a short vacation in Borneo. Choose this trip if you want to see as much as you can in just 3-5 days and are not afraid of long travel days.

I dare to give your Sabah trip “an orangutan guarantee” since you start your adventure in Sepilok’s world-famous Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. During feeding times, you can watch behind a glassed wall as orphaned baby orangutans come to feast on bananas and play recklessly. Adults move freely inside the reserve, but a handful of them seem to swing to the feeding platforms like clockwork.

While in Sepilok, be sure to visit sun bear sanctuary, as these smallest bears in the world won’t cross your path in the wild. Check out our things to do in Sepilok article for further inspiration.

The real adventure awaits you at Kinabatangan River cruise. Squeeze the best of the Bornean jungle in just two long days. The chances to spot wild orangutans in their natural habitat are highest in Kinabatangan: we were lucky to see six orangutans in only one day!

Book a tour combining Abai and Sukau areas for all-round rainforest experience in Sabah. Wake early to take misty morning cruises, enjoy al-fresco jungle breakfast, and take guided or independent walks inside rainforest on elevated pathways. Sunset wildlife cruise was our favorite, as we were lucky to spot also the rare pygmy elephants! Check out our 2-week itinerary for further details.

Getting to Sepilok and Kinabatangan

Take a cheap 45-minute flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan, from where it’s another 30 minutes by car to Sepilok. Bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sepilok is a waste of time, as you have much to explore.

Pros of This Sabah Itinerary

  • Fantastic river boat jungle adventure with potentially several up-and-close encounters with orangutans and proboscis monkeys – and even pygmy elephants if you’re lucky!
  • Affordable Sabah vacation and rainforest adventure if you compare to Danum Valley.

Cons of This Sabah Itinerary

  • Danum Valley offers more genuine rainforest experience without crowds. But in Danum Valley, the wildlife sightings are more rare and distant.
  • No beach, snorkeling or diving this time.
  • No colonial city vibes – unless you combine one night in Kota Kinabalu, but it’s still a pale shadow of Kuching. Sepilok isn’t even a village; it’s more like a cluster of hotels and houses by the highway, but it’s still much pleasant to stay near rainforest and wildlife sanctuaries in Sepilok than staying in the city of Sandakan.
A Proboscis monkey at the Kinabatangan River in Borneo.
Orangutan spotting hardly gets better than in Kinabatangan River, where you can also see proboscis monkeys!

2. Sabah Trip in the Real Wilderness: Danum Valley (3-5 Days)

This is hands down our personal favorite for a short vacation in Sabah, Borneo. The itinerary combines exciting activities and wildlife encounters with ultimate relaxation.

Danum Valley is the last haunt of Borneo’s primary rainforest and paradise for any nature lover, naturalist, and photographer. Inside one of the most complex ecosystems on this planet lies just one five-star lodge, which gives you exclusive access to the centuries-old rainforest.

Take hikes under 70-meter tall rainforest canopy to meet a long list of its exotic residents, including orangutans. Complimentary activities include night drives and walks, exclusive rainforest canopy walkway, swimming and tubing in the clear Danum River, and fish massage in the natural jacuzzi pool.

We managed to spot six wild orangutans and the rare pygmy elephants, together with civets and other nocturnal creatures, flying squirrels, several species of monkeys, frogs, birds, and reptiles. Our readers have reported equally amazing wildlife encounters within just three days in Danum Valley: this Sabah trip won’t let you down.

Among our favorite moments were the serene breakfasts and evening drinks at the terraces observing the surrounding rainforest. If I needed to choose just one location in Borneo (or in Sabah), it would be Danum Valley for its off-the-grid remoteness and pristine primary rainforest. If you’re ready to fall in love, check our complete guide on Danum Valley.

Getting to Danum Valley and Further Tips

You need return flights from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu to make this Sabah trip work smoothly. The 2-hour jeep drive deep into Danum Valley Conservation Area is included in the prices of Borneo Rainforest Lodge. 

Please allow at least three nights for the magic of Borneo Rainforest Lodge – and even more if you can afford.

Note that depending on your international flights, you might need to spend a night in Kota Kinabalu at either end of your trip. Please check the domestic flight times before booking your Danum Valley package. Check the itinerary 4 for inspiration on things to do in Kota Kinabalu for one day.

Pros of This Sabah Trip

  • The most authentic way to experience the real Borneo if you ask me!
  • Exclusive night safari drives
  • Exclusive access to the amazing treetop canopy walkway
  • Once-in-a-lifetime experience – go for it!

Cons of This Sabah Trip

  • Costs: staying at the lavish Borneo Rainforest Lodge and those private walking safaris don’t come cheap
  • No colonial city vibes – unless you combine one night in Kota Kinabalu
  • No beaches or underwater treasures this time 
The Best Places for Orangutans in Sabah and the Rest of Borneo
Kinabatangan River, Danum Valley, and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center are among the best places to see orangutans in Sabah. Check this article for further tips on where to see orangutans in Borneo, how to behave near them, and learn more about these orange-furred creatures!
Danum Valley's unique tree top canopy walkway has multiple viewing platforms upon ancient rainforest
Danum Valley's unique tree top canopy walkway has multiple viewing platforms upon ancient rainforest

3. Diving or Snorkeling Trip in Sabah: Lankayan Island (3-5 Days)

If snorkeling is your thing, then Lankayan Island is your best bet in Borneo. Snorkeling is out of this world already at the jetty and gets even better after a short boat ride.

Lankayan is also a favorite of many divers, as it’s much more secluded than the famed and thus overcrowded Sipadan. It’s a famous macro diving destination with also wrecks and rare species, such as jawfish and ever elusive leopard shark. Or if you’re just looking for a romantic setting by the turquoise ocean, this uninhabited paradise island must have been whisked into the Sulu Sea just for you.

Did I already mention the turtles? I almost dare to guarantee that you can swim with the turtles – and friendly sharks! – right at the jetty. Lankayan is also a nesting site for sea turtles, where you can watch both nesting and hatching. Check our complete article on Lankayan Island if you’re still not convinced!

The best news for people planning a short Sabah trip: it’s much easier to visit Lankayan than Sipadan. You don’t need to apply for any diving or snorkeling permits. The transits are shorter and cheaper, and it’s easy to add Sepilok’s wildlife sanctuaries to your itinerary.

Getting to Lankayan and Further Tips

As time is short, take an internal flight to Sandakan. Lankayan Island Dive Resort (the only accommodation option in Lankayan) will pick you up from the airport. Reaching Lankayan requires 1,5-2-hour speedboat trip. All-inclusive prices of Lankayan Island Dive Resort cover transfers from Sandakan.

Personally, I’d stay at least 3 nights on Lankayan Island, otherwise, it makes no sense to venture that far to the sea.

If you have 5 days to spare and yearn to see orangutans, stay one night in Sepilok and visit the orangutan sanctuary, it’s well worth it! Sepilok is only 30-minute drive from Sandakan airport, and the lodges usually offer the transfers.

Pros of This Sabah Trip

  • The best snorkeling in Borneo and interesting macro dives
  • Swimming with the turtles
  • Mellow island vibes: the whole family will love this paradise!
  • Guaranteed relaxation
  • Honeymooners: Lankayan is your dream destination in Borneo!

Cons of This Sabah Trip

  • No orangutans unless you include Sepilok’s Orangutan Sanctuary – but that’s more than easy if you have 4 days to spare! Don’t forget Sepilok’s another added bonus: the sun bear sanctuary!
  • No jungle adventures, but hey, you had a tough choice to make!
Lankayan Island is an unspoilt paradise off the coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
Tiny Lankayan Island is an unspoilt paradise far off the coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

4. One-Week Sabah Itinerary: Kinabatangan, Sepilok, Sandakan, and Kota Kinabalu

This one-week Sabah trip is based on our itinerary 1: spend four to five blissful days in Kinabatangan River and Sepilok meeting the orangutans and proboscis monkeys in the wild and visiting sun bear and orangutan sanctuaries, breathing the fresh air and taking short rainforest walks.

Expand the original 5-day Sabah trip by spending one night in Sandakan either before or after your Kinabatangan River cruise. Indulge in local cuisine and small-town feel of Sandakan, have rooftops drinks, eat dinner by the shore with locals and sample fresh seafood in Sim-Sim water village if you still have room.

Stay one to two nights in Kota Kinabalu in the beginning or end of your trip, depending on your flight schedule. Take a walk in Kota Kinabalu waterfront, do some souvenir shopping, visit night food market, and dine by the shore. If you’re in the city during Sunday, check out Sunday morning market on Gaya Street.

If your schedule allows, visit the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (20-min boat ride away from the center of Kota Kinabalu). Swim, snorkel, dive, or soak in the sun with a tropical drink in your hand!

Transfers On This Sabah Trip

You need return flights between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. It’s just 30-min flight but check that your international flights leave enough time for transfer (at least 2-3 hours would be our suggestion). Taxis cut the distance between Sandakan and Sepilok in 30 minutes.

Kinabatangan packages include river transfers between Sandakan and the lodges in Kinabatangan River. You can usually include a one-night stay in Sepilok in your package with sanctuary visits and transfers. You can also visit Kinabatangan independently, but finding rides between Sandakan and the lodges of Kinabatangan might be an issue (if your lodge doesn’t organize transfers).

Where to Stay in Sabah, Borneo
We listed the best hotels in Borneo: Find unique lodges for your Sabah trip!

Danum River pierces the primary rainforest of Danum Valley in Sabah, Borneo
Danum River pierces the primary rainforest of Danum Valley in Sabah, Borneo

5. One-Week Sabah Itinerary “The Ultimate Orangutan Encounter”: Danum Valley, Kinabatangan River, and Sepilok

This one-week Sabah itinerary combines luxurious Danum Valley rainforest adventure (itinerary 2) to river cruise down Kinabatangan River (itinerary 1) to spot even more orangutans and proboscis monkeys, and even pygmy elephants if you’re lucky.

Start your trip in Sepilok with orangutan and sun bear sanctuary visits – this Sabah trip has orangutan guarantee! Sepilok is the best place to rest after a long flight and gives an exciting introduction to the rainforests of Borneo.

If your flights require so, finish off with a colonial city break in Kota Kinabalu. This might also allow a short beach getaway in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park with snorkeling, so it’s not a bad ending to orangutan itinerary!

Transfers On This Sabah Trip

If your international flight schedule allows, start your Sabah trip in Sepilok. Take a short internal flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan, from where you Sepilok lodge will pick you up (it’s just 30-min drive).

Kinabatangan River cruise packages usually include transfers to and from Sepilok/Sandakan. Confirm this with your tour company.

Book a road transfer from Sukau (Kinabatangan) to Lahad Datu, where Borneo Rainforest Lodge has an office. The rates of Borneo Rainforest Lodge include road transfers between Lahad Datu and Danum Valley.

Book a short internal flight from Lahad Datu to Kota Kinabalu. If the flight times match nicely and you can just hop on to your international flight, smile and stay an extra night either in Kinabatangan or Danum Valley. If flight schedule requires, stay one night in Kota Kinabalu. Check the previous itinerary for a recap on Kota Kinabalu.

6. One-Week Sabah Itinerary with Orangutans and Turtles: Lankayan Island and Kinabatangan River

With this one-week Sabah trip, you should follow our itinerary 3 and just add 2-3-day Kinabatangan River cruise (itinerary 2) and a one-night stay in Sepilok.

All the destinations are already covered in above itineraries, so please check them and our separate articles on Lankayan and Kinabatangan if this sounds like your dream trip in Sabah.

Safety in Sabah: Is Sabah Safe for Tourists in 2019?

Many travelers heading to Sabah – or Malaysian Borneo in general – have concerns about safety in Sabah. I’d love to tell you that Sabah is 100% safe for tourists in 2019, but that’s a big claim to make nowadays about any country. However, I consider Malaysian Borneo as a safe destination for any tourists with common sense and would recommend Sabah to my friends and family as a safe destination.

We visited Lankayan Island and Eastern Sabah despite travel warnings by UK and US governments. Please always check the current warnings before making plans and consider whether you’re willing to travel in affected areas.

Current travel warning against “all but essential travel” to the Eastern Sabah and the islands including Lankayan, Sipadan, and Pom Pom is based on old kidnappings in the area. In my opinion, governments could give similar warnings about most Asian or African countries based on the current security situation.

The latest kidnapping in Sabah took place in Sandakan in 2015, when two Malaysian nationals were abducted. I’d consider the Philippines’ side of the Sulu Sea more dangerous than the Malaysian side. Still, this is my personal opinion, and I recommend that you’d check the current UK travel advise from here and the current US travel warning from here.

Vaccinations for Sabah, Borneo

Your routine vaccinations should be up to date before traveling to Sabah, Borneo. With routine vaccinations, I mean the usual travelers’ bunch: tetanus, typhoid, rabies, hepatitis A (and preferably also hepatitis B). There is no yellow fever risk in Malaysian Borneo, but they do require a certificate if you’re traveling from the country with yellow fever risk (but then you will already have the certificate, as well).

There is also a risk of dengue fever in Sabah and in Malaysian Borneo in general, like many other places in Asia. Try to avoid mosquito bites between dawn and dusk to be safe. There is no vaccination for dengue.

Malaria in Sabah: Do You Need Malaria Medication for Borneo?

Malaria risk in Sabah is very low. We didn’t have malaria medication in Sabah. The highest risk areas in the inland of Sabah are still labeled as “low malaria risk areas.” Governments recommend “malaria awareness and bite awareness” if you’re traveling into forested inland areas of Sabah. Usually, malaria medication is not recommended, but please talk with your doctor to make your own decision.

Check here the further advice on Travel Health Pro’s website about vaccinations and malaria risk in Sabah.

Please let me know if you have any questions. I hope you have now found your favorite itinerary and can start planning your Sabah trip!

Choose from six exciting Sabah trips ranging from 3-5-day stay to one-week itineraries. Find the right destinations for your interests and budget – and start planning your trip to Sabah, Borneo! #Sabah #Borneo #Malaysia #itinerary #Asia #traveltips