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Sabah Malaysia, A Disastrous Trip

We’ve been to Malaysia, I don’t know how many times. After multiple visits to Kuala Lumpur it’s one of our favourite cities in the world and our trip to Kuching and Sarawak to stay with the Iban tribe in their longhouse was magical. I thought Malaysia was becoming our thing. I thought we should do more.

Jungle Adventure Sabah
Our “3 day jungle adventure” turned out to be a series of very long, very boring, boat rides in the middle of this huge open river, in full sun.The heat was incredible. Our guide also didn’t plan to take us where we needed to be.

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We hatched a plan this spring to go over Malaysia with a fine-tooth comb and share the parts visited by few. We explored the northern and eastern parts of peninsular Malaysia by car before hopping over to Sarawak to visit Sabah via Brunei. Most of the road trip was an ordeal and there wasn’t much to see or do but at that stage we were all still in pretty good spirits. It was good to be back in Kuching and we loved our few days there, but after that everything fell apart.

Why Sabah Malaysia, Went Bad

Orangutang spotting in Sabah
Did we see orangutangs? Yes. There were loads. Hemmed in amidst oil palm plantations and electric fences. That’s the part most people don’t share. My son is looking at an orangutang here, a tiny dot of fleeting movement high in a tree. Can you see it? No, neither could we.

By the time we got to Mount Kinabalu (in the north of Sabah), I was in bits.

Inedible food, terrible accommodation, being lied to and cheated, and the environmental horror of plastic and oil palms left me beaten and losing my sanity in a full-on meltdown. I should have known better, this has happened to us before in Malaysia.

Our “Malaysia Curse”

Beach pollution Borneo
Pollution on a beach, north coast of Malaysian Borneo, taken in the same month. Environmental destruction isn’t easy to take.

Over the last 7 or 8 years of full-time travel most things have been wonderful and a few things have been bad. Bizarrely, almost all of the bad has been in Malaysia. A few of the incidents that constitute our “curse” are below.

  • Being in an environmental disaster, having to cancel plans for Malacca, and ending up sleeping on the floor in the cleaner’s room at a wonderful hostel in KL. The guys at this hostel are our friends, we love them, they saved us, but the stress that day had me in tears.
  • Falling victim to a pickpocket in Penang. It was on a crowded bus, he talked to me, I thought he was being kind helping a woman with two small kids. His hands were in my daypack. My then 8-year-old saw him rob us.
  • Having my favourite T-shirt stolen from a hotel in Malacca. When you only have the contents of one small backpack your favourite T-shirt is a bit more important. We’ve never been robbed in a hotel anywhere else in over 50 countries. It’s the betrayal of trust that hurts. This particular hotel also gave us plenty of issues with noise (drilling up a concrete floor), bad food, bad room, all the usual minor irritations that come together to get you down.
  • Being on a ferry from Penang to Langkawi when it broke down halfway. We had to limp back to our point of origin and start over.
  • The worst hotel in the world in Georgetown. The raw expensive pizza (raw dough, no refund), the sleepless night as the nightwatchman partied and smoked downstairs. The fear of being alone in a deserted hotel with drunken men and two small kids. Finding ourselves locked in the next morning as the drunkard slept. That metal door was our fire exit.
  • The other worst hotel in the world on Langkawi. This one was expensive and we needed good food for my husband’s Ironman event. The food was inedible. Lack of nutrition destroyed his race and put him in danger. Even shopping for groceries to cook ourselves we couldn’t get close to the quality nutrition he needed. The guys prepare for 12 months for these events and drop a lot of cash. It’s a big deal and this sport is dangerous even with good fuel. He survived, he hobbled in eventually. Waiting for your husband to finish over 4 hours beyond his usual time, with a broken tracking system and shoddy race organisation isn’t fun. These races are never fun, but that day was hell.
  • Failing to get into Brunei and being stranded at border security unable to go forward or back. This was our own fault and we did see the funny side. But still, nothing like this has ever happened to us before.
  • Endless problems finding food. I prefer not to eat meat. It’s hard outside of major cities to find quality food, vegetables or anything healthy. Indian food is a joy in Malaysia but in the parts we visited on this trip it wasn’t available. At the time we bailed out of Mt Kinabalu I’d eaten nothing at all for 48 hours and not eaten a decent serve of vegetables in maybe a month. I just couldn’t face another plate of greasy noodles fried in dirty oil or yet another take-out pizza.
  • Animal abuse. We’ve seen too much animal abuse and animals as entertainment on this trip. It comes in unexpected places and it’s upsetting.
  • Plastics, pollution, filth, and environmental devastation. Some of it was absolutely sickening.

So we’ve had a few issues, there are more, these are just the ones I don’t mind talking about right now. Some issues are tiny, trifling matters but each one adds to the next and the straw does eventually break the camel.

We really wanted to put all that behind us. Turns out we couldn’t. Malaysia is still our Nemesis.

Highlights of Sabah Malaysia

jungle night safari Sabah Borneo
Jungle night safaris are well sold in Sabah, Malaysia. Ours was basically a walk in scrub land at the back of somebody’s house. It was totally not worth going, even if it were free. We saw some lantern flies and lots of ants.

There were three major things we wanted to do in Sabah. The first was to visit the orangutan rescue place at Sepilok, the second was a three day, two-night river safari to see pygmy elephants (with a side of wild orangutans and proboscis monkeys), the third was climb Mount Kinabalu. All three of these were massive letdowns. Expensive letdowns at that.

The whole trip bought us zero joy and cost us thousands, most of the money we simply gave away with nothing in return. In the end, we decided to lose our cash rather than stay in Sabah one day longer. We should have left earlier (and I’d asked Chef if we could leave earlier – he knew I’d had enough) because every day just got progressively worse.

We’re out of Sabah now, safely back in Kuala Lumpur on a last-minute flight to an airport hotel with no onward plans. We’ll think of something, we always do. But the major feeling as we got on the plane out of there was massive relief. There was pain, upset, disappointment, guilt, and tears. But relief overshadowed all of those hurts. My son had been really looking forward to the Kinabalu climb, but even he was relieved to be leaving. He was also sick. We’ve all been sick. It was coronavirus time in Asia.

Costs in Sabah Malaysia

Malaysia has a two-tier pricing system. Malaysians pay way less for everything than foreigners, pushing tourist prices into the super-expensive zone. I’ll give you the costs for the river safari and Mount Kinabalu climb some other time, but just know it was thousands. That plus the daily per room tourist tax on hotels does get to you after a while.

The Orangutan Rescue Place – Sepilok

Sepilok Orangutang Rescue Sabah Malaysia
The Sepilok orangatang reserve in Sabah Malaysia. It’s a commercial attraction and feels like a zoo. The orangutang place in Sarawak was much better for us.

We had already visited the orangutan rescue place at Semmengoh, near Kuching in Sarawak. That was a good experience. By contrast, the Sepilok center just felt like a zoo.

There was no talk or introduction, just a bunch of baby orangutans behind glass. At feeding time one orangutan showed up along with some monkeys. There were crowds as several coach tours arrived and this was at the height of coronavirus scare. Presumably, we visited on a quiet day.

There was just nothing good about it. Orangutans are there because the oil palm industry put them there. It felt as if Sabah was generating a tourist attraction out of the misery it caused to these animals. It felt wrong.

If you didn’t know, about 50% of Sabah is now oil palm plantations. It’s a depressing sight along with the incredible levels of plastic pollution that we’d already seen on this trip. I’ve never seen so much trash on beaches anywhere in the world, nor water as filthy. All of these little things chip away, slowly slowly stealing positivity.

The River Safari to See Pygmy Elephants

River boat safari sabah malaysia
Our “guide” did occasionally pull off the main river into these narrower waterways. The only problem was, there was nothing to see here, and he knew it.

Everything about this was utterly bad. We found a guide on recommendation, he was ” the man” for finding pygmy elephants. We paid him a lot of money. Our first 2-3 hour boat tour with him was the last time we saw him. After that he handed us over to his very young son who couldn’t spot an animal to save his life. Our “private guide” took off with another group leaving us visiting and revisiting the same stretch of animal-devoid waterway.

On this first boat ride “the man” did spot wild orangutans and proboscis monkeys. That was OK, I was cool with that. They were so far away that we could just make them out with binoculars for fleeting seconds. I enjoyed it but others with us were complaining and that made me feel bad because they felt bad.

This trip had been my idea. We hoped that on subsequent boat rides he’d take us to smaller waterway so that we could actually try to see them or be able to take photographs. It never happened.

Our time was deliberately and purposefully taken up with looking at “ordinary monkeys” and a tiny monitor lizard. No sign of the pygmy elephants we’d come to see. One of us spotted a very small crocodile, our young guide completely missed it. But we’d come for elephants and our guide knew that.

Eventually, junior let slip that there was in fact only one Asian elephant in the patch of jungle he’d taken us to and that the large herd of pygmy elephants was some 2 hours away. At this point our 3 days were up, we couldn’t schedule another trip. He knew this the whole time and yet strung us along and happily took our money to look at trees.

We took 3 river trips. Our “private tour” also included a night walk and “optional activities”. The night walk was behind somebody’s house, not in the jungle, we saw pretty much nothing. I’d be able to find more wildlife in my own back garden.

When we asked what the “optional activities” were, the man with our cash directed us to the village to take a walk. There was absolutely nothing of interest to see. We wasted about 6 hours just waiting for the next uneventful boat ride in blistering heat.

As always, food was disgusting, accommodation was poor, atmosphere non-existent.

The pygmy elephants are there, you need to book a special full-day trip to go looking for them. Another lodge nearby gave us the honest details. The full-day boat trip wasn’t even expensive and we would have gladly paid. Mr Man simply wanted to take our money and pretend we were unlucky to not see them. I was designated to talk to our guide on the phone to try and clarify this. He wouldn’t listen and just shouted over me. It wasn’t pleasant. We strongly recommend that you don’t book this guide.

A Better Place To See Proboscis Monkeys in Malaysia

If you want to see proboscis monkeys at closer range, go to Bako National Park in Sarawak. This was a much better experience and we had an honest guide. By noon he told us to go home, it’s too hot and you’ll see nothing more. In contrast, Mr Man had us and his son sitting around in full afternoon inferno heat as he pretended to deliver our tour.

Have Things Changed Too Much in Sabah

So many people say these tours in Sabah are good, great experiences. I don’t know if things have changed because this is our first time here. I can tell you that Malaysia has changed enormously in the last 8 years, we’ve seen the changes in KL so maybe Sabah has changed too. There was a lot of traffic on the river. Speedboats zipped up and down and tug boats pulled huge oil palm barges. New highways cut through the landscape and unoccupied housing developments stand where once there was rainforest.

The national park was totally hemmed in by electric fence ringed plantations. Even on the smaller waterways, we saw speedboats noisy enough to scare any wildlife and fast enough to erode riverbanks. Climate change must also be playing its part. Several people told us that we should see rain not blistering heat. Maybe it’s just all over for Sabah.

Escape From The River Tour to Sandakan

We didn’t want to stick around after being yelled at by Mr A so we rustled up a minibus to take us back to Sandakan that night. Several hours in a bus, down another $100, and on arrival a smoke-stinking cesspit of a hostel with blaring karaoke and a smelly foam mattress didn’t do much to salvage the mood.

Bus to Kinabalu National Park

Bus to Mount Kinabalu Sabah
Bus to Mount Kinabalu Sabah. Not a bad bus at all. No complaints about the bus, by by this time I desperately wanted to just not be there.

This was a nice bus and it only cost us 35 MYR (a lot more than it costs if you’re Malaysian, as usual) no complaints about the bus at all. A woman at the front of the bus coughed deeply, the guy behind me burped fish, and a kid puked on the floor, but it was fine. I like buses and this is normal-ish. It took about 4 hours.

The lunch and toilet stop were beyond vile. Again, no food any of us would consider eating. The bus dropped us almost outside the Kinabalu lodge. We paid our admission to the park and checked in. We were pretty excited to be starting this adventure so there was plenty of positivity.

food in sabah
Our lunch stop options were grim. At this point I’d eaten nothing in 48 hours, my kids were getting by on snacks and junk. Bad food hits moral hard.

Thinking back to our trekking in the Himalayas and the long bus journeys there, this is different. Bus rides are harder in Nepal, sometimes terrifying, but there is joy, excitement, laughter and good Nepali food. Travel in Malaysia is a drudge and test of mental endurance with no good dinner and cold beer to look forward to.

Mount Kinabalu

accommodation mount kinabalu
Our accommodation at Mount Kinabalu was nothing like the photos online. Our ceiling was covered in black mold and the sheets were damp. It wasn’t a place I’d ever stay, let alone without wifi. We got out of there and took a taxi direct to the airport.

We couldn’t see the mountain as the cloud and drizzle hung low. Our lodge had looked beautiful online, a while colonial building with great reviews. I was excited to be in a decent hotel (maybe with decent food!) after days of roughing it.

My hopes and dreams were smashed as we saw the reality. Little more than a shed, the sort of shared bathroom you’d find on a bad campsite and damp. The sheets felt damp, the ceiling was covered in black mould and then the final straw, no wifi. 2 days with no wifi in a damp shed. I couldn’t take any more, it broke me.

We left. Another $50 for a taxi out of there, a hastily booked flight and we were gone. Finally food after 48 hours without. A couple of pieces of broccoli on the plane. We eventually tumbled into bed in KL around 10 pm and slept in cool clean sheets for the first time in days.

We’d already paid for the trek itself. It’s a 2-day walk to the summit of Mount Kinabalu and hikers are obliged to take a guide. I think we’d paid for 3 or 4 guides total as we had kids with us and rules dictate one guide per 2 kids. They weren’t cheap. We lost every cent. The lodge and trekking agents didn’t even bother replying to my emails requesting a refund. I wasn’t surprised. Notably, if it rains, your trek will be cancelled, no refunds. It’s a great little money maker. Of course, Malaysians pay much less.

It was drizzling when we left and the unappealing area was infested with mangy dogs. I don’t think we missed much.

After The Sabah Trip

Maybe all this doesn’t sound so bad to you. You didn’t live it. You hadn’t planned this awesome adventure nor dropped all your cash on it. It crushed me, destroyed me in a way almost nothing has before. But at least now we know what Sabah Malaysia is like. I’ll give you full details on all this in time. We are travel bloggers, this is our work, our job. This time it sucked, costs us way too much, and brought zero enjoyment. I’m starting to question my choices. At this point, I no longer want to do this. I was cheated and lied to, I hate that.

As you can see, I wrote all of the above while it was fresh in my mind and the hurt was very raw. I sat on this post, unpublished, for eight months.2020 has been the worst year of my life, so much bad stuff has happened but finally, a good thing for the world came in November. There is a whiff of hope in the air. So maybe we turned a corner. It’s hard to publish negative things on a travel blog, you become the target of hate mail and trolls. But this is how it was for us. This is our honest account of our time in Sabah, and it’s all completely true. We didn’t like most of the other parts of Malaysia that we visited on the trip either, with the exception of Ipoh. East coast Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands, and Miri Sarawak all left us dead inside. So Sabah was the end of a very bad trip. It was great to be back in Bali, which was where we ended up. Safe, reliable, beautiful Ubud. We still love KL and Kuching, I don’t know what’s so different about those two places and other parts of Malaysia, but we have seen it all, been everywhere, I will create the content. That’s all I have to say on Sabah.

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Phaedra

Monday 16th of November 2020

We had an amazing time in Sabah. Yes, there are massive environmental issues - which is why we came home and joined organisations to save the orangutans, reduce plastic consumption, and cut use of palm oil. It's important the tourists (sorry, "traveller" in your case) sees these things. Sepilok didn't feel at all like a zoo, it runs a rehabilitation programme, and they are extremely careful about putting the orangutans' needs before those of the visitors - hence the sound proof glass so the babies can play without being aware of people watching them.

I'm not sure why you felt the need to post this now, when most of us are dreaming of travelling further then the end of our roads. You live in a beautiful place in a country with hardly any Covid cases - please have a bit of empathy with the rest of us.

Having had a bit of a tongue lashing from you before when I dared to make a suggestion (when you were moaning about your steam train trip), I'm not expecting this feedback to be taken at all well - but never mind, I'm not going to be following you anymore anyway, so won't see it.

Alyson for World Travel Family

Tuesday 17th of November 2020

Such a beautiful human. Your spite and anger are unfortunate. I'm leaving your comment up, it reflects on only you.

Sharon

Sunday 15th of November 2020

Wow, you really didn’t have a good time. I am so disappointed for you as we visited the same area 4 years ago and had such a different experience. We also went on a 3 day, 2 night tour and were so fortunate to see a wide variety of animals, birds and insects, including a herd of wonderful Pygmy elephants. We had exceptionally informative, interesting guides who seemed to know the best spots on the river for wildlife spotting. Our tour was one of the cheapest on offer, although it still felt expensive to us at £200. Accommodation was very basic but adequate with good food, even for a vegetarian like me. Our night tour on the river was one of the most magical moments of my life. The sky was amazing with the Milky Way so apparent. Crocs were in abundance and we we got very close to sleeping kingfishers who were totally unaware of our presence. The sounds and sights of the jungle were phenomenal. We also visited Sepilok and got close to orangutans who were walking around the area. Although the baby area was more zoo like, especially as they were behind glass, we were happy with the informality of the rest of the park. We were able to go back at dusk for a private night tour with 2 of the rangers for just a couple of dollars each. It was fabulous as the orangutans were still roaming the area and we were able to get very close to them. The rangers then pointed out so many interesting birds, mammals and insects on our walk as it got increasingly darker.

We loved our time in Sabah and felt so privileged to have seen so much awesome wildlife. It was definitely one of the highlights of our time travelling and the memories will still with us for ever. It’s so sad that you didn’t get to experience the same things we did but sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw of who you book with and the people and guides you meet on your way.

Alyson for World Travel Family

Monday 16th of November 2020

I think maybe that 4 years has made a big difference. So many people told us this, but what we found wasn't recognisable as the same place.

Talitha Cooreman-Guittin

Sunday 15th of November 2020

Hello Alyson, I recognize so much of this, especially the filth and the run-down accommodation, and the destruction of the environment(palm-trees...).

We spent six weeks in Sabah with three teenage kids (a few years ago) and were lucky enough to have rented a house in Kinarut (owned by UK-people) which was lovely. The house was near the shore, but the beach was just another waist-dump - like most beaches in Sabah (but not all!). We avoided Sepilok, Sandakan (fenced-in orang utans are not our thing) and didn't go to see the pygmy-elephants. We walked AROUND Mt Kinabalu, because it's free and we had lovely weather which was nice! We fled our accommodation at Mt Kinabalu, which was run-down and stinking - instead we drove four hours at night time (which was dangerous) back to our house... We went to Tip-of-Borneo where the beach was clean and the chalet rather cosy. We stayed three days with the Rungus-people and learned that "it's rainy season when it rains" ... which was when we were there: three days of pouring rain although our Lonely-Planet guide said it was supposed to be dry season. The stay was interesting, though nothing to write home about.

Our kids made friends with local kids and our son even ended up coaching the futsall-team. Our eldest daughter spent most of her time looking after horses on a horse-riding center near our house. They remember it as a great trip!

It was Ramadan when we were there, and we went to several nighttime food-fairs which had really good food.

I wouldn't recommend Sabah to first-time-travelers, because it is so unsure and apparently it's not improving garbage-wise. But from what I read in your post even seasoned travelers can be taken aback by Sabah because the local people are unfriendly. That comes as a surprise to me. Thanks for sharing your experience - take good care! Talitha

Alyson for World Travel Family

Sunday 15th of November 2020

As you know Talitha, we've been everywhere, and most places we stay months. Sabah was just a horrible experience all round. It was a surprise after enjoying Sarawak so much. The people of Kuching were some of the nicest we ever met and there was so much of cultural interest. I'd go back to Kuching, I'd live in Kuching even.

Ingrid

Sunday 15th of November 2020

I’ m glad for your honest review. I suspect some travel blogs dont always tell the whole truth. And since you’ve been traveling a lot I know you’re not the kind of tourist who expects things to be exactly like home. Im quite surprised that you had such a bad experience in Sabah. We had the most wonderful trip with good food and nice friendly people. But; we were there in 2006, so I suspect that things might have changed a lot (or we were just very lucky.) We travelled with an agency (Intrepid) so that probably means less chance of getting ripped off etc. And, this was before we got kids (we still travel around the world with the kids but a little bit less rough...) But, as you wrote, if Malaysia has changed a lot the last years it could be that the wonderful Sabah I remember has changed,and that makes me sad. We might give it a try again once in the future, when the pandemic is over (and the kids a little older (our daughter is scared of the insects in our Norwegian garden so I guess Borneo is not the right place for her yet :-) )

Alyson for World Travel Family

Sunday 15th of November 2020

I don't know Ingrid. We hated everything about it. It's such a shame. Thanks for your comment.

Mags

Sunday 15th of November 2020

Hey Alyson. I'm a regular reader of yours and fellow travel blogger. I read your post with horror. I get it. Sometimes a trip just doesn't pan out. We've had that. Sometimes it's just the worst and I can totally relate to when you just want to leave a country. It's the worst feeling ever. It's a shame as we spent 3 weeks in Sabah in 2018, I travelled solo with my then 10 yr old girl and loved it. I think as always it depends on who you sign up with for tours. There will always be people that rip you off. We volunteered with Ape Malaysia in the Kinabatangan and so during our week on the river we had a wonderful guide with lots of river trips. We replanted secondary rainforest sites and learn a lot with many passionate locals. We didn't see any wild orang-utans but we did see 67 pygmy elephants close up crossing the river. I also believe that Sepilok is an amazing place that does incredible work with orang-utans. There is a film that you can watch in the auditorium that explains the work they do. I agree it's not really geared up for tourists apart from viewing the babies or the feeding sessions but they do a huge amount behind the scenes for orang-utans and rely on tourist admission costs to help them do that. Mount Kinabalu was also a good experience for us. I agree, the non refund due to bad weather is ridiculous - it costs a lot. We paid £400 each to climb which I was very hesitant on doing as it was so much. In the end I only booked with a few days to go carefully looking at the weather reports - I couldn't afford to lose £800. Our guide was very good and knowledgable & we only needed one guide for 1 adult/1 child. We didn't make it to the top - only to 3650m as my daughter was struggling with the altitude so we stopped at the last check point and then did the via ferrata which again which was a great experience. We went diving with Bigfin Divers in Sabah which was exceptional. We can highly recommend them. My daughter's instructor was amazing & she dived for 3 days giving her a passion for diving. There was a LOT of plastic around Sandakan (not the most inspirational place) which is always awful to see. We visited Palau Selingan (Turtle Island) & had a good experience. There had been some negative comments on trip advisor about rubbish on the far side of the island which we also experienced so I talked a lot to the new manager Fatima about this and we are pushing for a daily voluntary visitor shore clean to help the 5 full time rangers battle the currents with the constant arrival of litter & plastic. It's sad to see so much plastic in the ocean, particularly in Asia and it's sad that most locals and asian tourists just don't care. Anyhow I just wanted to reach out and say Sabah isn't terrible full stop. Everyone's experiences are down to the luck of the draw (especially with guides!) and sometimes bad luck does happens back to back. That's when travel sucks! Of course travel writing is about reporting the good, the bad, your personal experience. Thanks for the constant inspiration of you & your family. We will be leaping into full time travel soon - a long time coming ..... I cannot wait! Mags x

Alyson for World Travel Family

Sunday 15th of November 2020

Best of luck to you Mags.

nomadic family life

Alyson is the creator of World Travel Family travel blog and is a full-time traveller, blogger and travel writer. A lifetime of wanderlust and now over 7 years on the road, 50+ countries allowed the creation of this website, for you. She has a BSc and worked in pathology before entering the travel arena and creating this website. World Travel Family Travel Blog has been helping you travel more, better and further since 2012, when Alyson and James first had this life changing idea. On this site you can find endless travel information, tips and guides plus how to travel, how to fund travel and how to start your own travel blog.