Why Malaysia should be top of the pile for Australian travellers

Malaysia is home to many hidden wonders. Photo: iStock
Malaysia is home to many hidden wonders. Photo: iStock

MANY Australian travellers are quick to jump on a flight to Thailand and Bali, while Malaysia often gets overlooked. It’s baffling.

Malaysian Borneo is home to skyscraper-tall jungles, mist-shrouded mountains, tropical coastlines, and some of the world’s most fascinating wildlife.

Sabah’s capital city, Kota Kinabalu, is the perfect place to start, with its evening-lit markets, modern boardwalks and long-stretched beaches.

But while it’s tempting to lounge around Sabah’s clear, blue water, experiencing the country’s incredible culture is a must. Here’s how to spend your time in Malaysian Borneo.

STAY IN TAMBATUON VILLAGE

There is something special about a stranger opening the doors of their home and inviting you to experience their culture. In Tambatuon village, roughly two hours outside Sabah’s capital at the base of Mount Kinabalu, the locals are pros at welcoming foreigners with open arms.

During our homestay we swim in the ice-cold river and wander our way through the town. In the distance, we hear kids giggling while they kick a ball on a cement soccer field.

The village of brightly painted wooden homes and bamboo huts is surrounded by rice paddies in perfect parallels. Pangaloi, or “uncle”, points out the different plants and seeds the local Dusun people use for food. There are salad leaves, jungle ferns, wild ginger, cocoa, pineapple – it’s no wonder Dusun means “farmer” in the local dialect.

The rainforest talks back to us as we pass through. I bump a mimosa pudica, a “shy lady”, and watch as its leaves fold inward and droop. It re-opens 15 minutes later, but by this stage we have well moved on.

DELVE INTO THE SUNGAI KINABATANGAN JUNGLE

In the day, the jungle glows with promise. We see elephant footsteps smudged in the soft mud and local hornbills soaring in the sky. A small passenger vessel takes us across the Sungai Kinabatangan, the longest river in Sabah spanning 560 kilometres. Visitors have travelled from afar to explore this jungle, which is now protected by the government from the development of palm oil plantations. It hides pygmy elephants, the proboscis monkey, orangutans and so much more.

At night, the jungle is mystical and you rely not on what you can see, but what you can hear and feel. James, a local guide, warns us to keep our hands close and not to touch anything. A brush of a certain insect or plant can leave you itching for days, he warns. It is hard to tell at night whether the twisty and curly shadows are snakes or branches.

I feel as if I have popped my earphones in and hit play on Apple’s rainforest soundtrack. The sound is unworldly and I struggle to make out which insect or animal is talking to us in the dead of night. Their voices create layers and layers of different melodies that echo through the jungle.

The cicadas’ calling sounds like the soundtrack to a horror film.The melody awakes a predator, the flying squirrel, which we spot soaring high among the treetops where earlier a family of orangutans were having lunch. By this stage I’ve lost track of how many different species of animals we’ve seen.

GLAMP WITH BABY TURTLES ON PULAU LIBARAN

Only 45 minutes from the mainland, Pulau Libaran island, is a peaceful getaway from the city. On the boat ride over, our G Adventures tour guide Roxy tells us we will be camping underneath the stars and immediately I’m thinking cold showers, cramped tents and sleeping bags on thin ground mats.

But as we arrive, local wildlife warden Harun takes me to my “tent”, which is plunked right on the edge of the beach. As he zips open the doors I breathe a sigh of relief. A lush, king-size single bed and a fan await me. We are glamping underneath the stars tonight.

As the sun begins to set, Harun invites us to the nearby turtle hatchery, a local initiative to help rescue threatened turtles. Minutes later, the unimaginable happens. The ground trembles slightly and the first turtle peeps up to say hello. Then, two, three, four more. Before we know it a family of more than a hundred turtles are rushing to the ground’s surface to meet the world. They flutter like birds in the wind, crowd surfing on top of one another.

It’s a bittersweet moment – only a small percentage of this beautiful family will survive. Harun places them gently from the bucket into the water and watches them swim off into the ocean. His eyes water at the sight but he reassures me we’re watching the cycle of life. One day, some will return to Libaran to lay their own eggs. As I pack my bags inside my glowing tent the following morning, I hope that I too will return to this beautiful island again one day.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Singapore Airlines and AirAsia both fly to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo. AirAsia flies with one stopover at Kuala Lumpur. G Adventures will organise an eight-day adventure for you starting from $1499. The trip includes time spent in Turtle Island National Park, Sepilok’s orangutan rehabilitation centre, Kota Belud, morning and evening river safaris in Kinabatangan and much more. Visit: G Adventures.

STAYING THERE: Tambatuon Village Homestead is located on the foothills of Mount Kinabalu and by the Kedamaian River. The accommodation is made up of dorm-like rooms and a common area, kitchen and bathroom. The local Dunsun tribe, the biggest ethnic group in Sabah, will cook you food sourced from the nearby paddy fields and jungle. Visit: TripAdvisor

PLAYING THERE: The homestay runs day-time walks around the village and through the nearby jungle before an early evening cooking class with “uncle” and other locals. Guests are encouraged to go for a dip in the lake that streams down from the top of Mount Kinabalu.

* The writer travelled as a guest of G Adventures and Sabah Tourism.