Sabah family adventure
Blow pipe demonstrations for families (Photo by Sabah Tourism / Melissa Ewot)

Sabah - a family adventure

While much of Borneo remains untamed, the Malaysian province of Sabah - in the far north - has been quietly creating comfortable ecolodges, supporting its wildlife sanctuaries and protecting its offshore islands - and is now a wonderful destination for a family holiday. Its wildlife, jungles and islands have become far more accessible but no less wild; this is no sanitised Disney experience. The domestic flights, swimming pools, superb wildlife guides and lifeguards on the beaches have not spoiled the landscapes or deterred the wildlife, but mean that families can visit easily - and safely.

We know that one of the hardest things about travelling as a family is that everyone has different interests, but Sabah has activities to inspire children whether they want to see cute baby orangutans or grisly headhunter trophies. Travel round this compact province and experience the full range of emotions as you travel from beach to forest, market to mud pool.

Things to make you say "Oooh!"
The orangutan is found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra - but it is Sabah that offers the best chances of a close encounter, thanks to the fantastic Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Founded over half a century ago, the centre nurtures young, orphaned orangutans and releases them into the surrounding reserve once they are old enough - and bold enough - to fend for themselves. Daily feedings support those who have not quite got the hang of foraging - which means that you're virtually guaranteed to see these scruffy orange primates as they swing down from the canopy to feed on fruit - without the need for long drives or tiring treks. Meanwhile, dozens of lively macaques hop and screech, gibbons perform acrobatics and the odd rescued sun bear may also be present. "Oooh!" indeed.

For an even greater wow factor, head to the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary - one of the richest ecosystems on earth. 10 primate species live here, and the best way to spot as many as possible is to take a cruise along the Kinabatangan River for a chance to see proboscis monkeys and orangutans without needing to trek too far on little legs.

It's not just Sabah's wildlife that's curious. Rumah Terbalik means "upside down house" - and this unusual sight - complete with upside down furniture and Sabahan décor - is around 40 minutes from KK.


Things to make you say "Ewww!"
It's not all sweetness and light on this wild island - kids will be able to go home with a few gross stories to wow their classmates. The most retch-inducing may be the vile durian - a fruit with a stench so vile that it is banned on public transport. Head to the market to sniff - and squirm - for yourself.

For "ewws" on an epic scale, head to the mud pools on Pula Tiga. The restorative mud may be a natural beautifying treatment for the skin, but which 10-year old is worried about that? This is a chance to wallow without getting told off! Wading through the thick, sticky pools is good fun, climbing back up the slippery banks is near impossible, and strutting around looking like a swamp monster is hilarious.

Things to make you say "AAAAAAAGH!"
Whizzing through the air on Borneo's longest island-to-island zipline is not for the faint hearted. The Coral Flyer is 250m long - and you can find yourself travelling at over 50km per hour if the wind is on your side - certainly cause for a scream! The zipline is in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park- just minutes by boat from KK - and tours include not just the exhilarating zipline, but a mask and snorkel for you to take the plunge and explore the crystal clear waters you've just flown over.

Zip line in Sabah
Zip line in Sabah (Photo by Sabah Tourism)
Things to make you say "Ahhhh..."
And... relax. Sabah's many tiny, offshore islands offer classic white sand and swaying palms, the ideal place to sigh deeply in between jungle adventures. Children may not be as enthralled by the thought of sprawling on the sand for days on end - but these castaway cays still offer plenty of excitement for budding Robinson Crusoes. The islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park are ringed with reefs and perfect for snorkelling; Manukan Island has lifeguards, too. Its forests and mangrove swamps are a haven for bearded pigs, macaques and pangolins - an easy 1.5km walk takes you right across the island.

The island of Pulau Tiga was the setting for the first series of 'Survivor'. Mini modern castaways can take a walk through the jungle in search of proboscis monkeys and flying foxes, or - if it's not quite remote and relaxing enough - take a boat trip to nearby Snake Island.

Proboscis monkey

And things to make you try and say... "osonong kosuabon!"
Travellers often worry about feeling awkward during homestays - but children are a fantastic icebreaker for both guests and their hosts - as they are unfazed by the language barrier and cultural differences. Stay with villagers in a traditional longhouse at the shadow of Mount Kinabalu, and try your hand at tea picking, batik painting and cooking, Sabah-style. There are dancer performances and blow pipe demonstrations, too. To greet their hosts, kids will have to get their tongues around "Osonong kosuabon!" - the local Kadazandusun greeting.

To learn more about the human history of Sabah, visit the Monsopiad Cultural Village, just half an hour from Kota Kinabalu. Named after a fearsome headhunter who lived here in the 1800s, this is a kind of living museum, with traditional costumes, ancient artifacts and - creepiest of all - the House of Skulls, containing the evidence of Monsopiad's 42 victims, adorned with palm leaves.

See all our Sabah holidays and check out our Sabah travel guide.

Mockup of a head hunter's trophy
Mockup of a head hunter's trophy (Photo by shankar s.)
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