Until European powers gained a foothold at the northern tip of Borneo in the nineteenth century, the tribal peoples of Sabah had only minimal contact with the outside world. Since then – and particularly since joining the Malaysian Federation in 1963 – these groups have largely exchanged traditional ways for a collective Malaysian identity. As Sabah’s cultural landscape has changed, so has its environment: the logging industry has been allowed to exploit huge swathes of the rainforests, with cleared regions used to plant oil palm – a monoculture that makes a poor habitat for wildlife. On the other hand, many locals would argue, this agro-industry provides work for thousands, and generates much-needed income into the state coffers.
While arguments rage between campaigners, corporations and politicians, tourists continue to enjoy the remaining natural riches of “the land below the wind” (so called because Sabah’s 72,500 square kilometres lie just south of the typhoon belt). The terrain ranges from wild, swampy, mangrove-tangled coastal areas, through the dazzling greens of paddy fields and pristine rainforests, to the dizzy heights of the Crocker mountain range – home to the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea, Gunung Kinabalu (Mount Kinabalu). Although habitats for Sabah’s indigenous animals have shrunk dramatically, the remaining forests still offer some of the best wildlife-watching opportunities in Malaysia. Offshore, damaging fishing practices have as elsewhere in the region taken their toll, but marine parks protect areas of magnificent coral – most famously around Sipadan – and the attendant sea life.
Sabah’s urban centres are not especially attractive or historically rich, thanks to World War II bombs and hurried urban redevelopment. While places like KK (Kota Kinabalu) and Sandakan lack notable buildings, however, they abound in atmosphere and energy, plus good places to eat and sleep. That said, Sabah’s remarkable natural attractions are the major draw for most visitors.
The Klias Peninsula south of KK offers activity-based day-trips such as whitewater rafting or firefly cruises, while with more time you could visit the island of Pulau Tiga; you may also need to transit through duty-free Labuan on the way to Brunei. North of KK lie the beaches and coconut groves of the Kudat Peninsula, where it’s possible to visit longhouses belonging to the Rungus tribe; the northernmost point, the Tip of Borneo, features windy shorelines and splendid isolation.
Heading east from KK, things get truly exciting. Dominating the landscape are the huge granite shelves of the awesome Gunung Kinabalu, a major attraction as getting up and down involves spending just one night on the mountain. Further east is Sandakan, a rapidly modernizing town with offshore attractions including the Turtle Islands National Park. Back on the mainland, at the nearby Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, you can get a ringside view of animals at feeding times.
Deeper into the oil-palm plantations of east Sabah lies the protected Kinabatangan River, where visitors can take boat trips to see wild proboscis monkeys, elephants and orang-utans. Further south, the Danum Valley Conservation Area offers a spectacular canopy walkway, with the choice of staying at a luxury lodge or a humbler research centre. Alternatively try the more affordable Tabin Wildlife Reserve, with a mud volcano and an elephant colony. In the deep south, accessible via the boom town of Tawau, nestles the untouched forest sector of the Maliau Basin, now open for challenging trekking.
For divers, the offshore islands near the southern town of Semporna are the jewel in Sabah’s crown. Sipadan offers world-class diving off coral walls, while its neighbour Mabul is known for its fabulous macro (small-scale) marine life. These two are simply the best known, and the area can keep divers and snorkellers enchanted for days.
Little is known of Sabah’s early history, though archeological finds in limestone caves indicate that the northern tip of Borneo has been inhabited for well over ten thousand years. Chinese merchants were trading with local settlements by 700 AD, and by the fourteenth century the area was under the sway of the sultans of Brunei and Sulu.
Europe’s superpowers first arrived in 1521, when the ships of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan stopped off at Brunei before sailing northwards. Almost 250 years later, in 1763, colonial settlement began when one Captain Cowley established a short-lived trading post on Pulau Balambangan, an island north of Kudat, on behalf of the British East India Company. Further colonial involvement came in 1846, when Pulau Labuan (at the mouth of Brunei Bay) was ceded to the British by the Sultan of Brunei. By 1881 the British North Borneo Chartered Company had full sovereignty over northern Borneo.
First steps were then taken towards making the territory pay its way: rubber, tobacco and, after 1885, timber were commercially harvested. By 1905 a rail line linked the coastal town of Jesselton (later Kota Kinabalu) with the resource-rich interior. When the company introduced taxes, the locals were understandably displeased and some resisted; Mat Salleh, the son of a Bajau chief, and his followers sacked the company’s settlement on Pulau Gaya in 1897. Another uprising, in Rundum in 1915, resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of Murut tribespeople by British forces.
World War II
On New Year’s Day 1942, Japanese imperial forces invaded Pulau Labuan; Sandakan fell less than three weeks later. By the time the Japanese surrendered on September 9, 1945, almost nothing of Jesselton and Sandakan remained standing (although the worst structural damage was inflicted by Allied bombing). Even worse were the hardships endured by civilians and captured Allied troops, the most notorious of which were the Death Marches of 1945.
Unable to finance the postwar rebuilding of North Borneo, the Chartered Company sold the territory to the British Crown in 1946, and Jesselton was declared the new capital of the Crown Colony of North Borneo. Within fifteen years, however, plans had been laid for an independent federation consisting of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo and (it was intended) Brunei. The Federation was proclaimed at midnight on September 15, 1963, with North Borneo renamed Sabah.
Relations with federal Kuala Lumpur have seldom been smooth, but differences had seemed to narrow until, in 1985, the opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), led by the Christian Joseph Pairin Kitingan, was returned to office in the state elections. This was the first time a non-Muslim had attained power in a Malaysian state. Anti-federal feelings were worsened by much of the profits from Sabah’s flourishing crude oil exports being siphoned off to KL.
Nowadays, with PBS having joined the country’s ruling BN coalition, central government is following a policy of patching up long-running, cross-state disunity to realize a vision of a multi-ethnic – but Muslim-dominated – nation.
Although many traditions have died out, Sabah’s three-million-plus population includes more than a dozen recognized ethnic groups, and numerous dialects are still in use. The peoples of the Kadazan/Dusun tribes constitute the largest indigenous group; then there are the Murut of the southwest, and Sabah’s so-called “sea gypsies”, the Bajau. In recent years, Sabah has also seen an influx of Filipino and Indonesian immigrants, particularly on its east coast.
Town and village tamus (markets), usually held weekly, are a wonderful opportunity for visitors to take in the colourful mixture of cultures. Large tamus include those held on Sundays in the state capital Kota Kinabalu (KK) and in the small town of Kota Belud, two hours north by bus. The biggest annual festival is the Pesta Kaamatan, a harvest festival celebrated in May by the Kadazan/Dusun.