State of Sabah

Introduction / History / The People / Other Attraction


Known as ‘The Land Below the Wind’ because geographically, it is below the typhoon belt, Sabah sits at the tip of Borneo. It has one of the world's greatest treasures of wildlife. Mount Kinabalu, South East Asia's highest mountain, is found in Kinabalu Park. Excellent dive sites are available at Sipidan Island and at the Layang-Layang atoll.
The international gateway to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is a major city with fast developing modern infrastructure. One notable landmark is the 30-storey Sabah Foundation building at Likas Bay, unique for being one of the few buildings in the world to utilize a single column structure. Another, the Sabah Trade Centre is the focus of many trade exhibitions and a bustling centre of commerce.

Sabah’s main sporting venue, The Likas Sports Complex is well equipped with complete facilities and hosted several successful international competitions. Also in the vicinity is the Likas Bird Sanctuary, a haven for bird watching, especially during the migratory bird season.

Kota Kinabalu city is well-planned with an efficient road system. Travel to the Kota Kinabalu International Airport takes a mere 10 minutes and the new highway to Kota Belud will ensure even more convenient access to leisure spots like Karambunai.

The State Capital, Kota Kinabalu, was specially named in reverence to Mount Kinabalu, the highest challenge in Borneo. Rising majestically at 4,095.2 m. or 13,432.26 ft., Mt. Kinabalu has a mystique so inspiring, it’s magical. With its granite peak often shrouded in mists and clouds, it never fails to lure travelers all the way to the top.

The days of savage tribesmen and headhunting are history.

From cities to jungle heartland, the people of modern day Sabah, comprising of 32 different ethnic tribes, ranging from Sea gypsies in the east coast and isolated inland up river communities, often wow visitors with their exceptional friendliness.

Malaysia's commitment to religious plurality and economic equality has created enduring harmony and peace in multi-cultural in Sabah.

The wilderness has largely remained till this day, with over 50 percent of the land still swathed in tropical rainforests estimated over 125 million years old, and teeming with endless diversity of unique plants and animals. Noted environmentalist and nature TV documentary producer, Professor David Bellamy once described Sabah as one of the world's greatest natural theme parks.

Anthropologists believe the indigenous natives are descendants of Austronesian ancestry who made their way here no less than 5000 years ago.

The last two centuries saw runs of chequered history in connection with world empires.The British colonised it through the North Borneo Company beginning in 1881 until World War Two when a brief Japanese occupation took over between 1942-1945.After the war, the British Government took over the administration of North Borneo till 1963 when it joined Malaysia on 16 September.

Being a coastal state, modern Sabah is well known for its abundant fresh seafood, friendly people, Mount Kinabalu, Orang-utan Rehabitation Centre, endless stretches of white sandy beaches, world class dive sites and truly world class beach resorts and hotels besides a wide range of idyllic countryside lodges.

Besides political and social stability, Sabah is sheltered from natural upheavals which is best described by the sobriquet “Land Below the Winds” bequeathed by Agnes Keith who authored a pre-war book by the same title.

Nature has allowed the unfettered development of countless species of insects, wild plants, flowers and tropical fruits, in addition to one of the richest marine life on Earth.

Many have called Sabah a tropical paradise, a apt description in more ways than one as there are no shortage of good food to enjoy, tranquil places to ease the soul, things to see, activities to do and the mystical attractions and marvels to lift the human spirit.The best part of all this is that it is summer all year round, with warm weather, warm seas and of course, warm hospitality.

And where on earth is Sabah?

Barely two hours flight from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to the west or two hour from Hong Kong to the northwest and only a little bit more than an hour from Manila to the north.


Sabah received waves of immigrants in its pre-history, Austronesians whose ancestors constitute the present day indigenous population. Thereafter, its isolation meant that it was only very cursorily visited or considered by the great Empires of South-East Asia, though Chinese sources did indicate of emissaries visiting Borneo. Up until the mid-fifteenth century, Sabah was nominally under the suzerainty of the Sultans of Sulu and Brunei, then a quiet haven of riverine settlements and jungle clearings.

There were trading links with Imperial China and what is now Sabah. As early as the ninth century AD, Borneo was exporting her camphor wood, shells, cowries, pepper and birds' nests to Imperial China. Trade also brought the Spanish and the Portuguese to her shores and though they tried to seize Sabah to augment their various empires, nothing became of their forays.

The Sultan of Brunei's nominal control was curtailed even more after the arrival of James Brooke in the 1840's who cleared the west coast of much of its piracy. A curious historical fact is the short-lived American trading station at the mouth of the Kimanis River. This was followed up by the success of the merchant adventurers, Cowie and the Dent brothers, in securing grants of territory from the local rulers.

Their grants were given legitimacy by the incorporation of the North Borneo Chartered Company in 1881 and the founding of Kudat as the capital. The capital was later moved to the town of Sandakan, an old German trading station called Elopura, or the 'Beautiful Town' which had been accidentally burnt to the ground years before. Sandakan was in the heart of the rich east coast with its birds' nests, gutta-percha and tobacco. A record of the state's exports in 1897 reveals a curious assortment of commodities - old jars, animal horns, belacan or shrimp paste and even $ 120,510.00 worth of treasure.

In its perpetual search for revenues and dividends, the Company built a railway line that linked the interior with the coast, a venture reminiscent of one of the British writer Conrad's South Sea novels.

To increase the population, the Company encouraged the immigration of Chinese settlers, drawing Hakkas to the west coast and Cantonese to the east, as well as a lone colony of Shantung settlers on the edge of present day Kota Kinabalu who forsook their windswept plains for the heat and humidity of Borneo.

The pacification of Sabah was not an easy matter and the Chartered Company was forced to quell two uprisings. The first was led by the legendary figure, Mat Salleh, at the turn of the century, though the rebellion was finally quelled. The second and possibly more interesting rebellion concerned the Murut people of the interior who joined forces under the leadership of Antanum in 1917, during the First World War. They refused to agree to British demands for corvee labour and objected to the way bridle paths were built across their ancestral lands without regard for the djinns and spirits of the hills. The British murdered Antanum under the guise of the parley and mowed down his supporters, an act which had blotted the colonial record.

The Second World War brought the Japanese to Sabah and with them the beginning of the end of the colonial era. An elegy for those times was Agnes Keith's touching memoirs 'The Land Below The Wind', which captured the atmosphere of 1930's Sandakan. A small enclave of colonial buildings still stands on the ridge over-looking what was once the Residency, a forgotten outpost of an Empire.

Sabah suffered heavily during the War and Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu were destroyed by American bombings in the dying days of the War. There are three memorials - one on the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, Kundasang and another in Sandakan, commemorating the death march that claimed the lives of all but six of the 2,400 men who marched from Sandakan to Ranau; and the third at Petagas on the west coast honouring the brave but ill-fated 'Double 10' revolt in 1943, in which a resistance group succeeded in seizing Jesselton for a day and a night before they were forced to retreat by the Japanese.

Subsequent history has been peaceful by comparison and Merdeka, or Independence, was granted on the 16 September 1963 to the state within the Federation of Malaysia.

The People

The three million population of Sabah is as diverse as its ecology. Comprising of a colourful mix of 32 ethnic groups and other non-indigenous people – they are all interwoven by culture, tradition, marriage and language. The result is a face and dialect unmistakably Sabah.

The largest ethnic group is the Kadazandusun, making up 1/3 of the total population. They can be found mainly on the West Coast, to the interior. Formerly the main rice-producers of the state, the Kadazandusun are now a major force in Sabah’s rapid progress towards urban modernisation.

The Bajau were originally the seafarers of Borneo. Many still reside along the coastline with fishing being a major occupation, while others have moved inland and taken up animal farming. Their riding skills on ponies have earned these Bajau the nickname “Cowboys of the East” and their colourful costumes (as well as those of their ponies) are greatly admired.

The Murut reside mainly in the hinterland, with many still occupying the traditional longhouses. Once feared for their headhunting, the Muruts now mainly use their blowpipes and darts for hunting food and on ceremonial occasions. A typical Murut wedding celebration showcases the best of this unique culture through the music, dance, costumes and food.

The highlight of all ethnic community festival is the Harvest Festival held in May. Traditionally, it is a ceremony to give thanks to the rice-spirits for a bountiful harvest, and to ensure the same for the next season. Gong-beating competition, Unduk Ngadau (Harvest Queen), buffalo races and other traditional sports, the appearance of the “bobohizan” or high priestess, are all part of this interesting festival

.A majority of the ethnic communities in Sabah are either Muslims or Christians by choice. Hence, in addition to their traditional celebrations, the respective communities also celebrate Hari Raya Puasa, Hari Raya Haji, Awal Muharam, Good Friday and Christmas.

The Chinese, who migrated in great numbers to Sabah during the early years of the North Borneo Chartered Company era, make up a large portion of the non-indigenous people. Living mostly in and around city areas, they engaged themselves primarily in the commercial sectors of the economy. The Chinese has adapted themselves well in Sabah with many of their traditional beliefs and celebrations such as Wesak Day and Chinese New Year, are still being observed and celebrated in Sabah; not only the Chinese alone but with the community as one.

Other Attraction

Sabah State Mosque, Kota Kinabalu

This resplendent structure, with its majestic domes and gold inlay motifs, is a spectacular sight, ideally located as a place of worship for Kota Kinabalu's Muslim inhabitan3ts and visitors.

Sabah Foundation Building, Kota Kinabalu
The 30-story circular glass building, supported by high tensile steel rods emanating from a central building, is an architectural and engineering feat. It is one of only four such buildings in the world.

Kota Belud

Kota Belud is a small town located 77 km from Kota Kinabalu. Every Sunday it comes alive in a scene of blazing, riotous colour when the "Tamu," or open market, takes place.Tuaran
Tuaran is the location of the region's agricultural station. Nearby is Mengkabong, a Bajau village built over water. Also close by is Tamparuli, a town specializing in the production of local handicrafts.


Another village that offers an insight into Sabah's varied ethnic groups, Penampang is home to the Kadazan people. The village is located 13 km south of Kota Kinabalu.


Sandakan is busy port on the Sulu Sea, about 386 km from Kota Kinabalu. The forestry exhibition in Sandakan showcases the astounding variety of flowers and plants found in Sabah; the Sandakan Orchid House has a collection of rare orchids. Along the Labuk Road from Sandakan is a crocodile farm, housing about 1,000 crocodiles of various sizes.

Gomantong Caves

The journey to the Gomantong Caves takes a whole day; first a boat-ride across the bay from Sandakan, then a drive by landrover through 16 km of dense jungle. Within the marvellous caves, swifts build their nests high on cave walls and roofs. These nests are considered a delicacy, and are carefully collected by native men climbing on tall bamboo poles. Tours can be arranged through the Forest Department in Sabah or a travel agency.


Located on the southeast coast of Sabah, Semporna is the jumping-off point for Pulau Sipadan, a diving paradise, and Pulau Gaya, the island where Sabah pearls are cultured


A long way from Kota Kinabalu (238 km), Kudat is, nevertheless, worth a visit, as it is home to the colourful Rungus tribe. The journey to the village is an attraction in its own right, winding through the region's varied terrain of mountains, valleys, and jungles.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Park / Mount Kinabalu / Poring Hot Spring / Layang - layang Island / Pulau Sipadan / Pulau Tiga / Pulau Manukan / Pulau Lankayan / Pualu Kapalai / Sepilok Orang Utan Centre / Tambunan & Tenom / Kudat / Shangri - La's Tanjung Aru Resort / Hyatt Regency Kinabalu

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