Sabah, Malaysian Borneo


Sabah Malaysian Borneo
Words and photos by Kelly Tang

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

First impressions of the capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu [population 600,000] are unexpected. In WWII Allied forces levelled the city to liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation, leaving it with little in the way of architectural history apart from the Sabah Tourism Office and the 15.7 metre Atkinson Clock Tower, built in 1905, and still standing proudly today.

Also unexpected is the laid-back nature of the city. Unlike many frantic, frenetic Asian cities it feels positively laconic – even the traffic.

In town, our guide takes us to his local café for a cup of ‘kopi ‘o’ [strong black coffee and sugar]. The coffee is good but I’d come back just for the name of the establishment: The Fook Yuen.

Kota Kinabalu harbour side bars and restaurants

After our caffeine hit we hit the markets. And so, it seems, does half the town as well. Like most Asian markets this is the bustling epicentre of the city – relaxed, colourful, fruit filled, smoky (due to all the chicken wings cooking) and full of smiling faces and teeth, well, some teeth. The seafood section alone is the loudest and maddest I’ve ever encountered.

Colourful harbour side markets

The markets are on the harbour waterfront, which is also the hub of Kota Kinabalu’s restaurants, bars and live music. It’s definitely a great place to hang out in the early afternoons and late into the evenings.

One of the main reasons for me being here is the golf and the state of Sabah has eight premium golf courses and 10 smaller courses accommodating all levels of enthusiasts. While we were there the Sabah Masters Championship 2014/15 finale, was being played on the Graham Marsh designed 27-hole championship golf course at the Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club (part of and opposite The Pacific Sutera Hotel where we are staying).

Sensational golf courses in Sabah

The hotel is set on 156 hectares overlooking the South China Sea, golf course and marina. The Sabah Masters Championship is a stepping-stone for Asia’s brightest golfing stars, such as Mardan Mamat from Singapore who we watched take out the championship top honours on an exhilarating final day. All four players in Mamet’s group were in contention to win at the beginning of the final round.

The Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club is a golfing paradise and along with its championship course the club has a two-tiered driving range, practice putting and chipping areas and is the only course in East Malaysia with a 20-hole night golf facility.

Next day we are taken on an island tour to Pulau Sapi Island in Sabah, which is one of the five islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and is just a 15-minute boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu. It’s picturesque with a main white sandy beach and aquamarine coloured water. The weather was perfect and after a few swims and a delicious buffet lunch provided by our tour we’re back in town to begin our next adventure.

Sapi Island

Our next port of call is Shangri-la’s beautiful Rasa Ria Resort & Spa, set on 162 hectares, right next to one of Sabah’s best beach and just a 40-minute drive from the city. It includes a world-class golf course, part of the Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club.

The Rasa Ria also has a nature reserve with both a petting zoo and, more importantly, a facility where young, abandoned orangutans are rehabilitated so they can eventually be put back out in the wild. …..Which was the reason we were here and of course to play some golf.

We play a round of golf and you’d be hard pressed to find a prettier championship golf course or location. Water hazards are quite prominent and Mount Kinabalu can been seen in the distance when clouds allow. Large monitor lizards appear occasionally to check out our golfing prowess and can’t get away quick enough as their lives are in danger from my wayward golf swing.

After golf we visit the Rasa Ria orangutan facility which is currently looking after two young orangutans (four have just been moved on to continue their rehabilitation to another facility) and we are lucky enough to have had a private viewing with two of these most beautiful, unique and very funny animals.

Rasa Ria orangutans

The orangutans arrive at Rasa Ria due to many reasons some of which include, mothers killed by poachers, rescued by wildlife authorities from people keeping them as pets and some are abandoned by their mothers at logging farms.

I’m yet to meet a cuter animal

Feeding times are 10am and 2pm, which is when the public is allowed in to watch them. And watch them we do – absolutely mesmerized as two five year old males wrestle, roll, run, jump, swing and, believe it or not, blow raspberries. Definitely one of my most memorable and favourite animal experiences ever.

Our final golfing day is at the Mount Kinabualu Golf club, 1500 metres above sea level and a hilly two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu. The course is as scenic as any golf course I’ve seen and sits in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s second highest peak at 4,095 metres.

We only play nine holes as the course is having restoration work done. Being in the mountains hazards include drifting clouds, which momentarily make visibility poor. On the first four holes you hit downhill, which means I make a few unintentional long shots in the right direction – down.

But what goes down must come up and the remaining five holes are uphill and for me the par fives are five shots too long. My playing group loves it and thrives on the challenge.

Golf isn’t the only attraction at Mount Kinabalu; you can also hike the mountain, a two-day endeavor so popular you have to book months in advance. Other mountain options available include a jungle rainforest canopy walk, which is not for everyone and requires both a degree of fitness and a lack of vertigo.

National Park canopy walk

After the canopy walk we head back to town and on the way stop at the Kundasang War Memorial to pay our respects to the Australian and British prisoners of war who died in Sandakan and during the infamous death marches to Ranau during World War II. The memorial also remembers the people of North Borneo who risked their lives to help the POWs.

I didn’t know much about Kota Kinabalu before arriving but after just seven days I’ve fallen in love with Sabah, the warmth of its people, its golf courses, its beautiful wilderness and, more than anything else, those raspberry-blowing orangutans.

Some attractions in Sabah:

*Visit Sapi Island
*Harbourside Markets Kota Kinabalu
*Harbourside bars and restaurant Kota Kinabalu
*See the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
*Play golf at The Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club Championship Golf Course
*Visit the Shangri-la Rasa Ria resort to visit orangutan rehabilitation centre and nature reserve and play a round of golf at the Dalit Bay Country Club
*Play golf at the Mount Kinabalu Golf Club
*Visit the Kundasang War Memorial
*Jungle rainforest canopy walk

Pacific Sutera Hotel pool


Where to stay:

The Pacific Sutera Hotel:

The Sutera Harbour Resort is only a 10-minute drive from the airport and has spectacular views of the South China Sea, the resort’s 27-hole championship golf course and the 104-berth marina. With a multitude of dining options, recreational activities and renowned Mandara Spa this is a fantastic resort.

How to get there:

Malayasia Airlines

The Travel Café Bondi

02 9130 1345