Shortly after arriving at historic Sandakan, I’m walking through the ancient rainforest in gilded afternoon light.
A pair of orangutans stroll on the boardwalk in front of me holding hands. A little further along, a group of adolescent primates are doing cartwheels and pushing each other out of branches.
The protected forest around the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is also home to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre where rescued Sun Bears forage right under the elevated walkway.
Boats departing from Sandakan cruise along the Kinabatan River to the swampy jungles at Sukau, home to Asian elephants, Proboscis and Silver Leaf monkeys, jungle cats, gibbons, mouse-deer and countless exotic birds - ideally appreciated from the comfort of an atmospheric eco-lodge.
At nearby Lankayan Island, I count five turtles as I make my way to lunch in the breezy dining area that’s suspended over water.
Lankayan Island is surrounded by dense, thriving reefs and guests are invited to view turtle egg- laying and participate in releasing hatchlings.
Tucked amidst giant Pandanus palms, my roomy hardwood bungalow is almost over-water, but better. I have my own little slither of beach with daybeds and a hammock and from the balcony,
I peer down at passing fish.
The diving here is exceptional, with wrecks, astonishingly large coral formations and a wealth of marine life including fascinating macro species.
Hopping on a boat for a morning snorkel on outlying reefs, I’m stunned at the size, ‘gelato’ colours and pristine state of the corals.
Lankayan’s house reef offers hours of blissful floating- I just can’t get enough of the dense thickets of coral with incandescent blue and yellow fish darting about or large fish that congregate under the jetty.
The seagrasses near the beach are the domain of green and leatherback turtles and if I keep still I can get quite close and swim in tandem with them.
Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, is a compact, low slung city with a real buzz. Think Sunday markets, shopping temptations, temples and irresistible eateries amidst a chilled setting.
A personable and homely base for exploring this walkable city, the Le Meridian is across the road from the cheerful clamour of a market and a waterfront boardwalk. My room overlooks a harbour sprinkled with traditional timber fishing boats making for sensational sunrise views.
Dwarfing every peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea, World Heritage listed Mt Kinabalu is day-tripping distance from ‘KK’.
A rare combination of beautiful beaches, captivating underwater scenes and jungles, Gaya Island is a beguiling microcosm of Borneo’s attractions. Remarkably, this rain forested island is just a 20-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu.
The air here is thick with birdsong and gigantic butterflies and even on the most prosaic of tasks, like walking along the raised boardwalks to the lavish breakfast buffet, chances are you’ll see an exotic creature.
At the jungle embracing Gaya Island Resort, it’s quite common to have a hornbill land on the balcony whilst you’re kicking back on your daybed or lapping up a spa session.
I could spend entire, deeply contented days lounging around my spacious villa or relishing the fact that a big bonus of visiting Malaysia is the fabulously varied and flavoursome cuisine.
Should I stir, options include diving, snorkelling, kayaking in the mangroves, guided nature walks, sunset cruises, and yoga.
A quick boat ride gets you to a jungle- fringed ‘Private Beach’ or to nearby islands for snorkeling over filigree corals accompanied by the largest clownfish you’ll ever see.
Published under license from Well Travelled.