HomeTravel NewsDiscovering Sabah in Malaysian Borneo with PATA

Discovering Sabah in Malaysian Borneo with PATA

Staying ahead of the curve in Sabah learning about authenticity and sustainability in travel, Declan Hughes of FlyCruiseStay reports for ITTN on PATA’s Adventure Travel Conference and Mart, ATCM2020.

Kota Kinabalu, truth be told, took me quite a while to pronounce – apparently, it has to be pronounced at speed. It is located in Sabah, in the northern part of Malaysian Borneo, two hours 20 minutes flying east from Kuala Lumpur. To my surprise, Borneo is the third largest island in the world – and it has a lot to offer visitors.

Jetting into the world’s oldest rainforest, which is also home to the world’s tallest tropical tree, was to receive a week-long pass to heaven – without visiting your long-lost loved ones, of course! You may not see them, but believe me when I say you can feel their presence, especially at sunset, for which Sabah is famous. When you gaze in awe at the spectacular sunsets, your mind begins to reflect on life and its glorious mysteries. I’m told that the sunsets are just as spectacular in beautiful Langkawi, so a visit there is on my wish list.

Sunset in Sabah

It’s as though a little piece of heaven fell from the skies and landed in Malaysia. I’m not just talking about the landscape and beautiful beaches, forests, mountains, I’m also talking about the people of Malaysia in general. It is like guardian angel central. The people are so kind, so polite, so respectful, and always smiling. It was therefore an absolute privilege for me to be there on invitation from the wonderful people at PATA (the Pacific Asia Travel Association) to attend ATCM2020, the Adventure Travel Conference and Mart.

Welcome to Sabah and ATCM2020

Changi Airport

A bumpy start to my journey from Ireland, thanks to Storm Ciara, led to a more tranquil and balmy 25 degrees morning in the Butterfly Garden at Changi Airport in Singapore. I had transited here before en route to Luxperience in Sydney, but did not have time to look around due to a short connection time. This time my five-hour stopover meant I had time to explore what is reputed to be the world’s best airport. I tend to agree: the airport is on another level.

From the beautiful butterfly garden to the awe-inspiring rain vortex, the world’s largest indoor waterfall, which is encapsulated by a terraced and very beautiful forest setting, Changi Airport is truly a must visit. There is even a complimentary movie theatre showcasing new releases and classic movies – great to keep little ones entertained! I loved every second of my stay. Should you have more than a 5.5-hour stopover, you can also take advantage of a free city tour of Singapore.

When I travel, I tend to take away some nuggets that are of interest, and in Changi my card was stamped on entry by customs and border patrol with the following warning in red ink: “Warning: Death for drug traffickers under Singapore law”. A lesson for Ireland?

By the way, I had a great laugh with a Malaysian woman on the Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Borneo. She is hooked on Mrs Brown’s Boys and claims to be their biggest fan – her sister, who lives in the UK, sends her boxsets!


I returned home via Nội Bài International Airport in Hanoi and Paris Charles De Gaulle. I had been to Hanoi before, but what struck me was how expensive the airport is, with everything priced in USD.

At times it felt as though I was in a huge hospital, not an airport, because so many people were wearing masks. While it is quite common, especially in Asia, to see people wearing masks – some not to pass on a common cold, others to filter a city’s air pollution – with the current threat of covid-19 virus, extra precautionary measures were evident, and rightly so.

PATA’s event in Kota Kinabalu was well attended, even though there were a few cancellations and no-shows, which was to be expected. However, there was little to worry about in terms of picking up the coronavirus (so should any of my competitors read this: sorry, but I’m still here!). Malaysia’s Ministry of Health is following the guidelines of the World Health Organisation, which has ranked Malaysia third in the world for best preparation for illness. All entry points into Malaysia have been equipped with thermal scanners to check the body temperature of all arriving passengers – including Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA).

The Ministry of Tourism and PATA are to be commended for additional preventive measures put in place to safeguard attendees, including: the Sutera Harbour Resort provided a thermal scanner for all guests on check-in; hand sanitiser gel was placed at the foyer of the Pacific and Magellan wings; facemasks were provided to all delegates; and all delegates were advised to bring their own mask. At the hospitality desk, staff were present to assist any confirmed cases or suspects and to bring them straight to the nearest hospital – thankfully, there were none.


Situated on the beautiful island of Borneo, Sabah is the second largest of 13 states that comprise Malaysia and shares the island with Sarawak, Brunei, and Indonesian Kalimantan. From one of Southeast Asia’s highest mountains (Mount Kinabalu) to one of the world’s top dive sites (Sipadan Island) and with the world’s largest flower (the Rafflesia) in its lush rainforests, Sabah offers an infinite playground for the most adventurous travel explorers – Jacques Cousteau visited Sabah twice.

Sabah was part of the British Empire and is now part of the Commonwealth of Nations. It was united with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore in 1963 to form the independent Federation of Malaysia, with Singapore subsequently separating in 1965 to become an independent, sovereign state.

Malaysia is such great value for money. Kuala Lumpur has impressive shopping malls and is a shopper’s paradise with big brands for peanuts – I mean really cheap!

For those who like a tipple, happy hour lasts up to eight hours by the pool and four hours at the main bars between 4pm to 8pm at the 5* DoubleTree by Hilton in Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed post-event. I always book an executive room at a Hilton property as it works out better value and I highly recommend it. The DoubleTree by Hilton, which is connected to The Intermark shopping mall, is the latest recipient of a FlyCruiseStay Certificate of Excellence for passing our stringent tried and tested programme for exceeding expectations in relation to facilities, amenities and service.

View of Petronas Towers from 34th floor Executive Lounge, DoubleTree by Hilton, Kuala Lumpur

The DoubleTree is just five minutes’ walk from the Petronas Towers, once the world’s tallest skyscraper (but now surpassed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). However, the Petronas Towers still hold the title of the world’s tallest twin skyscraper and are well worth a visit.

As much as I love supporting local artisans and independent operators, I urge you to beware of street sellers offering the latest iPhones outside the Petronas Towers and other local attractions. It is cheap in Malaysia, but it’s best to stick to authorised retailers for peace of mind and warranty. The iPhones looked fake and if a deal is too good to be true, it usually is – so stick to your gut instinct. I didn’t buy one, but I did buy a fish-eye optic for my smartphone for the princely equivalent of €3 or so.


ATCM2020 was very well organised by PATA, with a full-on agenda including a one-day conference on 13 February at the Pacific Sutera Hotel, part of the Sutera Harbour Resort, to explore the nuances, trends and dynamics of one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors – soft adventure and hard adventure travel – and how to replicate best practice in meaningful adventures. The programme brought together international experts at the forefront of the adventure travel industry, from private and public sectors, to discuss issues, challenges and opportunities.

Declan Hughes, FlyCruiseStay, meets Tourism Malaysia

The following day, the Travel Mart was held in the Grand Ballroom at the Magellan Sutera Resort on Valentine’s Day – on account of which my wife was kindly invited to accompany me on this trip and have dinner in the jungle with orangutans, for which I thank my good friend Dr Mario Hardy, President and Chief Executive of PATA. The exhibitors at the Travel Mart were top notch – I even met an inspirational man from Himalayan Expedition named Sarileru, a Da Gerze sherpa who has climbed mount Everest seven times!

Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu

On the pre-event tour I was able to admire the awe-inspiring backdrop of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain at 4,095 metres. Translated into English as ‘Spirit Ancestors’, the mountain is where the dead spirits rest. It is a sacred mountain that people still worship and sacrifice to appease the dead spirits from taking another living soul – the dead are buried facing the mountain.

I also traversed on the oldest canopy walkway in the world, built in 1974 for scientific research of birds and wildlife in general and opened to the public in 1988. It is located in the oldest rainforest in the world: Mount Kinabalu National Park. We trekked across Kinabalu Park for a breath-taking view of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mount Kinabalu and a close-up experience of exotic plants, birds and insects – all while walking high up along the treetop canopy. You can even get close to wildlife and witness two of Borneo’s iconic primates, the orangutan and the long-nosed proboscis monkey.

Satiate your taste buds with fresh seafood and local delicacies such as fried bananas served fresh straight from the rainforest! My experience with the richness of Sabah’s diverse indigenous cultures through unique tribal customs was something I shall never forget.

The Asian tectonic plate is slowly colliding with the Indian sub-continent plate. Mount Kinabalu, with its many peaks, is a young mountain (a mere 10 million years old) but when it matures it will become one peak – like Kilimanjaro. However, the 2014 earthquake dropped the level of the mountain quite a bit! Worth noting is that October to February is monsoon season here, which can mean continuous rain and can be prone to landslides as a result.

Malaysia is a birding paradise as well as a butterfly sanctuary. Langkawi is reputed to be the butterfly capital of the world with over 1,200 species of butterfly, compared to just 65 species in the UK and Ireland. Australia has 450 species of butterfly – so, when you compare the size of Australia to Langkawi, that 1,200+ is an incredible statistic. There are also 253 species of birds in Langkawi. Malaysia is blessed with many breath-taking snorkelling sites too.

What fascinated me the most about Malaysia was that they were the last ones to stop head hunting – our tour guide’s grandfather had 42 heads as he was a head hunter. The more heads you gathered the stronger you became, it was also part of a dowry – a potential suiter would be asked by the girl’s father how many heads he had collected – and they were also gathered to ward off evil spirits. However, the practice is now outlawed and death by hanging is the punishment for anyone head hunting – the very thought of which ignited my inner childhood adventure, Indiana Jones-style!

There are many times working with FlyCruiseStay that I sing a line in my head from Bohemian Rhapsody: ‘Is this the real life or is this just fantasy’. I may have left Kota Kinabalu in Sabah for now, but the views and sunsets will ensure my return.


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