RENTING YOUR OWN VEHICLE
The roads around Sabah are generally easy to navigate and a self-drive trip has many advantages. If you are a few people travelling together it might even be a cheaper option than using public transport and it also offers you much more flexibility. Especially near the Tip Of Borneo, there are no options for public transport and you have to rely on local arrangements, which can not only be time-consuming and costly but also be limiting as to your freedom to explore the many beautiful (and all but empty!) beaches in the area.
KOTA KINABALU Fast Facts
The easiest option would be to rent a car from the airport from an established firm but it could be somewhat cheaper to rent local from Kota Kinabalu. You will have to check online for some reviews and only use reputable companies. Especially the route to Sandakan can be a bit tiring and dragged out. An option would be to drive one-way only: from Kota Kinabalu via Kudat to Sandakan. Then return the car in Sandakan and fly back to Kota Kinabalu. Europcar has branches in both locations.
There are also a number of options to rent scooters from either Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan. Scooter Monkey comes well recommended and has a branch in both locations - so you could do a one-way rental if preferred. The weather can be somewhat temperamental and you should be comfortable riding long distances at times.
TRANSPORT FROM KOTA KINABALU TO KUDAT
The quickest and most direct way to get from Kota Kinabalu to Kudat is of course by air. MASwings currently has flights twice weekly and although it's not the cheapest way to make the journey, it's still relatively affordable for the 50-minute flight in their Twin Otter Aircraft (small propeller plane) which flies low over the lands giving spectacular views. Current prices are around $25 per person one-way.
The cheapest way (other than hitch-hiking!) to get from Kota Kinabalu to Kudat is by shared ‘mini-van’ taxi. These vehicles usually transport 7-12 people, depending on the size of the vehicle. Take note that these will only leave from a place called Bandaran Berjaya in Kota Kinabalu only once they have enough passenger to fill the vehicle! You can of course ‘buy’ the remaining seats if you want to leave before the vehicle is full. If you plan on taking a shared taxi, be sure to be at the departure point early morning, as very few vehicles leave in the afternoon. The journey costs around MYR30 per person and takes a minimum of 3 hours along rather bumpy roads.
The minibus terminal is at Kudat Plaza in the western part of Kudat, not far from Hotel Ria. Minivans and share taxis arrive from and depart to Kota Kinabalu from here. You can also charter a private taxi to the tip of Borneo here for around MYR50 one way.
The most comfortable way other than self-driving would be to take a larger, air-conditioned bus. There are two buses making the journey daily from both locations Kota Kinabalu town (Bandaran Berjaya Bus terminal) and Kudat town (in front of Kudat immigration or beside Millimewa supermarket in town). The departure time is 8 AM and 2 PM respectively from both Kota Kinabalu and Kudat with travel time approximately 4 hours. The fare is MYR40 per person at the time of writing.
KOTA KINABALU TO SANDAKAN
Sandakan is a mid-sized city which is well connected to Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. Several buses a day connect Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. The ride is pretty long (about 6 hours) and rather boring as it passes through endless palm tree plantations. The quickest and most direct way to get from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan is of course by air. There are numerous direct flights daily operated by Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines from both Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur and it is surprisingly affordable. During October 2019 we flew one-way from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu for $13 per person.
The cheapest way to get from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan is either by shared ‘mini-van’ taxi or by bus. The shared ‘mini-van’ vehicles usually transport 7-12 people, depending on the size of the vehicle. Take note that these will only leave from a place called Bandaran Berjaya in Kota Kinabalu once they have enough people to make the journey. You can of course ‘buy’ the remaining seats if you want to leave before the vehicle is full. If you plan on taking the shared taxi, be sure to be at the station around 8 am, as very few vehicles leave in the afternoon.
The larger buses also leave from the Kota Kinabalu bus terminal and can be significantly more comfortable than the shared taxis. Either way, it’s a long ride of at least 6 hours. Cost is around MYR60 per person.
KUDAT TO SANDAKAN
The quickest and most direct way to get from Kudat to Sandakan is not surprisingly, by air! MASwings currently has flights twice weekly - Monday and Thursday. This is not the cheapest way to make the journey but it saves you from a 6-hour drive and we thoroughly enjoyed the flight in the Twin Otter and considered it to be well worth the money for the experience. (We paid $24 per person in October 2019)
The cheapest alternative (other than hitch-hiking) to get from Kudat to Sandakan is by shared ‘mini-van’ taxi. Take note that these will only leave from Kudat once they have enough people to make the journey. You can of course ‘buy’ the remaining seats if you want to leave before the vehicle is full. If you plan on taking the shared taxi, be sure to be at the station in the morning, as very few vehicles leave in the afternoon. The journey costs around MYR60 per person and takes a minimum of 6 hours along rather bumpy roads.
There is also a daily public bus from Kudat to Sandakan which departs at 08:15 every morning which is the most comfortable choice by far. Departure is from beside the Millimewa supermarket in Kudat.
TRANSPORT FROM SANDAKAN TO SEPILOK
Sepilok is less than 20kms outside of Sandakan and will only take about 25 minutes to reach from Sandakan. You can either make use of a local taxi or Grab, which is usually about half the price.
From the airport to Sepilok expect to pay around MYR40-45 for a taxi and around MYR20 when using GRAB. Alternatively, from the airport arrivals, walk 350 metres to the roundabout on the main road and flag down a passing bus (daytime only). Local bus #14 to Sepilok departs from the minivan terminal near the waterfront by Gentingmas Mall in Sandakan. Buses from Sandakan to Sepilok depart at 09:00, 11:30, 14:00 and 17:00. From Sepilok to Sandakan the times are 06:30, 10:30, 12:30 and 16:00. The fare is 4 ringgit per person and it takes about 45 minutes.
TRANSPORT FROM SANDAKAN TO SUKAU (KINABATABGAN RIVER)
The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Kinabatangan River and Wetlands are located about 125km from Sandakan. If you are visiting the River as part of a package deal, this will most likely include transportation from Sandakan. Several agencies in Kota Kinabalu offer 2 or 3 days Kinabatangan River cruise. It should include all aspects from accommodation, transport, food to local excursions.
If you prefer to do your own thing the best option is to head for a place called Sukau.
Sukau is a tiny village of barely a dozen houses next to the Kinabatangan River. There is a small square with a mosque, a school and a cemetery. Houses, a couple of guesthouses, restaurants and small shops dot both roads (Sukau and Kampung Sukau) leading to the village.
If you are considering one of the many home-stay options in Sukau, then you will need to make your own way there. There are two ways to get from Sandakan to Sukau. The first one is via direct minibus. One leaves every day at 1 PM from the minibus lot near Sandakan’s waterfront. The other way is to arrange a ride by contacting Mr Choy via WhatsApp (+60 19 536 1889) who makes the drive daily. Nevertheless, if unsure, take the bus to Lahad Datu and get off at the roundabout at the road to Sukau from where you should get a ride to Sukau without too much trouble.
GETTING BACK TO SANDAKAN FROM SUKAU
Aside from hiring a private car which can cost $80 or more, there are only two options for getting back to Sandakan from Sukau. You must ask at your lodge to be picked up in the morning by either Mr Choy (details above) or the daily minibus - both depart at 6:30 a.m. every morning. Capacity might be limited so it's best to make arrangements for transportation the night before or even earlier.