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Go Wild in the Heart of Borneo

Illustration for TIME by Warwick Johnson Cadwell

If you think Borneo is all pith helmets, knee socks and headhunters, think again. Northern Borneo, which has been the Malaysian state of Sabah since 1963, is filled with adventures of a decidedly agreeable kind. The capital, Kota Kinabalu, is a quick flight from most Asian cities, and there are many rewarding experiences within easy striking distance.

The jagged peak of Mount Kinabalu, soaring 4,101 m over the South China Sea, is an impressive sight. It's also the object of desire for many travelers and can be conquered by even novice climbers in two days. The ascent starts early with a two-hour drive to the park's gates, where climbers team up with guides for a full-day hike to the hut at the Panar Laban base camp. After stealing a quick nap at the base, hikers, wearing head lamps, strike out in the wee hours of the morning to reach the summit in time for the spectacular sunrise.

After descending the mountain, go to the Poring Hot Springs, 43 km from the park, to soak those aching bones and celebrate a successful journey. Just up the slope behind the hot springs, canopied walkways are suspended between the trees, letting adventurous visitors enjoy the view from 40 m above ground. Originally designed for scientists to study the jungle, the walkways are now open to the public for about $2 a swing. There are small cottages available here for visitors who wish to spend the night.

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If getting high isn't your thing, check out the small cluster of tropical islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. A regular ferry makes the 20-minute trip to the five islands, which have white sandy beaches and vibrant reefs. Together, the islands make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. For snorkelers, the most appealing of the five is Pulau Sapi, which offers brilliant coral and a kaleidoscope of tropical fish swimming off its shores. At low tide, you can walk across to Pulau Gaya, which is home to the park's most secluded beach. Have your hotel pack a picnic lunch to tote along on your expedition.

Less than an hour's flight from Kota Kinabalu is the small town of Sandakan, which World War II buffs know as the starting point of the infamous Ranau Death March, which claimed the lives of all but six of the 2,400 POWs who set out. Today it is home to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, where apes that have been displaced by logging are prepared for an eventual return to the wilderness. Try to arrive in time for the 10 a.m. feeding. You can also see rare Sumatran rhinos that the sanctuary keeps for breeding.

After feeding yourself at one of Sandakan's many eateries, head up the Kinabatangan River for a few relaxing hours of bird watching and jungle exploring. On your way back down the river, you're sure to spot many proboscis monkeys. With noses that Barbra Streisand would envy and bulging beer guts, these primates cling to the trees that line the river. To experience a different kind of green vacation, check out Kota Kinabalu's many terrific golf courses. Just 40 minutes from the city center, Shangri-La's award-winning Rasa Ria Resort boasts a golf club and an on-site nature reserve. So while you won't see pith helmets, bobby socks or headhunters, Borneo is still one of Asia's wildest getaways.

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