Plane and Mount Kinabalu

Best Window Seats for Sabah’s Scenic Views In-Flight

Sabah, often referred to as the land below the wind, is a mesmerizing mountainous state in Malaysia. Its breathtaking landscapes are easily recognised from the planes soaring through the skies. Even on short flights from Kota Kinabalu City (KK) to destinations like Sandakan, Tawau, and Lahad Datu, which take less than an hour, the journey is an exhilarating experience from takeoff to landing, offering a plethora of sights to behold.

Route map of domestic flights in Sabah, from Kota Kinabalu City to Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau
Route map of domestic flights in Sabah, from Kota Kinabalu City to Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau, and the landmarks and towns that they pass through. The actual paths are not necessary a straight line.

The side of the plane you select, whether right or left, determines your in-flight views. Below are the routes starting from Kota Kinabalu City (KK), so consider this guide when choosing your window seat. If you’re heading to KK, opt for the opposite side for optimal views.

Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan

The left-side view of the KK to Sandakan flight provides the closest vantage point to Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain, and the town of Kundasang at its foothill during domestic flights.

View of Mount Kinabalu and Kundasang town from the plane.
The best aerial view of Mount Kinabalu and Kundasang town can be seen from the planes flying between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan.

As your plane approaches Sandakan city, the left side also affords a superior view of the Kinabatangan floodplains, recognized as the largest RAMSAR site in Malaysia—a wetland celebrated for its ecological and biodiversity significance. On the return journey from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu, make sure to switch to the right side for the optimal view.

  • Kinabatangan River
  • Tawai Forest Reserve under the plane flying to Sandakan
  • Kinabatangan Floodplains of Sandakan
  • Sepangar (or Sapangar) Port and Bald Hill (a.k.a. Bukit Botak / Bukit Gundul / Bukit Gentisan)
  • Mount Kinabalu and Kundasang
  • Gayang Bridge and river in Tuaran
  • Sepangar / Sapangar Port and Navy Base in Menggatal
  • Kinabatangan of Sandakan
  • Kinabatangan River of Sandakan

Kota Kinabalu to Tawau

Though the KK to Tawau flight is farther away from Mount Kinabalu, this route offers much more to see. Passengers seated on the left side will still catch a glimpse of Mount Kinabalu. Additionally, as the plane passes by Tawau Hills Park, fortunate passengers on the left side may witness the ancient volcanic mouth of Mount Maria amidst the dense Borneo rainforest.

Aerial view of Maliau Basin
I once captured 20 panoramic photos of Maliau Basin and stitched them together to create this breathtaking panoramic shot, making it one of the best aerial photos I’ve taken.

For those frequent local travelers who might be accustomed to the sight of Mount Kinabalu, consider switching to the right side during the KK to Tawau flight. From this perspective, you might be treated to a view of Maliau Basin, also known as Sabah’s Lost World. This geological wonder resembles a vast meteorite crater when viewed from the sky. However, keep in mind that luck plays a role as Maliau Basin is often shrouded in clouds.

Tour package to climb Mount Kinabalu
  • Oil Palm Vs Rainforest
  • Crocker Range in morning mist
  • Mount Kinabalu
  • Aerial view of Maliau Basin
  • View of Tawau Hills Park from the plane
  • Oil palm plantation of Tawau
  • Nypa swamp surrounded by oil palm

No matter which side you sit on, as the plane approaches Tawau, you’ll see vast expanses of oil palm plantations, with pockets of forests nestled within them.

Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu

The view from the flight from KK to Lahad Datu is not bad at all. On clear days, passengers on the left side are treated to the majestic sight of Mount Kinabalu in the background, with the picturesque paddy fields of Tambunan, often referred to as the Switzerland of the East, in the foreground.

View of Mount Kinabalu and Tambunan Valley from the plane
View of Mount Kinabalu and Tambunan from the plane. You can see the valley with green paddy fields.

However, if you find yourself seated on the right side, don’t be disappointed. You’ll have the privilege of gazing at the multi-peaked Mount Trus Madi, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia. Additionally, the right side offers a bird’s-eye view of Danum Valley, one of the oldest rainforests in the world.

  • Mount Trus Madi (or Trusmadi), the second highest mountain of Malaysia
  • Tawai Forest Reserve in Telupid
  • Taking off from KKIA airport
  • A small forest surrounded by oil palm in Lahad Datu

To Kota Kinabalu City

Planes destined to land at Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) treat passengers to a scenic journey along the coastline of KK City. During this approach, travelers are afforded views of popular landmarks, including the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Sabah International Convention Centre (SICC), Jesselton Point, the bustling Waterfront, the iconic Sabah State Mosque, Sutera Harbour, and Tanjung Aru Beach.

View of Gaya Island from the flight
Gaya Island is the largest island of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park off Kota Kinabalu City

For first-time visitors to Sabah, this aerial route along the coastline of KK city centre provides an excellent preview of the charm and vibrancy awaiting them in this captivating destination. It sets the tone for an exciting and memorable experience in Sabah.

Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur

For flights departing from Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) bound for destinations outside of Sabah (e.g. Kuala Lumpur), they often make a turn around Gaya Island. If you happen to be seated on the left side, you’ll have a higher chance of spotting the “Smiley Islands” formed by the arrangement of Manukan, Sulug, and Mamutik Islands.

Smiley Islands of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
The Smiley Islands, next to Gaya Island, is formed by a group of islands (i.e. Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug).

General Tips

  • Choose daytime flights for better lighting. There is no aurora borealis in Sabah so nothing for you to see in night flight.
  • For photography enthusiasts, pay a little fee for a window seat located near the front or rear of the aircraft to minimize wing obstructions.
  • Larger aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, offer better views compared to smaller ones like the turboprops commonly used by MASwings.
  • The multi-layered windowpane will impact the quality of your photos, resulting in haziness, blurriness, or distorted colors. Using a professional camera to shoot in RAW format will help you a lot in the post-processing.
  • Keep your expectation low. Just sit back, relax, and let the beauty of Sabah unfold beneath your wings.
Door of KKIA with the morning view of Mount Kinabalu
You can see Mount Kinabalu clearly at KKIA (Kota Kinabalu International Airport) especially in the morning.

Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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