I’m continuing my A – Z travel guides! (Read my A – Z Guide to South America).
Tom and I travelled to Borneo over New Year’s 2012/2013. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, made up of three countries, Malayasia, Brunei and Indonesia.
Usually after I travel to a place, I have no immediate desire to return straight away (I’m more of a “let’s see someplace new” kinda girl). But since we left Borneo to come home, all I want to do is go back. We travelled Malaysian Borneo – the states of Sabah and Sarawak, in the north – plus Brunei, so we still have the whole Indonesian state of Kalimantan to explore! In the meantime, to ease my nostalgia for travelling Borneo (and hopefully to help you plan a trip there!) here is my guide to the best Malaysian Borneo and Brunei have to offer.
This might be controversial but, having been to both myself, I feel safe in saying that I think Borneo gives New Zealand a run for its money as the world’s adventure capital.
Some might have already heard me attempt to explain what travelling Borneo is like. For me, the usual reason for travelling to a country is to see something… you know, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Machu Picchu in Peru, Ankor Wat in Cambodia. Borneo is different. Sure, there is plenty to see, but the way to see it is to do. Climbing, caving, jungle trekking, travelling the rivers on longboat or on a tube… It’s a huge adventure.
You’ll need a sound base level of fitness to get the best out of what Borneo has to offer and, if you’re an active person, Borneo will be your dream come true.
Giant caves and surrounding rainforest in Mulu National Park
Summiting Mount Kinabalu at sunrise
Tubing down Danum River, which flows through one of the oldest rainforests in the world
Brunei was a bit of a surprise to me, but this tiny country offers plenty to do and see, especially if you get a little way out of the city centre and see the surrounding sights and national park. We spent three days in Brunei and it was perfect. To see, there are the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which are both fabulous, elaborate mosques, the latter built mostly out of gold! There is also the Royal Regalia Museum. A labyrinth of gold, silver and precious jewels, the Museum houses all the royal gifts the sultan has received over the years. An hour or two in the museum is a bizarre and slightly overwhelming experience!
Speaking of bizarre, a short taxi ride out of the centre will take you to Jerudong, a north-west suburban area. Jurudong is home to the Empire Hotel and Jerudong Park Playground, which are both a bit of a testament on how not to spend public money. The Empire Hotel was reportedly one of the most expensive hotels to build for its time. You can sit in plush chairs in the huge marble and gold lobby area that overlooks the South China Sea and treat yourself to a high tea – all while being serenaded by a pianist on grand piano. Jerudong Park Playground is a playground that the sultan built for the people – the smallest and most expensive in all of South East Asia. Michael Jackson performed a concert there for the 50th birthday of the sultan (although the sultan didn’t actually go). Today, the playground is bankrupt, defunct and feels like a ghost town. The old rides are still there, and some operate (but where are the patrons?!) We visited at night during a full moon, which definitely upped the creepy factor.
For me, the highlight of our time in Brunei was taking a water taxi to Kampong Ayer, the traditional water stilt villages. You will be offered a taxi as soon as you arrive at one of the streets lining the water. In his old wooden boat, my taxi driver weaved between the stilt houses so I could see what everyday life is like for a lot of people of Brunei. It was fascinating to see the other side of Brunei (the side where not everything build is made of gold). Gradually, the stilt houses on other side of our boat changed to jungle. My driver pointed out proboscis monkeys in the trees. And, on the way back to the centre, the setting sun turned the water and surrounding jungle the most brilliant shades of orange, pink and red in one of the best sunsets I have ever seen. Highly recommended.
The golden Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque at night
In a water taxi seeing Kampong Ayer and surrounding jungle
Malaysia (Mulu, Sabah)
Borneo has some of the largest and longest cave systems in the world. We visited some of them (accessible from Mulu National Park) over three days, including Clearwater Cave (the world’s largest cave by volume) and Deer Cave (featuring one of the world’s largest cave chamber, and home to over three million bats!)
The caves aside, Mulu National Park is a really nice place to spend time. Full of butterflies and other wildlife, it has extensive boardwalk trails (elevated to protect the rainforest floor) from which you can get experience Borneo’s rainforest (leech-free). Try to book ahead and stay at the great accommodation within the park – avoid staying at the Royal Mulu, which is outside of the park and way too expensive for what it offers (although I recognise that it might have changed since the time we stayed there in early 2013, when it was undergoing renovations).
Part of Deer Cave
Boardwalks in Mulu National Park
Wow. Just wow. One of the most amazing places I have ever been. Please go here – I desperately want to return.
Danum Valley is one of the best preserved areas of rainforest in Borneo and one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Danum Valley managed to escape much of the logging/deforestation that has occurred in other parts of Borneo and is now a conservation area that houses a scientific research centre. Along with the research centre, nestled in the very heart of the rainforest, is the Borneo Rainforest Lodge a.k.a. the most amazing accommodation I have ever stayed at. One of the most amazing places I have ever seen + most amazing accommodation I have ever stayed at… yup this is a really special location.
I am going to fail miserably, but I’m going to try to describe Danum Valley. The rainforest completely surrounds you; on all sides, it’s dense and damp. The layers of fallen leaves are thick and slippery under your (leech sock-covered) feet and, overhead, the vines and leaves knit together to form a vast canopy, casting a cool shade in all directions. The greenery really is endless. At first, the big things catch your attention: the tallest, straightest trees I have ever seen; the wide, rushing river; the huge elephant leaves that are wider than my outstretched arms. Then you start the notice the small things: fluorescent fungi growing in the crook of a tree; the round, miniature leaves of a creeper; the tiny flowers on a knee-height plant, obscured by it’s much larger neighbour; small plants that grow close to the ground and actually curl away when you come close to them; and at night, the blinking lights of the fireflies.
Then there is Borneo Rainforest Lodge. On the banks of the river in the middle of the rainforest, this truly is a luxury treehouse. Built on stilts, the cabins are joined to the main, open-air dining hall by raised wooden walkways. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are catered for, cooked by world-class chefs who source the ingredients for many of the meals fresh from the rainforest. Activities are also included in the (very reasonable) daily price – morning walks, afternoon treks to search for wildlife (include endangered species you couldn’t hope to find anywhere else in the wild), river swimming, tubing, bird watching, night tours…
To properly describe just how awesome Borneo Rainforest Lodge is, let me share with you the story of how the staff helped me through the worst food poisoning of my life. Just prior to arriving in Danum Valley, Tom and I climbed Mount Kinabalu – and the packed lunch from the trip made both of us violently ill (avoid, avoid, avoid packed lunches!). Danum Valley is about 2 hours’ drive along unpaved logging roads from the nearest town, Lahad Datu, on the eastern coast of Borneo. There’s no transport through Danum Valley, so the staff of Borneo Rainforest Lodge meet you in Lahad Datu to drive you to Danum Valley by 4WD. When we arrived in Lahad Datu to make the trip to Danum Valley, I was in bad shape. The staff took one look at me and took me straight to a hospital – ensured I was given medication to stop me vomiting, and then went to the store to pick up water and pastries to keep me hydrated and supplied with dry food! When we arrived at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge that night, I wasn’t up to eating the amazing dinner (sad face). A staff member noticed, and after dinner, knocked on our cabin door to check whether everything was okay with dinner. When I explained that I was sick, she asked if there was anything the chef could make me. I requested probably the least likely dish for an Asian country to have on hand… porridge (?!!) Twenty minutes later, the staff member returned with THE PORRIDGE (amazing!!), as well as chicken broth, a big bottle of water, charcoal to help with digestion, and eucalyptus oil to rub on my tummy to ease the pain.
By the way, we saw an orangutan in the wild.
Walking among the mist-shrouded treetops in one of the oldest rainforests in the world
One day’s lunch
The view of the rainforest from our cabin
TAKE ME BACK!!!
You will also see plenty of less threatened species: long-tail, pig-tail and red leaf monkeys, badgers, otters, red giant flying squirrels, bats, lunar moths, monitor lizards, and lots of brown and tiger leeches.
Everywhere – but particularly Kuching
One thing that I did NOT expect to find in Borneo was a fine dining experience… let alone several. We were so surprised at the sheer number of excellent, reasonably priced, contemporary-styled restaurants all over Borneo, but particularly in Kuching where we ate ourselves into a stupor every single night of our week-long stay. Must-tries in Kuching:
- Junk – Junk serves Italian and Asian fusion-styled meals. Delicious though the meals were, it is the decor and ambience of this restaurant that I remember. Junk is situated in a two-story shop, still divided into rooms. The rooms are decorated by colour – there are the ‘white’ and ‘red’ rooms – and all are filled with kitsch items. Figurines, lamp shades, photographs, plates and other china cover the tables, walls and cabinets in a hipster fashion.
- Bla Bla Bla – This is the sister restaurant to Junk, and actually is next door. It also has an incredible ambience, and a decor all of its own – Bla Bla Bla is seriously stylish. To get to the main part of the restaurant, you walk past the counter (all dark colours, mood lighting and smooth concrete) through a bamboo-garden and then on stepping stones across an indoor water feature. As for the food, I had poached baked salmon on a bed of crispy seaweed and kale. Tom had mongolian-style venison. We had a bottle of Malbec and homemade cakes for dessert.
- The Living Room – We didn’t get to try here as it was closed over Christmas, but I heard that the menu was a mix between Junk and Bla Bla Bla.
- The Dyak – Oh my gosh. I still dream about the coconut jungle fern that I ate here. SO GOOD. This restaurant serves traditional Iban food and also offers a great insight into Dyak culture – the walls are covered in photographs, traditional costumes and historical artefacts.
And then of course there were the amazing meals at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, but I won’t bore you with raving about that again. Just know – delicious – and I will provide photographic evidence:
Pretty content after an amazing meal at The Dyak
One of the amazing lunches at Borneo Rainforest Lodge
Everywhere – but particularly Kuching
Yes, there is fine dining, but also… the food is just really good in general. We ate amazing meals at tiny cafes (Life Cafe in Kuching comes to mind), kedai kopi (coffee shops), markets, when stopped at a service station on the side of the road on the way to a home stay, and at the home stay itself. There is a lot of super fresh food. At the home stay, for example, our meals were made using ingredients freshly sourced from the rainforest and nearby river, including ginger, pepper, jungle spinach, strawberry apple, jackfruit, sago palm, fungi, coconut and white fish.
The only qualification would be the meal we received as part of our trek up Mount Kinabalu, which gave Tom and I the most violent food poisoning we have ever had. So please, BYO lunch if you climb Mount Kinabalu! Avoid the packed lunches and, for good measure, avoid the restaurant at the entry of Mount Kinabalu National Park (which also could have been the culprit for our food poisoning). Otherwise, enjoy everything!
Service station food
Fresh chillies from the market
The amazing food from our home stay, all ingredients apart from the rice sourced from the rainforest
Everywhere – but particularly around Kuching
You might have heard of the ‘headhunters of Borneo’. This is actually a reference to the Dyaks, the indigenous people of Borneo. The Dyaks are made up of nearly 200 groups (for example, the Ibans, who are principally located near the seas and rivers surrounding Kuching). Much like indigenous Australians, each group has its own dialect, customs, laws and culture. Headhunting was a cultural practice among the Ibans and a few other groups.
There were many reasons for the practice of headhunting: an initiation to manhood for young warriors, crossing without permission into a warring tribe’s territory, to avenge murders and – my personal favourite – to pay dowry for marriages and prove prowess, bravery, ability and capability to protect his family (I’d much prefer a Fairtrade ring, thanks). Warriors were given a tattoo to mark the taking of every head (see ‘T for Tattoos’, below).
The practice was banned in the early 1900s but resurfaced again and gained its present day notoriety in the mid-1940s, when visiting forces encouraged the practice against the Japanese occupying forces.
So Borneo is, of course, an island. It’s also surrounded by many other islands – each as much of a tropical paradise as the next. Many of the main islands sit in ‘turtle corridor” a stretch of water between Borneo and the Phillipines which is a critical habitat for sea turtles. We didn’t make it here, which is seriously unfortunate since turtles are probably my second favourite animal. But this is a reason for me to return to go here, and should be a reason for you to visit, too.
Some of the islands that we did visit were a few of the five islands comprising the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a stone throw’s distance from Kota Kinabalu. A common problem I have when travelling is that I compare all the beaches I visit to Australian beaches (and let’s face it, we are super spoilt). The beaches we saw had stone beaches. Also, the islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park are quite popular among Malaysian tourists and KK locals alike – read: busy. As a result, I wasn’t super impressed by what we saw and so my recommendation when visiting the national park would be to engage a tour guide to see the best parts the islands have to offer.
View of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park at sunset
Bunches of rambutan in the markets
The Lonely Planet describes Kuching as a city more than the sum of its parts. I think this is an accurate description for one of my favourite cities in the world. There are the usual attractions – the Square Tower, Brook’s Memorial, Astana, the Legislative Assembly building, Fort Margharita and the very curious Kuching Cat Museum. But our joy from spending time in Kuching came from strolling the beautiful streets, Chinatown (particularly Jalan Carpenter, the Grand Bazaar and Jalan Padagan), the riverfront; and eating fantastic food everywhere we went from posh restaurants to riverside stalls to casual Indian and Chinese restaurants. Kuching has a mix of influences; Chinese, Indian, Malay and British – and these are evidenced in the buildings, food and people.
Longhouses and longboats
Everywhere – but particularly around Kuching
Longhouses and longboats are the traditional accommodation and transport for river-dwelling Dayak communities – like one community near the Lemanak river, who I stayed with over two days.
Longhouses are built raised off the ground on stilts and, true to name, are long. They consist of a single long room in the centre, which is the main room and a communal living area for the entire community. Off the main room, are smaller single rooms – one private room for each family in the community. Typically, the chief’s family has a larger room towards the entrance of the longhouse. The room of the chief of the community I visited even had a kitchen and a small TV.
In the longhouse, everything is shared. From the main living area to the land – all families contribute to working the land and take turns selling jungle produce, chickens and other goods at the closest markets. Families take turns educating all the children, or transporting them to the nearest school. Even families or individuals who have moved to the cities for work keep a close connection to their longhouse, going back to visit often and especially for marriages, births and other special occasions.
Longboats are also long. These boats are nearly flat, since parts of the rivers can be extremely shallow (especially during the dry season) due to the build up of mud, silt and debris from the jungle. The length of the boats gives the boat some stability and manoeuvrability. They’re still pretty shaky and hurtling down the fast-moving river in them sure is an experience… particularly given the colour of that water, and the fact that I later learned it’s full of crocodiles.
Oh, Borneo is characterised by another long thing – the leech! Get yourself some leech socks for any jungle activities.
Iban longhouse on Lemanak river
Taking a longboat to the longhouse
Mount Kinabalu is a pretty easy mountain to summit and you can do it with a reasonable level of base fitness, even if you’ve never climbed a mountain before .The entrance for the climb is Mount Kinabalu National Park, a 1.5 hour journey from Kota Kinabalu.
Summiting Mount Kinabalu happens over two days, with an overnight stop at 3272 metres above sea level. Seven rest points lay between the entry gate and the overnight accommodation, Labuan Rata Resthouse. As you climb, the surrounding habitat changes from rainforest to rock and finally to granite. As the going gets tough around 4.5 kilometres – increasingly steep and increasingly exposed – the rest points will be a welcome stop.
We were pleasantly surprised by the Laban Rata Resthosue, which is cosy and social. After six hours of climbing, it’s a great stop to eat a good dinner, make yourself a hot cocoa and watch a splendid sunset over the ridge and below the clouds.
An early bedtime is required, since you will have a 2.00am wakeup ahead of you to get to the summit before sunrise. Don’t be too sad because climbing under a sky full of stars is stunning. Plus, the sunrise at the summit is surreal when the new morning light baths the granite in a golden glow. However, in the early morning at altitude, it’s freezing, windy and sometimes wet – so pack thermals and warm, waterproof gloves. A LED headlamp is also a good idea.
I found the downwards climb much harder than going up. It was intense for my news and slippery – something to keep in mind.
Hot cocoa at Laban Rata after a day of climbing
Sunset from Laban Rata
Sunrise at Low’s Peak
Malaysia (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)
Kota Kinabalu’s night market is famous. And for good reason. Have dinner and dessert here one evening while in K.K.
If you want to see an orangutan, Borneo is your place to be. The best chances of spotting one in the wild is in Danum Valley (see ‘D for Danam Valley’, above). Otherwise, Borneo has several well-known rehabilitation centres, such as Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in north Borneo and Semenggoh Nature Reserve and Wildlife Centre near Kuching.
Both these centres can be really busy with tourists. For a better look of orangutans at a place closer to Kota Kinabalu, I highly recommend Rasa Ria Nature Reserve. A pair of Swedes told me about this place over breakfast at our guesthouse one morning and I’m so glad they did. It’s a little unexpected – Rasa Ria is actually based at the Shangri-La, a huge resort about a 40 minute drive from K.K. (you can catch a cab). However, it’s a little known fact that baby and orphaned orangutans come here before being transferred to Sepilok to continuing their rehabilitation to return to the wild. Without the crowds, you can get much closer to the orangutans at Rasa Ria than at Sepilok and Samenggoh and, well, babies are CUTE!
Four and five year old orangutans at Rasa Ria Nature Reserve
Everywhere – particularly Indonesia (Kalimantan)
Sadly, it’s fitting that ‘P for Palm oil‘ comes after ‘O for Orangutans‘ – because the world’s demand for palm oil is destroying orangutans’ habitats and threatening their existence.
Palm oil is an ingredient in many packaged foods – in Australia, about 50% of all packaged food contains palm oil. With a longer shelf-life than standard vegetable oil, it’s used in everything from crackers to shampoo.
Palm oil plantations are the main cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia and thousands of hectares of old-growth rainforest has been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations in Borneo, which produces about 80% of the world’s palm oil supply. We took many flights in Borneo, and seeing thousands of hectares of palm oil plantations where rainforest used to be was a really sobering experience – particularly when the airline then served us packaged crackers which contained palm oil.
What can you do? Well, like I encourage you to do for clothing – check the labels before you buy something. If it has palm oil – avoid it and take yourself out of the cycle of demand/supply. You can also write to companies that you know use palm oil in their products and express your concern.
Okay, this is cheating, but I’m not just going to make something up beginning with ‘Q’ for the sake of it, am I? Borneo’s position on the equator is what gives it such a diversity of flora and fauna (and, allegedly, the brilliant sunsets).
Everywhere – but best preserved in Malaysia (Sabah)
So I’ve already raved about Danum Valley and mentioned Mulu National Park. If you can’t make it to either of those places, here are some other great places to experience the rainforest:
- Maliau Basin – hard to get to, but totally worth it to see this ‘lost world’ of Borneo
- Tabin Wildlife Resort
- Tanjung Putin National Park
From wherever you are in Borneo, sunsets are excellent.
Tajung Aru boasts “best sunsets in Kota Kinabalu”. Catch a taxi there at about 5.00pm to eat dinner on the beach and watch the sun turn the sky shades of orange, red and gold.
The best in all of Borneo – in my opinion – is from a boat on the waterways in Brunei (see ‘B for Brunei‘, above).
A close second best would be from Laban Rata on Kota Kinabalu (see ‘M for Mount Kinabalu‘, above).
Sunset from Tajung Aru
Sunset from Laban Rata, on Mount Kinabalu
Sunset from the boat on the waterways in Brunei
Malaysia (Kuching, Sarawak)
The first tattoos in the world were allegedly in Borneo, using the traditional hand tapping style of tattooing with two sticks. A Bornean’s tattoos read like a diary, representing physical journeys and big life events. The Bunga Terung (a tribal eggplant flower), is the first tattoo a Borneo male would receive to mark his coming of age. Tattoos are also incredibly symbolic. The Ukir Rekong, on the throat, is meant to protect the skin of the throat from being severed by the enemy. One could tell how successful a warrior was from his tattoos – typically, a warrior would receive a new tattoo to mark each kill… and an Entegulun on the hand if he had taken a head (see ‘H for Headhunters‘).
While in Borneo, Tom got a Bunga Terung on each shoulder using the traditional method (he finally came of age.. ha ha). He got his by the guys at Borneo Headhunter Tattoos, who are world-class tattooists and also super nice guys.
Three hours of pain
A tattooed man from the longhouse
Do you know that in addition to all the other awesome things about Borneo, the sightseeing extends underwater? Borneo is a top-notch diving destination. Here are some of the best places:
There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer at wildlife conservation centres, if you wish to do so. See some options here.
Also – vaccinations. Make sure you check what vaccinations you might need to get before you go. Here is what else you are likely to need, but double check with a doctor the month before you leave.
Everywhere we went, we happened upon little bits of history from World War II (including random displays of war remnants). While in Borneo, I learned about the Sandakan death marches. We also happened upon more war history when, on route to Brunei, we passed through Labuan, an island which was occupied by Japan during World War II. Later, Labuan was the site of major battles fought between Australian and Japanese forces. The Labuan War Cemetery contains a memorial and the graves of almost 4000 soldiers from Britain, Australia, India, Brunei, Borneo, and Japan.
Labuan war memorial and cemetary
War remnants on a bench on an island in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Diving? You betcha! (See ‘U for Underwater‘).
Caving? Sure. (Go to ‘C for Caves‘).
Swimming with crocodiles? You got it (‘L for Longhouses and longboats‘).
Malaysia (Kuching, Sarawak)
Yam seng is a toast – and a cue to drain your glass. You might hear this in Chinese restaurants in Kuching, but definitely not in Brunei (which is a dry country).
I’m not always the biggest fan of zoos, however, some in Borneo actually operate as wildlife sanctuaries and have an important role to play in the conservation of endangered species. If you’re thinking of visiting one, have a look at their purposes and decide thoughtfully.
So, do you think the Borneo Rainforest Lodge will hire me as a promoter?
But seriously… go there.
I hope you enjoyed the post! If you have any questions, leave them in the comments – I would be happy to try and help!