Borneo remains one of the world’s most treasured destinations of natural beauty, a landmass dominated by jungles and home to some of the most rare and incredible species on the planet. Split into two parts—western Sarawak and eastern Sabah—the vast lands of this stunning island retain their ancient traditions, attract those with a sense of adventure and lure those with an eagerness to get off the beaten path. Here are five highlights to get you started on your Borneo journey!
1. Visit an Orangutan Sanctuary
Getting up close to an Orangutan in Borneo is akin to seeing pandas in China—it has to be done. The opportunity to see these incredible creatures in their natural habitat should not be missed. As Borneo tackles the issue of deforestation and the destruction surrounding the palm oil industry, the best way to see these endangered creatures is in a ‘Rehabilitation Centre’—set up to care for orangutans that have been displaced, or rescued from an inhumane environment. Here they have a vast section of jungle to roam in and are taught to fend for themselves.
Despite many visitors crossing the line when it comes to the rules of interaction, the Orangutans rule the land here—it is their space and you are in it. The most magical moments come as you quietly observe them coming into the main areas for feeding time, when they cross the pathways right in front of you and as they swing from the tress right above you.
There are two sanctuaries in Borneo—the most popular one in Sepilok, in the eastern state of Sabah and the other in Semenggoh, in the western state of Sarawak.
2. Stay Overnight at a Tribal Longhouse
While many Iban tribal longhouses in Sarawak are deliberately set up for tourist groups, many remote ones also welcome visitors to learn about this unique and traditional jungle lifestyle. A preserved way of life, untouched by the face of modernization, the tribal groups are eager to welcome you and share their culture.
The Iban are one of many groups of indigenous people still living in Borneo, who (unlike the Penan migrant hunters) settle in one place in a communal longhouse. This wooden, stilted structure has a row of family rooms on one side and an open social area on the other and is continually extended as more families arrive to join the tribal hold.
To get there you will journey through neighbouring towns (where now some indigenous people have integrated) and embark on a river journey towards the area of Batang Ai, where you will be greeted by the local people, tour the longhouse, dine with all the families and meet the Chief and the elders. It’s an incredible experience, which can be arranged in advance with your favourite small group adventure company or after your arrival with local travel outlets. For the most authentic experience, your only hope is to wait for a personal invitation from a local.
3. Climb Mount Kinabalu
The largest mountain on the island and the tallest in the Malay Archipelago (which includes the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and surrounding areas) this World Heritage Site is an adventurer’s haven.
Standing at over 4,000 metres above sea level, you can either climb to its summit in one day or via a two-day hike (recommended) that includes an overnight stay at a teahouse. A steady six-hour climb to the rest area takes you through varying landscapes of green forest and copper soil as you traverse a land of unique flora and fauna.
The 2am start on day two begins as you join the winding line of head torches shimmering their way up to summit for the 6am sunrise. This is mountain climbing at its best as you pull yourself up over the smooth granite slopes via ropes and shuffle along its ledges. For those who enjoy conquering challenging peaks, this is a short climb with a difference.
4. Experience One of the World’s Top Dive Sites
Sabah boasts some of the best dive sites in the region, with Borneo being known as having some of the most untouched beaches and lagoons, pristine coral and incredible marine life in the world.
Sipidan Island, off the east coast of Borneo and accessed from the mainland town of Semporna, remains a firm favourite with scuba enthusiasts, attracting those looking to delve deeper into a lesser traversed ecosystem. Lankayan Island off the northeastern coast from Sandakan and Layang Layang off the coast of Kota Kinabulu also top the best dive site lists.
5. Surprise Yourself in the Capital of Sarawak
Kuching may well be your first stop in Borneo on the Sarawak side, and while it may not be the luscious green haven you were picturing of Borneo, give it some time. The capital may have lost some of its green space to modernization, but its history and traditional lives on in its bustling side streets and preserved old town space.
From the imperialist architecture from the days of the ‘White Rajahs’ (this area was once a part of the Sultanate of Brunei and became a British owned empire for over 100 years in 1841), to the merging of Indian, Chinese and Malay culture, Kuching has preserved elements of the various periods of history that have dominated it.
Crossing the river brings you to the green side, where small villages and sporadic candy coloured houses are lost within the mountainous backdrop and hues of green. Not all of Kuching has been lost to concrete structure and city bustle.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to Malaysian Borneo encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this ray-filled country as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to Borneo here.