Borneo is the third largest island in the world and Asias largest, its a rugged jungle filled island located in south east Asias Malay archipelago. The island is split into three, one part of the island is Malaysian and and has two states which are Sabah and Sarawak, the other part is Indonesian which is known as Kalimatan, then there is the tiny nation of Brunei. Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the Sabah state and Kuching is the capital of Sarawak in the Malaysian states of Borneo.
Borneo is known for its ancient biodiverse rainforests which is home to a huge array of wildlife from orangutans, proboscis monkeys, irrawaddy dolphins, clouded leopards, pygmy elephants and saltwater crocodiles to name but a few.
The island is a naturally stunning, but as well as having amazing wildlife and topography, its also a melting pot of culture and home to many ancient indigenous tribes. Borneo used to have head hunting tribes, today the tribes no longer headhunt but still continue with ancient customs and traditions to keep their culture alive. Borneo is home to a variety of cultural groups with lots of Chinese communities, Malays, indigenous groups and many more. The cuisuine shows how diverse the island is and the influeneces it has had over the years.
Borneo is an incredible place and a nature lovers paradise, my husband and myself visited years ago when we planned a 3 week trip backpacking around south east Asia. We went to Kuala Lumpur, Sabah in Borneo, Bali, Lombok and Singapore. Originally we didnt plan on going to Borneo, but I came across some cheap flights with Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur and it was somewhere we had always dreamt of going to, so we decided to spend a little less time in Bali and spent 5 nights in Borneo, and now I’ve had a taste for it I would love to go back and spend longer! We did also have a tour booked to Mount Kinabalu but I came down with a 24 hour sickness bug so we lost a day on our trip which I was absolutely gutted about.
Whatever your into Borneo has something for everyone from nature enthusiasts, to beach lovers to adventure seekers you name it Borneo has it all!
Sights & Activities
Labuk Bay Proboscis Sanctuary
Labuk Bay Proboscis Sanctuary is a great observation spot to go and see these weird looking indigenous monkeys, the sanctuary is privately owned and located in the middle of a mangrove forest. The owner who originally planned on developing the site for palm oil plantations nearby realised the monkeys predicament and decided not to develop their habitat into plantations, and instead opted to making it a sanctuary where they can live freely. The sanctuary have created two viewing platforms on the land where they put food out daily for the monkeys so that visitors can view them and how they interact with eachother.
This sanctuary is great place to get up close to the monkeys especially if your short on time and dont have the time to venture into the deepest rainforest to view them. There is a small entrance fee of 60 MYR for non residents which works out at about £11 per adult, we visited the sanctuary after going to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which we booked the full day as a tour and took an internal flight to reach Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu.
Kg Pukat Fisherman Village
Kg Pukat Fisherman Village is a village built on stilts over the sea in Sandakan. The village is full of local fisherman living there with their families, we came here for a wander. If you like seafood this is a great place to come as there are small restaurants and stalls where the locals sell fresh catch of the day seafood, there is also dried seafood which you can purchase to take away with you too. We didnt eat at the village but had a look around as its interesting to see these quirky huts built over the water and seeing the local villagers going about their day to day lives. If your in Sandakan this place is a great place to stop off at to get an insight into local life. We went there towards the end of the day before having to head back to the airport for our domestic flight back to Kota Kinabalu. Our tour guide recommended the place and even though we didnt spend long there, we were really glad we got to see this peaceful sea village.
Pulau Tiga (Survivor Island)
Pulau Tiga is part of a small group of uninhabited islands located in Kimanis Bay off the western coast of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. The island is also referred to as Survivor Island, as it was the location for a reality tv series filmed there. The island has plenty to offer adventurous travellers from snorkelling, scuba diving, trekking, mud bathing and best of all true escape from modern day life, with limited WIFI its the perfect place for a digital detox.
The island is one of three islands which make up Tiga Island National Park, the other two islands are called Kalampunian Besar and Kalampunian Damit (Snake Island). Pulau Tiga has several forest trails on the island but the most popular one being the trail to the islands mud volcanoes, with its mineral rich mud bubbling away. The island has limited accommodation, there is a Pulau Tiga Resort which has 23 wooden chalets and rooms or there is the luxuourious boutique Borneo Eagle Resort which has 13 villas available. There is also a small campsite available for people to pitch a tent, however with so many macaques and monitor lizards roaming around, Im not sure how comfortable I would feel sleeping in a tent?!
You can visit Pulau Tiga on a day trip from Sabah, however I personally would recommend that if you can try and stay over night on the island. We stayed at the Pulau Tiga Resort for a night and absolutley loved the place, the island was so quiet. We had the beach to ourselves which was absolute bliss, and even when we went through the forest on our trek we hardly saw anyone. If you want a break from modern day life then this is the place to come!
Puu Jih Shih Temple
Puu Jih Shih Temple is a buddhist temple and the largest chinese temple in Sandakan and located just outside of town overlooking Sandakan Bay on top of the hilltop of Tanah Merah. The temple was built back in 1987, and provides amazing views of the town and its coast. The temple is bright and colourful with plenty of gold detailing and incense filling the air of the temple. This temple is a must when in Sandakan town!
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is an incredible place conducting incredible work into rehabilitating orphaned orangutans. Orangutans are native to Malaysia and Indonesia however they are currently only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. They used to inhabit many places all over south east Asia and south China, but due to destruction of their natural habitats they are now critically endangered. Orangutans are icons which are most associated with Borneo. What these intelligent and beautiful primates are going through is utterley heartbreaking, but thankfully places like Sepilok are at hand to give these apes a helping hand and to try and get their numbers back up in the wild.
The rehabilitation centre was founded back in 1964, and the site is situated in the Malaysian Sabah District of North Borneo and on a large protected plot of land on the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today approximately 70 orangutans are living free in the reserve. There is also about 25 young orphaned orangutans that are housed in the nurseries being taught and shown how to live and survive as an orangutan in the forests.
Recently rehabilitated individuals have their diet supplemented by daily feedings. The food supplied by the centre is purposefully designed to be repetitive and boring, so it encourages the orangutans to start to forage for themselves. Visitors can see them on viewing platforms from a distance and measures are put in place to ensure people stay quiet as not to disturb them. Visitors are restricted to walkways and are not allowed to approach or handle the apes either.
The facility provides medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans as well as other wildlife species. Some of the other animals which have been treated at the centre include sun bears, gibbons, and elephants.
When visiting Sabah this should be top of your must do list as not only is it an amazing once in a lifetime experience, but also the small entrance fee of 30 MYR per person helps towards the running costs of the centre. Sepilok is considered a useful educational centre and you will learn so much there about these apes.
This was the highlight of our trip and a real pinch me moment when we saw the apes climbing through trees above and quite an emotional and overwhelming feeling too, the whole experience was just incredible and just a once in a lifetime experience.
Food & Drink
English Tea House & Restaurant
English Tea House & Restaurant is probably the most random place to stop at for lunch and isn’t typically Bornean. However North Borneo used to be part of the British colony until 1962, and this quaint English tea house is located next to the Agnes Keith House in Sandakan which is a museum dedicated to an American author known for her three autobiographies about life in British North Borneo.
The tea house is a great spot to come for lunch as the gardens are so peaceful, and sat on top of a hill with great views over Sandakan Bay and the surrounding town. The restaurant has both traditional English dishes such as fish and chips and afternoon tea, but also serves up Malay dishes too. We normally opt to eat at more authentic places, but came here for lunch while in Sandakan as it’s a bit of a novelty.
Pulau Tiga Resort
Pulau Tiga Resort is situated on Pulau Tiga island and is an amazing place to stay, we absolutely loved staying there. The price of this accommodation may seem expensive for a basic chalet however the price does include breakfast, lunch and dinner and bottled water as well as your boat transfer to get to and from the island.
The chalets are simple but have everything you need for a comfortable stay with a bed and hot shower and a veranda to sit out on, just be aware of the macaques roaming around, we had one try and get into our room!
We paid just over £100 each but that included everything so even though it’s a little on the pricey side for one night we honestly would do it again as we had the best stay! I just don’t think visiting the island on a day excursion is enough time to enjoy the island fully.
Masada Bed & Breakfast
Masada Bed & Breakfast is a small hostel and bed and breakfast situated in Kota Kinabalu and is in a central location within walking distance of all nearby attractions, malls and restaurants etc. We based ourselves at Masada and booked into a private room with shared bathroom, they offer all guests a complimentary breakfast which is basic but enough to fill you up for the morning. There are dorm rooms available as well which is a great option if your travelling solo.
It’s a spotlessly clean and the staff were really helpful and friendly, and it’s great value for money it only cost us about £15 per night for both of us. We didn’t really want to spend much on accommodation in Borneo as we were planning on being out most of the day exploring, apart from the one day I got sick and had to spend a whole day in our room running backwards and forwards past the reception desk to the shared bathrooms, not one of my finest moments in life! The staff were great though and kept checking on me to see how I was doing.
Honestly can’t recommend this bed and breakfast enough it’s a great place to base yourself and meet other travellers from all around the world! We met a lovely Australian man who was travelling solo and came out for dinner with us one night into Kota Kinabalu, and also met a really funny Spanish guy too, the whole place just has a really friendly vibe, and you will getting chatting to everyone staying there over breakfast or sat chilling in the lounge area.
Transport & Getting Around
We based ourselves in Kota Kinabalu it’s a small city and everywhere can be reached by walking, so walk everywhere as much as possible around the city as you get to see so much more! However there are minibuses which circulate the city looking for passengers and are really cheap, they can also be used to get to the airport too. There are also taxis available but can cost quite a bit even to go a short distance, so personally I don’t think they’re really worth it. There is also opportunities to hire cars and scooters, however some of the roads outside of the city can be quite rough.
We walked everywhere around the city and then booked all our tours through Amazing Borneo. I cannot recommend them enough, they are the BEST tour company I have ever used! We booked our Pulau Tiga island experience with them as well as the Sepilok Orangutuan tour, and we just booked our flights from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan through Malaysian airlines and they had a guide meet us at the other end.
We did also have a Mount Kinabalu tour booked through Amazing Borneo too, but I went down with a 24 hour bug and started being sick on the bus on route there. The tour company was kind enough to stop and organise us transport back to our accommodation, they also went the extra mile and called our accommodation to make sure we got back ok and if they could assist with anything e.g. hospital etc, and also sent someone to give us a full cash refund of the tour! You can’t get much better service than that.
I would suggest when visiting Borneo to book yourself a base and then book day tours and overnight excursions through Amazing Borneo as all the entrance fees and transport costs are all covered under one price. Tours in Borneo aren’t the cheapest, however you get what you pay for and the knowledge of a local guide and everything included. If your going into the rainforests then you will need someone who knows and understands the areas and the risks so that you are kept safe, and also not damaging any of the local wildlife and fauna.
Borneo is extremely hot and humid so wear light and comfortable clothing but also be mindful Borneo is a predominately Muslim country so try to cover shoulders and knees and dress modestly when out and about. Make sure to pack some light walking boots or trainers for good grip when venturing out into the wilderness.
If it’s your first time going to Borneo I would suggest starting in the state of Sabah it’s got everything from wildlife and pristine beaches and the terrain is much easier to navigate compared to Sarawak which is normally recommended to more seasoned travellers as its slightly more off the beaten track.