Straddling the equator and taking in three of Southeast Asia’s most fascinating countries, Borneo is one of the world’s great islands. In terms of sheer size it is only second to Greenland and New Guinea, and it remains one of the most ecologically diverse destinations on the planet.
Although most of the island is taken up by the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, this area remains relatively inaccessible and underdeveloped. To enjoy this Southeast Asian gem in relative comfort, it is best to head to the north of the island and the Malaysian states of Sarawak (to the west) and Sabah (to the east).
Although a major eco-tourism destination, Borneo is diverse when it comes to things to do and see. Borneo’s sprawling national parks are famously home to the orangutan, gibbon, macaque and proboscis monkey, exotic birdlife including the hornbill, and huge butterflies and moths. There are also great diving and adventure sport opportunities. Or if you just want to lounge that’s okay too; the beaches are amazing.
Here’s a suggested week itinerary for Borneo:
A Week in Malaysian Borneo
Day 1 – Land in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Day 2 – Drive through Sabah’s rainforests, and check into a resort on the South China Sea.
Day 3 – Enjoy a full-day tour by boat to Gaya and Sapi Islands. Snorkel in crystal clear waters teeming with fish.
Day 4 – Fly to Gunung Mulu near Miri in Sarawak. Begin your explorations of Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to 60 mammal and 262 bird species.
Day 5 – Gunung Mulu National Park is definitely worth a second day – it’s home to the world’s largest cave chamber with impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and flow-rocks. Look for the stunning Rajah Brooke’s birdwing butterflies, swiftlets and their coveted nests. Return to Sabah in the evening.
Day 6 – Take a speedboat to Selingan Island. Explore Turtle Island National Park, nesting ground for endangered green and hawksbill turtles. See green turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on the beach.
Day 7 – Chill out and relax at one of the many amazing beachfront resorts in the area.
Mount Kinabalu, Kinabalu National Park, Sabah – If you have some more time up your sleeve consider climbing Borneo’s tallest peak to 4,095 metres for some stunning views. It’s highly accessible and requires no mountaineering equipment or specialised skill to reach the summit. You’ll need to be fit though, as the air gets thinner all the way up, but it’s worth the effort. You will also need to book in with a local tour company to make the trek; plan in advance as this is a popular activity.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah, Malaysia – This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch orangutans in their natural habitat – up close and personal. Founded in 1964, it aims to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans to the wild and it’s one of the best places on this island to watch this process. The Rehabilitation Centre is easily accessible from Sandakan by public or private transport. The best time to go is at feeding time when the orangutans come to get fruit from the rangers. This usually happens twice daily.
The likelihood is that you’ll be in the hands of a guided tour for most of your time on Borneo, and your accommodation will be included. A lot of it can be described as ‘functional’, especially in the jungle interior so you may like to pack your own mosquito net. There are plenty of hotels and hostels in the cities where you can book ahead and some luxurious resorts for pleasure seekers, especially on the better beaches.
Getting there & away – You can fly to Borneo from Hong Kong and Singapore, but the swiftest and easiest route is via Kuala Lumpur. Your port of entry will depend on your itinerary. Choose between Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei’s capital), Kuching (Sarawak, Malaysia) and Kota Kinabalu (Sabah, Malaysia). To access Indonesian Kalimantan, there are both flights and ships from other parts of Indonesia.
Getting around – Overland journeys can be time-consuming but the roads that do exist aren’t too bad, especially between the major cities. You can hire a car, but most road transport is by long-distance taxi or bus.
Buses run daily between Kuching and Pontianak (Kalimantan). Sabah has a limited railway system with one working line, from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort and Tenom.
There are numerous ferry services, some more official than others, on both rivers and from the mainland to nearby islands.
Flying is definitely worth thinking about and good value for money. For the best deals try and book internal flights before you arrive on the island.
Joanne Lane (Australia)
Joanne Lane is an Australian freelance photojournalist based in Brisbane. A love of writing from an early age led her to complete a university journalism degree in 1996 with the idea of pursuing sports journalism, but she soon found the constraints of the newsroom too much. The travel bug soon hit and Jo has now travelled to more than 40 countries and lived in a few as well, writing and documenting her experiences for newspapers, magazines and online sources around the world. For more details, see www.visitedplanet.com.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website