What to do in Borneo
What to do in Borneo
Our guide on the best things to do in Borneo
The primary attraction of Borneo is its dense jungles and the many adventures and encounters they hold. All visitors to the island spend at least a few nights in isolated lodges deep in the forest, conducting wildlife expeditions on foot or by boat. Wildlife tours in Borneo are incredibly productive, with near-guaranteed sightings of proboscis monkeys, orang-utans, and hornbills, and encounters with Bornean elephants and crocodiles (both viewed from a safe distance by boat!) also highly likely.
Your adventures in the jungle can range from the gentle to the truly immersive. For first-time tours we’d recommend the former: hiking an established forest trail from your lodge, or skimming along a languorous river by speedboat. For the latter, you might attempt a vigorous multi-day hike through the jungle, camping out along the way, or a challenging summit of soaring Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia.
Borneo’s natural attractions are just as spectacular under the water as they are under the forest canopy. The warm, coral-rich waters which surround the island teem with underwater life, home to sharks, turtles, and a kaleidoscope of tropical fish. The protected marine areas off Kota Kinabalu, or Sipadan, Semporna, and Lankayan off the eastern seaboard, offer some of the best and most accessible diving and snorkeling on the plant.
An often overlooked feature of Borneo is its cities. Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, respectively the provincial capitals of Sarawak and Sabah, are historic, eclectic melting points. Typically for Malaysia, they are packed full of tantalizing street eats and local restaurants and boast intriguing multicultural sightseeing with a blend of Buddhist, Islamic, Chinese, and Indigenous cultural treasures. Walking tours of these cities offer a lively contrast to the sultry wildlife encounters elsewhere in your itinerary.
Read our guide below on the very best activities and experiences to include on your customized tour of Borneo.
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Best activities in Borneo
There’s more to Borneo than just wildlife. We’ve picked our favorite activities in the jungle and beyond below.
Visitors to Borneo are here for one reason above all: heading into the teeming forests for wildlife encounters that are simply without parallel. No wildlife activity is guaranteed of course, but the jungles of Borneo are so biodiverse and so full of like that you can confidently expect to get up close with the orang-utan, proboscis, or langur monkey, hornbills, jungle cats, and all manner of microspecies on numerous occasions throughout your trip. Hikes are usually 3-4 hours at a time, led by expert naturalists, and take place on established trails through the forests.
A less involved – but no less thrilling – experience is to come out from under the jungle canopy…and stroll above it instead! There are several dramatic canopy walkways to be found across Borneo: strung between native ‘ironwood’ trees (a dramatic spectacle in themselves) you’ll walk a path some 100ft in the air, stopping at sturdy platforms to peer down into the treetops below. The canopy walk at Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre is a fine warm-up; those in Mulu, and the world-famous 300m long walkway at Danum Valley, are truly magical experiences.
After a day of wildlife spotting – either on foot through the forest, or by boat along the muddy waters of the Kinabatangan – your adventures don’t have to come to an end! The rainforest really comes to life after dark, so heading out in an open-top vehicle with a naturalist by your side you’ll have the chance to spot an even greater variety of species: civet cats, snakes, jungle frogs, and on rare occasions, clouded leopard. The keenest-eyed may even spot the teeny tarsier, the world’s smallest primate at barely 15cm tall.
Climb Mt Kinabalu
Soaring Mount Kinabalu, located a couple of hours’ drive inland from Kota Kinabalu, is Southeast Asia’s tallest peak. Reaching the summit is a trek, rather than a climb (no crampons required!) but is a challenging endeavor and not for novice walkers. You’ll spend the first night in Kinabalu National Park HQ – surrounded by tropical gardens and natural hot springs – before beginning the hike proper. A second night is in basic dormitory accommodation around two-thirds up, waking at around 1am to complete the hike in darkness, arriving at its lunar-like summit in time for an unforgettable sunrise.
Borneo’s biodiversity is not limited to its interior forests. The underwater world around the island is equally rich in life a diver’s (and snorkeler’s) paradise home to reef sharks, barracuda, tuna, giant turtles, and a cornucopia of brightly colored tropical fish. Best of all these underwater adventures take place off some of the world’s finest tropical beaches, mostly with high-class accommodation to match. Non-divers can relax back in the spa or around the pool and enjoy the experience just as much!
Meet longhouse tribes
Adventures in Borneo are not limited to wildlife and scenery. Head deep inland and you’ll encounter remote indigenous tribal groups still living out a lifestyle that has changed little in centuries. Accommodation is in authentically Bornean ‘longhouses’: all families live dormitory-style off one central corridor, encouraging constant social interaction. We can arrange 1 or 2-night stays in such accommodation which, although simple, have been adapted to accommodate Western visitors with some modern conveniences.
Explore the historic ‘cat city’
Borneo’s two principal cities – Kota Kinabalu, the provincial capital of Sabah; and Kuching, the capital of Sarawak – are typically Malaysia: colorful, multicultural, packed with historic charm, and drowning in gastronomic pleasures. We love both but if we had to pick a favorite it would be the former, known as the ‘Cat City’ (a loose translation of Kuching) and with a walkable, atmospheric city center which wears its many influences – British, Chinese, Malay, indigenous Bornean – on its sleeve.
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