Where to go in Borneo
Where to go in Borneo
Our guide on the best places to visit in Borneo
Malaysian Borneo is split into two provinces: Sabah to the east, and Sarawak to the west. Both are carpeted in dense rainforests and ringed by beautiful beaches. When designing your customized trip it is interesting to consider the differences between the two.
Sabah, the eastern half of Malaysian Borneo, receives the majority of its international visitors. The dense primary and secondary rainforests of Sabah are where you’ll find Borneo’s premier wildlife sanctuaries and most impressive jungle accommodation. A classic route takes you to Sepilok, through the Kinabatangan River region, and then into the jungle reserves of Tabin, Danum Valley, or – for the adventurous – Imbak Canyon, Tawai, or Deramakot. In Sabah, you’ll also find the eclectic city of Kota Kinabalu, the soaring, rugged peak of Mount Kinabalu, and the impossibly beautiful diving locations of Lankayan and Selingan.
Over to the west, Sarawak is a different experience. Although wildlife encounters here are equally good – particularly in the Semenggoh Orang Utan reserve and Bako National Park, both easily visited from Kuching – the key attractions in Sarawak are cultural. Venture far enough into the Batang Ai National Park and you’ll begin to encounter the indigenous Iban tribespeople, and their traditional longhouse villages, which make for a very simple but unforgettable night’s stay. Adrenaline junkies will also enjoy the staggering limestone caves of Mulu National Park, and could potentially tackle the enthralling multi-day Pinnacles trek.
We’ve put together a quick guide to key destinations in both Sabah and Sarawak below. You’ll find that there’s a lot more to Borneo than jungles and orang-utans: a complete trip – including the wildlife but also focusing on culture, history, beaches, and exciting cities – is one of Asia’s great adventures.
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Best places to go in Borneo
Read our guide to the best wildlife reserves, beaches, and cities in Borneo. Please speak to our specialists if you’d like more information on any of these locations.
The provincial capital of Sabah, on the northeastern tip of Borneo, ‘KK’ is a historic and highly multicultural port city. Its influences range from colonial British to indigenous Malay, with a heavy dose of ‘Baju’ (sea-faring southeast Asian) and Chinese for good measure. A stay in the city provides eclectic shopping and dining, with nearby access to the underwater wonderland Tunkul Adbdul Marine Park and the jungles and the soaring peak of Mount Kinabalu National Park.
Home to the world-famous Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Sepilok sits on the eastern seaboard of Sabah, just inland from the busy port town of Sandakan. Sandakan is your main access point to Sepilok, with a small airport offering a direct link to Kuala Lumpur and shorter routes across Sabah. Sepilok is also the starting point for cruises into the Kinabatangan River. You’re likely to visit here first, using the Orangutan Centre and nearby Rainforest Discovery center as a warm-up before you embark on further wildlife and jungle tours within Sabah’s interior.
The lush, muddy waters of the Kinabatangan River, snaking some 560km through inner Sabah, are Malaysian Borneo’s most renowned wildlife destination. With plantations and logging encroaching on Sabah’s precious ecosystems, the Lower Kinabatangan was designated a protected area in 1997, and in doing so one of Asia’s most ecologically vibrant wildlife destinations was created. You’ll find the tree line on either side of the river positively teeming with life: stay at a comfortable riverfront lodge, and embark on boat safaris up and down river catching sight of proboscis monkeys, wild orangs, hornbills, pygmy elephants, and crocodiles. With plantations and logging encroaching.
Deep in the steamy jungles of eastern Sabah is the magical Danum Valley Conservation Area: a 438 sq km tract of millennia-old primary rainforest, home to a remarkable array of tropical flora and fauna which includes orang-utan, sun bears, clouded leopard, gibbons, proboscis monkey, and over 250 rare bird species. Better yet it is also home to one of the world’s greatest wildlife lodges – the Borneo Rainforest Lodge – where you can enjoy this extraordinary setting in supreme luxury.
The rainforests of the Tabin Reserve are co-managed by the Wildlife Department of Sabah (taking care of the animals) and the Sabah Forestry Department (overseeing the trees). You’ll find a mix of primary and secondary jungle here, and with a thinner treeline in places, sightings in Tabin are arguably the most productive of any forested area in Sabah. Leaf monkeys are commonly sighted, as are orang-utan and hornbills. Clouded leopards are occasionally seen. Wild pygmy elephants can sometimes be heard crashing through the trees nearby.
The island paradise of Pulau Gaya is a simply idyllic setting in which to unwind and reflect on your adventures. Fronted by a totally pristine white sand beach, backed by densely forested hills, and surrounded by the magical waters of the protected Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, accommodation is highly refined with great dining, leisure, and spa facilities at your fingertips. Should you be feeling active, sign up for diving and snorkeling adventures in the surrounding marine park, paddle-boarding, kayaking, or similar water sports, or hikes across the island’s dense jungle interior.
Compact, charming Kuching is the provincial capital of Sarawak and boasts a fascinating history. Established under the Bruneian empire, it later thrived as a trading port under the British empire, falling under the rule of the Brooke dynasty of governors, known locally as the ‘White Rajahs’. Today it continues to be a thriving, eclectic port, with a heady dose of Chinese, Islamic, and indigenous influences.
Located a half-day road and longtail boat transfer south of Kuching, Batang Ai National Park is your entry point to a forgotten world of indigenous Bornean culture. The protected reserve offers Borneo’s premier cultural (not wildlife) experience: staying a night or two with Iban tribes in a traditional ‘longhouse’. During your stay, you’ll get to know the customs and etiquette of your engaging hosts, take part in village etiquette, and generally feel like you’ve unplugged entirely from the rest of the world.
Located on the far eastern side of Sarawak, Mulu is accessed via a tiny airstrip and houses just one hotel of note – the Mulu Marriott Resort. Even by Borneo standards, you’ll feel like you’re off the beaten track here! Typically included in a ‘Grand Tour’ of Borneo, Mulu’s appeal is in its staggering limestone caves – some are big enough to house a 747 – which are protected by UNESCO Heritage for their unique biodiversity. An essential experience is to visit at dusk, witnessing millions of bats spiral out in a perfect cone shape. Intrepid travelers can also take on the challenging Pinnacles trek – one of the toughest in Borneo.
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