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The best things to do in Borneo

by Martha Hales

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Some of the world's most important natural resources are found in Borneo, an island of indescribably lush tracts of rainforest where exciting creatures swing, soar and scuttle. Some areas of the island have seen more development than others as the population seek economic progress, but there are still plenty of untouched regions to explore.

Borneo holidays: Farmers in Sabah

Hiking and wildlife spotting in the jungle is a major draw, along with canopy walkways, some world class dive sites, indigenous culture, an iconic mountain to climb and engaging towns. Here is a brief round-up of some of Borneo's many highlights.  

Borneo holidays: Orangutan in fig tree

Iban longhouses

West of Kuching on the southern edge of Sarawak you will find the Iban stronghold. They are one of the indigenous peoples of the region and they still maintain many of their ancient traditions - the tribal community set up remains unchanged with entire villages coexisting in a single longhouse.

Borneo holidays: Iban longhouse

Take a river boat to see some fine examples in the Batang Ai area where longhouses are numerous. Some accept visitors and share some secrets of their lifestyle, including impressive weaving skills, hunting skills and how they make a success of close knit communal living. 

Borneo holidays - Iban people weaving

Kuching

This is one of those towns that makes you want to linger longer than you had planned, and considering its size it has quite a calm and mellow atmosphere. Kuching enjoys a pleasant riverside situation, colonial charm and some interesting neighbourhoods to explore, such as Chinatown and Old Kuching which are joined by the waterfront, a kilometre long promenade which enjoys perfect sunset views.

Borneo holidays: Floating mosque in Kuching

Sarawak museum is well worth a visit, giving a really thorough insight into the natural history and etymological origins of the region. Take a leisurely cruise along the river to gain a new perspective on this appealing town, or venture to the three nearby national parks to explore the wetlands and coastal landscapes.

Borneo holidays: Cat statue Kuching

Explore the wonders of Mulu National Park

Taking its name from the brooding peak of Gunung Mulu, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Sarawak's major highlights. The geology of the area is the headline attraction and most visitors come to explore the caves and hike to the pinnacles, a mountaintop patch of limestone needles which pierce the forest canopy.

Borneo holidays - Mulu National Park pinnacles

The honeycomb network of caves at Mulu National Park are among the world's largest, and most visitors see some or all of the four show caves, each unique and impressive, but if you only have time for one make it the Deer Cave with its vast underground caverns and stunning Garden of Eden. Allow time at sunset to observe the millions of bats that swarm out of the cave to start their nocturnal hunt.

Borneo holidays - Bats exiting cave at sunset

Kinabalu National Park

Hugely popular, teeming with wildlife and one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, Kinabalu National Park is an incredible location for spotting a huge number of species from rare and intriguing plants to some of the most unique creatures on the planet.

Borneo holidays: Proboscis monkey in Kinabalu

The dense concentration of species is the consequence of several different habitats, from lowland forest to cloud forest and montane forest. Not only is the park famous for its incredible botanical variety - including carnivorous pitcher plants and the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, but it is also well known for its defining landmark: the shark's fin peak of Mount Kinabalu, which challenges keen hikers to reach its tough summit.

Borneo holidays: Low's Peak Mount Kinabalu

Kinabatangan River

Cutting through some of Borneo's most impressive jungle is the Kinabatangan River, where it is popular to take a boat safari along the lower stretches in search of exotic beasts and birds.

Borneo holidays: Sunrise over Kinabatangan River

The density of wildlife is such that you are likely to see quite a lot of different species in and around the water and the riverbank as you travel along, notably crocodiles, proboscis monkeys, elephants and even orangutans.

Borneo holidays: pygmy elephants on Kinabatangan River

The birdlife is a wonder, too, and you may catch sight of serpent eagles, rhinoceros hornbills (like the one pictured below), kingfishers, egrets, darters and many more.

Borneo holidays: Rhinoceros hornbill on Kinabatangan River

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre 

When orangutans are injured, orphaned or taken as pets their survival becomes precarious, and this sanctuary was established to ensure those orangutans at risk are brought back to full health and rehabilitated to ensure they can look after themselves when re-released into the wild.

Borneo holidays: Orangutans in Sepilok Sanctuary

Some individuals who have never lived in the wild cannot be reintegrated but many are, with a good success rate. While they are at the centre the orangutans are fed twice daily at 10am and 3pm, and you get to watch as they lope over to the feeding station for a meal. It's a popular spot with tourists and gets busy, but worth it to see these wonderful creatures.

Borneo holidays: Baby orangutan in Sepilok

Offshore islands

Divers and snorkelers will not be able to resist the pull of the islands a short way offshore from Semporna, renowned for having some of the most important and beautiful underwater life anywhere in Asia. For Pulau Sipadan you will need to hold an Advanced Open Water certificate and a permit, which are released in limited numbers to dive operators who will usually include your precious day diving at Sipadan in a multi day dive tour.

Borneo holidays: Beach on Sipadan island

Mabul, Mantubuan, Kapalai, Pompom, Sibuan and Mataking are other popular islands in this group for divers, and you will see coral, sharks, turtles, barracuda, rays and eels at many of these. Some of the islands are stunning pinpricks of land perhaps home to just a resort or two, others host plenty of accommodation, still others have nowhere to stay, but most are blessed with white sand beaches and crystal clear water.

Borneo holidays: Manukan island

Closer to Kota Kinabalu and therefore more easily accessible are the five islands of the Tuanku Abdul Rahman Park, with lovely beaches, great jungle trails, interesting wildlife on land and notably underwater. It's a great area for snorkelling, diving or simply relaxing.

Borneo holidays: diving

Make it happen 

If you were amazed and inspired by the recent ITV mini series about Borneo with Dame Judi Dench, why not contact our handpicked local experts today to find out how they would tailor make a Borneo holiday for you? They can create an itinerary based around your requirements and interests. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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