If the urge strikes to get back to nature, head to Borneo
A tropical wonderland stuffed with adventure and crawling with wildlife, Borneo has huge appeal. Some of the largest remaining tracts of equatorial rainforest blanket the island, sheltering a incredible number of species including orangutans. Alongside all that wildlife, experience fascinating tribal traditions and challenging peaks before recharging in hot springs or on the many lovely island beaches. Various cultural influences and religions coexist here, adding a compelling slant to Borneo's status as one of the great natural refuges on Earth.
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Top four things to do in Borneo
There are many wonderful experiences to be had on this jungle-clad island. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top four things to do in Borneo.
King of the jungle
The Orangutan is the only great ape found in Asia. They spend almost all their time swinging through the treetops looking for fruit and young shoots to eat. Home to around 1,000 wild orangutans, the forests around the lower Kinabatangan river are a great destination for anyone keen to catch a glimpse of these rare primates. You can also see them enjoy feeding time at Sepilok, where orphaned and sick animals are rehabilitated before their release back to the forests of Borneo.
Go on a river safari
Take to the water on a safari boat for a wildlife spotting trip on the Kinabatangan River. The longest waterway in Sabah cuts through one of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems, and a boat journey allows a close up look at many of the species that call this area home. Drift through the rainforest of the Lower Kinabatangan basin and you may be lucky enough to catch sight of pythons, proboscis monkeys, orangutans, elephants and crocodiles...
Take an unforgettable walk in the park
Jungle trekking in Bako National Park in Sarawak is not to be missed, getting you right into the heart of the Muara Tebas peninsula where mangroves and forests meet dazzling beaches perfect for a dip. Trails weave through the park allowing hikers who move around quietly to see everything from macaques to monitor lizards and quite a lot in between. Birds and monkeys are notable highlights, but note that the rare proboscis monkeys are most likely to be active around dawn and dusk.
Delve into Kinabalu National Park
Kinabalu National Park is Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Centre and is in Sabah, Borneo. While its eponymous mountain is the island’s and indeed Malaysia’s highest peak at 4095m, summiting is not for the faint-hearted (the mountain is also home to the world’s highest via ferrata at 3776m). Mountain footpaths are excellent but, for most, appreciating Kinabalu’s majesty from below is reward enough. The Park’s plant diversity is staggering, its natural habitats and highlights include rich tropical lowlands, sub-alpine and tropical forests, and extravagantly coloured orchids. Keep a keen eye out for gibbon, orangutan and miniature frogs.
Lesser-known highlights in Borneo
While there are many well-known things to do in Borneo, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative adventure.
Enter the Bat Cave
Gunung Mulu National Park boasts the world's largest cave system including Deer Cave, so called because deer used to shelter there. The other things that shelter there are upwards of two million wrinkle-lipped bats and a mountain of guano. At sunset, the bats leave the cave en mass which is an astonishing sight. Access the cave along a three-kilometre boardwalk surrounded by steaming rainforests and jungle streams, before the walkway continues over peat swamps, alluvial flats and limestone outcrops. At two kilometres long, never less that 90m high and often partially lit by sunlight, even claustrophobics hugely enjoy this unusual cave experience.
The Lost World
Sabah’s Maliau Basin is home to the world’s oldest primary tropical rainforest. In pristine condition thanks to its natural protection – it’s encircled by almost impenetrable jungle-clad mountains – the forest is well managed and well-appointed with lodging options. Endemic species have evolved in this natural basin environment, and opportunities to view unhurried wildlife come from clear trails and jungle camps (though with so much natural cover, sightings aren’t guaranteed). Our trusted local experts can advise on the very best way to appreciate this uncrowded Eden.
Dive and snorkel sensations
The Semporna islands in south-eastern Sabah are where diving devotees should head. Arguably home to some of the planet’s finest snorkel and dive spots, these waters get you up close and personal with sharks, turtles, citrus-bright fish and glowing coral. Mataking is favoured by underwater photographers and Mabul is perched on the edge of the continental shelf. If updating your dive diary over cocktails by night, prepare to tick off cuttlefish, octopi, squid, lobster, giant clams, rays and bat-fish.
When is the best time to go to Borneo?
Temperatures throughout Borneo remain dependably warm all year round, generally topping 30 degrees during the day with similarly consistent levels of humidity. Rain is also a reliable companion across the seasons, but short sharp showers give way to more prolonged downpours during the wet season. The western part of Sarawak is likely to be wettest between December and February, whereas in Sabah the wettest months are September and October. But this is an island used to the rain, and your plans are unlikely to be disrupted because of it.
Insider tips from our local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Borneo. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
There’s a city just for cat-lovers…
Sarawak’s capital is called Kuching, a.k.a. Cat City. Feline fans will love the rather quirky cat museum and the photographable, large-scale cat monuments that litter the town. On a more serious architectural note, echoes of Kuching’s past worth visiting include the Astana Palace (former residence of the White Rajahs) and Fort Margherita, a stronghold built to repel pirates. Beyond the city, Sarawak State offers seemingly endless beaches on its South China Sea coast to the north, with dense and often protected rainforests cloaking its interior.
Spicy fish and food…
While not lauded as a culinary capital, Borneo’s kitchens brim with spicy, fused flavours, a happy by-product of a rich heritage. Indian, Malay and Chinese influences are all deliciously discernible, with more unusual rainforest ferns and spices adding new dimensions. Staples are fish, rice, tofu and vegetables, with noodle-based broths a popular choice. Wake up your senses with a spicy Hinava – mackerel fillets liberally doused in chili, ginger, lime and the seeds of a spiky forest fruit called bambangan. Nasi Lemak is another must-try. Traditionally a breakfast dish, it’s a fragrant dish of rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves.
The Indonesian Islands
Over 75% of Borneo is Indonesian, with Indonesia’s territory covering the island’s south and south-eastern sections. Carpeted with attractions too numerous to mention, an umbrella statement is that Indonesia’s own beaches, and islands off the coast of Borneo, are out of this world. The spices of the Kai Island have intrigued Europeans since the 16th Century; architectural echoes of the Dutch East India Company can be found on the palm-fringed Maluku Islands; and whales, dolphin and turtles are often spotted off Derewan Island in the Sulawesi Sea.
Interesting facts about Borneo
Borneo is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top facts about it?
- Borneo is considered the world’s third largest island (after Greenland and New Guinea) with a landmass of 748,168 square kilometres.
- Borneo is shared by three countries. Roughly 73% is Indonesian, 26% is Malaysian, 1% belongs to the Kingdom of Brunei.
- The Indonesian name for Borneo is Kalimantan.
- Over 200 indigenous groups call Borneo home, between them speaking over 50 languages. Some tribes such as the Iban were former head-hunters, though this practice has died out following colonisation and the introduction of Christianity.
- Borneo hosts an astonishing 15,000 different species of plant, one of which produces the world’s largest flower. Called Rafflesia Arnoldii, it smells like decaying fish thus its informal name: stinking corpse lily.
What to read before you go to Borneo
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Borneo, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Into the Heart of Borneo' by Redmond O'Hanlon
Naturalist O’Hanlon took advice and equipment from the SAS before commencing this adventurous river journey. Accompanied by poet James Fenton and trackers from the Iban or Sea Dayak tribe, they voyage into the jungle’s tropical interior with hopes of reaching the Tiban massif. Excels on botanical, flora and fauna references.
'Almayer's Folly' by Joseph Conrad
Though Heart of Darkness may be his best known, Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel. Published in 1895 it follows the life in the jungle of Dutch trader Kaspar Almayer, and his relationship with his mixed heritage daughter. Impacted by European influences and disagreeing on most key topics from politics to religion, corruption and identity crises run rife throughout.
'Borneo Stories' by W. Somerset Maugham
This diverse collection is a companion volume to Maugham's Malaysian Stories. Each set in Borneo, many of Maugham's most captivating tales are included. Feast on ‘The Yellow Streak’, ‘The Outstation’, ‘Before the Party’, ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, ‘Neil MacAdam’ and ‘Virtue’.
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