Borneo, an adventure travel guide
21 amazing things to do in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo
Borneo, the third largest island in the world. Divided among three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. There’s certainly not a lack of things to do in Borneo for the travelers.
Borneo is a name that evokes myths of adventure, wilderness, the iconic rainforests, biodiversity, animals, and plants that can be only be found here. Proboscis monkeys, orangutan, the weird bearcat (a mix between a bear a cat indeed) and thousands of other animals.
Unfortunately, everything is disappearing to make way for oil palm plantations and nature resists only in small national parks, created recently by the Malaysian government. Even if it is already quite late, there is still something to see. Those small fragments that can give a pale idea of what Borneo used to be, just a few decades ago.
The list of things to do in Borneo presented here is certainly far from complete but contains some more off-the-beaten-path adventurous activities that are often overlooked by Borneo travel guides and most bloggers.
Things to do in Borneo – Sabah, Malaysia
1. Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, in the north-east of the island it is not a great city itself, but a good starting base to explore the state of Sabah. There’s a beach not far from the airport, but a stream of sewer cut it in half, I won’t bath here.
The good beach is inside the university campus, a beautiful and big green area with some real rainforest and a white sand beach. You may be asked the documents at the gate but the security will hardly make any problems. Other things worth checking out are the City Mosque and the so-called Filipino Market.
From the hills around the city is possible to get a good view of Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia (4,095 meters). Unfortunately climbing it is incredibly expensive (not less than 100USD per person), check rates, prices and fees here. Our friend John says it’s possible to bypass the checkpoint and climb it free, but you’ll need the help of a local and, of course, it’s illegal.
Opposite KK there are a few Island, Palau Gaya being the biggest, apparently beautiful but with a dubious reputation.
Learn More about Kota Kinabalu
2. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Borneo’s Crocker Range and is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago as well as the highest mountain in Malaysia. Mount Kinabalu is also the 20th most prominent mountain in the world by topographic prominence.
In order to climb Mt. Kinabalu, you need to arrange a special permit and hire a licensed guide. This doesn’t come cheap. The hike itself is long but not particularly tough. The views from the top are spectacular. One of the best Borneo adventures.
3. The Crocker range
Covered in lush green rainforest, this steep mountain range, separating the east coast and west coast of Sabah, is the only real mountainous area in Malaysian Borneo, at an average height of 1,800 meters (5,900 ft). Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia, is part of this range. Part of the range has been gazetted for protection as Crocker Range Park since 1984.
There’s a Rafflesia center here, where it’s possible to see the biggest flower in the world, as well as many hiking opportunities. One of the less known things to do in Borneo.
Read more about the Crocker Range
4. Tenom and the coffee plantations
Read more about Tenom
5. Riding the Sabah State Railway
Learn more about the Sabah State Railway
Travel Borneo – The Brunei Sultanate
6. Visit Brunei Sultanate
Brunei is one of the only two remaining Sultanates in the world, the other being Oman, it has the 4th GDP per capita in the world (World Bank source, 2015) and the Sultan is the 4th richest Royal (Forbes), indeed crossing into this small state the wealth difference from the not-so-poor Malaysia is astounding.
Brunei is divided into two parts, not connected to each other, both surrounded by Sarawak, we’ll call them “Small Brunei” (27km) and “Big Brunei”.
Although being famous mostly for its oil production, the Brunei Sultanate is home to some of the best-preserved jungle in Northern Borneo. Indeed Brunei is where we had our closer encounter with the majestic hornbills.
Learn more about Visiting Brunei
Adventures in Borneo – Sarawak, Malaysia
7. Lambir Hills National Park
This small mountainous forest park is just 30km from Miri, according to the official website, this is the most diverse ecosystem in the world, too bad it’s just so small and everything around is oil palms.
There are many paths, all interconnected to each other, but the map that provided at the entrance is small and not very clear. Could be easy to get lost if you don’t have a strong sense of directions, the paths are marked with colored stripes on the trees, but those are not always evident.
There are many waterfalls, one of which is pretty big, and the jungle is just beautiful and dense. Visiting the jungle is surely one of the best adventures you can have in Borneo, don’t miss it.
Learn more about Lambir Hills National Park
8. Logan Bunut National Park
This park consists essentially of a lake, whose size changes according to the season. The best thing to do here is certainly birdwatching during the boat ride.
The boat tour, on a small longboat, lasts about an hour and a half and is very pleasant, the scenery is beautiful and there are clouds all very different forms, as usual in Borneo the sky is the greatest of the shows.
Many birds fly around and we spot again a hornbill, majestic in its elegant fly. No crocodiles around apparently. The lake greatly changes in size from season to season, so that the landscape can change notably.
Learn more about Logan Bunut National Park
9. Tusan Beach
Tusan Beach is an hidden gem of the Miri province, a place still unknown to most guidebooks and therefore ignored by the tourist, not even all the people of Miri know about it. And yet it is an incredible place, maybe the best thing to see around here.
Tusan beach is a stretch of golden sand, lined at its back by a spectacular tuff cliff, forming some astounding natural features. Moreover a rare phenomenon can be witnessed here, although unfortunately we missed it. During the nigh a blue luminescence appears in the water, a marvelous azure glowing caused by certain algae called ‘Dinoflagellates’ (according to the Borneo Post).
This beach made it into our list of the best-off radar beaches in Southeast Asia.
Learn more about Tusan Beach
10. Niah Caves National Park
Niah National Park (Taman Negara Niah), is one of the highlights of Sarawak, the southern state of Malaysian Borneo, and an absolute must among the best things to do in Borneo. Not only for the jungle, the wildlife and the huge caves, but also for its seamless historical and cultural relevance, since the middle Paleolithic.
Human remaining found here have been esteemed 40.000 years old and one of the cave features paintings from the iron-age (almost completely faded). In recent years the importance of the cave for the local economy is tied to the collection of birds nest (a delicacy especially appreciated by Chinese people) and guano.
The Great Cave, which really is impressive, has one of the world’s largest cave entrances. Inside the park is also an Iban village (Iban are one of the main ethnic group of Borneo Natives), where is possible to visit the longhouses and glance into the local culture.
Learn more about Niah Caves National Park
11. Visit the Sungai Asap resettlement area
Sungai Asap is the site where the people from the Bakun area have been resettled to built the huge Bakun dam.
Their ancestral homes and lands have been flooded and they were sent here, in the middle of oil palm plantation, very far from both their original territories and any notable town.
You’ll have the chance to stay in a house longhouse, experiencing the local lifestyle in a resettlement area, while at the same time helping these people who are struggling to make a living. You can also taste very good Tuah, a local liquor made out of different stuff, usually palm or rice, and delicious local fruits.
In our humble opinion, visiting this settlement is an eye-opening experience, and one of the best things to do in Borneo.
Learn more about Sungai Asap struggle and the environmental risk Borneo is facing due to big Hydropower projects
(These posts contain long interviews with locals)
12. Bakun Dam Reservoir and the floating market
Almost the same size of Singapore, blue water, and jungle all around, the Bakun Lake looks beautiful when you reach it, but it’s not supposed to exist.
Situated 60 km from Belaga in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo), it was created in 1986 as a hydroelectric reservoir, capable of supplying 90% of Sarawak energy demand. The dam that encloses it is the biggest dam in Asia, outside of China. To build this, thousands of natives were evicted from their ancestral lands and resettled near palm oil plantation, doomed to live a lifestyle unknown to them.
But some of them simply didn’t accept that, they stayed, retiring in the jungles upstream the river, or building floating houses near the jetty. It’s those people that, every Wednesday and Saturday, give life to one of the most peculiar floating markets in Southeast Asia.
Coming here is another enlightening experience to do during your travels in Borneo
Learn more about Bakun Dam.
13. Belaga Village
Belaga is a nice little town (37.000 inhabitants) upstream the Rajang river, the longest river in Borneo. There are a few guesthouses and couple of restaurants.
The town itself has some cute and colorful wooden houses in a style that is typical of this region. If you’re up for a tour of the interior this is a good starting point. Ask around if you want to get a guide.
Learn more about Belaga
14. Rajang River cruise on the public speedboat
Borneo evokes myths of adventure, and a riverboat trip is a great way to see what’s left of the jungle, and cast a glimpse on the traditional lifestyle of Borneo people (Dayak).
For the budget traveler though, private river cruise are not an option, but there are still a bunch of routes that are connected by public boats for very low fares.
The “fast” boat connecting Belaga, Kapit, and Sibu is probably the last public river boat in Sarawak, from Sibu though, it’s still possible to get to Kuching by boat, a short part of it is through the estuary of the Rajang and the rest on the sea.
The boat ride from Kapit to Belaga is especially marvelous, quite an adventure, and it definitively makes it into the list of the best things to do in Malaysian Borneo.
Learn everything you need to know about the Rajang River public boat
15. Overnight stay in a longhouse
Longhouses (Rumah Panjang/Rumah Betang) are the traditional houses of Borneo natives (generically called Dayaks, which includes many different ethnic groups). Most of these are made of timber, raised off the ground on stilts and divided into a more or less public area along one side and a row of private living areas lined along the other side. This allows many families to live at close quarters, usually relatives but not necessarily.
Staying in one of those houses is a great way to experience the real Borneo lifestyle. A great area to do this are the shores of the Rajang river: the public boat does many stops at several longhouse villages where no road leads. Just go off at one of these stops and ask around, most likely someone will be willing to make an extra few bucks, if not they will probably point you somewhere else.
16. Kuching City
Kuching is the capital and the most populous city in the state of Sarawak in Malaysia. It is situated on the Sarawak River at the southwest tip of the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo and inhabited by about 325,000 people.
The life in Kuching mainly boosts around its nice riverside, called waterfront by the locals, very near is Jalan Carpenter where many hostels and bars are, a good base to explore the area.
Another highlight is its many food courts, some really big and fascinating, that make Kuching rival Penang as the food capital of Malaysia. TopSpot food court is the one closest to the waterfront and has a great an super cheap choice of almost everything, with seafood being the specialty. Kuching is the best city to visit in Borneo.
Learn more about things to do in Kuching
17. Bako National Park
Bako National Park is the most famous park in Sarawak, and for a good reason! It’s here that most rare animals can be found, such as proboscis monkeys, which can be found only in Borneo, silvered langur, plantain squirrel, Bornean bearded pig, monitor lizards and nocturnal creatures like colugo, pangolin, mousedeer, tarsier, slow loris, palm civet and many others.
Bako was founded in 1957 and is the first National Park of Sarawak, sadly it’s also the smallest (but no worries there’s a lot to explore). It sits on the north tip of the Muara Tebas peninsula, just 20km north of Kuching, and it’s also famous for its spectacular and weird limestone rock formations.
There are many hiking opportunities and a handful of stunning beaches, it’s possible (and highly advised) to overnight inside the park.
Learn more about Bako National Park
18. Scout for the Rafflesia in Gunung Gading National Park
The Rafflesia is the biggest flower in the world, it’s only present in Borneo, Sumatra, and Thailand. It’s huge parasite flower, a flower that can exceed 100cm in diameter, and weigh up to 10 kg, a flower that takes months and months to bloom and then stays alive no more than seven days. A flower on the verge of extinction, like everything here in Borneo, plants, animals, people.
Gunung Gading National Park, just 80km from Kuching, is worth the visit even without rafflesia. There are three beautiful waterfalls where you can swim, especially number 7 is a really relaxing spot. Even if the park HQ will tell you there’s no blooming Rafflesia at the moment, go anyway. They told us so but the Rafflesia was just there! Why?
Learn about it in our article about Finding the Rafflesia in Gunung Gading National Park
Things to do in Indonesian Borneo – West Kalimantan
19. Take a road trip through the dirt roads of West Kalimantan
As far as we could figure out, there are three international overland border crossings between Sarawak (Malaysia) and Kalimantan (Indonesia):
- the busiest and biggest at Entikong (ID) – Tebedu (MY), on Malaysian H21 south of Serian
- the small Lubok Antu (MY) – Nanga Badau (ID), next to the reservoir of Batang Ai
- The little known Aruk (ID) – Biawak (MY), near Lundu
The only border where you can get Indonesian Visa on arrival is the Entikong – Tebedu, for all the other options you should have a visa already in your passport. If you already have an Indonesian visa, our advice is to absolutely cross the Aruk border.
Nature, landscapes, and people change immediately once crossing the border. Everything is wilder in this area. reaching towards Sambas you can visit some astonishing and unknown floating villages.
Learn more about overlanding from Malaysian Borneo to Kalimantan
20. Sambas, the Venice of Borneo
Sambas (West Kalimantan, Indonesia) is a small city at the crossing of three rivers, it was an independent sultanate until the foundation of the Indonesian Republic, and has recently been the theater of a horrible massacre.
This place is unknown to most tourist guides but is wonderful. The side streets are suspended wooden walkways and even the houses are suspended on stilts. Everything is built along the river and often on the river.
You can visit the sultan’s palace (Istana Alwatzikhoebillah) but the beauty lies in the rest of the city. People bath, brush their teeth, and children plunge into this great river.
Learn more about Sambas
21. Singkawang, the city of the spirits
Learn more about Singkawang