An adventure travel guide for a great Borneo Itinerary 31 amazing things to do in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo
Borneo, the third-largest island in the world. Divided between three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. There’s certainly not a lack of things to do in Borneo for the travelers. In this blog post, we’ll try to help you design your perfect itinerary in Borneo.
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.
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A rough two-weeks itinerary idea to adventure travel Borneo
This is a quicker version of our own itinerary through Borneo, which we feel like recommending to those interested both in the natural and cultural aspects of Borneo. It includes highlights of Sabah and Sarawak, with one day in Brunei and a scenic bit of West Kalimantan (Indonesia). It requires you to fly out from Pontianak (very close to Singkawang) or take a long dinstance ferry to Java or Peninsular Malaysia.
3 days in Kota Kinabalu, exploring the city and hiking Mount Kinabalu and the Crocker Range
1 day in Tenom to catch the Sabah State Railway
1 day in Brunei
3 days in Miri, exploring Tusan Beach, Lambir Hills, and possibly Logan Bunut
1 day in Niah National Park (overnight in the park)
1 day in Sungai Asap (Dayak Longhouses)
1 day visiting Bakun Dam and Belaga
1 day river cruising the Rajang river on the public boat (overnight in Sibu)
3 days in Kuching (Bako National Park, Gunung Gading looking for the Rafflesia)
1 day road tripping to West Kalimantan, exploring and overnighting in Sambas
1 day in Singkawang
10-days Borneo Itinerary in Sabah
If your time is shorter, or you want to focus on a small area and more leisurely activities, here’s an idea of itinerary which includes all the best tourist attractions of Sabah, the north-eastern region of the Malaysian Borneo.
This itinerary is ideal for wildlife lovers, focusing on the unique fauna of Borneo, both marine and terrestrial. If you love diving this is the itinerary for you.
2 days in Kota Kinabalu, exploring the city and Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
1 day trip to Mantanani Island
1 day Sepilok Orangutan Center
1 day Kinabatangan River Cruise
1 day Danum Valley Conservation Area
1 day Sipadan Island
More Adventurous Borneo Itinerary Ideas
If you love hiking and staying off-the-beaten-path, a great idea would be to add the Mulu Caves and Mulu Pinnacles to your route. This will eat some days so you might want to consider focusing on Sarawak. An idea could be:
Flying into Kuching – 1-day visiting the city and Sarawak Cultural Village
1 overnight in Bako National Park
Flying or bus to Miri – 1-day visiting any nearby attraction (Tusan Beach, Niah Caves…)
5-days in Mulu area, visiting the caves and hiking the pinnacles
If you want to get even more into the real wilderness, you should consider exploring Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo. Very few tourists venture here, and some areas (fewer and fewer every year… so don’t waste time) are still untouched and pristine. Kalimantan though, is much bigger than Malaysian Borneo, distances are huge and infrastructures lacking.
Some Kalimantan attractions listed in this article are:
Kutai National Pa,rk (East Kalimantan)
Tanjung Puting National Park (Central Kalimantan)
Sambas (West Kalimantan)
Singkawang (West Kalimantan)
Visiting all these would turn into an amazing road trip through Indonesian Borneo, you’ll need to be more flexible about your schedule though.
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 for your itinerary in 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.
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.
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. Have a look at the tours of the Crocker from Kota Kinabalu.
Tenom itself is not beautiful but it’s an interesting place to visit. Famous for fruits and especially coffee, the best that can be done here is indeed visit the farms (Sabah Agricultural Park) and the coffee factories.
Of the 55,000 population, 60% is ethnic Murut, in the center there’s a statue to Ontoros Antonom (1885–1915), who in 1915 led the Muruts against British colonists in the Rundum village of Tenom. We visited the Yit Foh coffee factory, had some great coffee for free and saw how they toast the beans in the traditional way: in iron cylinders hand-rolled on wooden fires.
From Tenom it’s possible to catch the 100-year-old North Borneo Railway to Beaufort (or further to Kota Kinabalu).
The Sabah State Railway, formerly known as the North Borneo Railway, is the only railway in the island of Borneo. This is not just a train but a real experience, a piece of colonial history, a very unusual and adventurous train ride really worth including in your Borneo itinearary.
It’s a total of 134km from KK (Kota Kinabalu) to Tenom. The most interesting stretch is the 48km from Tenom to Beaufort. Following a placid river,its waters dark and muddy, where is possible to spot crocodiles, The train goes through lush tropical vegetation, some tiny houses can be seen hidden in the jungle, looks like the only way to reach these little houses in the forest is this train.
The above mentioned destinations are what have personally experienced, there’s a few more amazing things to do in Sabah so we asked the help of fellow travel bloggers to cover all the major points of interest in this region.
Visiting Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary is an absolute must-do in Borneo. With the destruction of their rainforest habitat for the palm oil industry, it’s getting harder and hade to spot Orangutans in the wild in Borneo. However, you will see plenty of the cute, orange, furry apes at Sepilok rescue centre.
Whilst it’s a great opportunity for wildlife lovers to get close to these wonderful creatures, it’s also an ethical centre which really helps the Orangutans. For this reason, you won’t get close to the baby Orangutans (unless they are with mum) as the babies are kept away from humans for their safety and development.
The centre is open straight onto rainforest which means that many of the Orangutans are free to come and go as they please. When I was there I got to see a wild orangutan make friends with one of the rescued ones. It was super cute.
Make sure you turn up early and get a good spot at the feeding stations where you are most likely to see more Orangutans as they rock up to be fed. If they don’t turn up, however, remind yourself this is a good thing as it means they are more self-sufficient and getting closer to being able to be released!
Borneo is a paradise for nature lovers. I ended up there unexpectedly after Diving Sipidan Island and had one of my favorite experiences in South East Asia – spending two days exploring the Kinabatangan River.
The best way to visit the Kinabatangan River is to stay on an eco-lodge on the river. From there, you can take part in river cruises and guided hikes to see Borneo’s incredible wildlife.
The Kinabatangan River is home two over ten different primate species, notably the proboscis’s monkey and the orangutan, as well as more than 50 mammals including the Borneo pygmy elephant. More then that, there are over 200 different species of birds in the area! To say Borneo is a wildlife lovers dream would be an understatement.
The lodges are set right in the jungle, yet the rooms were kept clean and even had AC. The food choices were excellent, and our guides were knowledgeable, showing us many different species. For any wildlife lover, the Kinabatangan River is a must!
Mantanani Island is a short trip away from Kota Kinabalu that is best suited for a two day trip. The island is often visited as part of a two day package with a night at the island’s resort, but can also be traveled independently.
Since Mantanani is a little further away than most of the offshore islands it tends to be quieter, has better corals, and more opportunities to interact with the locals.
The main attraction on Mantanani island is the snorkeling trip which is just offshore, but accessed by boat. You can see a decent amount of fish here and the coral is looking healthy. The second best thing to do would be the sunset walk, where you walk down to the local village and watch the sunset from the jetty.
At certain times of the year you can also see bio-luminescence. The best time to see it is around September, but you can see small sparkles of blue any time of the year.
One of the most unforgettable adventures that we had in Borneo was island hopping in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. Located in the Malaysian part of Borneo, Tunku Abdul Rahman park covers a part of the ocean and the islands close to the coast of Sabah.
This protected reserve houses some incredible views, gorgeous crystal blue waters, live coral and an incredible collection of marine life. Exploring the reserve can be done in many ways from scuba diving to island hoping and snorkeling. There is even a zip line between two islands if that catches your fancy.
The best place to book a trip into the park is from Kota Kinabalu. There are a variety of packages to choose from and each one covers a different set of islands. The boats leave from the jetty at frequent intervals. Scuba diving however is usually booked from individual dive companies, but their boats leave from the same company too.
Contributed by Campbell and Alya from Singy Nomads
Sipadan island in Borneo, Malaysia is one of the most spectacular dive spots in the world. A massive coral wall drops 300m into the deep close to shore and currents flowing over the reef creates one of the most spectacular wall dives in the world.
At the famous dive site, Sipadan Barracuda point, divers see massive schools of barracuda on most dives that sometimes spiral around the diver to form a large ‘barracuda tornado’! Schools of fish the size that swims around Sipadan is extremely rare. An enormous resident school of big eye Jack’s usually engulf you on this dive and massive Bumphead Parrot fish come by in the shallows on top of the reef.
Diving here you can expect to see anything, keep an eye out for different nudis, crocodile fish, hawksbill turtles or big groups of white tip reefsharks. If you are not a qualified diver you can also snorkel with the large schools of fish around Sipadan island. There is no accommodation on the island, only day visitors are allowed. Only 200 divers a day get permits to dive here and this is strictly regulated, so book your permit in time!
The Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah is one of the few areas of virgin rainforest left in Borneo. The primal jungle is incredible to be in – the mist, thick vines and enormous tree buttresses are awe-inspiring. However, the best thing to do is to take a walking safari hike through the jungle in search of wildlife.
The only accommodation in the conservation area is the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, and guided hikes and a night drive are included in the price. There is a canopy walk with walkways and staircases up in the tops of the trees where there are good chances of seeing orangutans, red leaf monkeys, and plenty of birds.
Down on the ground, there are enormous monitor lizards, flying frogs and more. A night drive with a powerful spotlight and expert guide gives you the chance to see nocturnal animals such as lemurs, giant flying squirrels and the elusive cloud leopard. This is an incredible experience. Read more about visiting Danum Valley and the Borneo Rainforest Lodge here.
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.
Contributed by Mar Pages from Once in a Lifetime Journey
The island of Borneo has a compacted kingdom sitting on the north known as the nation of Brunei. It consists of two unconnected slices of land within Malaysian Borneo that amounts to a total area of 5,765 sqkm. Even though it’s the smallest country in the region, there are enough activities to keep a traveler busy for at least 3 days.
Before going, it should be noted that it is a conservative Muslim dry country where alcohol is not permitted and dress is quite conservative. Apart from seeking the shy proboscis monkeys, being inspired by the Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien and exploring the spectacular nature at places like Ulu Temburong, I would highly suggest going over Eid and visiting The Nurul Istana Royal Palace of Brunei.
Why do I suggest visiting over this time specifically? Well, the impressive 1,800 room royal building, considered the largest palace in the world, is only open for the three days of Eid al Fitr at the end of Ramadan. And apart from being allowed in the spectacular building, you will also get to meet the Sultan (men only) and his wife (women only) in person. You also get a cute gift of a signed card from the Sultan which makes for a great souvenir, if that’s your thing.