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things to do borneo adventure

An adventure travel guide for a great Borneo Itinerary

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. 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 monkeysorangutan, 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.

Check our

Hints and advice to travel Borneo on a budget


Borneo Itinerary Map

A rough two-weeks itinerary idea to adventure travel Borneo

  • 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

Things to do in Borneo – Sabah, Malaysia


1. Kota Kinabalu

things to do in Borneo

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. Kinabaluthe 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

things to do in Borneo

photo @HK.Colin

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

Borneo Adventure Travel

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

Borneo travel

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).

Read more about Tenom


5. Riding the Sabah State Railway

things to do in Borneo adventure

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.

Learn more about the Sabah State Railway


Travel Borneo – The Brunei Sultanate


6. Visit Brunei Sultanate

things to do borneo brunei

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

things to do borneo adventure

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

things to do in Sarawak

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

things to do Borneo

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

Borneo Adventures

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

Borneo Sustainable Travel

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

Borneo Travel Guide

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

Borneo Travel guide

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 Adventure

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

Borneo Travel

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. 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

Borneo travel

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

borneo monkey

A proboscis monkey in 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 langurplantain squirrelBornean bearded pigmonitor lizards and nocturnal creatures like colugopangolinmousedeertarsierslow lorispalm 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

top things to do in Borneo

“Our” Rafflesia

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

Borneo things to do

the river village before Sambas was really amazing, this long narrow concrete path is worth following

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

things to do in indonesian borneo

the sultan’s palace (Istana Alwatzikhoebillah) in Sambas, West Kalimantan

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

things to see in Borneo

Singkawang is nicknamed the “city of a thousand temples” and really has a thousand temples, large, small and microscopic. It’s Taoist Chinese majority town, The Chinese settled here more than three hundred years ago, as miners and traders, and had become Indonesian citizens since generations.
The city itself is very peculiar, with its porched streets, scattered temples, and overall Chinese atmosphere. On the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, an incredible religious festival is held here, called Cap Go Meh.
The streets must be metaphysically cleaned to be ready to welcome the new year. On the fourteenth day of the Chinese New Year, believers go to pray in all the temples of the city and surroundings. On the fifteenth day, the Tatung, as they are called in Indonesia, are possessed by the spirits. Falling into a trance, they sit on sharp blades and pierce their faces with various tools.
This is one of the most intense festivals we’ve ever seen, and a must among the things to do in Borneo, so much so that is worth planning your trip according to it.

Learn more about Singkawang


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Borneo Things to Do

 

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