The third largest island in the world and the biggest in Asia, beautiful Borneo belongs to three countries: Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s as big as it is diverse, from lush rainforests to cascading waterfalls, white sand beaches to bubbling springs, jungles, caves, and even former headhunting tribes: if you’re in search of adventure, you’ll find it here. With its wonderful wildlife and a huge variety of flora and fauna, it’s a dream destination for nature lovers, and it also has an incredibly vibrant mix of culture and cuisine thrown in for good measure. Our Borneo expert, Erin, recently returned from a research trip to Borneo. During her two-week stay in the Sabah region, she watched wild orangutans, cruised along the rich ecosystem of the Kinabatangan River, trekked through tropical jungle, swam in waterfalls and even stayed in a traditional longhouse. In this blog, Erin shares her favourite moments, wildlife highlights and top Borneo holiday ideas…
Sun bears and orangutans in Sepilok
With its colourful local markets and fishing villages, stunning colonial architecture, iconic temples and religious relics, there’s definitely plenty to see when you fly into Sandakan. However, like most people, we wasted no time in heading straight to Sepilok to visit the Sun Bear Conservation Centre and Orangutan Sanctuary. Home to bears that have been rescued from illegal hunting, poaching, or the loss of natural habitat, the Sun Bear Conservation Centre is an absolute must-visit when in Borneo. The bears here are kept in large enclosures where they are free to roam in their natural habitat, and thanks to the elevated walkways, visitors are pretty much guaranteed a good view of them. The centre is really visitor-friendly, with lots of information, excellent viewing platforms, and enthusiastic guides – our guide had even personally saved three bears himself, so had a huge amount of knowledge on the subject!
Next, we ventured to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Established in 1964 to help rehabilitate orphaned orangutans, the adult orangutans here are free to roam around in the wild, which means you’re not guaranteed a sighting. However, many put in an appearance during the twice-daily feeding times. We were actually lucky enough to see an adult orangutan who hadn’t previously been part of the nursery and was completely wild, it had just wandered in for the free food! If you don’t manage to spot an adult orangutan, don’t worry: there’s a chance to see baby orangutans in the nursery where they are encouraged to play and learn the skills they need for the wild in a safe space. And who knows – if you don’t catch sight of an adult orangutan at the centre, you might just see one roaming around the grounds of your lodge instead!
Wildlife cruises on the Kinabatangan River
From Sepilok, we headed two and a half hours south to the Kinabatangan River. A nature lover’s paradise, the river is crawling with all the wildlife you could possibly imagine and more. It actually sustains one of the world’s richest ecosystems, and as well as being home to Borneo’s indigenous orangutan and proboscis monkey, the surrounding forest is one of only two known places in the world where 10 species of primates are found. Thanks to its diverse range of habitats including forest, oxbow lakes and mangroves, it’s also one of the top places to spot wildlife in South East Asia. Here, you can cruise along the waterways in search of native wildlife as you float past villages and lush rainforest. In fact, during our three days here, we spent the majority of our time doing just that. We were lucky enough to see proboscis monkeys, hornbill, enormous crocodiles lazing on the riverbanks and even hear the haunting sound of gibbons in the morning. It’s definitely an all-around sensory wildlife experience!
When the sun sets, one Borneo holiday idea I’d definitely recommend is a night cruise: there’s absolutely no pollution so you can see every star in the sky and watch as the surrounding trees light up with fireflies twinkling on and off like fairy lights. All the while, the guides use searchlights to spot crocodiles, kingfishers, fireflies and spiders. However, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the trip for me was actually back at the lodge where we were lucky enough to spot a baby orangutan and its mum in a tree in the grounds. We got to witness the mum teaching the baby what to do by pulling the branches down and acting as a bridge so the baby could venture from tree to tree – a fascinating insight into the teaching and nurturing instincts that is unique to orangutans.
Waterfalls and volcanoes at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve
Next up, we headed to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. A 300,000-acre reserve in the centre of the Dent Peninsula, where you’ll find some of the largest mammals of Sabah, including the Borneo pygmy elephant, tembadau, nine species of primate, three species of cat, and 300 species of bird. It’s also home to a mud volcano, complete with a bubbling mud-pit in the middle that erupts every couple of years – a natural phenomenon that makes Tabin a really mineral-rich area for animals. We went on a guided walk to the volcano (where the mud is really spongy to walk on!) and climbed up eight flights of stairs to the observation tower where we watched the animals bathe in the mud below. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot pygmy elephants, but we did get to see wild boars. It’s a great opportunity to get a really good look at wildlife – in the rainforest you just tend to catch a glimpse of them, but because it’s so open here you can get a really good sighting.
There are also five walking trails in the reserve. We set off on the Gibbon Trail towards the Lipad Waterfall, an absolutely beautiful spot where you can go swimming amongst fishes in a natural pool underneath a waterfall in the heart of the rainforest and there’s also the chance to have a mud facial using mud from the volcano. If you get the chance, I’d definitely recommend a dusk/night drive here as well. It’s a fantastic opportunity to spot wildlife as you have the rainforest on one side and a plantation on the other, resulting in a nice open spot that makes it easy to spot animals. We were lucky enough to see 25 rhinoceros hornbills flying overhead (something even the guides were in awe of!) as well as a flying squirrel, owls and Bornean leopard cat. There’s even the possibility of seeing clouded leopard too, although it’s very rare.
Cuisine and culture in Kota Kinabalu
Our next destination was the captivating capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, to experience a bit of city life. With its vivid colours, heat, humidity, and rich smells, the jungle seemed a million miles away. There’s plenty to do here: Kota Kinabalu (or KK as it’s known to locals) has a rich culinary variety, as well as a lively art and music scene. Take a stroll along the lively waterfront (known as the Times Square of KK), or indulge in some retail therapy in the nearby shopping malls. After taking in one of the stunning sunsets, I’d definitely recommend a visit to the bustling night market to try an array of Malay dishes – the chance to eat any cuisine you want makes a very welcome change after the limited food options in the rainforest! Kota Kinabalu is also the gateway to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, and you could also opt to climb Mount Kinabalu. It’s a three-day excursion with a 2am start – but the view from the summit when the sun comes up is completely worth it! Alternatively, head to Poring Hot Springs and observe the wildlife on the canopy walkway 100 feet above the forest floor, before enjoying a dip in one of the soothing mineral springs.
Personally, we decided on an excursion to the Mari Mari Village. Situated in a remote forest setting, it’s not an authentic village, but rather an area created in the style of each of the main tribes. Built by the descendants of the tribes which they represent – the Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus and Dusun – we were introduced to their homes, traditions, and culture. Everyone is wearing traditional dress, serving up delicacies specific to each tribe and showing you how to cook it so you can see, taste, and feel the essence of Sabah as it once was. There’s also the chance to get henna tattoos, try out a blowpipe, see the traditional longhouses and learn all about the culture of each tribe. The trip ends with a big performance, including cultural dances, music, gongs and costumes, so you can immerse yourself in the culture and discover the different quirks and traditions of each tribe. Being so far away from the city with the rainforest surrounding you, it really feels like you’re in an authentic village setting.
Longhouses and farm stays at the tip of Borneo
Next up, we headed to Kudat Longhouse at the tip of Borneo. It’s a long drive but worth it to find out how local people really live, and there’s even the chance to stay in one of the family rooms. We saw the biggest flower in the world, the Rafflesia, also known as the Corpse Flower, on our travels. Indigenous to South East Asia, they stink of rotten meat to attract flies but are so well protected that all the land around them is automatically protected too. Whilst in the region, we also went to a Kiulu farm stay. It was an incredibly authentic experience: a community project built by local girls who want to become engineers, you have to walk over a rope bridge across the Kiulu River to get to it. It’s completely set apart from everything, with no air con, no hot water, and no Wifi – there isn’t even any glass in the windows, which means you can hear the sound of the river and the wildlife all around you. There are plenty of cultural activities on offer here, such as traditional rice processing and blowpipe making, and you can also go quad biking or white water rafting. The water runs straight from the mountain so it’s really refreshing and absolutely freezing. However, the chance to see all the wildlife and birdlife around you as you are rafting is amazing.
Relax and recharge on Gaya Island
From farm stay to five-star luxury, our last stop was Gaya Island. Twenty minutes from Kota Kinabalu by boat, there are actually a couple of different islands in the area. With palm-clad beaches and crystal clear waters, Gaya Island is the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, and with its coral gardens and vibrant marine life, it’s the perfect spot for snorkelling and diving. Think dense jungle, tropical fauna, secret beaches and villages on stilts above warm turquoise waters: there’s really no better place to relax and reflect on your Borneo experience. If you’re still feeling adventurous, you can zip line from one island to the other but for us, Gaya Island was the final chance for some R and R before heading back to the UK after an exhilarating and unforgettable trip – we already can’t wait to go back!