Nothing evokes the imagination of deep jungles and unexplored tropical wildernesses more than Borneo. The word itself conjures up dreamlike images of undiscovered head hunting tribes with blowpipes and wild orang utans swinging in the treetop canopies, and yet nothing dispels those images as quickly or rewards them as fully as Borneo.
Borneo boasts one of the largest and most bio diverse and species rich equatorial rainforests in the world, a small fact that gets lost on most visitors as they come face to face with one of the planets most stunning natural gardens. Borneo is actually the third largest non continental island in the world that is actually split up into three parts, Sabah and Sarawak which are in the Malaysian part of the island, then Kalimantan on the Indonesian side of Borneo. The sultanate of Brunei is a separate country that sits in between Sabah and Sarawak.
Sabah is a tropical paradise par excellence. A haven for wildlife of every size and description and pristine ecosystems that defy facileness, from dark, steamy jungles to tranquil, technicolour coral reefs and imposing mountain tops, where everywhere you turn seemingly part of a picture perfect high definition nature documentary. It holds some of Borneo’s absolute must see attractions and some of the world’s most beautiful natural hotspots. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is a strong tourist infrastructure in Sabah. Some say that Sbah has become too touristy, with parts almost like a theme park Borneo attraction rather than the real thing. As a result of this it will be necessary to plan ahead in Sabah as unfortunately for some attractions an organised tour is necessary as it is either illegal or impossible to attempt independently, but it is still worth it. It is still possible to see Sabah independently, it just takes more hard work and perseverance than normal. From world class diving in Sipidan to Malaysia’s highest peak Mount Kinabalu, Sabah rewards the intrepid traveller willing to put up with the red tape and bureaucracy of permits and visa restrictions with a trip they will never forget.
Sarawak on the other hand is Borneo without the refinement, a little wilder, slightly more untamed and significantly less touristy than its neighbour Sabah, and in parts still retains some of the feel of a tribal Borneo before European contact. Sarawak is a huge swathe of impenetrable jungle, stunning national parks and beautiful coastline sat in between Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia. Every bit the Eden that its neighbour is, Sarawak has a completely different feel to it, more uncultivated and natural, even its largest city Kuching has the feeling of a gentrified but unexplored border town. It is infinitely more relaxed and laid back than Sabah and is far less tourist orientated, to the extent that it is the least visited Malaysian state. Whilst this means there is slightly less tourist infrastructure, it also means that you will be able to enjoy a beautiful part of Borneo with less people and at far more reasonable prices than the rest of Malaysia.
Kalimantan is a very different animal again to its Northern neighbours. More rugged, less refined with far less infrastructure, this is the Borneo that people imagine when they dream of intrepid explorers hacking their way through jungles and coming across undiscovered tribes. Wildlife spotting and protected national parks are par for the course here, and while there is limited infrastructure and accommodation in Kalimantan compared to the rest of Borneo or Indonesia, there are still parts that are very much off the beaten track. There are however plenty of options to take treks or tours upriver or into the jungle, but guides and permits are a must, and the costs of these will as well as transport are a lot compared to the rest of Borneo or Indonesia.
Culture and etiquette.
Sarawak and Sabah are two of the most culturally diverse states in South East Asia, and that’s saying something! Apart from the mixture of Malay, Chinese, Muslim, Indian and othe cultural groups, there are also a huge number of native groups from the Murut, Suluk, Orak Sungai, a collective of smaller tribes people known as Orang Ulu and even the Iban (the famed headhunters of Borneo). There are no real do’d and don’ts in regards to ettiquette here beyond the common sense act and dress respectfully that applies everywhere else.
What you need to know.
Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan – although all part of Borneo – are all semiautonomous states in their own rights, so each has their own immigration border controls, and you will have to go through immigration every time you cross a border.
Sarawak is easy to travel to, and most nationalities including the UK, Europe, Australia, Canada, the USA and many more will be granted a three month visa on arrival if they fly in, or a 30 day stay if they come over certain (but not all) land borders. Extensions can easily be arranged at the immigration office in Kuching.
Sabah has pretty much the same rules as Sarawak, and if you cross over the border between the two your 3 month visa on arrival is renewed regardless of how long you spent in the previous state, essentially doubling the time you are allowed to stay in Malaysian Borneo altogether.
The following list of vaccinations are recommended for visits to Malaysian Borneo as well as Indonesian Borneo or Kalimantan by the Centre of Disease Control.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Hepatitis A and Typhoid are also strongly recommended.
Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, Rabies and yellow fever are recommended for at risk groups. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
The coastal areas of Malaysian Borneo have a low risk of Malaria, but the interior and the border has a much higher risk and all of Kalimantan is high malarial risk. Anti malarial prophylaxis is recommended throughout, as is mosquito avoidance measures. Dengue fever is also a significant risk.
Crime and Safety.
As of May 2013, the Foreign and Commonwealth office (FCO) has issued a travel advisory for parts of Sabah, and have advised against all but essential travel to the coastal area of Sabah to the east of Lahad Datu, and the area around the town of Semporna and all the islands in the immediate vicinity.
This is due to a generalised threat of terrorism and some reports of foreign nationals being kidnapped on or around the far Eastern islands.
Unfortunately the FCO as usual has been very heavy handed in this advice and applied it to the whole of Malaysia, and many travellers have taken the stance that the whole of Malaysia has a travel warning against it even though the small threat only exists in an extremely small and remote region of Sabah, and there has been no trouble in the rest of Borneo or Malaysia at all.
The fact is the risk or danger is low, even in the supposed affected areas if you exercise a degree of common sense precaution, and the rest of Borneo is extremely safe to travel through.
Costs and money.
The currency of Borneo is the Malaysian ringgit in Sarawak and Sabah, and the Indonesian Rupiah in Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo.
In general Borneo is extremely cheap, with Sabah being the most expensive state. You can get by very easily on £15 a day or a lot less if you stay in cheap hostels, eat at food stalls and limit your activities, but you can live in real comfort and undertake a lot of organised tours and activities if you travel on a midrange budget of between £20 and £60 a day.
Accommodation costs in general are quite reasonable, especially in Sarawak. They are a little dearer in Sabah. Hostels or cheap guesthouses can be found for just a few pounds a night, or you can get a luxury hotel room for around £30 to £40 a night and a whole range of options in between.
Food is unbelievably cheap in Borneo, especially if you eat at food courts or local restaurants, the more touristy the place is the more expensive it will be. You can easily get a great meal for a couple of pounds however.
Transportation can be really cheap, and in some cases the mini buses or transport to an attraction organised by your hotel is not that much more than if you get there yourself with public transport. However, the more ‘off the beaten track’ you get, especially in Kalimantan, the more expensive things get.
Activities, treks and courses will take up the absolute majority of your budget here, especially in Sabah which is very orientated to the tourist economy. places like museums are often free and the occasional entrance fee for national parks never runs to more than a couple of pounds, but the permits, guides, tours and organised excursions will all add up very quickly. This doesn’t mean you should miss out (you have come all this way, why would you) just budget for it.
When to go.
Quite frankly it doesn’t matter when you go, Borneo is hot, wet and very humid throughout the year. That’s why it’s the tropics! You can escape the heat and humidity in the hills or mountains a little, (it can get freezing at night on Mount Kinabalu) but other than that the weather is a general constant year round. The so called wet season (even though it is the tropics and it is wet all year round) between October and February can sometimes affet diving conditions and visibility, and limit trekking opportunities as jungle trails get washed away and dirt roads become impassable.
Places to see.
A small and quirky city that retains a relaxed, small border town feel. The lazy, feline ambience as the city stretches along the Sarawak river is as apt as the city’s unnoficial moniker. Known as the cat city, a multitude of idiosyncratic cat statues greet visitors as they arrive, and being many people’s introduction to Borneo, is an upmarket and gentrified surprise to those expecting wild jungle and headhunters.
Semenggoh nature reserve.
Semenggoh nature reserve’s primary purpose is to protect, care for and rehabilitate wild animals that have been injured, orphaned, mistreated in captivity or otherwise displaced. Although the main reason most people come here is to observe the semi wild Orang Utan in the wild at feeding times, they also help a wide variety of other mammals, birds and reptiles.
In many ways this centre is far superior to the more popular Orang Utan rehabilitation centre in Sabah, because although tourists do come here at limited viewing times, the focus here isn’t on tourism but on conservation.
Danum Valley conservation area is a vast, undisturbed swath of primary rainforest with the glowing epitaph of one of the worlds richest and most complex ecosystems in the world. With a variety of endangered species living wild in the protected area, including the clouded leopard, the Asian elephant and the Sumatran rhino, the Danum Valley is the quintessential definition of paradise. There are limited accommodation and trekking options in the conservation area, and you must book ahead for any tours. There is a chance of spotting wildlife, but it is extremely low. Remember, this is a jungle, not a zoo, the animals are not on display for your camera here.
Tanjung Puting national park.
Located on the tip of Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side of Borneo, this stunning park is one of the best places in the world to see Orang Utans and other animals in their natural environment as you sail lazily down the banks of the Sekonyer river on a houseboat. It is easy if expensive to arrange one of these must do organised excursions when you are there.
Things to do.
Go Orang Utan spotting.
Seeing an Orang Utan in the semi wild is perhaps one of the biggest draws of Borneo and what brings thousands of travellers and tourists here every year. The first time you sit staring into the jungle in silence, waiting to hear the crash of creaking, breaking branches and see a flash of orange fur as you catch your first glimpse of an Orang Utan in the wild is absolutely magical. There are a number of rehabilitation centres and national parks throughout Borneo where it is possible to do this. Unfortunately some of them are becoming extremely touristy, especially the Sepilok Orang Utan rehabilitation centre in Sabah, and it is having a detrimental effect on the conservation efforts. If they are not careful, they may lose sight of the reason many where set up in the first place as they chase the ever growing tourist dollar. There are other places however which truly do emphasise conservation and minimise tourist impact on the Orang Utans whilst balancing the fact that they need the money in order to operate.
Putting on your intrepid adventure hat and trekking through impenetrable jungle is an absolute must in one of the truly great jungle areas of the world. There was a reason the British Army chose to train its soldiers and marines in jungle survival here as well as Belize. For most people though this doesn’t involve wandering off on your own and emerging six months later into a tribal village looking like an extra out of Rambo. Most travellers and tourists take organised treks with a guide around reasonably well trodden trails from one longhouse to the next, using them as a place to stay for the night, and unless you know what you are doing (or are Bear Grylls) then this is the option you will take. Some of the treks are easier than others and all require a reasonable level of fitness, but if you get the chance to do this then I urge you all to take it, to be completely immersed in natures sauna, surrounded by lush, fecund botanical wonders and mysterious wildlife is a lifetime experience you will never forget.
Borneo is home to some of the worlds greatest and renowned dive spots, and Pulau Sipadan is the undisputed king of that exclusive group. The staggering array of marine life, the ethereal otherworldliness of the plunging sea wall and the vivid, almost glowing reefs make this one of the most beautiful spots in the world. If you dive in April to September, you may even spot a sea turtle or two swimming amongst you, as this is their prime mating season. Sipadan is one of the worlds seminal marine habitats and the interchange for the entire Indo Pacific basin.
Unfortunately all of these superlatives have resulted in a mass influx of divers and tourists, and the Malaysian government is trying to fight a losing battle to conserve the natural beauty of the island. The island itself is a no go zone and people aren’t allowed to set foot on it, but until the government somehow regulate how many divers are allowed to head into the surrounding waters, then conservation will be a very difficult battle indeed.
Explore indigenous cultures.
Borneo is famous for its indigenous tribes, and although now most have had varying degrees of contact with the outside world, their culture and heritage is still strong and proud. There are a variety of opportunities, from museums and the amazing open air museum of Sarawak’s cultural village which have been set up to teach the history and cultures of the native people, to trekking and overnight stays in working longhouses where tribes still live and go about their daily lives. If you visit Borneo, then learning a little about these age old traditions and cultures will truly enrich your experience and time here.
Climb Mount Kinabalu.
This is probably one of the main tourist draws in Borneo, and many people swarm here from Kota Kinabalu every day to trek up to the peak of Malaysia’s highest mountain. Unfortunately it has become extremely pricey and touristy, with one group holding the monopoly on guides and permits and charging a hefty fee for both.