Driving in Borneo

Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Bridge
Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Bridge.

Ari Kustiawan / Getty Images

Driving in Borneo requires the ability to drive on the left, and a certain tolerance for chaos. Borneo is a large island, after all, covering three different nations. Conditions between tightly packed cities and deserted dirt trails vary widely, and the monsoon season can make a hash of any driving day out (increasing traffic in the city; increasing danger in the countryside).

However, driving around Borneo does have its perks. You can visit far-flung destinations at your own pace (within reason), and you can plan your itinerary with a flexibility that’s simply not available to tourists tied to organized tours.

Car rentals in Borneo are rather affordable compared to cities like Singapore, Tokyo, and Bangkok and the only downside is you can’t drive your rental across borders (so driving from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu, for instance, is a no-no).

Still, if you can handle traffic jams in the cities and long drives over unpaved roads, then driving in Borneo should be a breeze.

Driving Requirements

Each of Borneo’s constituent countries have their own driving requirements, but they have plenty in common. In Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo, you must be at least 23 years old and no older than 65 years old to rent a local car (Brunei Darussalam has a minimum age of 21 years). You’ll need to have held your license for a minimum of one year (in Malaysia, they raise that a bit to two years’ minimum).

In all three countries, you’ll need to present a valid drivers’ license, in your name, from your country of residence. If your license is in a non-Latin alphabet, you must also present an International Driving Permit (IDP) along with your license and insurance.

When driving, always carry your passport along with your driver’s license; if you’re caught by the police without these travel documents, you may end up being fined or worse.

Borneo’s Rules of the Road

In Borneo, just like in the U.K., drivers’ seats are on the right of the vehicle, and cars drive on the left side of the road. Beyond this, regulations vary across borders; it's helpful to learn the rules of the road before venturing out on the island in your rented vehicle.

  • Alcohol: Drivers caught with a minimum blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 will be charged with drunk-driving laws in all three countries. Fines or prison time await drunk drivers caught over this limit, so avoid imbibing the local liquor to excess!
  • Speed limits: Maximum speed limits vary across all three countries: Brunei's maximum is 80 kph on urban roads, Indonesia's is 60 kph and Malaysia is 50 kph.
  • Seat belts: Drivers and passengers must wear seat belts at all times in moving vehicles. Fines can be imposed on drivers who don’t follow this rule.
  • Child restraint laws: Indonesia and Malaysia have no such laws on their books, while Brunei enforces one.
  • Mobile phones: Using your mobile phone while driving is illegal in all three Borneo countries, with the exception of hands-free phones.
  • Gas stations: Station attendants will take care of filling your car up and taking your payment. Credit or debit cards can be used to pay for your gas at urban stations, but you’ll need to pay in cash with the local currency in farther-flung locations. Fuel is inexpensive in Malaysia, and positively dirt-cheap in Brunei—you’ll be amazed at the mileage you get here, especially if you rent a subcompact car.
  • Toll roads: Most highways on Borneo charge no tolls. The only tolls on the island are charged to drivers passing the following thoroughfares: Balikpapan–Samarinda Toll Road in East Kalimantan, Indonesia; Rasau Toll Plaza in Brunei; and Tun Salahuddin Bridge in Kuching, Malaysia.
  • Aggressive driving: Defensive driving is the norm across Borneo, where the drivers aren’t as conscientious about following safe-driving rules as their counterparts in the West. That being said, local drivers don’t tend to be as aggressive.
  • Honking: Using your horn can be seen as aggressive in Borneo; annoyed locals have been known to attack motorists honking behind them! Unless you’re making a short beep to let them know you’re there, avoid leaning on the horn.
  • In case of an emergency: To call the police for a general emergency, dial 999 in Malaysia; or 993 in Brunei. If you get into an accident, Malaysian law requires you to report it to the police within 24 hours.
Traffic in Bandar Seri Begawan, Borneo
Nazli Salim / EyeEm / Getty Images

Parking in Borneo

In Borneo’s cities, parking can be a major problem, taking the joy and convenience out of the self-drive experience.

Kota Kinabalu, for instance, allows roadside parking in certain areas but competition is fierce for those spots. Locals advise looking for a nearby shopping mall and parking in their lots to avoid trouble and ticket wardens possibly ticketing your vehicle.

Brunei and the Malaysian states follow a coupon-based parking system, where you can buy parking coupons and display them on the windshield to show you’ve paid up to park there. Coupon sales booths are easy to find wherever these coupons are honored.

Road Safety in Borneo

The 3,300-mile Pan-Borneo Highway crosses from Sabah, through Brunei, and into Sarawak, connecting with Kalimantan in Indonesia at its southernmost endpoint. This thoroughfare—plus the paved roads around Brunei and cities in Sarawak and Sabah—tends to be of good quality, though this is less true the further off the beaten path you go.

Most roads don’t restrict heavy trucks, so the weather and the constant punishment of heavy equipment turn many rural roads into pitted, pot-holed lunar landscapes. And that’s when there are any paved roads at all; many secondary roads in Sabah and Sarawak are untarred gravel paths that may require a 4x4 vehicle to traverse.

The quality of most roads in Kalimantan, Indonesia is questionable. Driving long distances in Indonesian Kalimantan is not recommended; in fact, most locals find riverboat travel far better suited to their needs.

Heavy Rain

Heavy rain is commonplace in Borneo and increases the hazards for drivers. Floods and hazardous roads can increase the travel times between cities, and landslides can render other places completely inaccessible.

If you get caught in a sudden, heavy downpour, turn your hazard lights on and look for a safe shoulder where you can wait out the rain. Driving on unfamiliar roads in the middle of a heavy rain shower can be dangerous, so play it safe.

Road Hazards

Live road hazards—like cattle, goats, and chickens crossing the road—are commonplace in Borneo’s rural areas. Avoid driving fast on rural roads for this reason.

Major Holidays

It’s better to avoid driving in Borneo if your trip coincides with a major holiday (especially Eid’l Fitri/Hari Raya Puasa, as most citizens rush back to their hometowns). Road accident incidents escalate during these festive seasons.

Fallen tree in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo
 Josephine Jullian / Getty Images

Should You Rent a Car in Borneo?

Yes, renting a car in Borneo is recommended, but only if the following conditions are met: you plan to stay within one state/province; you plan to stay within a city, like Kota Kinabalu or Kuching; you plan to rent a 4x4/offroad-capable vehicle to reach a remote destination.

Out-of-the-way areas are easily accessible by car if you rent one at the local capital:

  • From Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, rental cars can take you to Andalau Forest Reserve and Tasek Merimbun Lake
  • From Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, you can drive as far as Sandakan in six hours, or two hours to the Kinabalu Park at the base of Mount Kinabalu
  • From Kuching, Sarawak you can drive to Bintulu or Miri, and most of the state national parks in between.

If you have a cross-border long-haul drive in mind, don’t even think about renting a car.

First, rental cars are not allowed across national borders in Borneo. Even crossing from Sarawak to Sabah requires that you go through Brunei first (the Pan-Borneo Highway is the only road connection between the two states), so the long, scenic drive from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching is sadly out of your reach.

Second, the interminable distances between cities in Borneo make long drives impractical, especially if you can just take the bus or the plane.

Things to Know

If you’re planning to drive long distances between stops, make sure to fill your gas tank before you leave the city; once you’re on the highway, roadside gas stations are either hard to find or they close up at night.

Borneo’s road signs are usually written in Malay, the national language of Brunei and Malaysia (and altered somewhat to Bahasa Indonesia). A few directional signs will be written in English. Wherever you go, road signs use international symbols commonly used in Commonwealth nations.

Here are common Malay-language signs, and their English translations:

Awas Caution/Danger
Berhenti Stop
Beri Laluan Give Way
Dilarang Memotong No Overtaking
Had Tinggi Height Limit
Ikut Kanan Keep Right
Ikut Kiri Keep Left
Jalan Sehala One-Way Street
Lecongan Detour
Liku Tajam Sharp Bend
Kampung Dihadapan Village Ahead
Kurangkan Laju Reduce Speed
Sekolah Dihadapan School Ahead
Sepanjang Masa No Parking
Zon Tunda Tow-away Zone