The Top 8 Things to Do in Malaysian Borneo

Proboscis monkey at Bako National Park in Malaysian Borneo

Anup Shah / Getty Images

Borneo is one of those rare places where you can sense the adventure in the air, along with the fresh air from thousands of square miles of rainforest just waiting to be explored. The third-largest island in the world is a virtual paradise for anyone who has a love for plants, wildlife, and adventure.

The island of Borneo is divided among Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small, independent nation of Brunei. The Indonesian part of Borneo, known as Kalimantan, covers about 73 percent of the island, while Malaysian Borneo occupies the rest along the northern edge, along with tiny Brunei.

Malaysian Borneo has two states, Sarawak and Sabah, that are separated by Brunei. Sarawak's capital of Kuching and Sabah's capital of Kota Kinabalu are the usual entry points, with the two cities acting as bases for exploring Borneo's wild attractions.

01 of 08

Trek Your Way Through a Rainforest

Man on bridge, tropical rainforest, Sabah, Borneo
Peter Adams / Getty Images
Sarawak, Malaysia

From monkey encounters and poisonous snake sightings to waterfalls and hidden beaches, trekking in Borneo is the real deal. Most of Sarawak's national parks can be explored without a permit or mandatory guide, while others will require you to hire a guide. Camping is available in most places, as are simple longhouses that offer accommodations while you take day hikes and explore the area.

Visit Bako National Park for an almost guaranteed chance to spot wildlife like monkeys (silver leaf and macaque species are quite commonly seen here), monitor lizards, squirrels, and wild boar. Birding is also popular, with a variety of Kingfishers and Bluebirds, among other species calling the area home. See if you can spot Borneo's elusive proboscis monkey; visit the Telok Paku or Telok Delima trails or the Telok Assam mangroves early in the morning or in the late afternoon and be as quiet as you can.

02 of 08

Pay Your Respects at Sandakan Memorial Park

The Sandakan Memorial in Malaysian Borneo

John W Banagan / Getty Images

90702, Jalan Labuk, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
Phone +60 89-275 400

History buffs and those interested in WWII history should visit Sandakan Memorial Park, which honors the more than 2,300 Allied prisoners of war, mostly Australian and British, who were captured by Japanese forces and perished in a series of death marches in 1945 toward the end of the war.

The park is located just outside the Sandakan POW camp's former site in the Taman Rimba neighborhood. Stop by to learn more about the area's WWII history and to pay your respects, especially if you're visiting during anniversary events on August 15 or happen to be there on ANZAC Day, an Australian day of remembrance, held each year on April 25.

03 of 08

See Orangutans in the Wild

Two orangutans

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

W.D.T. 200, Sabah Wildlife Department, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
Phone +60 89-633 587

Borneo is one of two places on Earth (Sumatra is the other) where endangered orangutans can still be seen in the wild. Orangutans are among the smartest primates; they make medicine, craft tools, and even exchange gifts. Unfortunately, because of habitat loss caused by massive palm oil plantations, their numbers are dwindling; now is the time to see them while you still can.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in East Sabah is the most popular place to view orangutans in Borneo. A better option is the cheaper and less crowded Semenggoh Nature Reserve located just outside Kuching. While there are never guarantees, you'll have a pretty good chance of seeing semi-wild orangutans at both refuges during feeding times.

Alternatively, you can chance a real orangutan encounter in the wild by taking a river cruise along the Kinabatangan River, mentioned below.

04 of 08

See Exotic Wildlife Along the Kinabatangan River

Herd of Borneo Pygmy Elephants grazing at the riverbank.
Caroline Pang / Getty Images
Sukau, Kinabatangan, Sabah, Malaysia

Although the name is a mouthful, the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah, which can be reached via minibus from the city of Sandakan, is often the favorite highlight for visitors to Malaysian Borneo.

Lodges along the tiny, single-path village of Sukau offer accommodations and guides who take people up the muddy river by small boat. A quiet approach by boat allows visitors the opportunity to spot highly endangered proboscis monkeys, orangutans, crocodiles, pythons, and elephants when they are in season.

Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08

Go Scuba Diving

Colorful coral reef with a school of blue fish
fototrav / Getty Images
Sipadan Island, Malaysia

Not all of Malaysian Borneo's natural attractions are found on land. Sabah boasts some of the world's premier scuba diving sites. Compared to diving in places such as Malaysia's Perhentian Islands, diving in Borneo is indeed not cheap. But since you'll get to see turtles and macro life, along with hammerhead and whale sharks, it's worth the extra money.

The diving in Sipidan is so famous that conservationists only issue 120 permits per day to preserve the fragile reefs, so make sure you organize your diving trip well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Mabul, a nearby alternative to Sipadan, offers arguably some of the best muck diving in the world and is considered to be the best dive site for underwater macro photography.

06 of 08

Climb Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu Summit
John Jodeery
Mount Kinabalu, Ranau, Sabah, Malaysia

At 13,435 feet tall, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is the tallest mountain in Malaysia and one of the highest peaks in the region that can be climbed without technical equipment.

Reaching the summit of Mount Kinabalu requires only the stamina and heart to do so. About 40,000 people per year come to try the grueling, two-day ascent; many don't make it to the top. The last part of the climb requires a rope-assisted scramble through the clouds to the peak.

Aside from one impressive mountain, 300-square-mile Kinabalu National Park has a mind-boggling amount of flora and fauna. Meeting international biologists and botanists who have come to study the estimated 4,500 plant species is an everyday occurrence on the trails.

07 of 08

Chill Out at a Beautiful Beach

Beach in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Borneo, Malaysia.
Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images
Malaysia, Pulau Mamutik、

Malaysian Borneo is not at all just about sweating and swatting insects in the jungle. Miles of pristine and wild beaches will give you plenty of opportunities to unwind after a few days of trekking.

Tiny Mamutik Island in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, only 20 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu, allows camping directly on the beach. Alternatively, pay a visit to Tanjung Aru, which has more of a local's beach scene with very few tourists, just a few minutes south of Kota Kinabalu.

08 of 08

Stay in a Longhouse

Longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo
Anders Blomqvist / Getty Images
Sarawak, Malaysia

Visitors to Sarawak can stay in an Iban longhouse to see what it's like to live like the island's Indigenous peoples. While some longhouses are strictly tourist experiences, it is possible to visit authentic ones that are far removed from city life and only accessible by the river. You'll get to sample authentic food, see a traditional dance performance, and master the art of shooting a blowpipe gun.

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The Top 8 Things to Do in Malaysian Borneo