Malaysian Borneo

What to Do in Malaysian Borneo

Beach in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Borneo, Malaysia.
••• Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images

There seem to be so many natural attractions in Malaysian Borneo that you may end up changing your travel plans just to stick around longer!

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

The island of Borneo is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small, independent nation of Brunei. The Indonesian part of Borneo, known as Kalimantan, covers around 73% of the island, while Malaysian Borneo occupies the rest along the northern edge.

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; the two cities act as bases for exploring Borneo's wild attractions.

  • 01 of 08
    Two Young Orangutans
    ••• Akira Kaede/Photodisc/Getty Images

    Borneo is one of two places on earth—Sumatra is the other—where endangered orangutans can still be viewed in the wild. Orangutans are among the smartest primates; they make medicine, craft tools, and even exchange gifts!

    Unfortunately, due to habitat loss caused by massive palm oil plantations, orangutan 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 Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre just outside of Kuching. While there are never guarantees, you 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!

  • 02 of 08

    Learn About the Rainforest

    Rainforests of Sabah, Borneo
    ••• Andrea Pistolesi / Getty Images

    Only open to the public since 2006, the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sabah is a world-renown environmental education center.

    Today, for a great entrance price of only US $3.50, visitors can learn about an amazing array of plants, insects, and animals found in Borneo's rainforests. After touring the well-manicured botanical garden and education center, visitors can then apply their new knowledge while trekking along the many trails nearby.

    An impressive matrix of canopy walks elevate visitors above the dense trees where they can spot rare birds and sometimes even orangutans!

  • 03 of 08
    Colorful coral reef with a school of blue fish
    ••• fototrav / Getty Images

    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 certainly not cheap; however, from turtles and macro life to hammerhead sharks and whale sharks, you get what you pay for!

    The diving in Sipidan is so famous, that conservationists now only issue 120 permits per day in an effort to preserve the fragile reefs; you must organize your diving well in advance to ensure a permit.

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

  • 04 of 08

    Mount Kinabalu

    Mount Kinabalu Summit
    ••• Near the summit of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo. John Jodeery

    At 13,435 feet tall, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is the tallest mountain in Malaysia, the third-highest peak in Southeast Asia, and one of the tallest 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. Around 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, the 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.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Rainforest Trekking

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

    From monkey encounters and poisonous snakes to waterfalls and hidden beaches—trekking in Borneo is the real deal. Dayak headhunters once roamed the same trails, relieving a few early spice traders of their heads; only in relatively recent times did they stop their head-removing practices!

    The national parks in Sarawak can largely be explored without a permit or mandatory guide, while some other parks require that you hire a guide. Camping is available in most places, as are simple longhouses which offer accommodation while you take day hikes and explore the area.

  • 06 of 08

    The Kinabatangan River

    Herd of Borneo Pygmy Elephants grazing at the riverbank.
    ••• Borneo Pygmy Elephants. Caroline Pang / Getty Images

    Although the name is a mouthful, the Kinabatangan River area in Sabah is often the favorite highlight for visitors to Malaysian Borneo.

    Lodges along the tiny, single-path village of Sukau offer accommodation 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 even elephants when they are in season!

    The Kinabatangan River is reached via minibus from the city of Sandakan in East Sabah

  • 07 of 08

    Beaches and Islands

    Beach in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Borneo, Malaysia.
    ••• Beach in Kota Kinabalu. Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images

    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 the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park—only 20 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabali—allows wild camping directly on the beach. Alternatively, you can enjoy Tanjung Aru, more of a local's beach scene with very few tourists, just a few minutes south of Kota Kinabalu.

    If you need some island time, check out the different vibe on Labuan Island, an enjoyable, duty-free island off the coast of Sabah. Survivor fans should get to remote Pulau Tiga where the first season of the hit show was filmed.

  • 08 of 08
    Longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo
    ••• A traditional-style longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo. Anders Blomqvist / Getty Images

    Visitors to Sarawak can visit and stay in an Iban longhouse to see how indigenous people live.

    While some longhouses are touristic experiences, it is possible to see authentic ones only accessible by river and far removed from city life. You'll get to sample authentic food, see a traditional dance performance, and can learn to shoot a blowpipe gun just for fun!